Bridging the Cultural Pond

An article in the Financial Times sheds light on the oftentimes disguised cultural differences between the UK and US approaches to business. The fact that both societies speak English does not mean they define what is “right” and “wrong” for business in the same way. Here is some guidance from folks that have learned the [oftentimes] harder way — through trial and error.

Alex Kelleher relocated from London to New York to focus on his organization’s growth in North America.

His advice for Britons working in the US is to be confident and avoid self-deprecation. ‘The market here definitely likes the confident, self-assured “winner” approach more than it’s appreciated in the UK,’ he says. ‘Simple, direct and confident communication works best here. And while sometimes self-deprecation can be seen as endearing, it may not be ideal in a competitive environment over here.’

Americans prize people with strong personalities that present their ideas assertively and enthusiastically. Brevity is also highly valued from the “time is money” perspective, which is especially important to consider in New York City. The British preference to provide greater levels of detail and context in presentations will likely annoy Americans who want to move quickly and revise their approach “on the fly”.

Nikhil Shah, the founder of music-sharing website Mixcloud who has been doing business in the US for several years, assesses the cultural divide. ‘In the States they are louder, more upfront, more direct. We tend to be more reserved, more tentative and certainly more modest,’ he says. ‘This has a huge potential to work against us out here, since everyone is constantly on the pitch and on their “A” game,’ he adds, borrowing an American term.

What’s behind this? Americans are taught to be the best, and to share their achievements openly and unabashedly as a means of winning respect, loyalty and business. Americans often perceive the modesty (which goes a long way in the UK) as timidity or a lack of confidence or expertise.

The idea of adapting to the American workplace by becoming a boastful (read: loud) person is intimidating and uncomfortable for the person who’s never done so. Like learning a new language, this takes practice!

Click here for a few more tips to better navigate US / UK differences from FT.


RW3 CultureWizard is a leading provider of cross cultural training and information through the CultureWizard intercultural learning platform.

Comments (4 Comments)
  1. Keith Patton

    Even the article shows a lack of understanding of the cultural differences. The use of the term “boastful” even with the qualification “read:loud” displays misunderstanding. Americans are not “loud” we are forceful. Accusing someone of being boastful is considered quite the insult. Yes we like to advertise our accomplishments but in general do it in a tasteful way. We in Texas are told that “if it is true, then it ain’t bragging” (read: boasting). One thing the article does not touch on is the difference in comportment of Americans and Brits in areas that could be considered the “third world”. When doing business in South America and the Caribbean, I could not shake the feeling that the Brits projected a neo-colonial attitude toward the locals, and a air of entitlement toward other competitors, the “what are you doing here” attitude. In general, most Brit expats that I work with, have conformed to the norm Stateside quite quickly. I can’t comment on the other way round.

  2. John Kudla

    I wonder where the Financial Times got this information? I would tend to agree with the boring details assessment, but I would disagree with the part about Americans being taught to share their achievements openly and unabashedly as a means of winning respect. Where I come from in America humility is considered to be a virtue, and people who constantly talk about their achievements are seen as trying to be ‘better than everyone else’.

  3. Alan Solomon, Ph.D.

    While this is thought provoking, and tends to present Americans in a more negative light, it is also focused on Brits working in the US and their challenges. How about the challenges for an American working in the UK, which in this context would mean our having to tone it down. Curious, isn’t it, how all the adapting seems to be for others to adapt to the US?

  4. Arthur Pendennis

    One should also be cautious about assuming that all of the US is the same in this regard. It is a very big country – well, really, it is a collection of states. Just as the article makes a passing reference to cultural differences in New York City, there can be considerable cultural differences among the different regions and among different industries and professions, as well as that the US is hardly the classless society it pretends to be. It is very easy for Europeans to miss these things. Just because Americans don’t talk about them much doesn’t mean that they are not important to them. Something that is fine in dealing with an M&A lawyer in New York, for example, might not go over so well with a business executive in Minneapolis.

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