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So, you’re off to the United Kingdom on business? Great! You’ve always wanted to do some international travel for work and now is your chance. They speak the same language, have similar values and business approaches and they’re eager to learn from you.
But are they really that similar? Do people work the same way, live the same way, enjoy similar standards of living, view the world the same way you do?
As someone who has grown up in Canada, worked throughout North American, Europe and the United Kingdom and who now lives in Northern Ireland, I speak 4 ‘languages’:
I speak these ‘languages’ within both social and business contexts. And it has been a learning curve over the years that, for me like many other expats and sojourners, has been exciting, curious, eye-opening and often times frustrating, confusing and downright painful.
Understanding some of the similarities and differences in business culture between the United States and the United Kingdom can help you leverage your opportunities for business success.
Inevitably, this article assumes some generalisations and perhaps even stereotypes and it offers valuable pointers, whether you are on a short business trip, relocating for a long-term corporate assignment or a member of an international team.
Let’s start at the beginning. Pull out an atlas and have a look. The UK, with a population of some 58 million people is geographically twice the size of Pennsylvania but smaller than Wyoming. The UK fits into the USA almost 40 times, yet has about 1/5th the population. In the USA, the average population density is 70 people per square mile. In the UK, it is 612. Imagine for a moment the effect those differences might have on how you view privacy, commute to work, communicate, spend social time or generally show up in the world.
Some of the similar cultural themes that exist between the USA and UK include freedom and individuality, and the importance of humour. However, the American business approach of structured progress and innovation is often met with the “don’t fix what isn’t broken” attitude. While both cultures are relatively pragmatic, scepticism of American business templates can often lead to fraught interactions. It’s not a matter of reject – it relates more to a hesitation to change: “Show me yours and I’ll consider showing you mine.”
While social classes exist in both cultures, the factory floor worker becoming company president is more the exception than rule in the UK. Class is displayed through accent and language use, dress, social companions and educational qualifications.
Both the USA and UK are considered individualistic cultures, but the radio station “WIFM” (What’s In it For Me) is less audible in the UK, which shows up in team-oriented behaviours.
With a variety of different cultures literally a few miles across the English Channel, the British businessperson generally has high levels of international experience. This may, to some extent, explain the higher success rates for British corporate expats versus other countries, including the USA.
Business communication between the two cultures in an area with wider differences. Both are relatively informal (acceptable to use first names) but the British businessperson is more likely to be indirect, subtle and extremely polite. Manners and good social skills are highly valued. Being less direct and task-oriented than an American counterpart, the UK businessperson is more likely to mix business with pleasure and enjoy small talk and humour before settling down to business issues. On one hand, the ‘stiff upper lip’ of reserve and understatement is often interpreted by an American as disinterest. American enthusiasm, on the other hand, is frequently seen as “OTT” (over the top).
While these differences and similarities are neither right nor wrong, and are as individual as the individuals themselves, they do exist. Accepting and integrating cultural habits into your own behaviours, thought patterns and actions puts you on the right path to successful business connections.