Americans vs Brits – culturally similar or worlds apart?

There may be times when Americans and Brits feel worlds apart, culturally as well as geographically. The reality is, of course, that the two have an enormous amount in common in terms of history, values, popular culture and language.

Having said that, there are still subtle differences between the two cultures and paying attention to these nuances will help you get even more out of a working relationship with colleagues across the pond. Here are 10 pointers to consider.

1. Americans expect to take individual responsibility for tasks in the workplace and as such, tend to feel the pressure to perform more than a British worker. British companies place more emphasis on teamwork and collective responsibility. British people sometimes see Americans as very driven and stressed, while American may view Brits as sloppy, with a poorer work ethic.

2. Because the British prefer understatement and generally dislike confrontation, they may be viewed by American colleagues as passive-aggressive, for example, using sarcasm in email correspondence rather than facing the issue. Situations like this need to be addressed with sensitivity by both parties.

3. Salaries are generally higher in the USA but insecurities in the workplace are greater. With minimal sick pay, holiday pay or maternity leave allowance, American workers feel a far greater sense of having to be in the office for fear of being thought lazy or lacking in commitment. Many Americans do not take their full allowance of annual leave for fear of losing their jobs. The UK’s employment laws, on the other hand, tend to favor the employee, rather than the employer. Employment law is clearer. There is no regional variation in issues like LGBT rights, whereas in the USA, these are different views from state to state.

4. Americans are far more overtly patriotic than Brits. Flags are flown outside homes; advertising campaigns reflect the great American dream and consumers respond positively to American products. The British view flag-flying as a political statement, unless there is a royal occasion to celebrate. They will make self-deprecating remarks and be openly critical of their country, while Americans are more likely to feel uncomfortable mocking their homeland.

5. Americans are much more direct communicators, which is in part related to their work ethic of getting things done as quickly as possible in order to maximize profit. The British employ more complex communication techniques, often saying the opposite of what they really mean, sometimes in jest. “That’s quite a good idea”, for example, generally means the person thinks it’s a terrible idea. British people will use humor to diffuse an awkward situation, which Americans can find confusing. Having said that, Americans can also give mixed messages; ‘Let’s do lunch’ generally means somebody is not overly keen on seeing you again.

6. Brits may quietly pride themselves on their love of understatement but in the USA, this can be seen as a disadvantage. Failing to show enthusiasm and excitement at, say, a job interview, or during a colleague’s presentation can make you come across as cold and uninterested. This works both ways, of course; Brits can see their American colleagues as phony and over-emotional. In some business situations, each culture can benefit from adjusting behavior.

7. While any British person would rightly argue that there are big cultural differences between north and south, in the USA, regional cultural nuances are far more pronounced. A person from Alabama may have different values from a person from Boston, or San Francisco. Anybody hoping to sell a product in the USA needs to understand that the market is extremely fragmented.

8. Despite the ongoing Brexit debate, British people tend to take a broader world view of issues. Many Brits see themselves as ‘European’, while Americans focus much more intently on domestic policy and issues. British visitors can find this strange when they visit America.

9. Attitudes either side of the Atlantic may be related to corporate culture rather than national culture and it’s here where Britain and America seem much closer. While you could assume many British or American people in business would exhibit ‘typical’ national characteristics, the reality is more complex. For a start, both the USA and Britain are cultural melting pots in themselves, with many different nationalities and faiths in the workplace. Second, employees of, say, investment banks or tech companies or the entertainment business may be more influenced by their workplace culture than their national stereotype.

10. Finally, for all their famous love of privacy, the British do value workplace relationships and there is nowhere more popular for celebrating these than the pub, after work. Any visitor to Britain, regardless of their origin, would do well to take advantage of this first-class opportunity for relationship building. While an after work drinking culture exists to an extent in the USA, it is nowhere near as strong.

To learn more about international business etiquette and how your behaviors compare with other cultures and colleagues click here.


About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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