USA and Australia have many things in common, some obvious, some more subtle. Both are large land masses, both predominantly English speaking, both with an ancient native population, both relatively recently settled by European cultures. Both are democracies and both are meritocracies. Both cultures tend to be fairly materialistic and both tend to be open to new ideas and risk in business. Australians, like Americans, are hard-working and results-orientated.
So far, so similar. But there are also big differences between the two cultures. Not necessarily in a negative way – but differences that should be observed by anybody hoping to do business.
- Perhaps the biggest cultural difference between the two nations is ‘tall poppy syndrome’. In the USA, standing out and making oneself heard is important. In Australia, attention-seeking behaviour is quickly shot down. This is partly a throwback to the British roots of many Australians but it affects the way individuals present themselves – and the way they judge others.
- Understanding this culture is important when selling to Australians or Americans. Australians may use humour and come across as self-deprecating. Americans value showmanship and the heavy sell, which Australians will regard with scepticism. Both cultures, though, value a professional and slick presentation.
- Building trust is important when working with Australians, while Americans tend to be less focused on business relationships. Australians are quick to spot a person they regard as ‘phony’. Americans, on the other hand, may be more concerned with profits and results than with an individual’s character.
- Like the British, Australians can have a dry and perverse sense of humour and will often deliberately say the exact opposite of what they actually mean. Americans, on the other hand, have a very explicit communication style and irony can fall flat on its face.
- Australians are typically relaxed. They are prepared to wait for things to happen. There is an attitude that everything will be OK in the end. In the USA, where time equals money and people are judged on results, there is much more of a sense of urgency to make a fast profit. Speed is integral to American culture, in which people fill their lives with labour-saving devices, fast food, 24-hour gyms and information on-the-go. Americans should not, however, confuse the very casual approach of Australian colleagues with a lack of professionalism.
- Australians tend to be more outward-looking than Americans, very generally speaking. More than one third of the population was born abroad, as opposed to one in six Americans. Travel is regarded as a rite of passage; it’s a given that young people will venture overseas, while Americans tend to stay closer to home or explore their own country. Australians arguably have a greater world view than Americans. This is not in any way to say that Americans are xenophobic – but many people have never travelled abroad and other cultures and languages are simply alien to them and may make them feel uncomfortable.
- Both countries have been shaped by waves of immigration, although from different origins. In parts of the USA, like south Florida, more Spanish is spoken than English and the culture is far more Hispanic than what many would regard as ‘American’. In Australia, recent waves of immigrants from China and other Asian countries are making an impact and Chinese cultural issues will often need to be considered when doing business there.
- Australians are great lovers of abbreviation and informality in speech; much more so than Americans. Learn the meaning of colloquialisms; Australians shorten words wherever possible and some regional accents, combined with this, can make people difficult to understand at first. Using language like ‘gday’ and ‘mate’ can sound strange coming from an American recently arrived in Australia on business. On the other hand, an Australian trying to embrace American sporting analogies or business jargon in the USA can sound equally out of place.
- Australians have a strong sense of fair play. Criticising the competition is regarded as bad form in business. Americans, on the other hand, tend to be much more open in terms of running down competitors, which offends this Australian sense of fairness.
- In Australia, the minimum wage is higher than in most US states and the tipping culture, as such, is practically non-existent. Americans, on the other hand, are big tippers. Without the incentive of tips, Australians in service industries may seem particularly laid back to typically impatient American visitors.
- Australians believe firmly in ‘mateship’, showing loyalty to friends, family and colleagues. Australians working in teams may be more loyal to the team than to their employer. Americans, on the other hand, may be more loyal to the concept of performance and profit and for many, covering their own back.
- Despite the typically flat structures in American companies, decisions are still often made from the top with the decision-maker taking responsibility for the outcome. As such, there is a respect for authority. Australians, on the other hand, tend to be naturally sceptical and often demonstrate an ingrained suspicion of authority. Decisions tend to be made by consensus.
- Business is personal to an extent in Australia, with people preferring to do business with ‘mates’, while in the USA, relationships are based more on profit and getting the job done. But Australia is a meritocracy and the ‘old boy network’ that drives business in Britain, from where many Australians originate, is virtually absent.
- Communication style in Australia is direct and often blunt and to an American, sometimes politically incorrect. This hard talking is not a sign of aggression. Australians visiting the USA should be aware of the growing importance of political correctness; even the most innocent remark can be interpreted the wrong way, which can damage a relationship severely.
- For all their directness, Australians do have a strong sense of face and do not appreciate criticism in front of their peers. Leaders in the USA often deliver criticism freely in the workplace, which would cause awkwardness in Australia, all the more so with the growing number of Asian workers doing business there.
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