When a U.S. American company sets up a factory in China, sells their products to Brazil, or opens a subsidiary in Russia, they expect a language barrier and major cultural differences. However, when doing business with another English-speaking country, businesses often underestimate the challenges that lie ahead of them, assume that there is no language barrier and that the cultural differences are minimal. This incorrect assumption has led to many unsuccessful business ventures and failed expat assignments
According to Erin Meyer, the author of The Culture Map and a professor at INSEAD Business School in Paris, the highest expat failure rates are not between countries such as the U.S. and China or Japan and the Netherlands. As a matter of fact, it is Americans moving to the U.K. But why? Aren't both Anglo-Saxon cultures and English-speaking countries? Doesn't that make things easier?
"Two Countries Divided By One Common Language"
This famous saying is often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, an Anglo-Irish playwright, critic, polemicist, and political activist who lived from 1856 until 1950. And what was true for the differences between the U.S. and the U.K. in the 19th and 20th century is still applicable today. We tend to be less prepared to encounter differences and more shocked when we least expect them, which is often the case between countries that share a common language, such as the U.S. and the U.K.
Not only does British and American English sound different but also uses a variety of different vocabulary words. Many U.S. Americans may not be entirely sure what exactly is meant by a lorry, trolley, biscuit, aubergine, pullover, flat, loo, or cash point, run into an argument with the British as to where exactly the first floor is, what a platform is used for, or what a holiday is. Arguments continue about the correct spelling of words like color, organization, tire, gray, center, traveling, or program. Also, U.S. Americans might wonder what it feels like to be knackered, what "Blimey" or "Sod's Law" means, and why our well-connected competitors getting the deal deserves the comment "Bob's your uncle". But this is not all that can cause misunderstanding among the speakers of a common language.
The Cultural Differences Between The United States And The United Kingdom Are Far-Reaching
When dealing with the British, coded language, stoic facial expressions, an unfamiliar type of humor, and understatement can easily baffle U.S. Americans. Also, when their challenging and provocative communication style meets a British "don't rock the boat" attitude, feathers are easily ruffled and bad intensions are quickly assumed. Moreover, the U.S. American desire to impress with boastful self-promotion is often met with suspicion across the pond, while the British affinity for etiquette, exchanging pleasantries, and subtle hints often leave U.S. Americans bewildered, just to name a few differences that can easily derail business ventures and expat assignments.
Why Is Intercultural Communication So Difficult?
People do what they consider right (values), based on what they believe is true (beliefs), using familiar actions (behavior and communication style) and thought processes (norms and assumptions), having the best intensions to get the best outcome they think they can get, yet they fail, because they only look at what they see and hear and how others behave and communicate. For successful intercultural communication, we need to look at the why beyond the what and how, explore what we encounter from different perspectives, and learn to stretch our comfort zone even in situations when we least expect miscommunication and misunderstanding.
Join the World Trade Center Palm Beach for our next webinar in the International Business, Global Markets, and Intercultural Communication series featuring Renata Urban, founder of URBAN Training and Services and acclaimed Intercultural Coach, Communication Skills Trainer, and Language Teacher.
Renata helps her clients communicate successfully in their own language, in a foreign language, and across cultures, and she supports diverse and virtual teams turn their cognitive diversity into an asset and collaborate effectively. Having lived and worked in both the U.S. and the U.K., Renata will speak from her own experience about the two countries divided by a common language, unsuccessful business ventures and failed expat assignments and how to prevent them, differences in language and culture, and how to build intercultural competence for successfully doing business in an international environment.
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