“Finally,” you think to yourself as you board the plane to London for a series of business meetings with the British subsidiary of your American corporation. “I can finally travel somewhere without one of those cultural guidebooks for understanding how I’m supposed to behave in a new place.” In the last year alone, you’ve been to China, Korea, and India, and in each place, you’ve worked hard to learn the key differences in how people behave in each of these cultures and how business gets done. But on this final trip of the year to London, you’re pretty sure you can make it on your own. After all, how different could British and American people be in their behaviors and orientation at work?
Turns out, quite different! Just because two cultures share a common language or are in a similar part of the world does not necessary mean that they share a common business culture. This sounds like an obvious point, but it’s one that people often overlook when doing business overseas, especially in countries with superficial similarities that can mask important underlying differences. Assumptions like these can lead to awkward — or unprofessional — interactions in a different culture.
Let’s start with self-promotion, which is one of the strongest differences I found in my research over the past year interviewing managers in the U.S. and the UK. As anyone familiar with U.S. business communication culture knows, Americans aren’t shy talking up their accomplishments and selling themselves. We do it all the time — at job fairs, interviews, sales calls, performance evaluations, and when vying for prized internal assignments and positions. Of course, there are limits to self-promotion in the U.S. Not everyone feels equally comfortable selling themselves — nor is everyone equally adept at doing it — and some corporate cultures and contexts are more forgiving of self-promotion than others. But the overall point is that self-promotion is clearly a necessary and useful skill for getting ahead in the U.S. professional world.
In the UK, on the other hand, overt self-promotion isn’t only uncommon; it’s essentially taboo. Most Brits are very uncomfortable with being praised in public and are quick to deflect and deflate such compliments with a witty counter. You don’t promote yourself and your accomplishments to your British colleagues, and if you do, you’ll definitely suffer the consequences, most likely in the form of some serious “piss-taking” (mocking and ridicule). If you want to tell your boss what you have accomplished in the UK, describe it in a straightforward, non-exaggerated, fact-based manner. No embellishment and certainly no grandstanding. In fact, if self-promotion is an art in the U.S., the corresponding art in the UK is self-deprecation.
Another key difference between the two cultures is how emotionally expressive people are at work. In the U.S., it is culturally acceptable — even admirable — to show enthusiasm. When arguing for a point in a meeting, for example, it is quite appropriate to express your opinions enthusiastically. Or when speaking with a potential employer at a networking event, it is appropriate to express your interest enthusiastically. In fact, in this particular situation, the employer might interpret your interest as real and genuine because of the enthusiasm you express. Not true in the UK, where Brits are typically much more understated in their emotional expressiveness.
A great performance, for example, in the UK would typically be characterized as being “not bad.” Or when someone asks how you are doing, the typical answer is “fine” (as opposed to “Great!” or “Good!” as it might be in the U.S.). In general, people in the UK value moderation and self-control rather than emotional expressiveness. High fives aren’t part of the typical UK cultural repertoire. If you strike a really big deal or make a significant achievement at work, people will typically celebrate or congratulate, but with a certain level of self-restraint. They might very well be excited for a short time and celebrate with some light applause and congratulatory gestures; however, the level of outward, visible excitement would typically be far less than in the U.S. and last for a shorter time.
Of course, not all Americans are characteristic of the “typical” American style, nor are all Brits typically British. When considering how to act in any given situation that you happen to encounter, it’s important to know about other aspects of the culture you’re in as well. The culture of your industry might matter a great deal, for example (investment banking might have quite different norms in the UK, for example, than television or media). So too might your corporate culture (e.g., Google vs. Barclays), as well as the particular cultural background of the person or people you’re interacting with — especially since the U.S. and UK workplaces are comprised of people from so many different nationalities.
But still, despite these finer points, the overall message remains: Just because the U.S. and UK share a common language (and even that could be debatable), we don’t necessarily share a common business communication style. Realizing that superficial similarities can mask important underlying differences is a key point to remember no matter what culture you’re adapting to.
Originally appeared in Harvard Business Review.
Andy Molinsky is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of the book Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process (HBR Press, 2013). Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.