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February 04, 2017

Doing America: Open, Talky, Informal, Wonderfully Appalling.

People will not wait to be introduced and will even begin to speak with strangers as they stand in a line, sit next to each other at an event, or gather in a crowd.

--Commisceo Global, a London-based consultancy on what to expect in America

One of my best Brit friends is a City (central London) lawyer who lives part of the time in Kent. He and his wife live in a very old village which is about the same population it was 1000 years ago: about 200. To a degree, and at only certain times, I like making him uncomfortable with my American colonial manners, and in some situations work at it pretty hard. In most respects, however, I do as my European hosts do wherever I am and wherever they take me. But there are exceptions. For one thing, I refuse to park my friendliness and open curiosity about people, places and things. I can't help it. Even when I am trying to tone things down.

Like the time I upset everyone by chatting up my Kent friend's butcher early one quiet Saturday morning while the butcher was cutting up something that we would prepare later for dinner. Just the three of us. No one else was in the store. It was quite tiny but had a prosperous look. The butcher was clearly proud of his shop. I started asking the butcher about the store, how business and even his hat, which I complimented him on. Which took me only about 30 seconds. The butcher looked a bit frantic, said nothing and turned to my friend for help or an explanation. The butcher got both. My friend quickly said something like "He's an American...very friendly you know...what are we to do?"

It's true. American manners drives Brits, Germans and most northern Europeans nuts: American informality, openness, curiosity non-stop cheerfulness and friendliness. Over on their side of the pond, even a very self-assured and accomplished southern England executive, consultant, lawyer or other professional, for example, would rather choke to death than talk to strangers in a subway or ask how to get to a bank or money exchange. But wide-open is what Americans are and have always been; if you want to do business in the U.S., you need to step up. Or at least tolerate us. When we Yanks are over there, you guys can complain and be mortified all you want. And you do.

There is no end to multi-cultural etiquette primers on "doing business internationally", and most of them are of course drivel. The best advice in a nutshell? Go where you need to go, and watch your American hosts carefully as you work--but do "go native". Be prepared to amp yourself up just a notch. The website of UK-based Commisceo Global Consultancy does a nice job of laying out the overall business atmosphere here in a few sentences:

American friendliness and informality is legendary. People will not wait to be introduced and will even begin to speak with strangers as they stand in a line, sit next to each other at an event, or gather in a crowd.

Americans are direct in the way they communicate. They value logic and linear thinking [note: not sure I agree with foregoing clause] and expect people to speak clearly and in a straightforward manner. Time is money in the U.S. so people tend to get to the point quickly and are annoyed by beating around the bush.

Communicating virtually (i.e. through email, SMS, Skype, etc) is very common with very little protocol or formality in the interaction. If you are from a culture that is more subtle in communication style, try not to be insulted by the directness.

Original: 2.21.16

Posted by JD Hull at February 4, 2017 11:59 PM

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