Continuing the theme from last week about how playing to stereotype can sometimes be advantageous, I will summarise how the English (and it is the English that foreigners mean when they discuss the ‘Brits’ more generally) are perceived by those new to the country. If you are English and disagree with this perception, please comment (as you should know by now I am not a big fan of stereotypes). If you have moved to the UK from elsewhere and can confirm or add to these perceptions, please do so.
I should add that yesterday I heard a cross-cultural coach, Katherine Barton http://www.bartoninsights.com/ speak at the Oxford Summit of Leaders conference http://www.ebaoxford.co.uk/index.html about the cultural challenges of doing business in the UK. Katherine had the unenviable task of condensing thousands of years of development of national character into 20 brief minutes, but she mentioned three key elements to understanding the English:
1) Being reserved, ill at ease socially, which is not the same as being cold or unfeeling. However, displaying emotions is feared and widely regarded as unprofessional.
2) Desire to avoid confrontation and fear of giving offence can lead to excessive politeness and vagueness. For instance, ‘a little bit of a problem’ probably signifies quite a major disaster.
3) Quite structured and planned, scheduling everything far ahead and sticking to the agenda, the English can be inflexible once they have planned their workload and are not keen on surprise interruptions.
Some other key characteristics that spring to mind (and were mentioned by some of the other speakers at the conference) are:
4) Honesty and integrity in business dealings, incorruptible legal system, keeping their promises, sticking to deadines
5) Democratic, fair, transparent systems that favour personal merit over personal connections
Interestingly enough, each of the characteristics above can be reversed once you delve a little deeper into the national psyche (without even taking into account regional or class differences). For example:
1) Mass display of grief and outrage at the death of Diana, kidnapping of Madeleine McCann etc.
2) British managers viewed as too blunt in their feedback in Latin American and Asian countries.
3) Big building projects are rarely completed on time and within budget.
4) MP expenses scandal
5) Old boys’ network still alive and kicking
So what is the truth, other than considerably more complex than the stereotypes? Is this because business culture is quite different from the ‘mass culture’? Or are we focusing too much on exceptions rather than the norm? Or is the national character changing?
All of the above, in some way. I also believe that perceptions of another culture invariably tell us more about the ‘assessor’,rather than about the people being assessed. The British are punctual, honest, incorruptible, professional and polite to most East European countries, for example, because that is what we aspire to be. And an excellent starting point for discussion, mutual understanding and collaboration.