Tag Archives: British

Cultural awareness starts with yourself

The Unmixed View of the World

Many articles or even workshops on cultural etiquette and ‘how to do business in X country’ become a list of dos and don’ts, a little tickbox exercise of everything that is different or ‘quaint’ about the other culture.  I suppose there are good reasons for that: time constraints, word limits, or the unwillingness to dig deep within yourself.

However, I do profoundly believe that the first step in understanding other cultures is to become aware of  your own values, assumptions and -dare we say it? – foibles.  Only when you understand what you are made of, can you begin to grasp and appreciate what others are made of. 

Some of these assumptions are so deeply ingrained that we are unable to distance ourselves from it or even to see it.  So, in my workshops or coaching sessions, I will often throw in some provocative statements or questions to reveal some of these cultural blind spots. 

For instance, when I have a predominantly British audience in the room, I will ask them what they think that foreigners find most puzzling or annoying about living in the UK.  Typical answers include the weather or poor customer service, but in fact these are the things that annoy British people most.

So what is the answer?  Simple:  unmixed taps and carpet in the bathrooms.

When I finally give the answer, expat audiences laugh or give a groan of recognition, while the British usually are completely mystified.  Why would anyone pick up on these trivial points?  Surely carpet is softer and warmer on your feet when you come out of the bath?  And just what is wrong with unmixed taps anyway?  (If you are still baffled, pick the nearest Continental European and ask him or her about this.)

Yes, these might be innocuous examples of mild irritation, but do not underestimate their effect on a long-term relationoship.  What else might be annoying our foreign colleagues, employees, partners?  What else makes perfect sense to us but  could be causing them embarassment, unease, anxiety?  Shed some light on your blind spots and, who knows, you might even change your taps!

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Of Course, the Election!

What else can anyone in Britain talk about today?  Like everyone else, I find it hard to focus on my work and tear myself away from the TV.  Although the process is maddeningly slow and has all the charisma of a car crash in slow motion. 

Three personal observations that struck me this morning:

1) Trying to explain the British electoral system to my friends and family from abroad makes me realise just how complicated and frustrating it is.

2) Unlike some of my acquaintances who live in the UK but have not got British citizenship, I cannot watch this dispassionately, like in a horse race upon which I have placed no bets.

3) If a coalition is formed, the parties involved will have to learn a LOT about cross-cultural communication.  Despite the deliberate vagueness and therefore similarity of their policies, it seems to me that the cultures of each political party are very different.  Will they be able to find a common language beyond the hunger for power and self-interest?

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The British in a Nutshell

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.

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British heritage and stereotypes

The Heritage Lottery fund has just published some research showing that the heritage component of Britain’s tourism economy is much larger than expected, worth about £12.4 billion a year, and that it’s stable (maybe even experiencing an upturn) during an economic downturn.

But is this news truly surprising?  We instinctively know what tourists value about Britain: history, tradition, pageantry and culture.  American banks try to look like English tudor houses.  The Japanese have recreated an English village called Shakespeare Country Park in Chiba prefecture.  

England in Japan

Whether we like it or not, foreign tourists are here primarily for the Queen and her palaces, for the Beefeaters and bearskin-hatted Royal Guards.  And everyone knows and loves the iconic double-decker red buses, the phone boxes, the village green, the bowler hat.  Tourism is in many cases about reducing complexities into stereotypes:  is that necessarily a bad thing?

I try to think back on my first visit to Britain as a child and my understanding of it then.  I was not much of a Royalist child (except when it came to Cavaliers versus Roundheads in our history lessons), but I did love English culture, particularly literature.  So what was most memorable about our visit was Shakespeare’s birthplace, the statue of Peter Pan, the bookshops in Oxford, Blenheim Palace and a rehearsal for a choral concert we overheard by accident in St. Paul’s.

Stereotypes may be what brings you to a country, but, once you are there, allow yourself to be captivated by complexity.  If you only look for what you expect to find…. you will only reinforce what you already thought you knew at home. 

What I think is dangerous is if those living in Britain start to believe the cliches of the good old days of cream teas and cricket being played on the village green.  Yes, there are some places where this may still be the case.  But in how many places was this in fact the norm in the ‘old days’ and what are we choosing to ignore because it spoils the picture?

Heritage is lovely and it helps pay the bills.   But heritage is also about rich, multi-layered complexity in history, about subcultures within the same national culture.  And if we live here, we should not be content with or crave the reductionist picture most tourists get to see.

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