For my job, I routinely travel across the pond to the United States. While our world headquarters are located in London, the company actually employs 3 times as many workers in the U.S. than at home. Still, our directives are mandated at the corporate level and the entire organisation is expected to accomodate our standards.
This is a story for another time, but one of the most humorous stories is on the first trip to visit the Yanks, I was somewhat under the weather and had to stop at a chemist to get the proper medication. I asked a coworker about a shop nearby, and got quite the dumbfounded look. It took two other people until I had realised "they" call it a pharmacy over there, not a chemist. Given that our organisation does have quite a large chemistry research department, it only made the situation more comical because they thought I was asking to visit the in-house chem lab, and could not understand why I did not realise the chem lab was only 2 floors down in the same building.
I was thinking of this story recently and it reminded me of several instances when I would have done well with a translator, even though we all spoke English. It is amazing the amount of differences in the English language from one country to the next.
Many Opportunities for Mutual Learning
As mentioned, I could write all day about my experiences, but this is just the first installment of what I hope may become regular contributions to the hub. I chose to write about a few examples of how the cultural differences between two countries can lead to challenges in the workplace, often with humorous outcomes. The countries in quesiton here are Britain and the United States, but any countries would do. As I am writing this and reflecting on these experiences, I must say I am surprised that two countries that are so similar (as similar as any two countries could possibly be) can still be so different.
Getting Our Wires Crossed
As a network guy, I was surprised to learn that there are significant differences in how professionals in different parts of the world approach physical infrastrucre (cabling). Despite many international governing bodies, local code enforcement and BICSI, one of the largest, if not largest, structured cabling (and more) organisational resource for professionals everywhere, there were still many nuances from local to local that were challenges.
There are access flooring companies in the United States, but relatively few of them specialize in industries other than that of data processing. After some research, we eventually partnered with Netfloor USA, which is the North American distribution and marketing arm of the global brand. Perhaps the fact that it is a global brand means there is information sharing or perhaps cultural exchange.
Access Floors are used around the world to manage wires, cables, piping and airflow. They are used significantly in Europe, where real estate is at a premium. But I found that getting my American counterparts to cooperate was to be a challenge, despite my position as the head of networking. I do not blame them personally; I feel it was a cultural divide. In many ways, Europe does lead the rest of the world. Alternative energy is a great example of this. Novel building techniques is another great example.
I found I had to keep a certain measure of patience as we converted occupied office spaces into renovated areas with this access flooring. I know understand that when you deal with anyone (not just Americans) who have a traditional method of working, too much change too quickly can hurt your cause, no matter how well-intended.
Driven to Excellence
Despite the many differences (and some would say shortcomings, jokingly) the Americans might have (say, for example, being one of literally a handful of countries still relying on the non-metric standard system of measurements), there is at least one area where they are ahead of us: driving. And it can have more of an impact than one would imagine.
I found it rather easy to "learn" to navigate American roads on the "wrong side of the road". There are far fewer roundabouts in America, so the task is rather simple: just stay between the yellow and white lines, mind the colour of the traffic signals, and try not to hit anything!
And my coworkers had plenty to say about roundabouts. They at least seemed aware that roundabouts are common in other parts of the world, but swore they are inherently unsafe, despite what their own government agency reports on the subject.
Oddly, however, some Americans didn't think it should be that simple for me. I can remember the first time I drove in the States with passengers in the car. We had left a meeting our organisation had mandated for all middle and upper management, and I was driving back to the main office; about 1 hour's travel.
I was constantly pestered by questions such as "Don't you people drive on the wrong side of the road?", "Are you sure you can drive a car here without your license?", etc. Mind you, I was driving rather carefully and was travelling under the posted speed limit. I believe they thought I was driving slowly because they assumed I was confused about miles per hour versus kilometers per hour. I found this quite commical, as they assumed Brits drive in "kilometers per hour." They kept referring me to the small print numbers on the speedo (km/h). After several rounds of explaining, I simply gave up.
When we finally arrived back at the office, I felt exhausted, despite the leisurely drive. My carmates had simply worn me out with their questions and "driving instructions". And to seal the deal, one of them, up my shutting off the engine, unlatched his safety belt and said "Oh, thank God we're back safely!"
Now, to me, I found it rather more amusing than offensive, but to some it would certainly been offensive, and rightly so. As the saying goes, "When in Rome...." I would suggest that be revised to "When in Rome, let the Romans do the driving!" Or at least, follow some tips for
Dotting Your Is and Crossing Your Teas
Yes, it's true, Brits love tea. Of all the things Americans actually could know about us, it happens to be tea. This was actually a fantastic growing experience for myself and for my coworkers. I splurged and got a couple of my closest American counterparts gift cards to Beau Coup, which is likely the most popular "customised tea" company in the world. You can make your own blends, recommend blends to others, etc.
What does this have to do with cultural differences? Quite simple, really. I was actually teased a bit for taking tea once or twice a day. The irony of them drinking coffee several times per day while poking fun at a 1-2 cup of tea habit was not lost on me.
I used this as a good opportunity to bring us all closer together, while enlightening them to the finer things in life, such as our coveted tea. Depending on the type of tea versus coffee, even the caffeine fiends could still get their fix (because some teas contain significant amounts of caffeine.)
I made some recommendations to them as to which teas were my favourites and which they might enjoy as well. It immediately stopped the teasing (and really, it was only one person and it hadn't bothered my), created a feeling of gratitude, and made them all a bit more welcoming to me. (I was still seen as an outsider, a sort of big brother sent from corporate to bring the Americans back in line.) This simple, inexpensive gesture did more to bridge any divide that existed than anything else I could have thought of.
The moral of this particular example is this: "When in Rome, bring a little bit of your own culture along."
Even though these are only a few examples and they may very not apply to you or your job, the general idea should be useful. Perhaps they are a bit rambling, but I am new to the blogging world and will try to update my "blog" in my spare time, which is significant when I am travelling overseas, as my family generally stays home and does not travel with me.