Understanding Cultural Differences Between Seemingly Similar Cultures
Global organizations invest millions of dollars a year on international assignments. One of the critical pieces that more and more companies are including as a part of that investment is cultural training. Over time it’s been proven that international assignments are more successful for both the individual and his/her family, and the organization, when an investment is made to support the adaptation to a new host country’s culture and business environment.
But what about when the cultures are similar such as the Canada-U.S., Australia-New Zealand, and the U.K.-U.S.? Is it really necessary to spend the time and money on a program when the cultures are so similar? We all speak English, right?
Surprisingly, when cultures appear to be similar, this can be when cross-cultural upskilling becomes even more important.
Why? Because the small but important cultural gaps may be underestimated, unexpected or even ignored (due to lack of understanding) and the impact on one’s assignment success can be vast. The assumption that “your culture is basically the same as mine”, even when there are many similarities, is frequently interpreted as an indication of arrogance and lack of interest in local practices.
The North American Neighbors
Let’s take neighbors Canada and the US, for example. Both speak English, share the longest unmanned border with a flow of people and goods crossing the border daily, but there are indeed cultural differences between these two countries. For example:
- Despite a sometimes direct manner, Canadians tend to be more reserved in comparison with their neighbors to the south. In this way, they are most like their British and French ancestors.
- Regional and local cultural styles also need to be taken into consideration. For example, U.S. international assignees on assignment in Québec may need to demonstrate a greater respect for hierarchy than in the rest of Canada due to the French influence.
The Kiwi & the Aussie
New Zealand and Australia are two very similar countries in language, social values, and history, but one with a much larger economy. A few other differences:
- New Zealanders (or Kiwis as they are fondly referred to) tend to be more politely reserved than Australians and are likely to prefer being quiet observers rather than the center of attention.
- Kiwis tend to consider themselves to be more refined and to have more of a work ethic than their Australian counterparts, so Aussies on assignment might find it valuable to find ways of recognizing and affirming this work ethic when managing people or teams.
Separated by a Common Language
When ‘working across the pond,’ cultural differences between Americans and Brits go far beyond how aluminum is pronounced or whether you use the “restroom” or the “loo”.
“England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” – George Bernard Shaw
Christie Caldwell, Aperian Global’s Director of Consulting, spent several years living as an American expat in the UK. She describes relationship-building between the two countries as being quite different.
”Relationships in the two countries operate in a vastly different manner. British relationships are generally kept afloat through a consistent, thoughtful gestures, shared humour and physical presence, all of which constitutes loyalty. The US tendency toward intense connection through intimate conversation, often with complete strangers, is rare in British culture. One can often have friendships in the UK which span years but which never broach the subjects trawled by two American strangers sat together on the short flight from Dallas to Charlotte.”
Credibility in the U.S. is based as much on how a person projects him/herself as on what that person actually accomplishes. It is common to make reference to one’s experience and expertise in appropriate contexts; excessive humility is often interpreted as a sign of low self-esteem. Assignees from the U.K. do need to take note of this when working in the U.S. on assignment. Note: If you went to Cambridge or Oxford, it’s good to mention this at some point!
Little Big Differences
While work-style comparisons found within the GlobeSmart® Profile, Aperian Global’s online cultural inventory, show slight cultural differences between the cultures highlighted in this post, the gaps can be relatively vast when minimized or underestimated.
An assignee who recognizes and understands these relatively subtle gaps will be more effective on assignment in comparison to an assignee who underestimates the differences or isn’t aware they exist.
Considering the investment for organizations to provide cultural training/coaching is estimated at less than 1% of the overall assignee package, the investment is relatively (if not extremely) low and the return extremely high.
Nigel Richards, Aperian Global Senior Consultant advises to use what he refers to as, your “cultural antenna”.
“… Just because the language is similar, don’t underestimate significant, if subtle, cultural differences…keep your cultural antenna up just as if you were moving to China. This was a mistake I made when I first came here (to the US) some time ago, as I assumed it would be easy after living all over the world, and many years in Asia. Wrong, I discovered!”
Interested in learning more? GlobeSmart®, Aperian Global’s online cultural intelligence tool, provides instant access to information & advice on how to conduct business with individuals in over 95 countries. Contact Aperian Global and mention this blog to receive free 2-week trial access to GlobeSmart.
Content from this post was referenced from GlobeSmart, Aperian Global’s cultural intelligence database. Special thanks to Aperian Global contributors: Canadian Jody Tangredi, Australian Brett Parry, Brit Nigel Richards, and American Christie Caldwell.
About the Author
Managing Director, Global Mobility
Darcy currently oversees strategy, product development and partner relations within the Global Mobility business line at Aperian Global. As an expatriate for over 25 years in Europe and Asia, she identifies with Aperian Global clients’ needs and well understands the successes and challenges international assignments can offer. Darcy currently lives with her family in Annecy, France.