Aside from the Weasypeasy doing some blogging, I’ve been sadly absent from these pages, especially when it concerns my Americana experience. I look back on my blogs on Firth of Arabia and marvel at how fresh and exciting it all seemed, but also with its fair share of bizarre moments. I’ve been thinking about this on my walks into work each morning, and the best I’ve come up with for not posting more, is that it hasn’t been that strange or bizarre or as un-stereotypical as I would’ve liked it.
It was nice to read weaseypeasy’s guest blogs, because they have that freshness that is required to express what is really going on, that wide eyed amazement at the cultural differences shines through and captivates the reader.
So after having spent a day with a cultural awareness advisor in my first few weeks, I was surprised but perhaps reassured at the subtlety that defines the cultural differences between the US and UK. It is this subtlety that lulls the casual expatriate into a false sense of security, that catches them out in previously innocuous situations, and often results in unhappy experiences and early returns. So what are these differences?
Language is the best place to start; although we share the same language where expats get caught out are with simple things; lifts and elevators, hair fringes and bangs, porridge and oatmeal, trousers and pants, not just the stereotypical pronunciations (Tomato Tomaghto). Language can be even more of a challenge if you find comfort in idiom and metaphor to get your messages across. Luckily my familiarity with US sports terminology allows me some comfort!
Thought processes. Similar in terms of the linear logical education that both of our systems specialise in. However the Americana SAT system encourages absolutes, and the absence of grey. Whereas many English educational approaches encourage debate and discourse. In my most recent studies through the Open University we’ve been encourage to conclude in a balanced way; weighing up all the arguments and highlighting the nuance in making a proposal or decision. I’m no expert on this, but my experience in Americana suggests that the education system rewards strong argument on either side of the line, so long as you take a clear position. And I guess this shows through in the politics of the nation, two parties, opposing positions, lack of compromise, the language of winning instead of compromise.
It’s this final point that comes across most often; winning or competitiveness is everywhere. According to my cultural awareness advisor this stems from history and a book called “the little engine that could”. When the history of the country is so short, and the experience of the pioneers relatively fresh, winning begins to take significance in culture and behaviour. On the book, this is as likely to be in a kindergarten book shelf as goldilocks and the three bears. Winning takes on a hard wired component of daily life, it is very difficult for people to accept mistakes, to own up to problems, to give people feedback on performance. Sadly it can become divisive, forcing people into conflict when collaboration gets better results. And when someone loses they are unlikely to dust themselves down and “get back into the saddle” as we would say in the UK, instead they shy away from the scene of failure, unwilling to show the humility.
The flip side of this is recognition for a job well done or for successes. Americans desire praise and recognition, in a way that we would find embarrassing and the Danish would resent. In the UK we view this has the “have a nice day” phoney cheerleading we see on TV. In reality it is more genuine and heartfelt than those shows depict. Recognition large or small provokes real and lasting pride for the individual, they really appreciate their leaders speaking up, but also there is an equally strong response when peers do it. Having been a big cynic about all this high fiving and whooping, I realised that my colleagues considered this lack of recognition on my part as offensive and not showing good team behaviour, so getting into the spirit definitely drew me into the team and helped build relationships.
And finally on a lighter note, Americans are made about sport. Not just men, I’ve had better conversations about baseball, Football, Hockey, Rugby, Soccer, beach volleyball you name it, with women. Sport is a family affair, everybody sits down of a weekend to watch the games, whole families go to the ball park, and work colleagues decorate their desks with sports insignia. Indeed the end of each month is signified by a debate over whether dress down Friday can accommodate wearing your team’s colours.
I’ve loved every minute, I’ve been humbled by the hospitality and thankful for the opportunity to gain a better insight into our cousins across the pond!