Cultural Aspects of Working as a European in the United States
We are communicating globally more and more yet how often do we get in the mindset of our colleagues from abroad. Curiosity about cultures is key. We very intentionally structured the following article as a conversation. It is our hope you can feel like you are listening in and learning a few insights along the way.
Floor Bergshoeff is originally from Amsterdam, the Netherlands and works in New York City at TABS. TABS assists European companies starting or expanding their business to the US market. She started working for TABS two years ago and moved to Brooklyn, New York.
Lisa Patti is the founder of C3Speech and has been a voice and communication coach for over 15 years. With a Master’s Degree in Speech Pathology and Intercultural Communication, her specialty is working with international executives and startups who need to make an impact in a new culture and language. Her captivation with diverse cultures stems from being born and raised in New York City, which continues to influence her work today.
Floor: Only now that I am really living in the city, do I really notice the initially subtle cultural differences between Europe and the US. As a result, these experiences proceed to exist and influence my life daily as an expat in NYC.
Lisa: Exactly and did you ever arrive in a new culture only to feel more at home than in your own country? So many of my clients express this to be about New York. They will say “this is my city, this is what fits me”. Others struggle more with their new experiences and long for home. Either way they are forever changed by a new culture. The real beauty is that we all have something to learn from each other’s culture, from ways to do business, appreciate food or create lasting relationships. Then of course there are the similarities, I could be working with a group of people from a typically high context culture yet they tell me that in their own business cities they experience a very direct, get it done way of working. This is why I love my work, I am constantly learning!
Floor: Yes, I definitely have that feeling with New York. For me, it has always felt like home. One of the things that I love about New York is how people have a more open mindset to business propositions and bold business ideas. If you share a new business plan with an American, they are more likely to react “Good for you!”, “That’s Amazing!” or “I know a few people that you should connect with, let me introduce you!”. Americans tend to be very open and have a make-it-happen mentality. There also is a lot of respect for entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial endeavors, so any effort to start a new business is encouraged with a lot of enthusiasm. That is also why many of our clients at TABS appreciate doing business in the US market. In some European countries, people tend to first wait and see before they believe in a new business. They are definitely willing to help, but more so to those who are in their inner circle and to those who they’ve known for a longer period of time.
Lisa: As a coach to international founders, startups and scale-ups I coach entrepreneurs on communication as they launch in the US. I tend to meet them when they arrive in NYC or when they are preparing to come to the US to pitch, attend trade shows or conferences. I often hear about the positivity of the American entrepreneurial community. One thing to know about the US is that it was built on small business and entrepreneurship. Some of our most famous companies were founded by immigrant founders. The hierarchy in many US companies is also less traditional and more flat than some of the southern European countries, though that is industry dependent. Since so many founders are surprised at the ease of which they are meeting CEO’s or investors it is a chance I suggest you take! Reach out and connect! Whether it be on LinkedIn or asking for warm introductions. You might be very surprised how far this approach takes you!
Floor: Americans are also taught to always start off positive before giving negative or direct feedback. When pitching your product or starting a new project, It is sometimes hard to read what people really think of it. They will stay positive and optimistic, while perhaps actually feeling that it is not of interest to them or a complete waste of time. Europeans are usually more direct in their feedback. The Dutch, French and Germans for example, will not have any issue starting an evaluation with a list of things you could improve on. There are definitely differences within the US as well. New Yorkers are already a lot more direct than most Southern states in the US, where maintaining a good relationship is more important.
In collaborating with my American colleagues, this sometimes proved to be a learning experience. In some cases, I was looking for a ‘what are you really thinking-give it to me straight’ type of response whereas my American colleagues were in fact definitely communicating to me how they felt about a project. It was, however, wrapped in positivity and subtleties that I did not have the cultural skillset to correctly read.
Lisa: This is a challenge for many people that work globally with American team-members or work in the US with American colleagues and managers. They feel they do not get honest feedback. It can be very confusing to someone who is used to a different style of feedback that they have a “great idea!” It can be greatly disappointing leaving a meeting thinking you have a new partner or investor then don’t hear back.
Anna Lykova, Program Director at Starta VC stated, “It is not easy to get direct feedback from my American team. In Russia, where Anastasia is originally from, the feedback is very clear and if it is negative, you know that and you know what to change”. This happens frequently in meetings with new people who are assessing their work or their startup ideas. Even though NYC is known for their concise and quick delivery style, you will find that with feedback it is different.
Floor: Yes exactly, especially with feedback there is sometimes less directness. In most other situations Americans absolutely prefer fast communication and decision-making. In the Netherlands we like to collaborate a lot with colleagues and appreciate teamwork. It is standard to first listen to everyone’s point of view, consider all options, and then come to a group consensus. Whereas in the US, this is seen as a complete waste of time. Why would we spend so much time discussing a topic when we can also get to work and start taking action?
As an expat working in the US, I sometimes find myself in a situation where I would personally like to discuss and collaborate with my colleagues. For instance, I often prefer to set-up a quick meeting or call to go over the topics together and come to a mutual agreement and action plan. However, I notice that this is not always appreciated. It is seen as confusing, vague and unnecessarily time consuming. My colleagues are just waiting for a decision and want to know “How are we going to handle this?” and “What do you expect from me?”
Also, in emails I notice that Americans prefer to receive concise messages where it is briefly and clearly stated what I need from them. I, however, sometimes have the urge to give a lot of background information. Starting off by a short introduction, giving some context, explaining why I am reaching out and what it is that I need before concluding with the follow-up and next steps. When I type my emails like this, I often only receive a response to the first paragraph of my email. The attention and interest in the rest of my email was already long gone after the first four sentences. This is something that you have to adjust to, the communication style is just a lot quicker. Which is also a great lesson for me, because indeed our time is valuable and limited so why not spend it as efficiently as possible.
Lisa: As Floor mentioned, it is not so easy to be concise. Culturally, these brief interactions often feel impolite and even empty. Interestingly, even though this is the culture of some from the US, such as myself, I really prefer that collaboration as well. I work best with a team and get energy from those interactions. The input often helps me be my most creative. However, you learn to flex your preferences when you need to do so.
Many clients will ask “how can the audience understand I am the most qualified for this if I don’t explain it?” When it comes to explaining technical information, it gets even harder, and this spans across cultures. How languages translate also plays a part. Some language backgrounds have a gorgeous use of descriptions that could sound poetic but are hard to convey in business contexts in the states.
However, I really admire anyone who does it. For some it is not easy to adapt to the communication style in a new culture, and I am constantly reminding my clients that they are speaking in a new language, sometimes even a third or fourth language so it takes some time to adjust. They are often hard on themselves. There is a lot of pressure to get this right since attention spans have dwindled even more after the pandemic. Listeners want the information quick and easy to follow and sometimes they are just looking for the highlights.
Floor: What probably also plays a role is the fact that US culture is more competitive and individualistic. “Winners” are celebrated more, also in business. Companies track their top sales employees and celebrate the overall employee of the month. Something I find very admiring about US culture is how Americans are not afraid to sell themselves, their talent and their skillset. They have no problem pitching in two minutes why they are good at what they do, why you should hire them and what their value is. Europeans tend to be more modest and show accomplishment by referring to past experiences or group accomplishments.
Lisa: I agree, the US is absolutely competitive and NYC is probably the most competitive of all. Things move fast, people speak fast and it can be stimulating and overwhelming at the same time. Some people love anonymity so they can blend in and do their own thing. They like that they don’t have to get so much consensus from their team or that they can shine on their own merits. The best of the best come to the US to launch a brand or further their careers. It is part of the culture here to not only talk about your accomplishments but to be recognized for them as an individual. You can rise up from very humble roots to become a great leader, in fact Americans love those stories.
However, a clear downside that expats feel is a lack of close bonds. Many of my clients are surprised that their American colleagues are nice, pleasant and will even advocate for them, but have never invited them to their home or asked them for a drink. It can feel incredibly isolating for those who crave community and closeness. The pandemic and working from home have served to widen that gap. In these cases, it might not be a bad idea for Americans to take a cue from our more group-oriented colleagues. There is a reason sharing meals or having a drink after work builds relationships in many cultures. According to a Harvard Business School report 36% of Americans report feeling “serious” loneliness, so it might be time to re-examine this part of our individualistic culture
Floor: I can see why people feel that, I have definitely also felt lonely sometimes. As probably most people do, who move across the ocean to a new country. I also get your point about how Americans love a good story of someone building a successful life for themselves. They are definitely more risk-taking when it comes to business ideas. Not necessarily in the workplace since there is employment at will and less of a safety net compared to Europe so people do not want to risk losing their job. Yet, in business, and particularly in entrepreneurship, Americans do like to take more risks and act boldly.
The concept of failure is seen very differently, they are less afraid of it. Failure is even part of the story, part of the success. If you failed, it means you at least have tried something. That alone, is already celebrated. Americans have a lot of respect for individuals trying to build a good life for themselves. It is the definition of the American dream. When one of our clients went bankrupt with their start-up, he was so surprised by the attitude of his main investor who said “We failed, it sucks, but what’s next? Looking forward to the next adventure”.
In Europe, most people feel more ashamed of their failures. It has more weight to it, leaving a person feeling like they personally failed and were not good enough for the job.
Lisa: American culture was born out of entrepreneurship. It attracts those risk takers and innovators from Europe who bring to us cultural aspects and ideas. When I think of the expats, I know who have come to work, study and launch businesses, they are some of the most interesting, open and intelligent people I have ever met.
As we move into 2022, it is easy to see the world has grown even smaller. We “Zoom “across the world from our home offices and we are exposed to more cultures and time zones than ever before. It is all of our responsibilities to learn to work with our colleagues from abroad whether in person or over video calls. It is an exciting time for cross cultural relationships and growing our networks. We have a unique opportunity to build strong collaborations and avoid misunderstanding with a little knowledge and a lot of curiosity.
We hope you continue the conversation with your own colleagues and friends so we can better understand who is on our global teams, how our friends from abroad might feel when working and living in new languages and cultures.
This article was first published at The European American Chamber Of Commerce in New York.