Communicating the American Way - cover

Reading the book “Communicating the American Way: A Guide to Business Communications in the U.S.” helped me, finally, to understand why a comment I made many years ago at a meeting in the US did not go down at all well with my American hosts.

I was one of several consultants from various countries, working on a research project for an international, New York headquartered organization. We had all been assembled in New York for a briefing on the project and a “getting to know one another” process. In the course of a meeting I expressed an opinion or made a comment about something, directly, but not from my point of view impolitely. “That’s very direct!” the American project leader responded, clearly disapproving of the style of my communication. Having just walked to the meeting from a couple of blocks away in Manhattan and heard the truck drivers and others communicating, and thinking that she was being overly sensitive, I responded “Direct? Have you been outside lately and listened to how people talk to one another in this city?” Which, in hindsight and with the benefit of just having read “Communicating the American Way” would have made me come across as even more brash and culturally inept than I had done with my first remark.

But wasn’t I in the capital city of directness, in a country whose citizens were famed for their directness? What was the story here?

Now, after all this time, I realize that I had bought what the authors of this book, Elisabetta Ghisini and Angelika Blendstrup, refer to as “the popular myth that Americans are straightforward and ‘tell it like it is'”. Not so, evidently.

If I’d had, all those years ago, the benefit of the insights in this book, I would have been better able to communicate effectively with my American hosts. The authors observe that “Especially when expressing disagreement, people here tend to use careful language, for example, with something like, ‘I see your point, and while I agree with some of what you have said, I have the impression that…”

For an Australian, especially of the male variety, that might sound a bit wussy. But evidently, for an Australian, Indian, English, Irish, German, Chinese person, or anyone from any other country, who moves to the USA and wants to get on in the world of business, that’s just one of many new perspectives and practices that have to be learnt and applied. Mind you, the Chinese and other Asians may not be as likely as, say, Australians, to offend by inappropriate directness. On the contrary, their challenge may be, as the book illustrates, to speak up and put their point of view at times when, in their home culture, that would be inappropriate.

No one escapes. Wherever people come from, they are going to have to learn the American Way.

And just so no one is confused or has room for cultural quibbles about the advice in the book, the authors define unequivocally what they mean by “America”. Not Canada, not Latin America:

The terms ‘America’ or ‘American’ are used only in reference to the United States.

But what about the renowned cultural diversity within America (the United States)? Not relevant. Whatever individuals or groups might like to think about cultural diversity and respect for difference, the authors cite authorities who attest that “American culture” means fundamentally “an Anglo-Saxon, male-dominated culture that traces its roots to the Protestant pioneer background of the early settlers from England”. The book makes no bones about it: if you want to get on in corporate America, even in what some might expect to be a more diverse, less hidebound environment in, say, Silicon Valley, you need to get with the program, learn how the still-dominant culture works and play by its rules.

(Until, of course, you become fabulously wealthy and you can make your own rules.)

A warning is also sounded for anyone has previously been able apparently to communicate effectively when visiting the USA, without adopting an American style, but then moves to the USA and becomes part of the corporate world there. New rules apply. Before, you were a visitor and allowances were made. Now you are here, you need to fit in. Or lose.

… the change in your status is clear: now that you reside in the U.S., you will encounter little tolerance for your faux pas, and you will no longer be given the benefit of the doubt should a serious misunderstanding arise. It will be up to you to make the extra effort to bridge the cultural differences.

The authors are both multilingual and have impressive academic credentials (both have doctorates), but this is no dry academic treatise. It spells out clearly a coherent conceptual framework, but is first and foremost a practical manual for anyone who is from another culture and wants to get on in the American corporate world.

I have to say, and (practicing some newfound cultural sensitivity here) not as a criticism but simply an observation, I found this book at least as confronting and discomforting as the American project leader evidently found my comments on that day years ago in New York.

Someone who is not comfortable with an Anglo-Saxon, male-dominated culture, and/or is not looking to establish themselves and progress in the American corporate world, may find a number of points in this book to argue about, in terms of what they would prefer to read or hear. The book is not, in my opinion, written for that reader. It is a practical manual for the person who has come, recently or earlier, to the US and would like a key to decipher the code his or her colleagues operate by and learn enough of that code to fit in and move ahead.

It’s also valuable for someone like me, with no plans to move to the USA and no longer in the game of climbing corporate ladders, but nevertheless doing business with Americans on a regular basis and giving presentations to American groups. And while I did find the book confronting, I believe I learned a great deal from it about how to communicate and collaborate more effectively with my American colleagues. Time will tell!

As well as explaining how to be more diplomatic in communication generally, the book has chapters with excellent advice and checklists for:

  • running a meeting in the US (tip: focus on solutions)
  • presentation, in various settings (tip: start with a solution)
  • phone and conference calls, including virtual meetings
  • job interviews
  • dealing with the media

And there is an interesting chapter on “speaking English like a leader”:

  • be positive
  • speak positively
  • act positively
  • emphasize solutions not problems
  • look forward not back
  • be diplomatic – directness can be construed as rudeness (Ok, I think I’ve got that)
  • get to the point

There is also advice on “Steps to Gradually Changing Your Accent” – all in the interest, not of cultural conformity for its own sake, but of more effective communication. No scope for cultural relativism here.

There is an interesting list of “powerful phrases in English” – which “always work well when talking to your boss”.

The tenth and final chapter, “Why and How to Network” has some great advice for anyone wanting to decipher the mysteries of American business networking. I did have a couple of quibbles with this chapter, a very minor one and another which I was probably the one factor which detracted from the sense of comprehensiveness I had, as far as the rest of the book was concerned.

The minor item was the advice to someone when in a networking event to go up to a person standing alone and engage them in conversation. The authors suggest you can then steer that person into a group. My experience of networking functions is that, uncharitable as it may seem, the person standing alone, looking alone, is not the one you want to talk to. There is a reason they are alone and it’s that they are a fish out of water in a networking event. Unless you are a highly skilled “host” type person and will have no difficulty with inserting that person and yourself into a group, you may well find yourself stuck with that person for far too long and have nothing to show for it at the end but going home with only one new business card and – very probably in my experience – no business. Better to follow the advice of renowned international networking expert Robyn Henderson, who once explained to a gathering I was in that the smart thing to do is to fix your attention on the liveliest group in the room, walk up and say with a smile “this looks like the liveliest group in the room, mind if I join in?” It might take practice, but it beats standing with Mr or Ms No Friends in the corner for the next half hour.

The more substantive quibble I have is that I looked in vain for any advice on online networking, which is surely a staple of business networking these days and, I would have thought, particularly in places like Silicon Valley. It’s not just because I have a professional preoccupation with social media and social networking. That is clearly a factor in my drawing attention to this matter, but surely there is extensive potential for people coming from different countries and cultures to the USA to use social networking tools such as LinkedIn and Facebook to help them connect and progress. Not to mention more culturally-focused but well entrenched groups such as TiE (the Indus Entrepreneurs), for people with, to use the terminology of the organization’s website, “roots in the Indus”.

Nevertheless, the book should be invaluable for anyone in its target market.

And for anyone unsure about how their success may be hindered or helped by the degree to which their cultural values align with the dominant US values framework, there is a handy chart in Appendix A: A Cultural Inventory. The reader can go through and give herself a ranking on how closely or otherwise she relates to each of the specific American values. As the authors say,

The more high scores (6) you circle, the closer your values are to American values.

If you have more low numbers, you need to be aware of the areas of difference and adjust accordingly in your business transactions.

This has been a longer post than I’d originally intended to write about this book. And it still only scratches the surface. Confronting and discomforting as it has been for me (apart from anything else, what faux pas have I committed that no one told me about?), I believe the authors deserve great credit for the way they have addressed quite complex issues of cultural diversity and cultural identity and have at the same time stuck to their task of providing a practical manual with practical steps to follow.

I am quite sure this book will prove invaluable for many a foreigner (or former foreigner now ensconced, but perhaps not at an optimum comfort level, in corporate America) who, like myself, thought they understood enough of American culture to get by, and now realise there is much to learn in order to communicate effectively “the American way”. Looks like watching all those movies and TV sitcoms was just not enough!

Disclosure: “Communicating the American Way” is published by Happy About, who are also the publishers of LinkedIn for Recruiting, which I co-authored with Bill Vick.

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Des Walsh is an executive coach. He helps business owners and entrepreneurs worldwide deal effectively with the feeling of being left behind or overwhelmed, or both, about social media – especially LinkedIn - and how to engage safely and effectively with social media to help grow their business. Connect with Des on LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter. And to stay in the loop, get Des’s weekly Social Business Bites (select snippets of his "best of the week" online finds).