NEW YORK, United States — I've had the opportunity to live and work in many different places around the world. I grew up in Reykjavik and Los Angeles, two cities that could hardly have been more different. I went to law and business school in the US, then, for six years, was based in London. During my time at McKinsey, I lived and worked in the Middle East and in many parts of Europe, including Holland, Germany and Belgium. These experiences gave me insight into the pronounced cultural differences that exist between various countries, both in terms of personal and professional interactions.
And despite all of that insight gleaned in the US, after a cumulative 15 years spent here as a child, student, adult and wife of an American, I still run into cultural differences all of the time. I often find myself laughing or crying about the mix-ups I experience that stem from my being, well, foreign.
While every day I learn a little more about how to conduct business in America as an American would, I still find myself smacking into situations where my foreign-ness is the culprit.
Today, as a foreigner and non-native English speaker living in the US, I want to share some of the lessons I have learned. There are no easy rights or wrongs when it comes to cultural differences. But being aware of the areas of potential disconnect can provide for a much higher likelihood of happiness and success when working (or playing) in America.
Formal or casual
One of the most recent examples of my foreign-ness getting the best of me occurred the other day, after a Moda Operandi (M’O) board meeting. One of our investors commented on the fact that I referred to the people who work at M’O as “employees” instead of members of “the team.” He delicately explained that this difference in word choice could be perceived as a lack of appreciation for the hard working people in the company. As a European and non-native English speaker, I was surprised by this distinction. In my home country of Iceland, for example, the word for “employees” doesn’t have a positive or negative connotation — it just literally refers to the people who work in a company. At dinner that evening, my British mother-in-law confirmed that using the word “employees” might be interpreted as suggested by my investor. I started thinking about what other words I tend to say at work that could be interpreted differently than intended.
The takeaway: when in doubt, be extra careful about your word choice. I have learned that in the US, it's probably good to err on the side of being more casual than formal. That doesn’t mean you should be lobbing 'F-bombs' liberally in the boardroom, but that corporate Americans tend to gravitate more towards relaxed language choice; inclusive rather than exclusive, team-oriented rather than hierarchical. Said simply, American corporate speak is less formal than in Europe and other parts of the world.
How you make your point when speaking
Ironically, if a relaxed language choice is best for an American business meeting, your tone — how you make your point in that meeting — should lean more towards bluntness than diplomacy. This is different from my experiences in other countries. For example, when I lived and worked in England, I learned that it might be considered impolite or inappropriate to make unequivocal statements in a business setting. “This analysis is terrible,” raises eyebrows in London. Instead, the Brits love to ask questions which provoke the same point: “Would it perhaps not be a good idea to look at this analysis differently?” For the English, in business, as much as in life, it's often more about what you don’t say than what you do say (and, of course, saying the opposite of what is meant: if a point made in a meeting is determined to be “interesting,” it may be of zero interest at all!).
Conversely, American business people generally like to state a point directly and clearly. Don’t leave any room for interpretation.
A Starbucks in-store advertisement in England might read: “Why not transport yourself to Tuscany with our new rustic Mocha Frappuccino?” In New York: “Try our new Mocha Frappuccino!”
How you make your point when writing
Getting to the point quickly applies to writing as well in the US. In 1997, having practiced law in Iceland for three years, I moved to North Carolina to do my LLM (masters in law) at Duke. I immediately learned that I had to adjust my writing style. In the US, when writing a report or sending an email, you state your conclusion up front and then go through the analysis that got you there. In Iceland (and many other European countries), it’s generally the opposite: you start with the analysis and end with the conclusion. If the analysis is compelling, the reader already knows and understands the conclusion before reading it.
The lesson: In America, start with your key takeaways. People want to get to the point fast. If you’re presenting something lengthy, this is particularly true, as busy schedules may prevent your readers from delving into all of the details.
There is no "I" in "Team"
As a Scandinavian who grew up with a commitment to social welfare, taking care of your family is a priority. At home, for example, I always supported the notion of providing flexible work hours to parents with young children. This can be looked at differently in the US, not for a lack of love for family or children, but due to respect for your fellow team mates at work. It can for example be perceived as unfair to the overall group to allow one employee to work fewer days than others, even if that employee is being compensated accordingly. This example came up in our office recently and it made me think about the issue at hand.
The lesson: It’s a team effort in the America workforce, period, even if other life priorities have to take a back seat to the needs of the group. This is particularly true in a start-up culture, where everybody is expected to wear multiple hats and to give 100 percent all of the time. It’s not personal, it’s cultural.
Culture and morale
Culture and morale building in corporate America can be different from that in Europe. While I was working at Gilt Groupe here in New York, at an all company meeting, members of the senior management team got up and sang a song they had written that promoted Gilt company culture. While the song was silly and there was a lot of laughter, the goal was to send a serious message that Gilt is big on culture and morale, starting with senior management. People responded to it.
In Europe, we promoted culture and morale not through songs at company meetings, but through company lunches on Fridays, where wine was served and people chatted one-on-one. We emulate this approach at M’O, with drinks at the end of the day on Fridays. Often issues that haven’t been resolved during the day are resolved then. Ideas are exchanged, groups intermingle. Most importantly, people step back from their day-to-day work and focus on the bigger picture: we are all part of a larger company with an overall goal.
The point: Culture and morale building is important everywhere, but particularly in the US. If you’re working or doing business in the US, you need to get on board and be part of the fun, whether it is a company song or drinks after work. Be proactive in supporting and fostering company culture and morale. In the US, sometimes a less subtle approach is suitable.
When to conduct business
When I first moved to New York, I would often ask people I met in a business context to meet after work for a drink to discuss business. Previously, in London, I was used to many of the most important deals being negotiated at the pub. In New York however, I sometimes got funny responses. While in Europe this was normal, some Americans found it a strange request to go out after work to discuss business when you are first getting to know somebody. Business was to be conducted during business hours.
The American preference? Breakfast meetings. My time working with the late Marvin Traub taught me this lesson. Every day, we had a breakfast meeting with a different person from the fashion industry or financial world. When it was somebody he knew well, we might do a lunch meeting instead. But time after work was reserved for his friends and family. Business was conducted during business hours.
The bottom line is be perceptive about cultural differences when working abroad, whether it be in the US or elsewhere. Try to ferret out the little things that are done differently and embrace them, even if it puts you outside of your comfort zone. Sometimes the fact that you are making the effort to adjust to how things are done in a different part of the world is even more valuable than overcoming the disconnect itself.
Áslaug Magnúsdóttir is co-founder and former CEO of Moda Operandi.