July 16, 2014
Whether you’re seeking new experiences and cultures, want to add some unique skills to your portfolio or are looking for work in a fun, new environment, working abroad can be a valuable experience.
A good choice for Americans who want to work abroad in a professional capacity is to choose an English-speaking country. But even when a country’s native language is English there are still cultural differences to navigate. Today we’ll examine tips for making the most of your work life in England.
Learn the Culture
Dave, an American who heads up the eBusiness unit of Citibank in England, suggests that Americans seeking jobs in England learn to be extremely self-aware and humble. “First observe British culture rather than trying to make a name straight away,” he said.
Alex O’Donnell, a British citizen who now works as an engineer for GoPro in California, said, “Accents change every 30 to 40 miles in the U.K. We sometimes have to translate between each other. An American coming to work in England will arrive thinking that he knows how to speak English, but the accents will be so thick he’ll have trouble understanding them.”
O’Donnell says that British people are used to being asked to repeat themselves and will generally slow their speech down if they think they’re listener is having trouble understanding them.
“I think the worst cultural mistake an American can make is simply to be arrogant or myopic,” Dave said. “I’ve heard industry speakers come to the U.K. from America and present only on U.S. brands and cities. To engage with Brits or other Europeans, Americans should demonstrate a broader, global awareness outside the U.S.”
Claire Richardson is a native British citizen who worked at Citibank as a digital marketing manager. She advises Americans, “Understand the British sense of humor. People will banter with you in the office about where you are from, but it is just lighthearted fun.”
Dave encourages Americans working in England to embrace the culture. “Americans should get out and travel,” he said. “Don’t just stay in London. Brits work hard, but they also socialize outside of work, especially if you work in London.”
When transitioning to his job in the U.S., O’Donnell said that he had to adjust his vocabulary. “It might all be English, but it’s very different. Brits have different levels of politeness. We say please and thank you more – even if we don’t mean it.”
O’Donnell said that requests are a lot more subtle among the British. “We hint at what we want doing and you’re meant to pick up on the hint and do it,” he said. “In California you have to ask for something to be done or tell people to do it.”
O’Donnell offered this example of the less direct approach regarding requests. “In England someone might say, ‘Oh, I’d love a cup of tea,’ and someone would go get her some tea. In the U.S. you would have to say, ‘Could you please make me a cup of tea?’”
Learn to Relax
Dave notes that socializing plays a bigger role in British work environments than in many American workplaces. He said, “A mistake Americans make is in not valuing the importance of participating in after-work team drinks with colleagues. Part of embracing the British work culture may mean going to the pub at lunchtime and having an alcoholic drink or two.”
According to O’Donnell, “Americans are workaholics compared to Brits. It depends on where you are, but you’re perceived as a ‘grabber’ if you skip breaks or stay late. If you’re an hourly employee, people assume trying to get extra overtime. If you’re on salary, you’re just seen as an overachiever.”
Watch Your Volume
Richardson said that Brits are not as loud as most Americans and often are perceived as more reserved. Richardson said, “Some meetings will be very quiet, with people listening as opposed to asking lots of questions. Americans are very chatty and will open up a conversation with anyone. British people won’t do this and will wait to be spoken to most of the time if you don’t know them.”
Dave added, “A loud, bold American presence may be valued in the States, but does not generally go over well in the U.K. I remember my first day at my first U.K. job I was asked to attend a 10-person meeting in a conference room. I honestly couldn’t hear a word anyone was saying…it was like the Twilight Zone.”
“British people have strong views of Americans, but they’re mostly based on what Hollywood has presented. Unless you happen to work with Americans, you only encounter the tourists,” said O’Donnell.
Dave said, “Brits are much, much more reserved and tactful than Americans. Americans who come to the U.K. and do not adapt to the British style are perceived as crass, loud, stereotypical Americans. There is also a certain animated speaking style in the U.S. that Brits abhor. This is the exaggerated, overly cheery style you might hear used on dial-in conference call recordings or on late-night U.S. infomercials.”
Dave added, “I’ve met two kinds of Americans over the years: those that fully embrace U.K. culture, enjoy assimilating and become ‘trans-Atlantic’ and others who hold tightly to their American-ness, not assimilating into British culture. The first group stays years and years. The second return home after a few.”
Learn about getting a job in other English-speaking countries: