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Downton Abbey on the Prairie

Posted by Chad O'Connor  March 1, 2013 11:00 AM

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Julian Fellows, the creator of the global television phenomenon Downton Abbey, recently gave America one of those insulting compliments only a Brit can pull off. He was commenting about why Rule Britannia is the theme song for period costume drama and pointed out that while American actors are some of the best on the planet they belong to a “contemporary race” and are too “forward thinking” to excel at portraying a genre rooted in the past. This American preference for what has yet to be rather than knowledge of what was and why is at the root of our cross-cultural communication challenges in global business.

Our customers and employees may span the globe but our communications comfort zone is often limited by our zip code. Mr. Fellows is correct; ask any communications academic or a businessman waiting to clear customs and they will tell you Americans prefer the future to the past, solutions over problems, brevity and simplicity over detailed explanation, and of course individual relevance over collective necessity. Despite the thousands of articles that warn us to read up and prepare for doing business overseas we have a hard time admitting that no matter how well we think we understand another culture and even if that culture includes speaking English, we struggle to communicate well. Most Americans with cross-cultural business interests are not insensitive or ignorant; they’re just thinking tactically rather than strategically and likely making one of these mistakes:

Missing a key historical piece of the puzzle. American entrepreneurs often succeed because they question the accepted and find opportunity in reinvention. They don’t see “why it’s always been that way” and this strength becomes a weakness when they can’t see the historical obstacles to their newly spawned idea, product, or service. Two years ago the global media called Iceland the future electric car capital of the world. It was logical. A small island nation with plentiful geothermic electricity, almost too cheap to meter, that’s home to a tech savvy population, three quarters of whom live within 37 miles of the capital city. Combine those opportunistic factors with the reality that their gasoline is really expensive and it seemed like the perfect place to sell electric cars. American entrepreneurs, including Tesla, were closing deals to import electric vehicles.

Two years later however, I’m just back from Iceland and can report the reality looks a bit different. In fact, Reykjavik newspapers report that they host only 11 electric vehicles on their roads. The counter forces to progress include that, until June of last year Iceland has historically had the highest VAT on cars in the world, a fondness for SUVs, and a growing interest in Arctic oil drilling. The solution to these information gaps is research. To achieve a deeper understanding of the cultural environment go beyond the financial pages and cross cultural articles. Read local papers, Google things that interest you, and read the Wikipedia pages on history, culture, and local celebrities and customs. Americans needs to ask themselves why am I the first one to try to do this?

Entertainment overshadows education. It isn’t exactly breaking news that the American media feeds us a steady diet of “infotainment” mostly about domestic issues and personalities. All you have to do is look at the covers of global magazines that produce regional editions. Last year, the international editions of Time Magazine ran cover after cover profiling both Islam and Arab leaders, The Euro crisis, and Mideast violence. In the United States the covers favored soft stories about concepts like who does more chores at home, new inventions, and the science of favoritism. This cultural preference for softer self-centered news rather than educates one’s world view has bled over into presentation style. I once gave the same presentation to two groups; one made up entirely of Americans, the other mainly Austrians. The feedback from the Americans: it could have been “more fun” from the Austrians: it needed “more background” The takeaway: Americans need to leave the razzle dazzle at home and work in a few more facts and depth.

Digital disconnection. I have a non-American business associate and friend who speaks perfectly nuanced English but I’ve noticed that when it’s really important he will call me rather than reply to an email. My mother tongue is his second language and he is clearly more comfortable speaking English than he is writing it. Email can be a tricky form of communication even when you’re just trying to schedule a meeting with people in your office when adding a cross cultural or language barrier, things can get muddled very quickly. The visual queues providing by body language are much closer to a universal business language than English verbs and nouns will ever be and without them, cultural idiosyncrasies can become business problems. There are assumptions you can make based on stereotypes. A one word “yes” from an American probably means “do it” while that same yes from a Chinese colleague may simply mean I understand you. One way to work through the digital divide is to substitute videoconference for email. Americans have been slow to accept voice over IP technology. A recent Reuters poll found fewer than one in ten Americans use VOIP. Compare that to close to one in four people in India. Even if you’re not comfortable with Skype, just using that good old fashioned phone feature on the blackberry can make a huge difference in making sure everyone understands and is on the same page.

Optimism overshadows reality. Looking on the bright side makes for a nice business dinner but it does not necessarily convince a skeptical audience your product, idea, or service is something they need or want. The rosy glasses most Americans prefer to wear can blind potential customers or investors who only see the glaring problems that aren’t being addressed. Years ago, I believed in a project that I knew, with the kind of certainty only a twenty-something just starting out can have, was going to be a success. To make this dream project a reality we needed to partner with a number of global organizations. I went to meet with the first potential partner, gave a twenty minute presentation highlighting all the virtues of the idea, got to the end and looked at him eagerly. He expressed concern about the ROI to which I replied, can’t you just have faith? His answer was no. Bottom line, I had enthusiasm for what was probably a really good idea but by not addressing the financial realities and therefore a discussion of the risks of the project (which for the record were complex but not that bad) I missed the opportunity to work with a really great partner.

We communicate all day, every day and most of us are convinced we do it well. Again, perhaps optimism overshadows reality but there are things we can do to make sure cross cultural business communication doesn’t feel like a marriage in one of those British period pieces: lots of passive aggressive commentary with no genuine connection except for the dowry.

Kellyanne Dignan designs and leads the media, public speaking and presentation training programs for Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications clients. Prior to joining Rasky Baerlein, Dignan worked in broadcast and digital communications producing content for major media outlets. She can be reached at

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