Last week I was in the US. And I loved it. What is it about this country that makes me feel so at home over there? Not sure whether I can catch that in a few simple observations, but I’ll give it a try.
The world is quite full of anti-US sentiments these days. Understandably so, if you take the actions of one president to be representative for a whole continent. But let us try to look a bit deeper into this enormous country.
At the start of a workshop I often ask participants to write down their perceptions about the US. What do you think is characteristic for the US? The list always contains the following statements:
- Everything is big
- Superficial: they say something but don’t mean it (“How are you doing today?”)
- People are loud
- They just start doing, without thinking about it first
- The American Dream: everybody can make it to the top
- Hard workers
- Nationalistic and proud
The list often goes on beyond one page. Interesting enough, all these statements are negative (‘superficial’) or we have at least some negative associations with them (‘hard workers’).
Talking to Americans about this list is often an eye-opener for Europeans (we do this in mixed-training groups: share the list with the other culture and now start asking questions to deepen your understanding). You then discover that behind these negatives there are very good positive intentions. Americans live by these positive intentions because of how they have been brought up. Let’s write down some of these positives:
- Everything is big (“Yes, that’s so convenient”)
- Superficial: they say something but don’t mean it (“What’s wrong with being nice?”)
- People are loud (“We believe in what we say!”)
- They just start doing, without thinking about it first (“Efficiency. Let’s move forward”)
- Hierarchical (“This provides clarity and is an efficient way of making decisions”)
- The American Dream: everybody can make it to the top (“Great! That’s democracy!”)
- Hard workers (“What’s wrong with that?”)
- Nationalistic and proud (“We have a great country. We believe in ourselves”)
Coming from a positive angle you suddenly start to appreciate a lot of things about the American culture. Things you won’t see when you continue to look at it through the lens of your own culture. The challenge for the Dutch is not to look at the US culture through Dutch glasses, but through the glasses of a neutral and curious researcher. With these positives in mind, the US becomes a great place where everything is convenient for the customer, people easily get into conversation (“Hey, how are you doing today?”), where people are quick and pragmatic to get things done, and believe the world is make-able: if you want something, you can make it happen. It is this culture where I feel very much at home.
Coming from this positive perspective you suddenly see how the Americans look at the Dutch:
- Everything is small and tiny
- People are cold and distant
- People are shy and overly modest
- They keep talking, without taking action: they make things more difficult than needed
- They don’t respect hierarchy and often are not loyal to their company
- People expect success without working for it
- They are not passionate and lack the drive to succeed: they prefer to go home early
- They are not proud, and often don’t believe in themselves
This now is the list of negatives the Americans write down when talking about the Dutch (or: about W-Europeans). And again, this is a list created through the eyes of an American. When you live according to American values, this is how you would label and perceive the Dutch. But also with this list, we can do the same as before: look at the positive intentions behind each item:
- Everything is small and tiny (“That’s efficient use of space: this is big enough”)
- People are cold and distant (“We don’t brag, and only speak when we have something to say”)
- People are shy and overly modest (“Modesty is a virtue. Again, we don’t brag”)
- They keep talking, without taking action (“Think first, then do”)
- They don’t respect hierarchy (“Everybody can and should speak up. This way you learn and get buy-in”)
- People expect success without working for it (“We have good social security”)
- They are not passionate and lack the drive to succeed (“We value our work-life balance”)
- They are not proud, and often don’t believe in themselves (“Again: modesty is a good thing”)
When working across cultures, we often tend to see others through our own cultural lenses and forget to explore and be curious. The negatives then start to prevail, and we judge the other person in a negative way. Simply because he is not like us.
When forcing yourself to look at the good intentions of people, you start to see the positives of a culture. And when putting yourself in their shoes with these positive intentions, you suddenly see how they will perceive you.
The biggest accomplishment in workshops and training sessions is when people start to see the other culture as ‘just different’, and not as ‘better’ nor ‘worse’ than their own culture. And if people take that away from a cross-cultural workshop, it has been successful.
I came to see and appreciate all these positive things in the US, and I think they fit my personal values, more than my cultural upbringing values.
I just like the US. What’s wrong with that?