Standing in line (sorry, ‘queuing’) at the Post Office a few weeks back, I realized I’d made an error in filling out a shipping form. At the desk I asked the clerk if I’d need to start again. He responded, “Don’t worry, Americans always make that mistake”.
“All Americans?” I asked incredulously, “Or just the ones from the US?”
Admittedly, the Post Office clerk is far from alone in using ‘America’ as shorthand; the online visa forms for Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, for instance, give no other option for citizens of the USA. There is, of course, the small matter of the multiple countries, north and south of my own, that have every right to call themselves ‘American’.
But even if the word ‘America’ was interchangeable with ‘United States’ the term
seems to mean everything and nothing, all at the same time.
So what makes an ‘American’? Increasingly, I realize that for many it’s not just about a passport. There is a certain expectation, numerous stereotypes, both positive and negative, but rarely neutral. One place where assumptions of ‘American-ness’, for lack of a better term, becomes apparent is in the world of global or international business.
As a Yank working in the U.K., I am often called upon to provide ‘cheery, sunny side up optimism’ and a ‘can-do attitude’. Now, there are elements of this that ring true for me – I tend to think I can do anything so long as I try hard enough. This usually means I press on despite the very real constraints imposed by things like sleep. I take on too much, as a matter of habit. However, I’ve also been called – lovingly – a ‘bad American’, for my stance on politics, economics, and most social issues, as well as my well-travelled passport, something only approximately 42% of US citizens have.
So you can understand my confusion – am I ‘American’, or am I not? Having now lived and worked in Morocco, China, Burundi, South Sudan, Lebanon, France, the U.K. and Myanmar, so far as I can tell, there are a few working characteristics that are seen as decidedly ‘American’:
There is something in this, notwithstanding that most ‘Americans’ that the rest of the world gets to know are those ex-pats who want to ‘get out’ and see the world, and so are likely to be more ambitious and demanding of themselves than their stay-at-home compatriots.
Whenever I do business in the U.K., I find myself shocked by how little Brits actually work. There is, of course, an argument for work-life balance that I appreciate, but I simply don’t understand how an office can empty by 5pm, when workers don’t arrive until 9am, and still hope to grow into something meaningful.
This is not to celebrate such behavior – as I said, there is a real argument to be made for working sane hours. The point is only that ‘Americans’ have a strong culture of working long hours, even to the point that we regularly lie about it. However, it is still clear that Americans work longer hours, more weekends, take fewer vacations, and retire later, than any other country in the world.
So we are indeed a nation of workaholics and we export this behavior when we work around the world. This, I believe, is largely the basis of the seemingly global stereotype of ‘Americans’ as hard workers. (That, the Founding Fathers’ protestant work ethic and the absence of any meaningful social security ‘safety net’.)
But this, however, does not mean we are always more productive workers, and this is something to take into consideration when encouraging employees to demonstrate the same work ethic amongst employees or celebrating the dedication ‘American’ workers seem to have to their jobs.
‘Americans’ do not like inefficiency. Bureaucracy of any kind makes us steam at the collar, and in fact we find this increasingly irksome when it comes to corporate bureaucracy. In fact, if you want to understand ‘American’ politics and the clear hesitancy to increase taxes in order to pay for more government-provided services, you have to understand that ‘Americans’ see the government as inherently inefficient – they would rather pay more for an efficient service than wait for a ‘free’ one.
In the office, ‘American’ workers are often heard talking about streamlining processes, and they have a reputation around the world for being the ‘go-to’ for getting complicated projects done quickly.
However, global business statistics suggest that this might largely be an undeserved stereotype; the nation of most efficient workers is probably Germany, though that likely comes as no surprise, followed by France – despite many persistently held English and ‘American’ stereotypes to the contrary. As such, it is perhaps more interesting to ask why ‘Americans’ have this undeserved reputation.
In part, I’d argue, it’s a reflection of the assumption that people who work a lot work well. More significantly, it’s probably related to the favorable exchange rates Europe and the U.K. have enjoyed for many years. Hiring an ‘American’ firm has often been cost effective, particularly where invoicing is based on deliverable versus billed time.
This is important to keep in mind when thinking about implementing processes to improve business efficiency – ‘American’ models might not be the best.
I want to put something to rest right now – ‘Americans’ are not ‘fake’ or disingenuous with their niceness. I hear all the time that we are artificial in our bubbly congeniality. As a person who suffers from RBF I don’t often get accused of this particular quality, but I nonetheless hear about it often from people complaining about ‘Americans’ in our office, business, or social group.
The truth is that ‘Americans’ believe that niceness is a quality that everyone deserves to benefit from – until they don’t. Put another way, we begin from a place of genuine trust and openness, and then adjust our levels of both in relation to the treatment we receive in return. This confuses many people because they expect to go the other way – you like and trust someone more the longer you get to know them. We like you when we first meet you, because we assume you are a good and trustworthy person – call it ‘frontier mentality’ and you’ll quickly see how much of this is shared with our cousins down under. If you respond by being guarded or condescending, we will silently withdraw our trust whilst remaining as friendly as proximity requires. There is no reason to make enemies if you don’t need to – you never know when you will need that person as an ally.
This sometimes means that people find ‘Americans’ shockingly Machiavellian when a friendly face turns down your pitch. Our niceness is as much cultural as it is strategic – it’s not fake and it’s not pathological, whatever you’ve heard.
When it comes to business, it’s important to remember that your ‘American’ staff are likely very naturally good at business development – whether they like it or not. However, you may find that they are perceived as overpromising. Niceness can be understood by many as a sign that the deal is done, when in reality, for an ‘American’ its just a matter of following protocol. Never assume you’ve won the work, and never forget that kindness is not a sign of weakness. If you can’t deliver, or if you yourself aren’t very likeable, they will turn you down – with a smile on their faces.
Perhaps the key point, above all others, to bear in mind is that the United States is huge, and monumentally diverse. We are not all the same. The three qualities I’ve given you here I’ve both embraced when it’s convenient and shirked when it’s not. That’s the thing – ‘America’ is a dream, and so too is anything one might call ‘American’. And any dream is a reflection of the person having it.
As such, perhaps the more interesting question for international businesses and business leaders is, “what is your American dream”? Your definition of ‘American-ness’ is a statement of aspiration or self-fashioning in so much as it is an articulation of the elements of your work or business culture you find limiting.
In asking ‘what makes an ‘American’, you end up learning a lot more about yourself and your business than you do about ‘America’. Wherever that is.
Melyn McKay is a cultural anthropologist and a partner with advisory firm, Monticello LLP.