Thursday, 20 November 2014

Two nations divided by a common language

The UK-USA relationship is often described as a 'special one' (from the eastern side of the Atlantic in any case), perhaps a function of historical cultural links, high profile political co-operation which manifests often in the all to frequent civil and regional conflicts and a common shared language.  In the study of management an Anglo-Saxon model is often used to describe the pro-competition, small government, individualistic approach that might reasonably describe both Great Britain and America, that is different to the socio-democratic model of high tax, big government, benevolent societal orientation found in many European mainland states.  My son rather amazed me recently by talking about theocratic and dictatorial leaderships that are often implicitly over looked in a rather blinkered 'democracy is best' western orientation perspective I often adopt subconsciously.  (I used easternisation to try to capture the idea of Asian demographic and economic development and the relentless but gradual world power shift that engulfs us this week, which is not recognised in my electronic dictionary, unlike westernisation.)  
Cultural Gaffe 'Ooooh !'

When blue passport carrying American citizens are prized kidnap victims, used horrifically as power pawns to counter the US military might, British subjects are next up in the queue.  However culturally, the transatlantic alliance is sometimes described using the well known refrain "Two nations divided by a common language" to highlight that whilst rudimentary communication is straightforward, there are highly complex and nuanced differences between the nationalities.   One of the more obvious examples is the the Webster inspired Simplified Spelling Board of 1906 seeing American English shed a number of illogical (no longer relevant ?) spelling conventions that my Apple dictonary picks up on quite regularly, e.g. colour/color, programme/program and the s/z seen in analyse/analyse.     Another being the red/blue colours representing the main political parties, with the socialist leaning UK Labour party using red whilst the US sort of equivalent Democrats use blue.  My pet hate currently is the stateside expression 'to reach out' which has begun to permeate UK business jargon, meaning to contact, call, speak with, not the literal arm extension idea that is invoked in my mind.

I often think Brits (along with a number of other nations) have a bit of a chip on their shoulder when it comes to Americans.  It cannot be down to the hapless red coated army getting ambushed by American independence movement over taxation, representation and salt water tea, this was too long ago.  Possibly the hit ITV drama series Downton Abbey (part of the Xmas special was filmed at Royal Holloway) sheds some light on this, as the wealthy English upper class, who inherited their money and position, look down on the 'self made' Americans who demonstrated dynamic business skills in a fast growing and innovative marketplace that led to the Pax Americana period.  Of course, with Pax Sinosa now beginning, it will be interesting to see how this era unfurls.  Other cultural cousin tensions exist, England vs. Scotland, Ireland & to some extent Wales, US and Canada, Australia and New Zealand and Taiwan vs. China.

Andrew in full flow

This year I have had quite a bit of fun conversing with MBA student Andrew Arnold, who having grown up in an English family living in NYC, was used to some of the nuances. He said, when he started applying for jobs after undergrad, the US titles for graduate positions would use program, instead scheme like in the UK. Problems like Ponzi schemes and pyramid schemes gave the word a negative connotation in the US, forcing a change in the lexicon for titling positions. Other little business changes, like real estate brokers being called estate agents, or lawyers being called solicitors, make a seemingly similar world different. Of course, he describes the least consistent piece to be idioms, having had many instances in both countries where people just looked at him funny for saying something that he thought made perfect sense.

That said, Andrew found the Americans more affable, where as the British have been more reserved. Friendly almost to the point of superficiality, and outspoken, the American’s bring a piece of their culture into the business world. This can clash slightly with the aloof nature of the British, who seem somewhat taken aback by strangers asking them how they are doing and commanding them to have a nice day. Apparently there are more differences than which side of the road one drives on and senses of humour.

Thanks to Andrew for his perspectives here.