14 Apr 2016 17:13 IST

Tweak your style to match the continent

Whether it is the UK or the US, small nuances matter, and we Indians can easily learn this

The UK and the US are India’s valued business allies, and as managers, we find ourselves interacting with people from both nations. While India’s comfort with English is a definite plus, the fact is, though UK and the US have English in common, they have distinct ‘personalities’.

Just recently, I received two visitors whom I have known for nearly two decades. They are relocating expats-turned-business partners and lifetime friends. Margaret is American and Suzanne, British.

One headed Y2K for Continental Airlines. She speaks the IT jargon and manages teams in India, while the other speaks the Queen’s English, is a leader in the book publishing industry, and interacts regularly with Indians.

I asked myself what makes us all similar, and found at least 90 similarities. Then I asked myself what makes the US and the UK different, and I found a few dissimilarities as well.

This article will be about the subtle differences in behaviour, the knowledge of which will strengthen business relationships when dealing with people from the two places.

The naming game

The British are formal; they like to keep their distance. This has been passed on to us Indians to some extent, and we’ve added our own emphasis on respect and hierarchy. This has resulted in us being formal in our interactions with business colleagues — we address them as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ and feel uncomfortable doing otherwise.

In the UK, you have to wait for an invitation to use a person’s first name. But the Americans seem almost irritated by this stress on formality, and prefer being casual. They’ll greet you with a “Hi there”, introduce themselves by their first names, and start calling you by yours, or even an abbreviation.

To err on the side of caution with business acquaintances, always start with Mr or Ms and the last name; when they sign off with their first names and address you by yours, do likewise.

Business interactions

In the US, while things are usually pretty direct, disagreeing with your boss is done respectfully and indirectly. In the UK, on the other hand, it can be pretty direct. I have heard “I really don’t think that would work,” in the UK. In the US, it is more, “That is one approach I guess, but how about if we did this instead?”

Job titles: Next is job titles. In the UK, titles are few and self-explanatory. You’ll be able to figure out easily what a person’s responsibilities are and how high he is in the pecking order by looking at his designation.

Job titles in the US may be a bit confusing. For instance, an HR manager may be called people manager, and a finance manager could be known as ‘swaps and deals manager’. Also, a job title doesn’t automatically indicate importance. A US bank could have many vice-presidents, but that isn’t the case in the UK. If you’re to meet the vice-president of a British firm, you can be sure of meeting someone at a high position!

Business cards: These are important in both the US and the UK. Cards are exchanged early on at meetings. An American may even place all the participants’ cards in front of him so that he can connect names and faces to positions.

He might also jot memos to himself at the back of your card, to help him remember you. Ensure your cards are clean and in good condition. Americans won’t hesitate to tell you if they aren’t. “You seem to have egg on your card,” an American said to me once. I had placed it in my purse along with a kumkum packet from a temple, which had lightly stained it. I invested in a cardholder that day!

As for meetings itself, a typical American business meet will last for only about a half-an-hour, or 45 minutes, at the most. But if you’re going for a meeting with the British, be prepared to sit in for an hour or so.

Writing styles: The two countries have different business writing styles. Americans are big on small — they prefer short, clear bullet points (even in e-mails). They attach value to numbers and statistics. A favourite saying in the US is, ‘You can’t manage what you can’t measure’. Spreadsheets and checklists are much appreciated by the process-oriented US businessman. However, the British may use longer, prosy introductions, followed by key points. Tweak your style to suit the continent and you’re sure to be a hit.

Jokes and small talk

At meetings with people from the UK or the US, you’ll encounter jokes. The British are known for self-deprecating humour, while Americans use direct humour for breaking ice. Play along with them.

But when it’s your turn to crack a joke, remember, there may be representatives of diverse backgrounds present; you don’t want to offend anyone. “Oh, I’ll save that for my second wife,” an Indian colleague had said when he was asked if he would like to go shopping for a faux mink scarf in Russia. It turned out the speaker was a second wife, and sensitive about it.

The British may be well informed on India given our historic ties, but I have heard that only 35 per cent Americans have passports. So they may not be very aware of the world outside America. In the course of small talk, don’t be surprised if you’re asked to explain something you think they ought to know about your country.

Dining etiquette

And to round it off with a meal — it is harder for us Indians to eat in the UK than in the US.

In the UK, you eat only Continental style, which means fork in the left hand, pointing down, and knife in the right hand, throughout the meal, even if you’re eating peas or rice. The American style allows the fork to be transferred to the right hand and be used like a spoon. The knife can be in rest position once you’ve cut your food.

So whether it is Margaret or Suzanne, UK or the US, small nuances matter, and we Indians can easily learn this.