Bursting the Bubble

Mingling across the Transatlantic Divide

8 July 2013 | by

All day, every day, I interact with a mixture of Europeans and Americans. There is a consistent flow of new cultural insights, languages buzzing in the corners, and a desire to connect to the ‘others’. The transatlantic relationship is, undeniably, incredibly important to all European and American citizens. Yet most people feel that, despite the ocean between, interacting with the ‘other’ is as simple as interacting with the neighbor next door to your childhood home. And there – the common perception could not be more wrong.

Ask anyone in a multicultural environment, even as close as a Canadian/American situation, and there will be hilarious stories of misunderstandings. Even if two individuals have the same mother tongue, one cannot assume they abide by the same cultural standards. In our field – this makes life more exciting, but it is also dangerous. As we are entering into numerous transatlantic discussions, both on the business front and the political front, a misunderstood hand gesture, food arrangement, saying, or behavior, could slow down the process – frustrating all involved, on both sides. What people do not discuss, is the work which goes behind preventing disgruntled participants, before the discussion even turns to matters of policy or business. In cross-cultural meetings, the little things Do matter. Let’s take a glimpse at some forgotten little things at a simple ‘mingling’ event.

I enter a (hypothetical) room – an American organization went to extreme efforts to put on a great mingling event for US and EU politicians, as well as businessmen. Yet when the event is done, the Americans are on one side of the cloakroom preparing to go home, while the Europeans are on the other side of the room getting ready to go get some food and actually get down to business. What happened? They were all in one room for three hours, there was interaction, but did it get anywhere?

One of the things which is always present at these events is food. However, while the Americans are relishing in the finger foods available, such as fried cheese and hamburger sliders, the Europeans are, typically, trying to maintain their manners concerning eating – therefore many opt for just having a drink in hand instead of the American, who is indulging in finger food delights. Also a factor is that Europeans may not enjoy these types of foods to the same extent, furthering the food imbalance. This can also go the opposite way, at another event, where the food available may be pickled herring on Scandinavian rye bread, something that an American may not know what to do with. In such an instance, the tables would be reversed and the Americans will be standing there with only a drink in hand, while the Europeans are indulging in the food. And when it comes to drinks – beware, because some of your participants, depending on their area of origin, may not be able to think unless at least one cup of good quality coffee is consumed, while others may not really be open to strangers without some type of alcohol.

In this profession, most are acquainted with the stereotypes of ‘fortress Europe’ or the ‘American Bulldozer’. We could simply tell people – Don’t judge a book by its cover – but what if the cover actually is based on the contents. I, myself, have been told that I occasionally bulldoze, or negotiate more aggressively. And I, myself, have witnessed Europeans grouping with people originating from the same area, speaking that language, and seemingly fortifying themselves against any, only English-speaking, American encounters. Such cultural differences can be explained, at least in part, when you look at the intercultural work of academics such as Hofstede and Trompenaars. In order to avoid this, one must set up a framework for the event, which mitigates the impact of such behaviors.

In the situation I gave, the Americans typically make ‘the rounds’, going around the room and chit chatting with almost everyone present and collecting business cards. The Europeans are more likely to concentrate their efforts. If they found someone they know to be a good contact they concentrate on that individual for a longer period of time, setting a solid foundation for further interactions. Talking to European colleagues, we Americans are notorious for a ‘hey, how are you doing?’, whilst already moving on to say the same to another person. Though unconsciously done, this habit alone is notorious for quickly creating a divide in the room. To establish a relationship, or contact, with a European, many Americans feel uncomfortable with the sheer amount of time spent, particularly considering that there is a short time frame on the event.

At the end of the event, the Americans, with a handful of business cards, and a hand well-worn from shaking, are ready to call it a day/night. Meanwhile across the room divide, the European are just getting comfortable with their new-found acquaintances, and are thinking to head some place to enjoy some actual food or drinks together, furthering the potential benefits of a future relationship. Yes, relations were developed, but were these truly long-term transatlantic relations?

Obviously, these are possible stereotypes which occur, not guaranteed behaviors. It is the job of the facilitator to break down some of these room dividers, making it so that at the end of the event, there are mixed groups that have established those ever important transatlantic relations.  In order to do that, the above ‘little things’ must all be accounted for, and every selection made for the event – from the invite list, to the food, to the room setup – must be strategized to mitigate the blatant appearance of cultural differences. When facilitating transatlantic relations, one must remember that it is not necessarily the number of business cards people leave with which matters, but the number of meetings that have been arranged to follow your event, between a mix of Europeans and Americans.

What do you think?