Katarina Holm-DiDio, President and Founder of KHD Consulting International based in New Jersey USA.
Katarina grew up in Kokkola, moved to the US in her youth and now works with expatriates moving to the US and those in business working with Americans and with global careers.
As a Finn who has lived in the US for 17 years and who works with expats and global staff of multinational organizations, I help clients navigate the world of work and business across cultures. Our exploration of cultures begins with naming common stereotypes and then putting them aside to explore a deeper understanding of the local culture.
Here are a couple of what I call cultural misunderstandings about Americans.
#1 Americans are mainly motivated by money and love to talk about how much money they make
You might recall the quote ‘Show me the Money’ from the movie, Jerry McGuire (1996). The quote has come to symbolize the negative stereotypes of Americans valuing money and consumerism, especially now as we hear stories of “Black Friday Mayhem” when people literally kill each other for a good deal during the holidays. These extreme behaviors and cultural exaggerations make for excellent entertainment.
However, there are equally strong or even stronger opposite American values such as community, volunteerism and generosity. You are more likely to find this “generosity of spirit” in small town middle class America where neighbors help each other and those less fortunate.
Here’s a real life story to illustrate my point:
A group of local young Au Pairs (a cultural exchange program placing young people from around the world with American families to help with childcare while learning about the US culture and society) whom I know were in a restaurant when an American woman engages in a short 15-minute conversation with them.
She leaves and bids them farewell. After she has left the restaurant the waiter approaches the young Germans telling them that the woman paid for their dinner. A spontaneous act of generosity and inclusiveness. How likely is that to happen in small town Finland?
In the US the non-profit and volunteer sector is huge compared to Finland and the EU. Children learn the importance of helping those less fortunate through community service, for example at the local Food Bank or Children’s Hospital. Activities arranged through school
Finally, Americans overall don’t walk around talking about how much money they have or make. Another very common stereotype.
In a country where individuals are mostly responsible for their retirement savings, college is expensive and health care too, and there really is no job security, making money and keeping a job becomes instrumental. So yes, Americans might be more money focused than most Nordics because they do not have a generous welfare state to rely upon for subsidized education, healthcare and unemployment. But values such as volunteerism, family, hard-work, individual freedom and optimism are the backbone and heart of America.
#2 Americans are very direct and forward in their ways…
Americans are often perceived by others as loving to talk about themselves, they also speak with a loud voice and are demanding. While there is some truth to the stereotype Americans overall are not that self-obsessed and somewhat indirect in their interactions, especially if they have to deliver difficult news or negative feedback.
For example, the American way to give feedback is very different from perhaps the German, Dutch or Finnish ways. American managers are taught to use the sandwich method, and it is not a Finnish single-layer sandwich with a slice of cheese, some ham and maybe a tomato. It’s a thick double-decker American filled-to-flowing-over sandwich that you should have in mind.
They will first tell you what you are doing well, to make both of you feel better about the perhaps awkward situation. Once they have set a friendly atmosphere they will tell you what you can do better and then wrap it all up with discussing how you can improve and setting goals.
I’ve had German and Dutch managers ask me “Why can’t Americans just get to the point? Say what they mean?” Like we do! Because it is considered rude to be too direct with negative feedback and not constructive.
…and love talking about themselves
American children are raised to stand up for their opinions and views. Already in nursery school they have “show-and-tell” time when a three-year old is encouraged to bring in a favorite toy, stand in front of his friends during “circle time” to show and tell her friends why she loves this particular toy and why it is special for her. Giving presentations, developing strong communication and team working skills are also valued.
This means that most Americans feel comfortable expressing their opinions and sharing their experiences and successes with you. But the stereotypical confrontative, loud and demanding American (business) man you see in Hollywood movies is an extreme portrayal of a cultural characteristic to be assertive. So as a direct Finn interacting with Americans you may wish to add some compliments to your communication strategy and remember to ask some personal question too. To create a connection and trust on a deeper level which will help you in business.
Next time you meet an American, ask him or her what’s important in his life and what she enjoys doing most. You might be in for a surprise.