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What Brits and Americans actually mean in workplace conversations

While Americans used words such as hard-working, competitive, ambitious, and driven to describe themselves, Brits see Americans in the workplace as loud, confident, arrogant, and brash, a new study into communication differences at work has found.

Similarly, Brits described themselves more favorably, using words such as easy going, friendly, and helpful, while Americans described them as hard-working and polite, but stuffy and passive-aggressive.

The study, carried out by telecommunication experts TollFreeForwarding.com, surveyed 1,000 British workers and 1,000 American workers to identify differences in workplace communications and perceptions between the countries.

The study found that Brits at work are more likely to take casual communication negatively. Only one in five (20%) people in the UK see the statement “let’s do lunch soon” as a positive, compared to almost half (48%) of Americans. Similarly, most Americans (59%) use “I hear what you’re saying” as a positive communication, while only three in ten (30%) Brits agreed this was a positive. Over half (55%) of Americans would use the phrase “that’s not bad” to mean something is good. In contrast, only 39% of Brits agreed and one in five (20%) said they would actually be using “that’s not bad” as a negative communication at work.

There were also differences between the US and the UK in what we say and what we really mean. Three in four (76%) Americans would hear “that’s an interesting idea” at work and think they were being told the idea is impressive, when 32% of Brits would actually be suggesting the idea is “ridiculous”.

When asked what the hardest part of working with their international colleagues was, respondents from both the US and UK agreed it was gossiping. However, when asked how acceptable they find gossiping in the workplace, it was revealed Brits are twice as likely to gossip – 24% of those in the UK think gossiping at work is acceptable, compared to only 12% of those in the US.

Jamie Gelbtuch, founder of New York based company, Cultural Mixology, explained these cultural differences between the US and UK: “US culture values frankness and honesty in communication. Being honest and direct in this way is highly appreciated, considered constructive, and emphasizes practicality and optimism, two important cultural values.

The British, on the other hand, have mastered the art of toned down, nuanced, and understated communication. The word “rather” may be used to lessen the effect of a negative statement. For example, “The conference was rather disorganized” likely means it was chaotic. Similarly, “quite” is often used when you don’t want to say something negative. So, “The food was quite good” may mean it could have been much better! Don’t necessarily take a statement at face value.”

Jason O’Brien, COO of TollFreeForwarding.com said of the findings: “As a workplace focused on international telecommunications, we were interested in the differences between how we communicate in the UK and US. It’s clear there are differences between Americans and Brits, with Americans more likely to take statements literally and positively while British workers see more of the negative subtext in communications.”

“The differences in how we see ourselves and how others perceive us show that, although we speak the same language, the subtle nuances when it comes to culture and communication can affect working relationships between the UK and the US. A vital part of business is learning how to effectively communicate with people across the world. This study highlights the need for clear, consistent, and professional communication in the workplace so that what we say to our colleagues is taken in the way it is intended.”

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