Mind the (culture) Gap!

Apr 07 2005 by Steve Huxham Print This Article

Dzień dobry!

Not perhaps the first words that might spring to the lips of London bus users at present, but apparently this is all set to change, at least for those commuters who might still have time for a friendly greeting in Polish (pronounced roughly as “jen do-bree”) to the influx of new drivers that we are apparently set to receive in the capital.

The Polish bus drivers seem set to become just the latest set of arrivals in the UK from another culture to “plug” a particular skill shortage of ours.

There have been numerous other examples in the past, perhaps most notably within the NHS, but in this case, according to this story recently reported in the Financial Times, major efforts appear to have been made in advance to lessen the “culture shock” – the drivers have apparently been receiving English lessons well in advance of their arrival and matters of accommodation seen to have been arranged to make the transition as smooth as possible.

Some areas of course need less preparation – one driver was quoted as having “years of experience on Warsaw's pot-holed and traffic-clogged streets.” Oh well, he’ll no doubt feel quite at home here in two respects then...

But is it easier to use foresight and careful planning to ensure that individuals can succeed and thrive in cultures that are vastly different from what they are accustomed to, and in fact harder where the cultures are, ostensibly at least, similar?

In the former case, people can, with effort (and talent and commitment of course) clearly succeed in a culture entirely different from their origins – naturally I would refer any further questions on that topic to Sir Howard Stringer, the British born recently appointed new Chairman and CEO of Sony, and the first foreigner (and non-Japanese speaker) to take that role.

Cross-cultural issues seem to perennially dog some aspects of Anglo-American relations; issues which work in both directions over the pond
In contrast recent business history is littered with examples of two arguably close cultures failing to, quite literally, bridge the Atlantic.

I refer of course to the cross-cultural issues that seem to perennially dog some aspects of Anglo-American relations; issues which work in both directions over the “pond.”

It is almost impossible to write an article on the topic without sooner or later returning to about the most famous quote on the subject, so I for one will not wait a moment longer but hand immediately over to George Bernard Shaw:

“England and America are two countries divided by a common language.”

Sadly, that’s about the only example of Shavian wit you are likely to see in this or any other of these articles. However, the observation still seems to hold as good today as when it was first written, although the ironies of the closeness of our cultures and interwoven histories still make it a puzzle as to why this continues to happen – to use just two examples of that irony: our most famous leader of recent times, Churchill, had an American mother (who herself was born in Brooklyn, no less!) of course, and the most famous American entertainer of the last century, Bob Hope, in fact hailed from Eltham originally!

So why do we still struggle to understand each other sometimes? Why do we still see some examples of US businesses setting up in the UK, (and vice versa of course), sending their hotshots over to run the new subsidiaries or offshoots and then finding it hard to understand why they struggle to attract or retain staff, why they don’t achieve the results they anticipated, and why in some unfortunate cases they eventually end up beating a sorry retreat “home”?

In contrast, why do other businesses seem to avoid all these pitfalls entirely? What really makes the difference?

Perhaps it all comes down in the end to just one word.


There is a lovely old saying, much used in Sales training, which runs along the lines of: “To assume makes an ASS out of U and ME.”

Perhaps in that little phrase lies the nub of the problems that arise with US/UK cross-cultural issues. Because our cultures are close we make the assumption that we “know” each other, in a way of course that we would never have done with those Polish bus drivers for example.

So, where does the answer to this challenge lie? Of course there is no easy one, although simply being aware of the dangers of assumption is a good start. However, a brief allegory from the world of DIY and home decoration might help, strange though that may seem!

Home styling “experts” often suggest that if at all possible, anyone moving to a new home should avoid the sometimes overwhelming temptation to immediately re-decorate everything, embark on radical house surgery or alterations and simply spend the first six months absorbing the “feel” of the place.

Changes made after that period of assimilation are more likely to be more lasting, sympathetic and appropriate than the “instant fix.” I am sure that I do not need to underline any further the parallels with cultural assimilation…

On that note, we reach the end of our journey for this month, and so it is time to say goodbye – or of course more aptly if you are stepping off that London bus - “do widzenia” (pronounce “dough wid zen ya” please…)


About The Author

Steve Huxham
Steve Huxham

Steve Huxham is a senior recruitment professional with nearly nineteen years experience, first becoming a Director of a leading accountancy and City recruitment practice at the age of 29.