While the USA and Australia may share a common language, understanding subtle differences between the two cultures is essential for forming successful business relationships.
Australia and the USA have many things in common, some obvious, some more subtle. Both are large land masses, both predominantly English speaking, both with an ancient native population, both relatively recently settled by European cultures. Both are democracies and both are meritocracies. Both cultures tend to be fairly materialistic and both tend to be open to new ideas and risk in business. Australians, like Americans, are hard-working and results-orientated.
So far, so similar. But there are also big differences between the two cultures. Not necessarily in a negative way – but differences that should be observed by anybody hoping to do business.
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Here are 14 cultural differences between the USA and Australia:
1. Understand ‘tall poppy syndrome’
Perhaps the biggest cultural difference between the two nations is ‘tall poppy syndrome’. In the USA, standing out and making oneself heard is important. In Australia, what is seen as attention-seeking behavior is quickly shot down. This is partly a throwback to the British roots of many Australians, but it affects the way individuals present themselves – and the way they judge others.
Understanding this culture is important when selling to Australians or Americans. Australians may use humor and come across as self-deprecating. Americans value showmanship and a convincing sell, which Australians may regard with skepticism. Both cultures, though, value a professional and slick presentation.
2. Build trust
Building trust is important when working with Australians, while Americans tend to be less focused on business relationships. Australians are quick to spot a person they regard as ‘phony’. Americans, on the other hand, are more task oriented and happy to look at the bottom line first.
3. Appreciate the humor
Australians can have a dry and perverse sense of humor and will often deliberately say the exact opposite of what they actually mean. Americans, on the other hand, have a very explicit communication style and irony can fall flat on its face. Each side should bear these differences in mind.
4. Understand attitudes to time
Australians come across as relaxed. They are prepared to wait for things to happen. There is often an attitude that everything will be OK in the end, although in reality, many Australian executives do work under considerable time pressure. In the USA, where time equals money and people are judged on results, there is almost always a sense of urgency to make a fast profit. Speed is integral to American culture, in which people fill their lives with labor-saving devices, fast food, 24-hour gyms and information on-the-go. Americans should not, however, confuse the seemingly casual approach of Australian colleagues with a lack of professionalism.
5. Consider each culture’s world view
Australians tend to be more outward-looking than Americans. More than one third of the population was born abroad, as opposed to one in six Americans. Travel is regarded as a rite of passage; it’s a given that young people will venture overseas, while Americans tend to stay closer to home or explore their own country. Australians arguably have a greater world view than Americans. This is not in any way to say that Americans are xenophobic – but many people have limited experience of travel abroad. Other cultures and languages are simply alien to them and may make them feel uncomfortable.
6. Understand the cultural role of immigrants
Both countries have been shaped by waves of immigration, although from different origins. In parts of the USA, such as south Florida, more Spanish is spoken than English and the culture is far more Hispanic than what many would regard as ‘American’. In Australia, recent waves of immigrants from China and other Asian countries are making an impact and Chinese cultural issues will often need to be considered when doing business there.
7. Learn the meaning of colloquialisms
Australians are great lovers of abbreviation and informality in speech; much more so than Americans. Learn the meaning of colloquialisms; Australians shorten words wherever possible and some regional accents, combined with this, can make people difficult to understand at first. Using language like ‘gday’ and ‘mate’ can sound strange coming from an American recently arrived in Australia on business. On the other hand, an Australian trying to embrace American sporting analogies or business jargon in the USA can sound equally out of place.
8. Embrace the idea of fair play
Australians have a strong sense of fair play. Criticizing the competition is regarded as bad form in business. Americans, on the other hand, tend to be much more open in terms of running down competitors, which can offend this Australian sense of fairness.
9. Consider service and motivation
In Australia, the minimum wage is higher than in most US states and the tipping culture, as such, is practically non-existent. Americans, on the other hand, are big tippers. Without the incentive of tips, Australians in service industries may seem particularly laid back to typically impatient American visitors.
10. Appreciate how loyalty is driven
Australians believe firmly in ‘mateship’, showing loyalty to friends, family and colleagues. Australians working in teams may be more loyal to the team than to their employer. Americans, on the other hand, may be more loyal to the concept of performance and profit and for many, covering their own back, in a culture where hiring and firing can be extremely rapid.
11. Put authority in context
Despite the typically flat structures in American companies, decisions are still often made from the top with the decision-maker taking responsibility for the outcome. As such, there is a respect for authority. Australians, on the other hand, tend to be naturally skeptical and often demonstrate an ingrained suspicion of authority. Decisions tend to be made by consensus.
12. Build relationships effectively
Business is personal to an extent in Australia, with people preferring to do business with ‘mates’, while in the USA, relationships are based more on profit and getting the job done. But Australia is a meritocracy and the ‘old boy network’ that drives business in Britain, from where many Australians originate, is virtually absent.
13. Think before you speak
Communication style in Australia is direct and often blunt and to an American, may sometimes come across as politically incorrect. This hard-talking is not a sign of aggression. Australians visiting the USA should be aware of the importance of cultural sensitivity; even the most innocent remark can be interpreted the wrong way, which can damage a relationship severely.
14. Save face
For all their directness, Australians do have a strong sense of face and do not appreciate criticism in front of their peers. Leaders in the USA often deliver criticism freely in the workplace, which would cause awkwardness in Australia, all the more so with the growing number of Asian workers doing business there.
WRITTEN BY SUE BRYANT
Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.
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