Cultural Odyssey #1

Irish dramatist, George Bernard Shaw famously said ‘England and America are two countries separated by a common language.’ I often get asked what it’s like being a Brit working here in San Francisco. The truth is there are more similarities than differences and the transition was much easier than relocating to France where I lived in the early nineties. Business mores are increasingly global and fundamentally it’s easy for Americans to work in the UK and vice versa.

But a common language can fool you into thinking that everything is the same. In France, speaking French was a constant reminder that I was living abroad and had to keep my cultural ‘radar’ on. Here I have to focus on it more.

So I thought I’d share the odd difference as they strike me. It’s a bit off topic for PR, so I’ll try to make them fun or unusual. Just this week, I learned a new cultural wrinkle which has completely escaped me and probably meant I’ve inadvertently been offending people for years.

Last weekend my neighbors had a mixer to introduce some of their social circle to each other. It was a broad mix of architects, designers, marketing types, folk from VC firms and private equity houses. Great food, delicious wine, sharp conversation – basically a good way to spend the afternoon. They’d gone to a lot of effort and it showed. We thanked them when we left amid offers to reciprocate.

Next day I came home from work to find a personal note slipped under the door. It was my neighbor thanking me for coming to his house and spending time with him and his friends. I was mortified. In the UK, it’s customary for the guest to send the thank-you note to the host. But my neighbor had beaten me to it. How ungrateful I seemed.

But I’ve since learned that unlike the UK, it’s the host who sends out the thank-you notes following a party. In the UK, it’s the reverse – it’s the guest who thanks the host for their kind hospitality and for going to all that effort. The social norms are completely opposite.

So to all those I’ve had round for dinner, a very belated thank you for coming. I’m sorry I didn’t thank you at the time. You can chalk it up to my uncouth foreign ways.

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