Tag Archives: Europe

European America Bashing Going Out of Vogue?

USA world dominationIn most of the countries I’ve lived in (including the United States), there is always a group of people that is hellbent on some quality America-bashing.  America’s global policing, its economic bullying, it’s worldwide export of popculture, George W. Bush – the list seems endless when it comes to beef with the United States.  Before living in the US, I would gladly participate in these bashing sessions.  It just felt right somehow –  a way to get back at the country equivalent of the chubby playground bully with too many toys.

After moving to the the United States for college, my views started to change.  Part of it was having American friends.  Instead of seeing America as summed up in the ideology of a certain political leader, I saw real people.  While l thought of Bush’s post 9/11 foreign policy in the Middle East as sheer lunacy, I was able to separate my thoughts on this very polarizing leader from the many conversations that I had enjoyed with American friends of mine that seemed very balanced in their views regarding America and its place in the world.

As I began to identify myself more and more closely with the United States, a sense of loyalty to my adopted country emerged and I caught myself defending the United States abroad.  When fellow Europeans would point out the death penalty and the huge economic disparities in America as evidence that the United States was a backward playground for cowboys, I would counter with the fact that huge parts of the American population are very vocal in their opposition to these very same things.

In a May 13, 2007 article from The Washington Post titled “4 Myths About America-Bashing in Europe”, William Drozdiak talks about what he calls the “love-hate melange” between Europe and the United States.  He asks: “Why has U.S. stature in the world eroded?  Opinion polls cite widespread dismay with the Iraq war, our dog-eat-dog social model and the arrogance of an imperial superpower that places itself above international law.”  Despite all this, Drozdiak claims that there is a “reservoir of goodwill waiting to be tapped among foreigners who would prefer to see the United States succeed rather than fail.”

He makes the point that European political leaders are actually fairly pro-American.  France’s Sarkozy is very supportive of the United States.  Angela Merkel in Germany has made a number of high-profile visits to America. Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and the current PM Gordon Brown are both good friends of the US.  Also, especially young Europeans seem to want to study and work in the US.

As for social models, Europe is learning the pitfalls of running welfare states and is looking to the United States for ideas on possible reforms.  Of course, American popculture is all the rage.  Finally, Europe is not limited to liking only American Democrats.  Although most hated George W. Bush, nobody wants flimsiness in foreign policy à la Clinton’s early 90s policy that allowed the Balkan attrocities to take place more or less unchecked.

Since Drozdiak’s 2007 article and despite the ongoing strife in the Middle East, Barack Obama’s outreach to this part of the world does not go unnoticed in Europe.  Obama’s diplomatic overtures won him the Nobel Peace Prize.  The dramatic facelift he has given the United States in terms of international diplomacy and goodwill has made this one of the easiest times to travel as an American in Europe for decades.  So there’s hope for a warming of relations in the next decade.  Especially if baby boomer American tourists leave their ghastly white sneakers stateside when they hop the pond.

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Bjorn Karlman

Straight Talk: Sin or Virtue?

Lips zipper 2I had been away from Asia for several years when I returned on a business trip in 2004. By my second or third meeting in Bangkok, it was clear that “getting down to business”, “straight talk” and a Western “no-nonsense” approach to negotiations were not going to fly. Meetings started with a shockingly robust round of pleasantries by American business standards. In fact, it seemed that the actual “business” portion of the meeting was limited to very brief statements, sandwiched between a prolonged inquiry into how my colleague and I were enjoying Thailand at the start of the meeting, and another succession of questions and suggestions at the end as we covered how best to entertain ourselves in Thailand for the rest of the trip. My host did a superb job of making sure everyone felt at ease and there was a sense of harmony to the meeting that I had rarely witnessed in the Western “cut-to-the-chase” business etiquette that I was used to.

I can’t say that I have a definite preference when it comes to approaches to business etiquette. I can definitely appreciate the Eastern prioritization of group harmony over directness. I really enjoyed my time in Bangkok and from a business point of view, the deals we were able to negotiate by playing by the local rules proved to be very lucrative successes. On the flip side, straight talk can be enlightening because it minimizes the guessing game. I was raised by Scandinavian parents that encouraged clarity in communication to the point of bluntness. They felt that this kind of communication was honest and correct. I have countless examples of how openness and directness, however uncomfortable they may be in the short term, end up saving a lot of time and heartache in the long run. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, on his website The Welch Way, claims that candor is a principle of business communication that is necessary and helpful in any work context, anywhere – a veritable one-size fits all.

This is where I beg to differ. Millions of dollars are lost every day on business deals gone south because we as humans seem only to think about communication in terms of what is culturally accepted in our societies. We know, in theory, that people communicate differently in different parts of the world, but habits are hard to break. It seems that subconsciously, we expect others to see relationships and communication the way we do.

As a result, cultures that believe group harmony to be paramount may come across as evasive and even dishonest in cultures such as those of North America and Western Europe, where directness and clarity are the guiding force. On the other hand, Western candor often comes across as bullish and rude in many Asian countries and can be alienating to the point where deals collapse. AsianAmerica.net, an online service to promote cultural, educational and economic ties between Asia and North America, puts it like this: “It is estimated that more than half of all international joint ventures fail within two or three years. The reason most often given is cultural myopia and lack of cultural competency – not the lack of technical or professional expertise.”

There is no magical third way to completely avoid this clash of communication styles that leads to business disasters. Do your homework before you take off on international business trips or before you start negotiations with anyone from a different culture. What will their expectations be in terms of etiquette and what can you expect from them as far as their communication style?

Asian.American.net says “Customizing the learning experience is the most effective way to address specific issues and objectives and maximize the impact cultural competency can have on the company’s bottom line. In today’s global marketplace, being culturally savvy is no longer just “nice to have” but a key ingredient in building and maintaining a competitive global advantage.”

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Bjorn Karlman

Same-sex Smooching

FriendsThe “beso”.  It was one of the hardest things to get used to when I moved to Buenos Aires. Hetero men and women would greet others of the same sex with a kiss on the cheek.  My Argentine friends found it hilarious that on top of my gaffes in learning Spanish (I once asked for the local “place of pleasure” instead of asking for apartment storage space), I almost cringed whenever it was time to greet guys.  It was reminiscent of my freshman days in college when I had to force my reserved Scandinavian self to greet American classmates with hugs and loud, enthusiastic banter.  But the “beso” was even more of an invasion of space.  Luckily I’d had practice with the French “bisou” (kisses on both cheeks for the opposite sex) while studying in France so I had the mechanics down.  But the fact that men were involved was unsettling.


It should be said that the mere fact that straight men kissed each other in Argentina did not at all mean that they were effeminate in other ways. In fact, Argentine culture in general seemed to encourage alpha male behavior, complete with near-belligerent cursing and heckling in the stands at soccer games.  The “beso” was simply an accepted way to greet people, whatever their sex might be.

Of course, same-sex kissing is not at all limited to Argentina, a lot of cultures find the practice perfectly normal. South Eastern Europe and some countries of South Western Europe, Latin America and the Middle East find it completely acceptable.  In the Middle East (with the exception of some moderate Islamic countries) it is more acceptable for men to kiss each other on the cheek than for men to kiss women on the cheek in public.  (A topic for a different post would be Arab male-on-male hand holding that had George W. Bush feeling a little uncomfortable when Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah was visiting the US).

How do you adjust to something like same-sex kissing if you are from a different culture?  Dive in.  It’s just like language learning – you learn best by immersion.  In my case, I had to force myself the first few times.  Then the beso got easier.  It never felt completely natural but it certainly did not bother me after a few weeks of greetings.

The challenge can be to avoid Borat-scale awkwardness by remembering where you are. When I met my former Spanish tutor from Buenos Aires on a trip to Paris in May, the beso was gone, replaced by a hug.  That same greeting between old friends, if it had taken place in Northern Europe, could well have been a simple, if somewhat prolonged, handshake.  The problems creep in when you plant a manly kiss on Bubba at the Indy 500.  That could warrant a royal kicking of an entirely different set of cheeks.

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Bjorn Karlman