Cultural cluelessness on both sides of the pond

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As a group, Americans live up to the stereotype of being culturally ignorant.

Only 20 percent of Americans have passports, almost half cannot locate the Pacific Ocean on a map and the United States is one of only a few countries in which someone can be considered well-educated without speaking a foreign language, said Windham Loopesko, CEO and founder of W. E. Loopesko & Associates Inc., an international business development firm.

Loopesko teaches his clients, American and European, how to overcome the conflicting cultures, as well as how to solve commercial and regulatory/legal problems.

Loopesko tells Europeans that Americans are not “cynical or bloody-minded,” as often portrayed, but are shaped by an immigrant past and a pioneer spirit.

Helping one’s neighbor – called being a team player in the business arena, hard work and an optimistic belief in an ability to achieve a brighter future were essential to survival in the harsh new world.

“Say to us, ‘I need your help,’ and you can ask almost anything of us – and expect a positive response,” Loopesko said. “On the other hand, as soon as the help has been rendered, we will go back to what we were doing and forget you.”

He also tells Europeans that Americans have “no hesitation about picking up roots, starting life over and forging new relationships, and … we have a profound distrust of the government or anything else we perceive as limiting our freedom to organize our lives as we see fit.”

And the American obsession with team sports has important ramifications in business behavior.

“Unlike in much of Europe, following team sports in America is not a ‘working class’ phenomenon,” he said. Each player has a role that varies greatly in importance and pay, doing his or her job for the team to succeed.

Success in sports requires improvisation, “the ability to change strategy on-the-fly,” and “covering” for other team members – stepping outside of one’s job description – for the benefit of the team, Loopesko said.

As for the American gift of gab, well, Europeans are not interested in playing psychologist. They don’t disclose scandalous secrets to their closest friends, much less a stranger in line at a bookstore.

So, for the love of baseball, apple pie and the sanctity of all things American – don’t tell a European about your nephew’s drug addiction or your co-worker’s pregnant 15-year-old daughter. Nothing like breaking a deal before the paperwork’s been signed, sealed and delivered.

Americans are not so much ignorant and naïve as they are a different breed than Europeans.

Matjaz Bren, affiliate professor at Regis University’s College for professional studies, and principal at ICARA Limited LLC, an international business development firm, also helps people navigate cultural gaps between countries.

Bren explains the American mindset like this: “When you’re an elephant, you don’t have to watch out for ants and insects. A lot of these countries are a mouse compared to the U.S. But an elephant has a very different perspective than a mouse.”

Bren grew up in Yugoslavia, then worked and lived in Morocco, Spain and Latin America before moving to Colorado during 1991.

“Americans are looked at as honest, straightforward, not sneaky or scheming, but a little hypocritical and talking a bigger game than we deliver on,” he said. “But we are egalitarian and pragmatic – we don’t care what color you are, we just want to do business.”