Buying into the American dream and thinking big

Los Angeles at night. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Los Angeles at night. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
I got back from another trade show in the United States on Friday morning. Walked through Auckland airport, head down, no-one making eye contact, polite smiles when you do meet someone’s eye.

Which is quite the contrast to the banter and loud hello ma’ams, have a great trip ma’am, love your shirt ma’am, that surrounded me as I went through Customs in LA.

In fact if like me your usual Netflix viewing fare is the latest US crime drama, you would be forgiven for thinking it’s a dog-eat-dog place where you keep your head down.

Tell that to the locals that bought me a tequila shot at 1pm in the afternoon last Sunday. Or why it took me six hours to walk around Long Beach — because practically everywhere I stopped people chatted away to me.

Now it probably won’t come as a surprise to my friends and family, but personality testing reveals I’m more extroverted than 96% of the population.

Contrary to popular belief, being extroverted doesn’t mean I’m loud and naturally comfortable standing out. It simply means I recharge by being around people, whereas introverts recharge alone.

I will concede that I am probably still louder and more direct than your average Kiwi. But it turns out compared to Americans I’m a wallflower.

Last week in Los Angeles it was my third work trip to the US. My first visit was to Houston, Texas where I thought the culture I experienced was confined to the exuberant and super friendly family-owned firm I was visiting. They had done a brilliant job of building a really positive and inclusive culture.

The second was the Space Symposium in April. Like Texas, there isn’t much walking in suburban Colorado because they don’t have footpaths — people who walk are generally viewed as dodgy or they’re homeless.

But the locals I met at conference, the uber drivers and service staff were the friendliest I’ve ever come across. While the easy familiarity of new prospects initially put me on guard, I learnt it’s entirely genuine — they will actually do anything to help.

To the point that when suffering from back pain one man ducked away to the chemist and got me a heat pack and some painkillers. Americans are quite simply the most positive, friendly and generous people I have ever come across.

Cut back to the tequila shot. I had stepped into a Mexican cafe right on the beach; since I was dining alone the maitre d’ parked me at the bar for lunch. The three diners next to me quickly said hello and then upon hearing my Kiwi accent asked where I was from. Ten minutes of rapid-fire and enthusiastic questions later they all moved one seat closer and were loudly firing orders at the barman on what food and drink to order for me.

I wasn’t intending to have a tequila shot at 1pm, on my own, in gym gear on the beach with jetlag — but two hours and five new friends later (a couple of new strangers joined us) I drifted back to the hotel.

A good chunk of the conversation was them teasing me about how polite and reserved Kiwis are, "y’all worse than the Brits".

Interestingly they had enormous respect for our legendary innovation — two were in the engineering industry. "You Kiwis invented the telegram and split the atom", referring to Ernest Rutherford.

It’s kind of like they see us Kiwis as the weird, quiet kid in the corner that’s going to save the world one day. They don’t understand our self-effacing culture of downplaying success. With Kiwi culture coming from our British heritage, we do tend to err more towards "don’t get ahead of yourself", than we do the American Dream.

I’m sure there’s screeds of very good research and literature around the cultural differences and history of American v British culture. However, my 10 minutes of Google research for this article uncovered a brilliant 20-minute YouTube video by JimmytheGiant.

Jimmy summarises the cultural differences through sayings — such as the American "when you get lemons, make lemonade", versus British "Don’t count your chickens before they hatch".

Or American "it’s always dark before dawn", versus British "Sod’s Law if something can go wrong it will go wrong"

Anyway, most of my articles are loosely linked to business — so I’ll try to tie this back to some of my insights into what these cultural differences may mean when doing business with Americans.

Be overtly positive and if you’re the best then tell them. You must be confident and assertive, be very clear about your ask. What might be considered rude, tall poppy-ish and too direct in New Zealand is perfect for the US. Our indirect and self-effacing way of going about business is too indirect and obtuse, which may actually lead to distrust and confusion from our American partners.

But bear in mind there’s a flip-side to the expressive American — when they’re not happy they’ll let you know. This is great when you’re wanting a straight answer on whether they’re interested — we’ve all experienced the prospect that leads you along, because they’re too nice to say no.

But things won’t end well if you’ve left any grey areas unpriced, or over promised and underdelivered. Be prepared to be told very directly how unhappy they are. And be aware that America is the most litigious country in the world.

And think big. Everything is bigger in the US. With a population of over 300 million and a love for Kiwis, maybe buying into the American Dream isn’t "getting too ahead of ourselves" after all.

 - Sarah Ramsay is chief executive of United Machinists.