American Pants vs. British Trousers: The importance of speaking the “same language”

George Bernard Shaw once said that “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” Before I moved to London in September of 2008, I would have scoffed at such a sentiment: how can speaking the same language be divisive? Surely, of all the ways an American might need to adjust to living in a new country, speaking English would be the least hindrance.

However, George got it exactly right. Because of that shared “same language,” often there is the tendency to think that Brits and Americans are fundamentally the same, and communicate the same. We all would perhaps concede the cultural bits: that we have different governments and schools; our social mores can differ at times; and often enough, we do shop at different stores, eat different foods, and care about different brands, to name just a few. We might remark on each other’s accents, chuckle over the quirky differences in our vocabularies (e.g., car trunk = boot, elevator = lift, and pants = trousers) or think it’s cute when the British ‘favour’ has a ‘u’ or ‘realise’ that Americans spell ‘realize’ with a zee (or, rather, a zed). But would that really hinder our ability to truly communicate?

The short answer is—you betcha.

Now, I don’t mean to overstate my point. Certainly Americans (or English speakers of whatever ilk) could be and are very effective facilitators of British communities, or vice versa. But to maximize (or maximise, as the case may be) your chances of creating a successful community, one of the key ingredients is setting the appropriate tone, and a lot of that is language. That’s an obvious observation when thinking about how we talk to high net worth investors versus 18-24-year-old trendsetting young males, but less so when contemplating, say, talking to British versus American moms. However, tone is certainly at least partially about vocabulary and spelling, and in the aggregate, there is a lot to learn about how we use and spell words differently (for example, after living in London for a year, I still can forget British moms are mums!).

Okay, Jennifer, I take your point, you might say. But if we learned the lingo and the spelling, we’d be fine, right?
Well, you’d certainly be better off, and your British community members would appreciate it. But, there is more to the equation of creating a community in which those British mums, say, would be fully comfortable (a state which generates the best insights). A lot of the social cues that enable true connection are embedded in how we use language—how we string all of those words together to express sentiment. For example, during the past year living in London, I have witnessed firsthand the relative conservatism of my British friends and colleagues, and noted their general lack of, well, effusiveness!

The high energy, exuberant language Americans use with each other in daily life tends to set the British back on their heels a bit. When I ask Brits what they think of Americans (I tend to do so a lot, because, like most Americans, I ask a lot of forward questions that have a tendency to embarrass my friends across the pond), I get the sort of fond yet exasperated smile one might reserve for an eager golden retriever who’s knocked over a lamp with a wagging tail, “Americans are great… but you can be, well, loud” they sometimes say. “And so friendly and smile-y. All those teeth.” Such friendliness is not fully a plus; for Brits it can be off-putting. And those questions I ask… well, if I were British I’d probably know how to ask them so as not to be seen as forward, or know not to ask them at all. And what are we doing in a community if not asking questions?

So, when it comes to convening your international communities, as you are taking good heed of our recent global research that indicates that companies should consider and accommodate cultural differences in how they recruit and engage community members, ask questions, and interpret insights, don’t forget that may mean making sure that you have a very effective local team of facilitators, even if you all speak the “same language.”