Unexpected Culture Shock

Before coming to London, I did not expect my internship to differ much from jobs I’ve already had in the States. Sure, I was aware that people in the UK speak with funny accents and that there would be some slightly different cultural nuances that I’d have to get used, but overall, I did not anticipate having a much different experience working here than I’ve had in my past. Over the past 6 weeks, however, it’s become clear that my initial expectations were wrong. Though Britain is America’s closest ally and claims a similar culture in many ways, I’ve really had to adjust to the workplace environment that I’ve been immersed in at Britannia Student Services.

In the United States, careers are taken very seriously. Throughout my life, I’ve seen young teens compete to get into the best private high schools, and young adults compete to get into the most prestigious universities. I’ve witnessed competition in the classroom and in extracurricular activities and clubs. For the most part, I’ve noticed that a large number of students do everything that they can to get ahead of one another with the ultimate goal of positioning themselves for success later in life. Now, at W&L, I’m surrounded by students competing to get the best, highest-paying jobs after graduating from college. I’ve learned that being successful in American society takes somewhat of a cut-throat, nose to the grindstone mentality. Though this outlook does not apply to all American students and workers, it has certainly been prevalent in my life thus far. In London, people’s attitudes are completely different.

Like Kate Fox said in her chapter on work, the English take their work seriously, but not too seriously. They avoid talking about money, and find trade and business to be awkward. Additionally, they carry into the workplace all of their cultural rules. In my experience at Britannia, I have found all of these points to be true. While maintaining a sense of seriousness, my workplace is laid-back and casual, rather than strict and intense like many work environments in the U.S. In my office, money-talk is a taboo, and is avoided – my coworkers often dance around business talk, instead of getting straight to the point. Again, this is unlike my experiences in the U.S., where conversation not related to business in the workplace is often short and sweet; it’s more of a forced formality. Finally, I’ve been exposed to the humor and culture of the English in my office more so than any other time or place in London so far. The societal rules that Kate Fox has outlined, including those on humor, the weather, and conversation show themselves regularly in my office, and I had never experienced any of them before in my life.

As an American, I expected British workplace culture to parallel that of the States. In my opinion, the fact that I started off my internship with this outlook is likely the main reason why I have had so many moments of perplexity and disorientation in my office; if I had expected cultural shock, the foreign aspects of my office would not have been such a surprise to me. Where I expected an environment of complete compatibility and mutual understanding between U.S. and UK culture, the oddities of English work culture have proved me wrong, and this has been truly humbling.

  • Hi Alex,
    Thoughtful post here. My expectations were very similar. I thought the workplace environment would act as a common ground between the two cultures but instead it has demonstrated perhaps the most fundamental cultural differences. The hyper-competitive American workplace culture, and especially our own subculture at W&L, does not seem to translate overseas. I am glad both of our work experiences exposed us to this dichotomy.

  • Alex,

    My third week at work, I had a conversation with my boss over lunch that reflects some of what you are talking about here. As a W&L alum, he knows the pressures we face of finding the best post-grad career, and had some candid remarks about the i-banking industry and upcoming interview process in the fall. I feel at W&L,Williams School majors are subconsciously steered down this seemingly alchemic career path, and I have heard all kinds of things about the serious work environments and long hours these analysts work out of school. In contrast, at our first weekend meeting with another alum Kirk Adamson at Blackstone, he noted that one of the distinct differences in working in New York versus working in London was change in intensity of his work. I think this is the perfect example of your point about the British workplace.


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