An Englishman in New York

Psychological distance and international trade

In the 1970s researchers in Sweden starting looking into the concept of psychological distance and how this related to the international development of companies. The basic premise is that we prefer to interact and therefore trade with people who are similar to ourselves. Spanish companies find it easier to trade with South America because of the historical links they share. Similarly, British managers find that they are psychologically closer to their US counterparts than managers in Continental Europe.  

languages spoken

Countries sharing common language trade among themselves 3 times more.

Of course, linguistics has a major impact on this. It is estimated that if two countries share a common language they are 3 times more likely to trade with each other. Again this seems to be common sense. However, this does not always make it plain sailing. Sting’s classic song “An Englishman in New York” beautifully depicts one man’s attempt to adapt to a culture he feels he should know.

I am fortunate to be spending the Christmas period in the New York area and I am more than aware that having English as my native tongue does not mean that communication will always be a simple affair. Once in a meeting in the USA I could only stare blankly as I was told that I should be “getting more bang for my buck.” I am assured that it means ‘to get a better deal’, though I have as yet been able to place it into polite conversation.  My suggestion is that you tread with care should you wish to use this expression.

Restaurants around the world 

In most business interactions, both parties will endeavour to understand each other as they try to establish a long term professional relationship. There is one place where this logic breaks down somewhat; in a restaurant. Personally, I find American restaurants quite daunting and am never happier than when I have a native speaker with me to “translate.”

Indian waiter

´Veg or non-veg?,´ Typical question in Indian restaurants.

In France, there is a quick, formal interaction between client and waiter.

In India, the questions are fairly simple. ‘Do you want veg (i.e. vegetarian) or non-veg?’ ‘How spicy do you want it?’

In China, most menus are a collection of photos and you just end up pointing haplessly to a few of them. It usually works out alright.


wal mart germany

Over-intimacy with the customer was the downfall of Wal-Mart in Germany.

In the US, you either get the waitress who introduces herself as “Diane” and then wants to become your lifelong friend. (Over-intimacy with the customer was the downfall of Wal-Mart in Germany, so beware! Europeans generally have friends to be their friends! ) Otherwise you may get the really surly guy (sure, this exists everywhere, but this is more of a surprise in the USA where service is generally fairly good) that bombards you with questions.

An unexpected dish

In a classic American diner this week I was delighted to see that they had fish and chips on the menu. When I ordered this I was stunned by the question:

american waitress

The U.S. version of ´Fish and chips´ might slightly differ from the British one.

“D’you want fries with that?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“D’you want fries with your fish and chips?”

“I’m sorry. Are you asking me if I want fries with my chips?”

“Yeah. D’you want them or not?”

“Sure. Whatever.”  

Of course, being of British origin I am automatically disqualified from having any opinion about what constitutes good or bad food. On the rare occasions that I have ventured a tentative opinion, my French ‘friends” have been happy to set me straight. However, even to me, ‘fries’ with ‘chips’ seems a little extravagant. No need to worry though, the fish arrived with chips but with no fries. In this restaurant, it would seem to have been just a question of semantics. Like pavement / sidewalk, gas / petrol  “fish and chips” would just appear to be a generic US term that means “fish!”

And a joke to begin the festive season 

On the subject of restaurants and as it is the festive season and we are all looking for things to tell our relatives during the endless hours of eating, I shall leave you with this joke. It was told to me by a friend in a university in New York.

A vegetarian, a Texan and a New Yorker are in a restaurant together. The waiter comes up to them and says:

new york waiter

Keep the joke in mind and you should be half way to adapting yourself to the American culture.

“Excuse me, before you start to look at the menu, I have to tell you that we have a shortage of steak today.”

The vegetarian looks at the waiter and says:

“What’s a ‘steak’?”

The Texan looks at the waiter and says:

What’s ‘shortage’?”

The New Yorker looks at the waiter and says:

What’s ‘Excuse me’?”

Keep that joke in mind and you should be half way to adapting yourself to the culture. Whatever language you speak!

Merry Christmas everyone!


See also:

Barack Obama: The Six Billion Dollar Man

Barack Obama 6 billion dollars There is a rumor going around Washington DC, that there was some kind of election last week. Things are back to normal now with college students practicing their football plays in front of the Capitol. Just in case you missed the election the results can be summarized as follows. $6 billion dollars spent, nothing changed. But that is just the point; sometimes the status quo is the best option. It is having the possibility to choose that counts.

New York after Sandy and Barack: Beware of what you see and what you hear

Storm in New York Last week I was fortunate enough to be in New York during the Presidential Elections and in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. It was an interesting reminder that being close to something may give you a totally different perspective on how events are unfolding. This doesn’t always mean you get a better one.

Photo of the week : Grenoble EM on the NASDAQ

nasdaqguests_021313003I have a wonderful colleague, Lisa Jane Perraud, who works for the Careers Service at my school and has done great job over the past few years. However, this week even she has surpassed herself with this photo! She is currently in New York with 28 students from my school that are studying finance. Lisa Jane has been working extremely hard over the past 2 months to organize a marathon week of company visits (the students will have had 13 in a week!)

Gems on Wall Street: Students studying finance in the heart of New York

Pace coverI want to use this post to publicize a blog that is being written by some 28 students from my school, who are currently studying finance in New York.  The students have gone up there for one semester to study a program that we jointly set up with Pace University to give them the ins and outs of finance in the USA, and also to show them some of the best practices of working in the United States.

Your foreign accent: Love it and never lose it

Don’t tell your English professor that I told you this. Foreign accents are wonderful and whether you are travelling for study, business or pleasure you should do everything to keep yours. They can be good for business too.

Cultural Dimensions – How people from different countries and cultures are…different

MarkjOwen’s Blog: “Now – ever since moving to a foreign country, and then starting work for an international company, I have been trying to find a way that would help me understand, and to describe, the differences in the cultures of the people I live with, and work with.”

German Intrusions of the English Language!

Worlds Fusion: “‘Shlep’ is one word from the German language that has been adopted into mainstream English. Although this is a more popular term in America than it is in Britain, many in the country still use it to express the arduous task of lugging things around.”

What is your (inter)nationality ?

Modern World: “There is no doubt that many countries are consistently losing their old national identities, and start imitating other countries’ cultures.The gaps have been narrowed so much, so that in some cases it’s hard to tell where people come from.”

The power of a language

Modern World: “I personally see a language as a tool to understand something different, it can be a different culture or values that are reflected in the words and the idioms, different professional background, but in the end , this tool helps us with the most important thing – communicating with people like us.”


Learn about The IKEA Effect, The Baby Jessica Effect and why large bonuses make CEOS less effective. A fun book that show why humans don’t always behave in a rational manner. Oh my God ! Possibly the worst biography ever written!

Mark Thomas

Grenoble EM

ESC Grenoble




Global Ed

International Affairs in Higher Education

Business School


Filed under China, Great Britain, India, Intercultural, Management, Research, USA, Vacation / Holidays

2 responses to “An Englishman in New York

  1. Pingback: To get you into the mood for the holidays: EAT by Rick Mereki | GlobalEd

  2. Pingback: BOOK REVIEW: “The Art of Choosing” by Dr. Sheena Iyengar | GlobalEd

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