For as long as I can remember, my mentors and colleagues always discussed the professional benefits of gaining international pharma experience. In 2014, an opportunity arose for me to move to London, the global headquarters of my last company. After 17 years of working in the US, I decided to cross the pond. For today’s blog, I will explore four areas of European business etiquette and customs that potentially confuse Americans working in a transatlantic space: networking, email communication, vacation, and timeliness.
When joining a new company in the US, business professionals typically make a meaningful connection with colleagues and clients in a few weeks or months. By the six-month mark, you are pretty comfortable in your role and have some people you really trust. EMEA, particularly England, is different; you can expect to spend more time and energy building trust and showing your loyalty to peers and clients.
In addition, I observed different approaches to networking communication. Colleagues from the Nordics and the Netherlands were always extremely direct. The Brits were disarmingly polite until they got to know you. Southern Europe and Northern Europe were very different; Southern Europe was more casual in its networking approach, whereas Northern Europe was more rigid.
Furthermore, if you are at a networking event in the US, a typical question is “what do you do?” or “who do you work for?”. This is not the way to warm up a European audience, regardless of where they live. Europeans might initiate conversation at a networking event by first discussing global topics in the news. For example, during the US presidential election last year, I observed a training manager from France educate an entire room on the concept of Super Tuesday. Given this point, transatlantic professionals should buff up on local and global politics, news, and events. Work discussions will come after that.
While working in London, a US colleague asked me to mentor a woman working in the London office who reported to him. When I met with her a few weeks later, I asked about her relationship with her manager; I sensed something was off. She explained to me that she hated the way her boss communicated with her over email. He addressed emails to her by simply stating her name (Anne,) instead of including a salutation before her name. She proceeded to tell me how rude his email etiquette was and that she did not appreciate being addressed “like a dog.” Being American, I did not initially understand the problem because not including a salutation in an email is normal in the US.
Note to Americans: When communicating with colleagues in offices outside of the US, you will be best served to include “Dear” or simply “Hi” before the person’s name you are emailing. Written communication is challenging, so it’s best not to insult someone in the first line of an email.
While we are on the topic of written communication, let’s spend a moment on the word “cheers.” In the US, we use that word with excitement typically at the end of a toast. In the UK, “cheers” is a very casual version of “thank you” and is usually only used between parties that know each other well. If you do conclude an email with “cheers,” use a comma and not an exclamation point; otherwise, you come off as too American.
Cultural attitudes toward vacation are extremely different between the US and Europe. In 2016, Project Time Off found 54% of American employees ended the year with unused vacation days, ultimately sacrificing 662 million vacation days; Europeans do not understand this.
Someone is always on vacation when you work in an international setting. A colleague may be on a weekend getaway, a week-long road trip with the family, or a three-week vacation. I observed several European professionals take more than one two-week vacation a year. That would be unheard of in the US.
When I worked in the US, I received about 22 vacation days, including a holiday shutdown during Christmas. I received 26 vacation days in London. In England, the main difference is not the days granted, but the percentage of days left at the end of the year. Almost everyone used all of their days, including me. Moreover, people were proud to tell you how much vacation they took, whereas Americans tend to boast about how few vacation days they took.
I have to mention France here because it is an outlier on vacation. At my last company, employees in France received NINE weeks of holiday per year; and they take all of it! Most employees in Senior Manager roles want to be promoted to the next level, but not in France. If someone in France receives this promotion, they will only have SEVEN weeks of holiday. This would clearly be unacceptable.
My time in Europe taught me that more time off leads to a better work/life balance. Culturally American leaders in Europe should encourage their team to use their vacation days, and leaders should prove they value time-off by using all of their vacation days as well. In fact, be proud to tell people about your excursions. You are not lazy; rather, you are simply well-traveled.
Your colleagues and clients take note when you are late to a meeting in the US, and the person running late usually sends an email or text alerting their tardiness to the team. In addition, in the US being late is typically reserved for the highest-ranking person at the meeting, which lower-ranking professionals forgive.
This is simply not the case in EMEA. Timeliness often depends on whether you are from Northern or Southern Europe. I have waited on conference calls for 10 minutes for Southern European colleagues. This is culturally normal, just like eating dinner between 9 and 10 in the evening. It’s hard not to take this personally, but it’s not personal. Not only did I fall in love with the Southern European countries and people while I was there, but I also became quick to forgive the tardiness.
Phenomenal people work in the US and in European countries. In both spaces, people are passionate about what they do and excited about their work. The difference between enjoying your work in Europe and being constantly frustrated is how you approach teamwork and intercultural communication. Before working with a particular country, I advise you to educate yourself on the professional nuances of that space. Europeans will have already done this research on you.