Wow. Over a month since I last posted? I’m really sorry. But life happens, you know?
I know you know.
Anyway, it’s been a weird few weeks. I’ve been feeling a bit flat, and I really do have to admit that I’ve experienced a bit of a crisis of confidence in this blog. I’ve started – and not finished – multiple posts. I’ve ummed and ahhed about what exactly to write about. Worst of all, things in the creative department haven’t been coming naturally at all.
Having been in the American workforce now for a whole three months (I know, right!) perhaps, in a way, I’m starting to wonder who – if anyone – will be interested in my observations at all.
Is this what assimilation is like? Do my observations become more ‘normal’ until they’re no longer of any interest? Boring? Beige? Over?
Then, just as quickly:
Snap back to reality, Clare. This blog is like therapy to you, so none of that matters anyway. And even if it did, people are always going to enjoy reading about your crazy misfortunes and ridiculous misunderstandings.
Ah, sweet self-deprecation. Which brings me, as it happens, to the topic of this post.
Back in post 24 I wrote about my initial impressions of how the work culture here in the US differs from back home in Australia. Having been in the role for a mere four weeks (god… it felt like a decade, though) I talked about the more superficial things we tend to notice when starting a new job: flexibility, dress code, leave, contracts, perks, and benefits… you get the gist.
But fast forward three whole months and apart from learning a lot about the elements of my role and culture of the company, I’m learning *a lot* about communication culture in the US.
Now, if you’re Australian, or know Australians (or Brits, for that matter), you probably know that we have a pretty bold sense of humour: ‘mickey-taking’, sarcasm and backhanded compliments are all part-and-parcel of building rapport and indicating a level of closeness or friendship.
I often default to sarcasm or self-deprecation in moments where I feel nervous or where I’m trying to build rapport. It’s a natural way of communicating, for me. Without a doubt.
What I’ve learnt here in the US is that sarcasm and self-deprecation are concepts as foreign to most Americans as a love of Vegemite. And they’re definitely not approaches to be used in the everyday, professional workplace setting.
The thing with sarcasm is that often people don’t often know you’re being sarcastic. It can come across as deadpan and rude and leave people feeling confused (or nursing some embarrassment or, at the very least, a shady impression of your character).
Here’s an example: I was in a work training session about communication and up flashed ‘Sarcasm’ as one of the topics of conversation. Brilliant, I thought. I’m Australian so this will feel super natural to me! Of course, my assumption was that sarcasm has its place in communication: a nice way to lighten the mood, have a laugh, build rapport… well, you know what they say about assumptions?
“Okay everyone. We’re here to learn about how to shut down sarcasm in the workplace and communicate clearly and effectively with all our co-workers”.
Okay seriously. What the hell?
The example they gave was this:
You, waiting to commence a meeting: “Tom, what’s the time?”
Tom: “Time for you to get a watch”
I giggled. Uncontrollably. I even said (out loud): “Tom is ace. I’d give him a high five for that comment”.
Cue grumpy face from the facilitator.
Oh. Did I just get sarcastic about sarcasm?
Hilariously, apparently what we should have said (in an effort to shut down Tom’s effortlessly sarcastic sass) was “Tom, I’m asking you the time so that I know when to start the meeting. Can you tell me if it’s 11am yet?”.
Cue Tom rolling his eyes, probs.
…I’m still on Tom’s side, by the way. You should be too.
Anyway, it would appear that sarcasm in the office goes down like a bloody lead balloon. With great difficulty.
We Aussies like to cut others, and ourselves, down. We’re desperate to show that we’re not arrogant people who think too much of ourselves. We use self-deprecation to disarm people – calling ourselves names, telling embarrassing stories – in an effort to show just how un-special we are. We also use it to show affection. “Taking the piss” (making fun) of someone we like is actually pretty normal.
But you know what? It’s not a staple way of communicating here. People can think you have serious confidence issues. Or worse, they might actually believe you are as stupid as you say you are, or worse still, may think you’re throwing a serious insult their way.
Take this awkward (paraphrased) exchange I had with a colleague after I’d given a particularly stressful (for me) presentation:
Him: I saw your presentation. Great job!
Me: Oh dear, how embarrassing. I was terribly nervous. I’m so sorry you had to sit through that!
Him: I’m confused. I wasn’t disparaging your presentation. I thought it was fantastic!
I should have just said ‘thanks’ and moved on. My default response of picking on myself resulted in someone being confused about their own communication, when all they were doing was offering encouragement and positive feedback. An Aussie colleague would likely have laughed and responded, “It wasn’t that bad; at least you didn’t completely mess it up!”
By contrast, Americans come across as confident (dare I say overly confident?) communicators. They’re not quite as modest as Australians. They’ll happily tout their achievements and boast or exaggerate their impact on work. They want their voices heard, even if they’ve nothing of consequence to offer. Meetings feel more like a verbal battle of egos than a coming together of considered minds. It’s a weird dynamic to get used to, especially coming from this shy wallflower!
Swearing in the workplace? Hell, no.
While profanity certainly has its place in Australian communication, I’m generally not someone who swears a lot. Maybe one or two misdemeanours within the week. Maybe more if I’m out with friends.
But here, in America, I’m pretty sure I’d be accused of swearing a great deal more often that the average citizen in the U-S-of-A. While dropping “bugger” or “shit” when you mess something up wouldn’t get you a cursory glance in an Australian workplace, here it’ll land you in deathly silence served up by a sea of displeased faces. Try it in front of kids and you’ll be admonished!
Get this for example: I’m standing at the playground, watching the kids playing and there’s a little boy, maybe two or three years old, climbing. He suddenly loses his balance, and falls from a fairly great height, maybe five feet, straight onto his face. I shout, “Shit!” at the top of my lungs, drop my handbag, and run to him to check on his injuries. His father approaches and instead of thanking me for running to his son’s aid he says, “You really shouldn’t use that language around children”.
Okay. Will flipping the bird do instead?
Of course, in the grand, old scheme of things, maybe I could take a leaf out of my American colleagues’ book here: is the self-deprecation serving me right now? In relation to my blog, that is?
Given I’m so stuck, I think the answer is no.
So, better get writing. Shit.
Sorry. Start over?
8 thoughts on “ Communication Breakdown”
I laughed out loud several times , Clare. I’m not living in the US, but have visited a few times and I understand what it’s like. Keep on blogging- I love reading of your misadventures!
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Awww, Erica, thank you! That’s nice to hear that at least there are a couple of readers 😉 It’s a funny place, this old USA! x
Great insights Clare. I’m always having to check my enthusiasm for sarcasm, self-deprecation and profanity on my US travels. Bugger! 🙂 Hope life is good for all The C Clan otherwise? M x
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Ha! Michelle, I think you’d find a similar struggle – but am sure you’d be more confident in challenging it and not giving a f*ck 😉 All is well here, thanks Michelle! Likewise, hope all is well in your world xxx
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Bahaha, that was bloody awesome. Swear word intended. Take homes: a) you’re a fantastic writer, please don’t stop, b) I’m SO glad I haven’t encountered the American work force just yet and c) Tom is actually a bit of a legend 😂
OMG I only just logged in to read this – sorry! 1. Thank you. I will post another post VERY SOON! I have been so slack! 2. Steer clear! 3. Tom is *totally* a legend xxx
This is totally true ! The struggle is real.
Isn’t it just 😉