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Corporate Culture Shock in America – Part 2

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In this 4-part series, “Corporate Culture Shock in America,” author Susan Davidson explains the cost of lost productivity incurred by American corporations because of months of isolation, confusion, and frustration experienced by expatriates and foreign nationals who relocate to the United States to live and work. In this section she discusses:

  • Bottom of the Pyramid
  • American English “Sports-speak”
  • Acronym Soup

Click here to read part 1 of this 4 part series.


By Susan Davidson

Bottom of the Pyramid

In their home countries, most international professionals enjoy a certain degree of accomplishment and self-esteem. On arriving in the United States, however, they are pulled down to the bottom rung of Maslow’s pyramid of needs. Physical needs become top priorities again.

Even the most basic everyday needs become major obstacles for foreign transferees. Obtaining credit is often a major hurdle, even for affluent non-Americans. A general manager of a French company’s North American division moved from Paris, France, to Atlanta, GA, three years ago. He described his family’s effort to establish credit as a “nightmare.”

“We had no credit history here and felt like thieves,” said the transferee.
Another vice president also complained of credit problems when he moved his family from Paris to Atlanta with a global Dutch company. An Atlanta car dealer refused to sell him an automobile without a U.S. credit history, even though he had used an American Express credit card in Europe for four years. The executive and his wife said they felt like “criminals.” They were forced to pay cash for their first used car.

Other foreigners recalled the many frustrations they encountered in taking care of basic living needs–opening a bank account, connecting utilities, choosing a long-distance company, haggling over the price of a car, or buying home and auto insurance. The marketing manager of a British-based international hotel chain moved from London, England, to the American headquarters in Atlanta, GA, only to discover that she did not know how to dial long distance within the United States. Neither did she know the meaning of dialing “911.” Americans often take for granted the daily survival skills that foreigners must relearn when they arrive in the United States.

American English “Sports-speak”

Understanding American English is one of the first challenges foreigners–even native English speakers–encounter in the U.S. corporate culture. American business conversation is riddled with clichés, slang, regionalisms, and sports expressions that are not understood by non-Americans. “Sports-speak” is woven into business conversations constantly in the United States with references to American football, baseball, and basketball. Expressions such as “slam dunk,” “homerun,” “Monday morning quarterback,” “end run,” “curveball,” “full court press,” and “stepping up to the plate” only serve to confuse foreigners. Many Americans are oblivious to the fact that baseball and American football are not played in Europe and other parts of the world.

Acronym Soup

The language of U.S. human resource departments is equally foreign. Most international professionals come to the United States with no knowledge of managed health care or U.S. tax and discrimination law–complex issues that Americans barely understand. It is no wonder then that non-Americans consider these employee policies and plans a “nightmare” and glaze over when they read their HR manual of acronyms and alphabet soup: PPO, HMO, ADA, EEOC, FLMA, and 401K. Translation please?

Said one foreign executive, “You are screened by a nurse, and then you spend 30 seconds to two minutes with a doctor. You are reimbursed and talk to computers. All these plans, long-term and short-term disability, are extremely complex.”

Rather than proactively taking the time to explain these bureaucratic plans and policies to foreigners, most HR managers simply react and respond to questions. What HR managers do not understand is that non-Americans have no knowledge base on which they can even begin to formulate intelligent questions. Human resources must instead begin at the beginning.


Susan Davidson is founder and president of Beyond Borders, Inc., an Atlanta-based coaching, training and consulting firm that specializes in improving the business performance of global managers and teams. Susan has worked with Fortune 500 and global corporations for more than 25 years to improve the sales, leadership skills, communications and business effectiveness of leaders, employees and salespeople.

Ms. Davidson has published several articles on her groundbreaking research with foreign business professionals who experience “corporate culture shock” in the U.S. workplace. She is also a featured speaker for human resource, international and training organizations. She can be reached at 770.451.997 or by visiting

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