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Americans are Ferengis, Europeans are Vulcans

Conversations at European conferences can tell you a lot about work culture

By Paul Raines
December 4, 2008 12:00 PM ET

CSO - It's that time of year again. The organization's training and travel budgets need to get spent, or they'll be reduced for next year. So, it's time to hurry up and pick out conferences to attend that are scheduled for the last three months of the year.

I was lucky and got to go to two this year -- one in London and one in Berlin. The one in London was also attended by lots of fellow Yanks; the one in Berlin entirely by Europeans (sauf moi, bien sur). What a difference in the lunchtime conversations between the two.

For example, in London, I sat at a lunch table with a group of mostly American chief information security officers and vendors. The conversation started innocently enough with discussions about the differences between the U.S. and Europe in their work environments and approaches to information security. Now, at this point, the conversation could have gone in a variety of different directions: discussions of cultural differences, national stereotypes, differences in laws, etc.

Instead, the Americans at the table mostly wanted to know how existing security products could be tailored to meet European needs or how Americans might be able to 'break into' the European market. They wanted to know what security companies were doing well in Europe.

From there, the conversation went on to a favorite U.S. pastime which is how to get rich quick. It seemed like every American at the table (myself included) had an idea about a business or a product that everyone would want to use.

The conversation was peppered with references to famous American tycoons such as Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and Sam Walton. Invoking their advice and experience was treated with a reverence usually reserved for Bible readings at religious revivals. And the analogy is not too far off the mark, as the entity being paid homage in this case was none other than the god of free-market capitalism. The Americans at my table had kept the faith in spite of the horrible economic meltdown that was occurring daily in the global financial markets. They were the true believers.

Six weeks later, I found myself in a similar situation at a different security conference in Berlin. Even though it might sound like the start of a joke, I really was at a table with five Europeans (a Swiss, a Brit, a Frenchman, a Belgian and a German). Bratwurst and sauerkraut had replaced fish 'n chips and mushy peas on the menu, but the nature of the conversation was similarly vastly different:

What did you do last night? Went to the opera. Oh really? Which one? At present, we have three operas going on here in Berlin. Mozart? Yes, he's my favorite too. The performances at the Staatsoper are among the best in the world. What? That's nothing compared to what we have in Vienna. Austria has the best opera; Germany the best classical concerts. No way! You're ignoring Italy completely. That's true. What about West End theatre in London? Oh, much better than Broadway. Really, you think? Did anyone see the documentary on BBC World last night? And so on.

This story is reprinted from CSO, an online resource for information executives. Story Copyright CXO Media Inc., 2006. All rights reserved.
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