Cultural differences always make it a “little bit sticky”

An article by Ed Crooks and  Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson in today’s FT points up the difficulty that BP has had in finding “the right tone to fit America’s emotional register”,

That climate of opinion [ where even Barack Obama has been attacked for failing to show enough emotion, and pushed by the US media to show how angry he is] makes it particularly damaging for BP to appear to be making light of the disaster.

Mr Hayward has been the target of many of the attacks on BP, becoming the “most hated and clueless man in America” according to the New York Daily News, after a string of inflammatory remarks.

Some of the comments for which he has been criticised have been entirely defensible, such as his admission to the Financial Times that BP lacked the engineering capability to tackle a blown-out well in deep water. Others have been crass and insensitive, such as his observation that “I’d like my life back,” for which he was forced to apologise on Facebook.

He has a British tendency to make a joke or smile to try to defuse tension, which has made it look as though he does not understand the gravity of the situation.

It was that last paragraph that really caught my eye.

Being a Brit I understand only too well that approach; after all, it is a stock-in-trade for most of us this side of the Atlantic.

But cultural differences have been a perennial source of misunderstanding for Britons when dealing with Americans. A telling example was at the height of the Korean War, in April 1951, when men from 1st Battalion, the Gloucestershire Regiment were holding a key ford over the Imjin River. They found themselves heavily outnumbered by the Chinese, who had sent an entire division of 10,000 men against their 650.

A day and a half into the action, surrounded and with ammunition and supplies running low, they were in imminent danger of being overrun. An American, Maj-Gen Robert H Soule, asked the British brigadier, Thomas Brodie: “How are the Glosters doing?”

As reported in an article in the Daily Telegraph on the 50th anniversary of the battle, 

the brigadier, schooled in British understatement, replied: “A bit sticky, things are pretty sticky down there.” To American ears, this did not sound too desperate.

The Glosters lost 622 men and officers to death, injury or captivity.