Guy tells the bartender, “I’m actually from Denmark.”
The bartender says, “Really? I’ve got a Dutch friend. Do you guys know each other?”
OK, so it’s not the greatest joke in the world, but the punch line, for expatriates like me, at least, is pretty profound.
If you get it, then good for you – unlike most of Americans, in this case, no further reading is required.
But for the rest of you, please take note: if you’re planning on joining Recruiting Daily in Amsterdam for the 2014 HR Tech Europe Conference (#HRTechEurope), or are travelling to Europe for any business related reason, there are a few things you should know about Europe and Europeans, first.
HR Tech Europe: What To Know Before You Go
1. Geography: Contrary to popular belief, Europe isn’t a country; it’s a continent. You think that’s crazy, but that’s a distinction lost on many Americans, who assume the European Union is structured similarly to the United States.
Trust me – there’s a big difference, and confusing countries or cultures (like the common “Dutch people are from Denmark” misperception) is an even more egregious error than confusing South Dakota with South Carolina.
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Like Hamlet, Hans Christian Anderson, the band Aqua (of late 90s Barbie Girl fame) and Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, I am indeed from Denmark.
For those of you who might be unfamiliar, Denmark is one of three countries that comprise the area known as Scandinavia, along with Sweden and Norway.
Danish is my native tongue (and no, it’s a language, not a breakfast food) and I live at least 700 kilometers (or around 430 miles for those of you inexplicably not yet using the metric system) from the Dutch border. The country where Dutch people live is called the Netherlands, and it’s part of what are commonly called “The Low Countries,” which is as distinct a region from Scandinavia as the American South is from, say, the Rust Belt.
So, no, I don’t know your Dutch friend, but I would be delighted to meet her – as long as we follow their local custom of splitting the bill. Wait…no, that’s not right, either. The point is, geography is how Europeans define themselves, in the same way Americans identify with where they grew up or where home now happens to be.
The distance and cultural difference between Copenhagen (in my homeland) and, say, Athens, couldn’t be more distinct. The rest goes with the rest of the continent and the dozens of countries, from Latvia to Lichtenstein in between.
And while Latvia, like Finland or Iceland, is considered to be a part of Northern Europe, these nations are not, contrary to my colleague Matt Charney’s erroneous reporting from Helsinki, considered part of Scandinavia. Latvia is a Baltic country, Finland is a Nordic one, and those are both whole other regions entirely. Get the picture?
Before You Go: Open an atlas and do a little research into the location of your destination, as well as where it’s actually located in relation to the rest of the continent. Simply saying, “I’m going to Europe,” is a lot like saying, “I’m going to the USA.”
Only in the old world, we’re old school – we don’t need a GPS to tell us which countries are in the Baltics vs. the Balkans. If you don’t know that distinction, than maybe you should study up before crossing the pond.
2. Language: Good news – as luck would have it, English is widely spoken by most Europeans, and other than the British, most know it well enough so that you’ll have no trouble understanding or communicating with most speakers. It’s not our first language, though – and we’re proud of our native tongues.
We have a great respect for languages, and most of us are learn no less than 3-4 of them by the time we’re done with the first 8 years of our primary education. If we misuse the occasional tense in English or slightly skew our syntax, we are the first to apologize (in a couple languages at least).
Before You Go: It’s easy to expect to get by on only English – and mostly, you can. But knowing a few key common conversational phrases such as greetings or superlatives in the native language of your destination will not only impress your hosts – a little bit of homework goes a long way. Especially for Americans, who normally can’t be bothered with that sort of thing.
3. Culture: You might have just watched the World Cup for the first time (and gone right back to ignoring soccer), but as you likely learned as a child from riding It’s A Small World, After All, Europeans share a continent, but distinctly different cultures.
Here in the New World, anything predating, say, 1970 is considered “old.” Across the pond, if it’s not at least 500 years old, it’s still considered new to the neighborhood. Europeans share thousands of years of history, and a cultural history stretching from Neolithic cave paintings to the most avant of today’s avant garde, Most of us know our national and regional histories – and mythologies – as well as you know your American history.
It’s just that we happen to have thousands of years more of it to memorize.
Before You Go: Don’t get caught only seeing the inside of the conference and hotel rooms at your destination – make sure to make time to at least check out a cultural site, which are never more than a few hundred yards away in every city on the continent. In some places, like Rome or Athens, you literally can’t miss it. Nor should you try.
Block some time in your calendar and ask your host for suggestions – in most cases, we locals are more than happy to provide a personal tour of our home town or native country. We’re proud of our cultural heritage and history – and showing it off to our guests.
While we love talking culture, though, we rarely mention religion or money – discussing how much money you make is considered taboo – not to mention kind of pretentious, too.
That’s probably because we’re well traveled, and most Europeans have at least visited the US. In many cases, we pay closer attention to things like the U.S. presidential election than many of our American counterparts.
4. Scheduling: Fashionably late is never in fashion in Europe, so if you’re invited to a business meeting or personal event, make sure to show up on time. While there are exceptions, and some cultural differences when placing a premium on punctuality, remember tardiness is widely considered a sign of disrespect. Considering the fact that you’re the foreigner, that’s not the signal you want to send to your hosts, however unintentional.
We also never say things like, “we should do lunch sometime,” or “let’s meet up next week,” without following through. If you propose a suggestion, we’ll take you seriously – and expect you to actually invite us if you say we should do lunch or meet for drinks sometime soon.
Before You Go: Like the US, different parts of Europe are in different time zones, so make sure you know the time zone of your destination and factor in any variables like Daylight Savings Time (which is recognized differently in individual countries) to make sure your schedule is on schedule. Because data roaming adds up quickly, make sure to bring a small guidebook or paper map with you in case you get lost on your way to a meeting or need directions to your next appointment.
5. Be Real, But Be Humble: Perhaps more than any other nation, Americans are proudly patriotic, and rightfully so – there’s a lot to be proud of. While they might not openly admit it, most Europeans are in awe (and often envy) the ingenuity, entrepreneurship and cultural dominance that define America.
If you come to our part of the world, however, please don’t butt in to tell us how to run our businesses, ask why we still have Royal Families or constantly compare everything you see to something in America. Enjoy your surroundings and know that while you’re proud to be an American, we’re equally proud of where we came from. We just don’t feel the need to continually make it a topic of conversation.
Before You Go: Check out a local newspaper or country-specific magazine’s website to know what’s actually going on where you’re visiting – and get some perspective on the current events going on in the country you’re visiting. Just please keep your opinion to yourself and remember that humility is one of the virtues we value most.