Those First Impressions

February 24, 2007

Born in 1966, the year England won the football World Cup (that’s ‘soccer’ to you Americans), a stone’s throw away from Stonehenge, I was denied a West Country upbringing when my parents had to move six hours north to Yorkshire due to my father’s work.

I greatly enjoyed my Yorkshire upbringing in “God’s Own Country” as born and bred Yorkshiremen like to call it, and if you’ve ever been there and/or seen the scenery across this large county, you’d find it difficult to disagree with them. However, to anyone that knows Yorkshire folk, you’ll know that unless you are born and bred in Yorkshire, they will never consider you a true Yorkshireman! Despite this hanging over my head, I was never made to feel unwelcome or separate, a feeling experienced more acutely in later life and something I will touch on in more detail in a future blog.

By the age of 16 I had a big choice to make: pursue a college/university education, or have a shot at an apprenticeship hosted by one of my home town’s largest and most successful employers, an electronics manufacturer.

Knowing that my parents’ finances were probably not up to the task of seeing me through 4 years of higher education, I opted to drop out of High School and take on the 4 year apprenticeship with said manufacturer along with 6 other individuals who I was to become close friends with over the ensuing 4 years. The advantage of pursuing this path, was that I was still afforded a higher education on day-release to college/university, but at the same time I could earn working pay as an indentured apprentice (albeit a paltry pay) and receive excellent on-the-job training in all manner of skills pertinent to that industry.

In hindsight, this proved to be the right choice, not because the path I chose to pursue was a superior one, but because in 1987, when I was 20 years old and three quarters of the way through this apprenticeship, my father died of a heart attack following two huge strokes and a smaller heart attack. With no household income other than a reduced widow’s pension received by my mother, my salary proved to be a valuable contribution to the household income.

So where am I going with all this you may ask? Good point!

Around about this time, I made two life choices, both of which I have lived to regret. The first was to start dating a girl who would eventually become my first wife. This was definitely one of those life decisions we all make that takes years to realize we messed up but as we all know, its then too late to turn back the clock. I won’t bore you the reader with any more discussion on this particular subject.

The second choice was equally as bad as the first but without doubt, has been the most instrumental in effecting the path my future took, and in shaping me as a person. The former has always been cause for great regret, the latter is something I don’t think any of us can plan for, it just happens. What was this choice? With less than a year to go of my apprenticeship, I decided to make a strategic move (or so I thought) out of the manufacturing, design and development side of the company and in to the national Sales Office, and from here, to push for an outside sales position which I eventually got. Sales. If I can impart one word of wisdom to any young people who might come across this blog and are thinking about going in to a career in sales, that word would be “don’t!”. You can choose to accept my wisdom and you will never know what you have saved yourself from OR you can choose to ignore it and twenty years from now be writing your own blog expounding your own regrets.

So why should a misguided career in sales have anything to do with a blog about a limey living in America? I’m getting there! Bear with me! You may be thinking that the title of this particular first article is about helping you (the reader) to form first impressions about me. While I am sure that this is also true, the real reason is to get to a place where I can, in context, give you _my_ first impressions of Americans.

Prior to becoming a salesman, my only experience of America was through watching TV shows that UK broadcasting companies purchased under license or syndication from American broadcasting for airing on British TV. My generation grew up with gems like The Lone Ranger, Tom & Jerry, Bugs Bunny, Grape Ape, Scooby Doo, The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonderwoman and The Partridge Family and while these shows were a great part of childhood, in later years shows like Starsky & Hutch, The Dukes of Hazard, Colombo, Kojak, Cagney & Lacey and the Rockford Files were the normal vieiwing. Needless to say, by the time most of my generation reached the age of 18, we were of the belief that all Americans were loud, brash, drove ridiculously large cars and carried hand guns with which they would shoot at each other on a daily basis.

You see, one of the positive things about being an outside sales person is that you get to travel and travelling means you get to go to lots of different places. Going to different places means seeing and meeting all kinds of people you might never normally come in to contact with, whether by choice or not. And so it happened. One day I was sitting in a Motorway Service Station grabbing a drink and a bite to eat (kind of like a rest-stop/oasis off the Freeway) when a coach full of American tourists pulled up. 50+ American Seniors proceeded to pile off the coach and make their way in to the restaurant service area. Now three things struck me about this experience and I will try to list and quantify them:-

1. They were loud! I mean LOUD. English people are, by nature, quiet and reserved, prefering to fly beneath the radar so-to-speak. But these Seniors seemed to be in competition with one another to see who could talk all over the next person the loudest. Time and again I would hear one individual start to say something only to get quashed mid-sentence by another who would interject loudly to ensure they were now the conversation dominator. Strangely though, this didn’t seem to be a problem for these Americans as they were all doing it to each other constantly. This was a most bizarre experience for me. Even though I was sat several tables away from these people I could clearly hear 90% of what was being said.

2. I had never seen so much plaid material of both pastel and gaudy bright colors used so excessively in trousers before. It was as if the men had all stepped off a golf course. If there was one man in gaudy plaid pants, there were 20! The women on the other hand didn’t seem so different to British Seniors, except for jewelry. Lots of it. I notched that up to Americans just having a better quality of life through higher average incomes, which for the most part turns out to be true. Although, there is a definite penchant for well-heeled American women to show off their affluence with excessive wearing of jewelry.

3. Outspoken – Perhaps the biggest shock for me was just how outspoken these Americans were. Let me put this in perspective. An Englishman goes in to a restaurant and orders a meal, the meal arrives late and is barely warm. What would YOU do? Well, hold that thought! Most English people will sit there and take it, choosing to deal with the unsavory situation rather than make a scene. That would never do! Now I am not saying that that is right, on the contrary, but that day was my first experience of how Americans expect to get what they pay for and are not shy in speaking out if they don’t get the service they expect.

Now here’s the funny part, at least for me. As I listened to the conversations around me it became clear that this particular coachload of tourists were from Washington DC and they had travelled to the UK to be transported to a city called Washington in the North East of England, the city after which Washington DC was named. The rest stop I was at was “Washington Services” by the way! Now I do not know what these American Seniors were hoping to expect before they arrived, but let me tell you this, Washington, Tyne & Wear is a working class town predominantly covered with tech and industrial parks. You would be hard pushed to find anything of tourist interest in Washington.

The general air of disappointment and poorly disguised disgust emanating from these tourists was quite palpable, not least because they were more than vocal about it (see point 3). I felt really bad for the poor English tour guide who had also entered the restaurant for a bite to eat. I can’t imagine anything more uncomfortable than a 6+ hour coach ride back to Heathrow Airport with a coach full of disgruntled American Seniors… in golfing pants.

So. Those were my first impressions of Americans. Not a good start. Things were going to get better though. I just didn’t know it at that time.