Selling to Americans

Written by Rebecca Gardiner

Despite the common assumption of an increased Americanization of Canada, there is actually a growing cultural divide, says Michael Adams, president of Toronto-based Environics Research Group and author of Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the myth of converging values. recently ask Adams what Canadians need to keep in mind when doing business with Americans.


ADAMS: Most people presume Canadians are just unarmed Americans with parkas and that there really is no difference. It seems commonsensical — research shows that 90% of both Canadians and Americans think the family is the most important thing in their lives. Mind you, 90% of people in Iran think that too.

But looking at the structure of authority in the family, things are different. One of the aspects we use to monitor this is the statement that the “father of the family must be the authority in his house.” What we find in Canada is that about 18% of us in the year 2000 believed this to be true, while in the U.S. it was 49%. Since 2000, these numbers have been increasing in the U.S and decreasing in Canada.


ADAMS: Two things. First, the American way is to have a strong father, a commander-in-chief, to whom you give all the power and say “lead us to the promised land” — whether that’s in business or foreign policy. Down there, they are looking for leaders to be leaders. They want someone with a plan who can identify the “enemy” and can be followed to great success or until he and the company implodes. Canadians, on the other hand, might sit down and figure out a plan together. It’s much more collaborative here and less hierarchical.

Second, when it comes to family and business, we just think of things differently. A Canadian thinks “my family comes first” so when the meeting that started at 5:00 pm and was supposed to be over by 5:45 pm drags on until 6 p.m., the Canadian says, “My family comes first I’ve got to go home and be with my kid.” Whereas the American says “I can’t possibly leave this meeting at six o’clock and jeopardize my standing in this company. I can’t have people questioning my loyalty or I might be overlooked for the next promotion.”

So each country expresses the primacy of family in a different way. In Canada it’s more of an attitude that employees really do matter and their values are important. People are not as intimidated by the potential of a loss of a promotion or the loss of a job, because they can go elsewhere. In the U.S., on the other hand, there is much more concern about the loss of a job or the loss of a promotion.


ADAMS: Americans are living much closer to the line. They have much higher personal debt, and are much less likely than Canadians to pay off their monthly credit card bills. They are living more on the edge to afford the materialism that is the promise of the American dream.

Canadian culture tilts more towards saying, “You know life is more than standard of living — it’s also about the quality of life.” In America, quality of life is standard of living. It’s a culture that expresses itself in a more material way; ours is more experiential. Americans spend a lot of money on stuff that are symbols of where they are in the status hierarchy. Here, boomers are starting to think they don’t need stuff — it drags them down so they are looking for experiences.


ADAMS: It’s more competitive in the States and there’s much more of a sense that you get your just desserts. If you make a million bucks, great, but if you’re a bad guy and get thrown in the clink, you deserve that, too. Expect it to be rougher, tougher and less secure. There’s a constant sense of apocalyptic anxiety — that something bad might happen. You know: the next sniper, the next terrorist bombing.

On the other hand, doing business in the U.S. you’ll find more people who are really motivated. It’s an aspirational culture and one where people are willing to make great sacrifices. So you know you can probably pay them less on the option that they will share the wealth when you succeed. It’s more of a Vegas attitude — if you’ve got a great opportunity, people are more willing to roll the dice to realize the American dream of rags to riches and log cabin to the White House.

Originally appeared on