There’s an Old West story about a British aristocrat of the 19th Century who pulled up to a ranch in his buggy and asked a cowboy, “Could you tell me where I might find your master?”
“He ain’t been born yet,” the cowboy replied.
The story is a classic example of a culture clash. To the British man, the question made sense and was not intended to be offensive – but that’s not how the cowboy perceived it.
We Americans and British share a common heritage but we’re still separated culturally by a fairly sizable ocean. They eat chips and so do we, but their chips are French-fried potatoes and our chips are their crisps. They have biscuits and we have cookies. We have lunch and they have tea-time.
Still, we usually manage to communicate fairly well. Bring in an executive from Sweden, say BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg , who has English as a second tongue and you have the set-up for a linguistic car-wreck.
Svanberg set out to be soothing and ended up ruffling the feathers of Americans, just as the British aristocrat angered the cowboy.
"We care about the small people. I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies who don't care, but that is not the case with BP, we care about the small people," Svanberg said.
Being called “small people” or “little people” does not set well with Americans.
Svanberg has apologized but people are still furious. I have to ask, doesn’t BP have some American executives who speak our dialect? He or she might not be any more diplomatic than the rest of BP’s spokesmen, but the insults would go down easier.