Jun 192010

The British BP CEO, Tony Hayward, fast became the most hated man in America when he said he wanted to stop the spill so he could ‘get his life back’. Relatives of the eleven people who died would have liked their lives back too. He later apologized for the remark, but with oil rushing into the Gulf, whinging about wanting more free time was unforgiveable. Interestingly the late night talk show host David Letterman commented that ‘The British accent makes it sound worse’. I think the accent probably conveyed elitism.

And it wasn’t Tony Hayward’s only gaffe. Others included saying that the spill wasn’t going to cause big problems because ‘The gulf is a very big ocean’ and ‘the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest.’ (Did he really not foresee the problems or did he think we were idiots?) The bungled attempts to plug the pipe added to the fury and gave rise to this youtube hit.

Lamar McKay, the BP America chief has fared better in the press, but his repeated insistence that BP would pay ‘all legitimate claims’ has irked. No doubt his lawyers insisted on that wording, but why use that qualifier ‘legitimate’ unless you plan to contest claims?

And then there’s the BP Swedish Chairman, Carl Henric Svanberg who said, ‘We care about all the small people’. So the people who have lost their livelihood from this mess are ‘small’? That gaffe seems to have been forgiven though because people recognized that English wasn’t his first language.

Americans are bound to be less lenient with Tony Hayward. Whether it’s true or not, it’s presumed that we all speak the same language and share a common understanding of what constitutes a sincere apology and appropriate response.

In the UK Tony Hayward earnt a reputation of being blunt, down to earth and energetic, qualities that I’d expect to be admired here too. But words without actions destroy trust. As the New York Daily News put it:

When the crisis began, Hayward seemed surefooted. He relocated to a Ramada Inn in Louisiana and publicly took “full responsibility” for the disaster. But then he began minimizing the illness of cleanup workers and the environmental cost of the spill, denied there were any underwater oil plumes and started to look increasingly arrogant.

An article from the (British) Times interprets it thus:

“Ultimately this has been as big a public relations disaster for BP as it has been an environmental catastrophe for the Gulf,” said a well-connected source. “When America was crying out for the cool assurance and go-do-it of Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 they got bumbling Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral.”

I love the analogy, and Americans certainly wanted action, but what’s probably missing from that British description is the charge of arrogance.

When I watch interviews with Tony Hayward, and his demeanour in the video of the congressional hearing below, there are occasions when he strikes me as lacking in humility. I also wonder if what might be interpreted as an embarrassed smile sometimes in the UK could be interpreted as a smirk in the US. Seriousity is an American behaviour and an appropriate behaviour for a congressional hearing on a grave issue. But I don’t think we ‘do’ seriousity in the UK. I’d be interested to know how other folks interpret it.

An update

American impressions of elitism are being confirmed as news outlets report that Tony Hayward is at the Isle of Wight today watching his 52-foot yacht “Bob” participate in the J.P. Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race.
“He’s spending a few hours with his family at a weekend. I’m sure that everyone would understand that,” said Robert Wine, a BP company spokesperson.

Ha! I think not!

 Posted by at 12:44 pm

  20 Responses to “A British apology”

  1. That was a hilarious video! 🙂 Good laugh for a Saturday afternoon!

    Now… what about Hayward – I know it’s cultural but he seems very, very arrogant and disinterested to me.

    It’s in the eyes, the shake of the head and even in the tone of voice – it’s sort of “I am so tired of all this, I didn’t do it personally…what a bother” –

    I mean he even says “there are (inflection) minutes…etc” “as I’ve already indicated… -the words chosen, it’s horribly superior!

    Doesn’t it seem like that to you too?


  2. Yes, there lots of points that video where Tony Hayward seems very arrogant to me. The “there are minutes” and “As I’ve already indicated” lines that you picked up on are very good examples. As you say, the arrogance comes across in his choice of words, his tone of voice, and his body language.

    But you know, if I put on my British glasses to view that video, his performance is slightly more excusable. Journalists generally adopt a less respectful stance towards the political figures they are interviewing in the UK. So we are more accustomed to seeing interviews where politicians and business leaders are fighting back and defending themselves – the more challenging questions elicit a more hostile response.

    So there are things he does that I suspect would really piss an American audience off, but that might be seen as more forgiveable in British terms.

    There’s a point at about 6.01 when the congressman was asking him about what information he was privvy to. I’m not sure what other Brits and Americans will feel about this, but I wonder if Americans might view his facial expression as a kind of smirk, while Brits might interpret it as embarrassment.

  3. Seriousity is the key – what an eye-opener! Sure looks like a smirk to me: superior and blasé, his eyes and forehead drawn up quizzically as he smiles. Seriously off-putting.

  4. Vicki’s comments about verbal sparring in Britain remind me of the different parliamentary routines in that country, where the PM has to face the Commons on a regular basis, and where the rhetoric can get both harsh and humorous. I see the same thing in academic history journals, sometimes, where there seems to be more willingness to spar and use sarcasm than in the US. What we seem to have here is a major need for cross-cultural communication training. But I suppose it was easier to have Hayward step down from daily operations and be replaced by an American, since the media are so relevant here.

  5. Oops, by “the media are so relevant here”, I meant American media and consumers are so important to this problem in which BP finds itself.

  6. Oh well put, Mark and welcome. Yes, cross cultural training was clearly required.

    I remember reading reports of Tony Hayward being intensively prepped immediately prior to the congressional hearing. I wonder whether the prepping was left to lawyers or whether cross cultural trainers were involved. Quite possibly they ran out of prepping time. He had a lot to learn. And in truth, it would be an uphill battle for anyone to come across as sincere after an ‘I-want-my-life-back’ comment.

    I’m biased, but I think cultural differences between the UK and US are underestimated so people get complacent. They think that we use the same language so communication will be easy, and they expect misunderstandings to be confined to vocabulary items like elevator and lift. In my experience, the vocabulary is the easy bit and low risk. Differences in the discourse and politeness styles and value systems are harder to spot and potentially much more dangerous.

  7. As an outsider from France, I must say I don’t see arrogance in Tony Hayward’s answers, just great embarrassment, awkwardness and the inner pray for the questionning to end quickly ! To me the whole dialogue shows bluntly his sheer incompetence and lack of aknowledgement of his responsability.

  8. Ah – Alice- thank you so much for this. I’m not imagining it! It really could seem that way!

  9. Vicky I totally agree,as we have said before on other issues we are divided by our common language and we really do have much deeper differences than the vocabulary and grammar.

  10. […] the streets to demonstrate against cruise missiles, Star Wars and all that. But I was just reading Vicki Hollett’s very interesting analysis of the current PB crisis yesterday and have been thinking about her idea that Americans are expected to demonstrate […]

  11. I’ve received another reply in my mail so I’m posting it here for Andy Bate:

    Interesting blog.
    My take on this is both political and cultural . There seems to be a far too easy US tendency to vilify in a pantomime villain way the Brit. Think central casting Alan Rickman character whenever Hollywood needs a bad guy. Some of that seems to rub off into the US body politic. Of course BP messed up catastrophically but over here we bristled at the “British” tag on BP to an extent. It’s a multinational and British now only by history. Having said that Obama seemed to point the finger at the right villains as well as BP, the Republicans who won’t ‘regulate’ and tax the oil industry as he wants. On your seriousity point Gordon Brown seemed to many to do seriousness to a depressing degree however Blair seemed to master ‘perceived sincerity’ with his seriousness and I know he was loved I’m the US.

  12. i really honestly don’t believe it’s cross cultural miscommunication. it really is cross class miscommunication. or rather crass communication. the Haywards just have real difficulty believing that people beneath them socially are real or important. which is how BP operates.

    it is 1. class culture which is so enveloped in entitlement it is unable to empathize. here is a great deal of relevant research on members of one group being unable to mentally “see” members of other groups as human. his response is no different than many US American CEOs such as blankfein, equally obtuse. 2. corporate culture well documented. BP as a serial offender wherever they operate unable to even consider the real human consequences of their failures. they’ve been found guilty of murder and other really serious crimes rather routinely.

  13. Great comments from Andy and Isa. Yes, there’s a whole political side to this and I have just been focussing on the cross-cultural.

  14. I really enjoyed thinking this through, Vicki, and want to thank you for all of your help. Here’s the exercise at Spotlight: http://www.spotlight-online.de/language/vocabulary/how-not-to-apologize-for-a-disaster
    Looking forward to your book 🙂

  15. He does come across as almost smug, even to an Englishman like me.

    But it is quite clear that he has a body language and gestures of feeling he is in an awkward position.
    After all from what he has said it is pretty obvious that the whole incident is a case of the “right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing”.

    Not only did he lack the systems being in place to inform him of the potential disaster to come, it seems he could not really answer to the satisfaction of the panel as to the assurances that they and I guess we require that this would not be repeated.

    I completely agree with the Blair observation. Not only is he respected it seems in the US but also seemingly here in Germany.

    Having met John Smith before him, there was a certain seriousness that is missing in Blair, and here with Hayward.

    But Blair had a very sanquine nature that Hayward lacks, and could be why the latter comes across as not reflecting the seriousness of the situation enough in his mannerisms.

  16. Very much enjoyed your take on this Vicki – I have been following it closely and have been fascinated by the cultural issues it raised.

    By the way, off the point, but sort of related to one of the themes of the comments. I was told ten years ago that a US cross-cultural training company had done a survey of US multinationals which had relocated managers to European offices for temporary stints. Of all the countries that they’d sent them to (and they were all Western European), the country that had the highest repatriation rate (ie people not sticking it out until the end of their allotted time away from the US), was the UK. The posited reason being that when companies sent their employees to the UK they didn’t bother doing any cross-cultural training or offer any great support for them and their families, whereas when sending them to Germany or Italy or wherever they did invest a lot of time in that.

    Sadly I no longer have the reference, and it is probably worth taking it all with a pinch of salt since the survey was commissioned by a cross-cultural training company in whose interest it is to suggest that cross-cultural training is vitally important, but I have always found it an interesting idea all the same.

  17. Here’s another amusing comment on this:

    (Ah, since the link was posted I’m afraid it has disappeared, folks. The way of the internet, eh?)

  18. […] A British apology  Posted by Vicki at 2:35 pm […]

  19. […] A British apology  Posted by Vicki at 2:35 pm […]

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