In 1943, most young American soldiers had never been outside the USA.
So the US Office of War Information made a film to help their troops adjust.
It was called: ‘Welcome to Britain’, actor Burgess Meredith played a GI spokesman.
In it, Meredith and a black GI are getting off a train, an English lady is speaking to them:
Lady: “It’s been very nice meeting you both. If you’re ever in Birmingham you should both come to my house and have a cup of tea with me.”
Burgess Meredith (to camera): “Now look men, you heard that conversation, that’s not unusual here, it’s the sort of thing that happens quite a lot.
Now let’s be frank about it, there are coloured soldiers as well as white here, and less social restrictions in this country, just what you heard: an English woman asking a coloured boy to tea, she was polite about it and he was polite about it.
Now look, that might not happen at home, but the point is we’re not at home, and the point also is if we bring a lot of prejudice here what are we gonna do about it?”
To British ears that sounds quite shocking now, having to explain that white people talk politely to black people as if they were equals.
But that’s because Americans didn’t know the customs in Britain any more than the British knew the customs in America.
Around the same time there was a situation that demonstrated the difference.
Bamber Bridge is a small village in Lancashire, it had three pubs.
American army units were segregated, and stationed near the village was the all-black 1511th Quartermaster Truck Regiment.
Also stationed nearby was the all-white 234th Military Police Unit.
Black soldiers were used to drinking in the pubs and got on well with the locals.
But the white American soldiers always pushed in front of the blacks to get served.
American whites naturally expected to get served before blacks, that was normal.
But one thing the British take seriously is a queue, they made the whites wait their turn.
The American commander couldn’t accept this and demanded the pubs be segregated.
So the publicans complied, they put up signs saying: ‘Black Soldiers Only’.
They explained, “We like the black Americans better, they’re more polite.”
Unfortunately this just increased racial tension, one night the white MPs entered ‘Ye Olde Hobb Inn’ and arrested a black soldier, Private Eugene Nunn, for being improperly dressed.
The locals took Nunn’s side and told the MPs to leave him alone, the MPs went back to their base for reinforcements.
The all-white MPs returned and met the all-black soldiers on the road, a fight broke out, MP Carson Bozman shot Private Lynne Adams.
The black soldiers went to the MPs base, broke into their gun room and took guns and ammunition and a firefight broke out that lasted all night.
By the end, 5 black soldiers and 2 MPs were wounded and one black soldier, Private William Crossland, had been killed.
At the court-martial 27 of the black soldiers were found guilty on various charges.
All these charges had to be either dropped or reduced because of overwhelming support for the black soldiers from the locals of Bamber Bridge.
The problem was, although both countries spoke the same language, neither really understood the other.
To the Americans, these soldiers were American and must follow American rules.
To the British, this was England and English rules must apply.
This is the main thing to learn about communication, we’re not talking to ourselves.
We’re only ever talking to other people, and other people aren’t us.
As Professor Sheena Iyengar says: “We may think we know our own minds, but the forces that influence our choices are many, varied, and often surprising.
Most of those forces affect us without our knowledge, and they do not necessarily operate in our best interests. How can we minimize the influence of such powerful factors, including bias and culture?
Is it possible to re-train our intuition?”
Or, as Mark Ritson says, “The most important lesson for any CMO is, you are not the market”.