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Europe and the US: The One Way Mirror

Oct 11, 20086 mins
Data and Information SecurityIT LeadershipSecurity

Europeans know a lot about America, but the reverse doesn't hold. The European security approach deserves closer examination.

If you’re an American and want a good chuckle, ask a European the following three things:

1) ask them to count to five on their fingers (Europeans will start with holding out their thumb to indicate the number one whereas Americans will start with their index finger);

2) ask how they would carry a bouquet of flowers (Europeans carry them with the flowers facing down so that the water can drain downwards to the flowers; Americans carry them with the flowers facing up–don’t know exactly why—probably just to show off the flowers).Those are things Europeans do differently from Americans. The last question is something Europeans do the same as Americans and it will surprise you:3) Ask a European what they played when they were kids and they will probably say the same thing as most American children—cowboys and Indians.

I find this surprising because why would the folklore and events of a relatively short period of American history (roughly mid- to latter part of the 19th century) in one section of the country (west of the Mississippi River) be the fodder for the imagination and entertainment of a generation of Europeans? I mean, wouldn’t you expect the English to be playing at storming a French castle or the Swedes to be pretending they were Viking marauders? But no, European kids all pretty much pretend that they are herding a wagon train across the American prairie whilst keeping an eye out on the horizon for smoke signals and Indian raiding parties. In fact, Europeans know almost as much about American folk legends like Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Sitting Bull and General George Armstrong Custer as do Americans.

The reason for this strange anomaly is the predominance of American television and movies. European television broadcast all sorts of current American programs (albeit usually one season behind) and American re-runs of popular syndicated shows. American movies dominate the cineplexes here. The European cafes and discotheques, for the most part, play American music. CNN broadcasts here with much the same reporting of current events with special emphasis on the American Presidential race. Being someone that doesn’t watch television, I find it shocking that Europeans actually watch and are entertained by this stuff!

The result is that Europeans know an awful lot about an awful lot of American current events and culture but Americans know very little about Europe. It’s a bit like being in an observation room with a one way mirror. You can see into the next room, which is America, but the Americans in that room cannot see you.

This asymmetry of information usually works to Americans’ disadvantage in conversation. For example, a European can intelligently discuss what the results of the latest American presidential preference poll and what would be the foreign policy implications if one of the major Presidential candidates should be elected. Yet, the American would be hard pressed to name the leading opposition party leaders in the country of the European he was speaking with let alone know what their various policy positions might be. Americans needn’t feel ashamed about this because it is not their fault. Rather it is simply the result of American dominance of media around the world and the American media’s obsession with reporting with things trivial in America at the expense of things important outside of America. I can still remember one major news network interrupting a major speech British Prime Minister Tony Blair was giving to Parliament on the run-up to the war in Iraq with a so-called “breaking news” rescue of a cute little dog that was stranded on a small patch of ground in the middle of a drainage canal. I guess that network could report it and you could decide whether it was news or not.

Does this mean that American security managers are destined to come across as cultural ignoramuses when they venture across the pond? Not necessarily. Of course, it certainly helps to become familiar with local customs, phrases and current events. Two of the best free resources on the Internet for a quick crash course on a country can be found at the U.S. State Department’s web site at and the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, .

But when you’re addressing European colleagues, don’t hesitate for a second to make well known cultural references and analogies from America. If you mention Oprah or Brad and Angelina, Europeans will all know exactly who you are speaking about. If you use the analogy of Custer’s last stand, again, they will understand the analogy even though it may seem quintessentially American. If you refer to a scene out of Star Wars, they will know what you are talking about—trust me.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that as a security manager you can ignore local customs and regulations, especially those that affect security. For example, in Europe the information security managers look to the ISO 27000 series of standards on information risk management—particularly ISO 27001 and 27002 (formerly ISO 17799). The latter standard focuses on security controls—which American security managers would be very familiar with, but the former standard concentrates on the management of the Information Security Management System (ISMS) based on quality management principles taken from ISO 9001. Thus, European security managers tend to be more concerned with quality management requirements as an integral part of security (e.g. demonstrating processes that lead to continual evaluation and improvement). This is a notion that would strike most American security managers as odd. Not that Americans have anything against good management practices; it’s just that Americans wouldn’t think of evaluating their quality management practices as an integral part of their overall security programme.

In short, my advice to American security managers working or managing offices overseas is that you shouldn’t worry about your international cohorts not understanding you—especially when you make references to well known American television, movies and music—but you should also research the web and ask questions of your local overseas staff in order to become familiar with the local customs and requirements affecting security. Do that, and you’ll be as welcome among Europeans as the cavalry coming over the hill to save their wagon train from attack. ##

Paul Raines is an American CISO working in Europe.


Paul Raines is the Chief Information Security Officer for the United Nations Development Programme. In that capacity he is responsible for the information security and disaster recovery planning for the Organisation’s 177 locations around the world. Previously, he worked for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and, like all current and former members of the organization, shared in the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. Prior to working for the United Nations he was the Chief Information Security Officer for Bloomberg LP and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. For relaxation he enjoys opera, Shakespeare, French wine and sometimes just sitting in a cafe with an espresso and croissant reading a good book on Roman history.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Paul Raines and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.

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