By Craig Storti

I was taken aback a few months ago when a Pakistani in one of my workshops asked me, “Do Americans mean it when they say: ‘Good job’?” My instinct was to say: “Sure. What makes you think they don’t?” But then I realized the answer was more complicated, and it actually gets down to a key difference between American and other work environments.

What I finally ended up telling the man was this: “They mean it in the sense that they genuinely appreciate it when people do something for them, even if it’s the person’s job, but it’s also not very significant because they say it all the time and to pretty much everyone. In short, don’t get too excited when your manager says “Good job.” And the man’s response was quite revealing: “Thank you,” he said, “because that did not come through in my recent performance evaluation.”

I realized the man had interpreted “good job” as fairly strong praise when in fact it was just the American’s way of expressing appreciation. To put it another way, in cultures where managers do not routinely thank employees just for doing their jobs, positive feedback of any kind is unusual and potentially quite significant, signaling a very favorable performance evaluation and maybe even a promotion.

This was actually not the first time I have encountered this cultural difference. Europeans often become annoyed with the amount of positive feedback Americans dish out, and some even find it patronizing. They feel that you are given a salary for doing your job and to be praised for that is almost to suggest your manager was not expecting you to do your job and is relieved. I have actually heard the same point made by Americans, in the other direction: “European managers don’t appreciate us; they never tell us we’re doing a good job.” To which a European would probably reply: “Of course not. We don’t treat our employees like children.”

So what’s going on here? In particular, what accounts for the American tendency to thank people for doing their job? To be honest, I’m not completely sure. I’ve pondered this for some time, and the best explanation I have found for this behavior is somehow related to the deep egalitarian streak in American culture. For example, a core American belief is that no one is inherently better than anyone else, whether by birth, social class, education, or wealth. Indeed, it was precisely to escape the negative impact of social and economic distinctions just like these that people came to the New World in the first place, so it’s not surprising that in the world they created egalitarianism became such a core value.

Americans do not believe all people are the same—far from it—but they fervently believe that everyone is equal. Some people are wealthier, smarter, better-educated, and better-looking than others, but at the end of day even the president of the United States is not inherently better than a bellman or a chamber maid. Indeed, one recent president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, went to great pains to make exactly that point when he was shown on national TV carrying his own suitcase into the White House after a weekend trip to Georgia. The message was unmistakable: I may be president of the United States, but I can carry my suitcase into my house just like everyone else does. It’s noteworthy in this context how candidates for president always stress their humble roots or, if their roots are clearly not humble (John Kennedy, George Bush), then how they have rubbed elbows with the hoi polloi all their lives.

The point is that if we are all equal, then no one owes anybody else anything; we may choose to do things for other people, but we are under no obligation. Even in the workplace no one can compel us to do our job; the most they can do is fire us if we don’t. But the choice is ours.

How else to explain why we thank the plumber who fixes our leaking pipes, the waiters and waitresses who serve us our food, the taxi driver who drops us at our destination? We’re paying these people, for heaven’s sake! I think we thank them because we want them to know that we know they did not have to help us.

Back in the workplace when we say “good job” or when we thank someone for doing what we pay them to do, in some sense we’re simply acknowledging that everyone has a choice in these matters. And it’s just good manners to express appreciation. And that’s the point— it’s just being polite, but it’s not really praise. And it’s very indiscriminate. But if you come from a culture where expressions of this kind of appreciation are uncommon, like my Pakistani friend, you can be easily misled and get the wrong idea about your job performance.

So if you’re a non-American on the receiving end of “good job,” don’t read too much into it. And if you’re an American handing out “good job” right and left, you may be giving your non-American staff the wrong impression.

Craig Storti, a consultant and trainer in the field of intercultural communications, is the author of seven books.