American culture and etiquette
Insights into the American business world
By Eleonore Breukel
Intercultural Communication bv www.intercultural.nl
How we look upon and judge the lifestyle and workplace of other cultures depends on how we view the world from our own cultural background.
The Federal Government of the United States of America is located in Washington D.C. Each state has a local government. There are Federal laws and state laws, which may vary greatly between the states.
The USA is a vast country with six-time zones, four between the east and the west coast and one for Alaska and one for Hawaii.
In order to know in which state a particular city is located abbreviations of each state are used behind the names of the city such as, Houston TX (Texas), New York NY (New York State), Seattle WA (Washington). Washington state is situated on the west coast. The city of Washington, is situated in the District of Columbia (D.C.) which is not a state but an administrative unit on the east coast.
The USA with her 327 million inhabitants, is a multicultural and multi ethnic melting pot. Therefore, it is difficult to describe what the “typical” American looks like. For five centuries people from all over the world flocked to the United States, many of them seeking a better life. Today there are many mixed marriages with children having the features of both races. The elite however is still WASP. (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). President Barack Obama changed this however President Trump brings the elite back to the WASP.
The American language
English is an Indo-European language. US-English varies in many ways from UK-English as well as the English spoken in Canada, South Africa, Australia and other English-speaking countries.
- US English: first floor – UK English: ground floor
- US English: to table an idea means to keep an idea on the agenda
UK English: to table an idea means to introduce an idea during e.g. the meeting
More than 300 languages are spoken in the USA. In the Southwest of the USA 80% of the population have the Spanish language as their mother tongue. In order to obtain American Citizenship, one must speak English but many immigrant families continue to speak their native language at home. They balance daily between two cultures.
- The family name of an American usually represents his cultural background. Sanchez (Central/South American), Wong (Chinese), Krawic (Polish), Al Harbi (Arab), Arikian (Armenian), Roosevelt (Dutch), Levy (Jewish)etc.
The business culture of the United States of America
The United States of America is a large country with a huge internal market. The US has a 24-7 (24 hours a day 7 days a week) as well as an important global economy. American companies are to be found worldwide.
Only a small percentage of Americans travel across the oceans separating the USA from the rest of the world. Therefore, Americans who work virtually across borders but who live in the USA are not always aware of the huge differences in the way other countries do business.
The USA has a large countryside with many local media senders which hardly report international news.
Introductions: Americans address each other informally and immediately use first name. This can make it challenging when, at a social event, you realize that you speak to the CEO.
- No academic or job titles are used unless one is formally introduced in a business setting.
- After the formal introduction first names are used.
Working across levels internationally
The job title, even if not mentioned, but clearly on the business card, gives a person status. American job titles do not always match with those used in the rest of the world. Americans find it difficult to work across hierarchical levels, especially with someone who holds a lower rank in title. This often causes irritation internationally. You may discover that job descriptions of a German or French supervisor matches that of an American manager.
- American job titles do not match with those in other countries.
- Make sure tasks, responsibilities and your position within the organization are clear, when you start collaborating across borders.
Status in American society is more closely related to possessions and money than to family standing. Each American fights his way up the ladder, individually. Moving up the social and business ladder is usually done through a change of jobs. Americans easily move across the country for a higher position with a better salary.
The first impression
First impressions are important. Americans know how to sell themselves and expect others to do the same. Be very present and express that you are willing to work hard. Appearance should be healthy and energetic. Dress and good manners are less important than the above-mentioned qualities.
- The dress code is usually rather informal. A business-casual jacket for men and a business suit for women. A tie for men is not always required.
- Show that you will invest time and effort to reach your goal.
Rules and regulations
The Unites States citizens are law abiding and used to many rules and regulations.
People hardly question public authority. This reflects on organizations. Each organization has a strong organizational culture with strict rules to live by.
Making decisions and leadership
Decisions are made at the top, usually after the interested parties have been consulted. Subordinates rarely disobey or openly question decisions or instructions from higher level management. It is hard for international subsidiary to oppose decisions made at Head Office in the USA. Policies often have a “one size fits all” approach.
The informal way of doing business in US corporations is confusing to many cultures. There is however a clear chain of command when it comes down to hierarchy and power. US corporate structures may be less tall than in most countries but much taller than in Northwest European countries.
In the US corporate world there are many charismatic leaders. As a leader, one does not only need knowledge, strategic skills, the ability to be an innovator, one also needs an open personality and have excellent speaking skills.
Competition or motivation
Competition is seen as positive. In the educational system competition is promoted. Good grades are awarded by the system. Organizations promote competition by selecting the employee of the year, or by giving big bonuses for selling products and services. The work ethos is very high and individuals work hard to reach their target and obtain their individual bonuses.
Excellent client service
The Americans are champions in customer service and customer friendliness. The customer is considered King and everything is done to please the customer. Americans do not understand the laid-back attitude many cultures have towards clients.
In many countries job satisfaction is the most important motivator for professionals. In the US, the paycheck at the end of the month, is the employee’s biggest reason to do a good job.
Energetic and positive: Americans usually speak in the present or imperative tense with lots of action-oriented words. “Let’s do this”. “Make it work” “Instant solution”. This energizes people. Many powerful words and expressions are used such as; greatest, excellent, brilliant, thrilling, ultimate, a roller coaster ride.
Americans are well known for their positive thinking. A positive approach and attitude are key in business. Negative thinking or complaints are not received very well.
- Do not complain.
- Use the word challenge instead of problem.
Most Americans are friendly, open and relatively direct in their communication. In emails they communicate in bullet points, convinced that if you do not understand you will ask.
The bullet point email causes much irritation, in many cultures. Depending on the culture bullet point emails are seen as; communicating orders, lack of respect, a lack of time, or lack of knowledge on the topic. In reality it is just a different style of communicating.
Meetings are usual informal. People shake hands or just say “hello” when entering the meeting room. People are time conscious. One usually sticks to the agenda. Meetings are held to discuss matters in brought outlines, to obtain information and various opinions as well as communicating decisions taken at the top. Seldom decisions are made during meetings.
- Stick to general ideas and broad outlines. Avoid getting into details
- Schedule time for questions
Presentations during meetings
When you present for an American audience break the ice by cracking a joke (check beforehand with an American colleague if the joke is o.k.)
- Speak with a loud voice.
- Have a bullet point presentation with few images.
Your international virtual team
Are you French, Japanese, Dutch, Indian, Chinese or Mexican or any other nationality your American team leader expects from you:
- Good work ethics. Extra hours should not cause problems.
- A positive, constructive and energetic attitude.
- Openness, transparency, assertiveness and pro-activeness.
- Sharing of information within the team.
- To copy the team leader in your emails to others.
- To be comfortable with receiving instructions of the team leader.
- To understand that your team leader will try to energize you through his up-beat communication style.
- “Hello how are you” does not call for an elaborate answer. It is more of a greeting ritual and replying with “fine, how are you” is expected.
- Most Americans value personal space. Physical contact such as kissing or hugging as a greeting is not always appreciated. A firm handshake will do.
Having lunch or dinner
- It is American etiquette to eat with the fork in the right hand. The knife rests on the edge of the plate with the blade towards the center of the plate. Only when you need to cut food you hold your fork in your left hand and cut food with the knife in your right hand. When you are done cutting, place the knife on the plate and switch the fork to your right hand. The left hand may rest in your lab as it is not needed above the table.
- The USA has wonderful wines, which can be served during dinner. Hold your glass at the stem not to heat the white wine with your hands. When drinking red wine your hand may cup the glass.
- The waiter may ask you if like to have ice cubes in your white wine.
© Eleonore Breukel
Intercultural Communication bv. www.intercultural.nl