10 tips on business culture in the USA

Tip 1: Be helpful and welcoming!

The US-American culture has been shaped by values like helpfulness and hospitality. For the American pioneers those values were essential for survival – and are still expected today. Like long ago US-Americans consider it as extremely important to be neighborly. This includes for example to pop in or call any time. You shouldn’t always take that literally, but in certain situations to express a sentence like this is simply expected.

In business life, the US-American helpfulness is shown e.g. through passing on information. Your US-American business partners will give you unsolicited information that is essential for the collaboration. If you are working together in a certain project, they will always be willing to discuss any issue that matters to you. This might happen during a team meeting as well as outside any scheduled meetings.

Tip 2: Always provide positive answers to phrases!

In the USA you often will hear phrases such as “How are you?” or “Let’s get together for a drink sometime!” Usually these are empty phrases that are part of the US-American friendliness. People don’t expect an elaborate answer. Do give a positive answer though. And only take an invitation seriously if it is connected to a specific date/time.

Tip 3: Take US-Americans literally – they mean what they say

Apart from some empty phrases that are part of their friendliness, US-Americans mean everything exactly like they say it. They belong to a low-context culture. This means the other person is always provided with all the necessary information to participate in a conversation. It is not expected that he or she has received information through any other channels of communication. Communication in a low-context culture is composed of a language that is clear. Nothing is said between the lines. Usually, a high amount of information is given and required, and much has to be recorded in writing.

Thus, you don’t need to interpret what your US-American business partner might want to tell you. Don’t start mulling things over and ask yourself “What could he have meant by this?” If you think you haven’t understood him properly then go and ask. Your introductory sentence could be something like “Did I understand you correctly?” Then explain in your own words what you think he said. No one will assume any lack of intelligence, but will appreciate your effort to get things straight.

Tip 4: Manage your time!

In the USA time is structured in a monochronic way, this means one is performing tasks one at a time in a linear sequence. Therefore, US-Americans place emphasis on scheduling. To finish one task before starting the next one, however, has become a luxury for many of us in our demanding working life. In a collaboration with US-American business partners it is therefore advisable to be able to explain the status of a project briefly and precisely. You won’t need a detailed presentation to do that, because the preparation would take too much time that could be used in a much better way!

Tip 5: Keep a distance!

The USA are one of the cultures in which people maintain a greater physical distance. Thus, don’t get too close to your conversation partner and do apologize if you have to squeeze past somebody! “Excuse me” is the magic word. You’ll see that US-Americans immediately make way for you and often apologize as well.
In business situations US-Americans have only little body contact. They shake hands when meeting, often only at the first encounter. In some sectors a kiss on the cheek might be appropriate, but only one. Let your US-American hosts guide you and follow their example.

I have experienced that men (male colleagues) hug each other. This is some kind of “shoulder hug”, one shoulder touches the shoulder of the other.

Otherwise, you should better refrain from touching someone’s arm or shoulder, in particular when dealing with the opposite sex. It could be misinterpreted as harassment.

Tip 6: Rely on your personal achievements!

The USA are an individualistic culture. This means that everyone is responsible for his/her own fortune. It doesn’t count much to which group of people you might belong or if you have been born into a specific social class. Only your own achievements in life matter. This is how the American dream can come true – from rags to riches.

Of course it is also important that you present your personal achievements to the best advantage. What others might discount as an exaggeration is for US-Americans just right.

Tip 7: Don’t expect a high power distance!

The term “power distance” (cultural dimension according to Geert Hofstede) refers to the degree of inequality someone is willing to accept. In the USA, people in high positions are well respected, but any form of authoritarian behaviour, patronizing or arrogance isn’t tolerated at all. Although being the boss you still have to carry your own suitcase. Always treat service staff with respect!

Tip 8: Don’t confront with unfamiliar behaviour!

US-Americans might see themselves as cosmopolitan people and innovation is always welcomed, but do not confront them with unfamiliar or unusual behaviour! That wouldn’t be understood. Unusual behaviour would be e.g. to drink beer at lunchtime, not to respect the dress code, to have a strong gesticulation or an all-too-sporty driving style, to sit for a longer time in a restaurant after having finished the meal already, to consider small talk as unimportant or to give too honest opinions.

Tip 9: Don’t spend too much time developing a personal relationship in business!

In business life US-Americans are short-term oriented. Personal relationships don’t count, it is all about the business as such and its successful handling. Your attempt to establish a personal relationship within a business context won’t be understood.

If you have a personal relationship with someone already, it is not a good idea to try to take advantage of this for achieving a business deal. This could jeopardize the seriousness of the relationship and be interpreted as opportunism. In the USA a personal relationship is a privilege.

Tip 10: Look for equality!

There is an understanding in the USA that all people have equal rights and opportunities. Nobody has a claim to privileges. So do say “thank you” when receiving a service, whether you have paid for it or not!

Johanna Marius

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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