Are you ready for American business culture?

Published by Ngoc Tran on

American business culture

Welcome back to my blog series about culture! As mentioned in the title, this time we’re going to learn about workplace culture of the USA. What are the norms? Dos and don’ts? How to stand out from the crowd? Is it like what has been shown in any Hollywood movies?

First, think for about 3 minutes about this question: “What are the typical Americans like?”

The US business culture is generally less formal and hierarchical than in other countries, however, it matters where you come from, or it is dependable on different regions in the US. It is common for senior position to act friendly and make small talks with their subordinates about non-business topics. Nonetheless, both sides know that they need to continue to perform their tasks and act professionally within and beyond the organization. Therefore, in some senses, Americans take effort to ensure that personal relationships don’t affect business interactions. Another cultural norm is to be assertive yet sensitive. In the United States, you are appreciated when being enthusiastic and expressing your opinions in the meeting, while simultaneously not neglecting someone else’s feelings or contributions. A relevant point is that Americans expect you to equip a “can-do” attitude rather than saying “I don’t know”.

Regarding greetings, it’s polite to stand and to offer a firm handshake with eye contact and a smile. Also, do remember to keep some personal space when greeting or speaking to someone, preferably where you can extend at least one arm. It’s appropriate to address your colleagues by their first name, but do consider different backgrounds (e.g., if your colleague is from Asia). When feeling uncertain, always ask politely!

What about communication? As Meyer (2014) discussed in her book “The Culture Map”, a traditional American rule for successfully transferring a powerful message to an audience is “tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them”. This shows that the American prefers to communicate as explicit and clear as possible, to prevent ambiguity. So, if you’re from a high-context culture, you may perceive this as unnecessarily stating something obvious; however, an American or someone from a low-context culture may consider you as secretive and lacking transparency. Despite their explicitness, Americans are likely to tell you what to do without explaining why. This is because they highly value their own time and expect you to be proactive (ask when in doubt). Besides, there is a thing that you should know, it is how Americans give feedbacks. They tend to be indirect when giving negative feedbacks, so they often soften criticism with positive messages, or try to convey negative messages in positive and encouraging language. Thus, your American manager will also discuss a negative feedback with you privately and expect you to do the same way. Finally, what you need to know, is that small talk is a common way for Americans to break the ice in a personal conversation or a meeting. Now, you’re thinking of which topics can be discussed. Well, think of neutral topics like hobbies, sports, leisure activities, etc. (this seems to apply to almost all cultures). To be smarter, why not searching for their personal information on LinkedIn in advance?

Last but not least, I’d like to share with you about American meetings. First of all, don’t be late. Americans value time and efficiency. If you have a question for your colleagues, remember to contact them within traditional work hours, which are “nine-to-five” (9 am to 5 pm), even though Americans seem to work longer than that. Meetings often start with a 5-minute small talk. Avoid using a mobile phone during meetings and stimulate yourself to speak up your ideas with facts and proofs. Polite disagree with your colleagues is acceptable. Furthermore, Americans appreciate if you’re able to make good decisions quickly. After meetings, Americans often believe a decision has been made and valid when it is written down.

So, do these points match your mind about the American workplace culture? Please share your thoughts and experiences so that we can learn together.

To summarize aspects of the US business culture, here are the points:

  • Business is business
  • United we stand, divided we fall
  • Decision-making: put heavy emphasis on speed and individualism
  • Small talks and smile
  • Explicit in discussions; indirect negative feedbacks

The fundamental trick that helps you to be successful in dealing with different cultures is to equip yourself with a growth mindset and always remind yourself of that 😊. Thank you for reading and I see you in the next blog!

Recommended reading:

The Culture Map (Erin Meyer, 2014),approach%20to%20dress%20and%20communication.


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