KNOWLEDGE BASE Business Culture In The US
Business Culture in the United States
Keeping culture in mind as you do business in the US
Every country has its own cultural guidelines and if you understand local culture and etiquette, you will have a better chance of successfully communicating and providing products that fit. But if you aren’t aware of the local protocol, it’s easy to inadvertently break some of the unspoken rules, leading to damaged or lost business relationships, offense, and loss of credibility. Many people who haven’t had the experience of working in other countries may not appreciate the importance of working with a sensitivity for national cultural differences. We’d like to give you some tips that will help you understand how things work in the the US.
Understanding the National Culture of the United States
Each culture has a collective way of thinking, which in turn affects the workplace. For instance, in cultures where getting along is much more important than arguing, negotiations can be very confusing and frustrating for someone who is used to saying what they think and demanding results. In order to better understand how values in the workplace are influenced by culture, Geert Hofstede conducted a comprehensive study around six different dimensions and uses this information to help explain business culture in a number of countries.
The six dimensions are:
A measure for how much the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. The United States scores toward the lower end of this scale, suggesting that Americans prefer to equalize inequalities in the distribution of power and do not simply accept that others have more power and control. There is a lot of sharing of information between managers and workers, and managers are expected to be accessible. Business interactions tend to be informal and participative.
Individualism vs. Collectivism
In societies that show more individualism, its members are expected to take care of just themselves and their immediate families. In societies that show more collectivism, individuals can expect that their family or members of their particular group will take care of them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. The US has one of the highest scores in this category, indicating that Americans as a group are very individualistic. Society is loosely-knit, with people looking after themselves and family, but not the greater society at large. There is a great deal of geographic mobility and people are comfortable with doing business with and interacting with people they don’t know very well. They are therefore willing to reach out to others for information, even those they don’t know very well. Because of the low power distance culture combined with high individualism, employees are expected to take initiative and not wait for direction.
Masculinity vs. Femininity
Masculine societies show a preference for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards, and are more competitive. Feminine societies show a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak, and quality of life, and are generally more consensus-oriented. Americans score high on the masculine side, reflecting their competitive, success-oriented, winner-take-all nature. Americans like to win and have other people see their success. Americans have a can-do attitude and like to be measured against targets to show how well they did. Because there is a goal to be the winner, a certain amount of conflict may arise from the competition to be the winner.
The level of discomfort members of a society feel with uncertainty and ambiguity. Americans score below average on this dimension, indicating that they are open to new ideas, other’s opinions, and innovative products.
Long Term vs. Short Term Orientation
The degree to which cultures prefer to maintain long-held traditions while viewing change with suspicion versus cultures that encourage thrift and modern education as a way to prepare for the future. The US has a score that shows the Americans believe in long-held traditions and will check new information to make sure it is true. There is also a “good vs. evil” dynamic, which plays out in attitudes on many social issues.
Indulgence vs. Restraint
Indulgent societies allow for relatively free gratification related to enjoying life and having fun. Restrained societies suppress gratification of needs and regulate them by means of strict social norms. The US scores as an indulgent society, and combined with the other dimensions, this shows up in dichotomies such as having strong anti-drug laws coupled with high rates of usage.
If you would like to learn more about this research and its findings, Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, Michael Minkov have written a book on the subject.
Map the Dimensions on a World Map - In the following video five of the dimensions are explained and then mapped on the world, showing how different parts of the world compare.
If you’d like to hear Geert Hofstede himself describe these spectrums, check out the following short videos:
Now let's take a closer look at the business and local culture of the United States.
Business and social etiquette in the United States
Business and social etiquette vary from country to country - even between our own and those countries that we perceive as very similar to our own. Here are some etiquette guidelines for the US to help you navigate your business interactions.
Americans in general are informal and friendly. They are very comfortable starting a conversation with total strangers on the bus, when standing in line, or sitting next to others at events. Because they can be so informal, open, and direct, it can be startling to people from other countries. Be prepared to be spoken to by a stranger at some point or another.
This level of friendliness carries over into business. When you first meet an American in a business setting, they will likely be enthusiastic to meet you and may overwhelm you with their exuberance. They will be eager to get down to business and will not feel the need to first build a relationship with you. You will find that they are often quickly on a first-name basis, so be prepared before you go for what you may encounter.
Business relationships in the United States
Americans do not require that they first have a personal relationship with you in order to do business. If the opportunity is right, they are willing to conduct business right away since the business is between companies, not necessarily people. Americans would rather sign a deal with you than build a relationship first. If the relationship happens afterwards, that’s all the better, but it’s not required.
Americans tend to be very direct and want to quickly “get to the point” of the meeting. To Americans, “time is money”, and they will use directness to keep things moving. If being direct is not normal for you or your culture, avoid using your culture’s perception of it when you evaluate the Americans you are meeting with. You may also have to strive to be more direct, yourself, than you normally are.
Greetings and meetings in the US
Greetings in the US tend toward the informal with a handshake. People are friendly, smile a lot, and quickly use first names. In fact, you may be startled at how quickly Americans start using first names, both in using yours and in asking you to use theirs. Try not to be offended by this - it’s a reflection of the egalitarian society. People in the US tend to be positive and enthusiastic, and you may find that they put their hand on your back, hold your arm, and enthusiastically shake your hand. Even if it’s not usual in your country, maintaining eye contact while talking is the norm in the US.
A question you will often hear in America is, “How are you?” or “How are you doing today?” Americans are generally not really asking you how you are, so you aren’t expected to answer in detail. You can reply with a simply, “Fine, thanks,” or “I’m doing well”. They may also say things such as, “See you soon!” or “See you later!” when you are leaving. These are common phrases that don’t literally mean that they will see you soon. You may or may not see them again.
Americans can be confusing with their body language. On the one hand, they smile a lot, even at strangers, and like to have people smile back at them. Some are prone to put their hand on your back, and even hug you when they feel you’ve established a rapport - while others may hate touching. Most Americans do have a strong sense for personal space and like to have some physical distance when talking. They will be uncomfortable if you stand or sit too close. If you are from a country where a lot of physical contact is normal and you stand in close proximity, you will want to pay close attention to their signals and keep your distance. If you are from a country where people tend to not be physical, don’t be surprised by an American who holds your arm, hugs you, or lightly slaps your back.
Punctuality is important in the US, in line with the feeling that time is money and if you are late, you are wasting both time and money. In fact, time takes on an almost tangible status in that you can spend it, waste it, save it, and invest in it. Therefore, being on time, getting right down to business, and sticking to an agenda are all useful approaches in the US.
There are some regional differences in punctuality, with people in the Midwest and Northeast much more conscious of being on time. If you are late, it will reflect poorly on you - you will be considered rude and disrespectful. People are more casual about being on time in the South and West, but you should always arrive on time and be comfortable with possibly having to wait for a while before the meeting starts.
Keep any commitments you make for appointments, sharing information, delivering a report, or finishing a project. Otherwise, you will be considered unreliable, or worse.
Business cards in the US do not hold the importance that they do in some other countries. They are used as a way to exchange contact information for future reference. Business cards are typically handed out as a formality in a rather casual way, and there may be times when they are not even handed out at all. Try not to be offended if your card is briefly reviewed and then stuffed into a pocket. Business cards convey information, but are not seen as a direct reflection or extension of the person.
Shaking hands and titles
Americans greet with a firm handshake, accompanied by eye contact. While your handshake doesn’t have to be long, it should not be weak. You will shake the hands of everyone to whom you are introduced, including the women and regardless of seniority. Once you have shaken hands, make sure you are then at least an arm’s length away, as Americans like their personal space.
When you first meet, use the title and last name of your American colleagues until they tell you to use their first name - which could be very quickly in America. If you introduce yourself with your own last name, they will be more likely to continue to use it until you give them permission to use your first name. When introducing others, use their titles, and it’s good to give a bit of context for who they are, such as, “This is Jessica Hoyt. She heads up our legal team”.
Business dress code in America
There is a wide range of dress codes in the United States, depending on the region, the industry, a person’s position, and the individual company’s policies. It is always safe to attend a first meeting in a classic business suit and then determine how to proceed for subsequent meetings. It is not unusual to see different levels of dress formality in the same meeting in America. You will not have a problem with being well-dressed when you first meet, or better dressed than others in the meeting. You may find that your American counterpart is more casually dressed than you are. Don’t be offended, but take it as a cue for future meetings.
Women in the American business world do not tend to wear flashy jewelry, lots of makeup, or revealing clothing. As with men, women should stick to a classic conservative look until they better understand the company’s dress code.
Communication style in the US
Americans are direct. They say what they mean, so “yes” means “yes”, “no” means “no”, and maybe is not a polite way for saying “no” - it really does mean maybe. Americans are also comfortable with asking questions if something is not clear to them. If you don’t ask any questions, it will be assumed that you understand everything.
Even though it is considered rude to interrupt someone when they are speaking, it often happens in the United States. If you hesitate to gather your thoughts or to think things through, someone else may jump in and start talking, finish your sentence, or take things in a new direction. If you would like to make a point, you can say “Excuse me” when there is a pause and you can then continue.
Americans are uncomfortable with silence and will find ways to fill it. They also expect people to participate and speak up in meetings. If a person is quiet, it will be assumed that they do not have anything meaningful to contribute or that they did not come prepared to the meeting.
Though the atmosphere may appear friendly and casual, meetings are taken seriously and any agendas will be followed and outcomes will be documented. Americans tend to want to get quickly to a decision and will discuss a topic then strive for consensus and a decision - and move on to the next topic.
Many meetings in America start with a brief amount of small talk to settle things down, make people comfortable, ease any tension, and test the ambience of the meeting. Typical topics in the US include work, sports, the weather, travel, food, how your stay has been, even family. This conversation generally will not last long and people will get started on the business at hand.
Americans, as a rule, are comfortable with conflict and are very comfortable with publicly disagreeing, openly criticizing, or saying “no”. Disagreements are handled publicly, directly, and openly. If this style is different from your own culture, you may be uncomfortable with it, but keep in mind that it’s the American way and is not intended to offend you or make you uncomfortable.
Contractual business agreements and negotiations in the US
As noted elsewhere, Americans are focused on the deal, on the end result. They do not need a relationship to make a deal. The relationship can build over time as business is being done.
Negotiations are seen as problem-solving exercises and are based on mutual benefit. Americans generally ask for much more than they ultimately expect to get (you might consider their first position as outrageous), keeping some room for negotiation as they go. It is expected that all parties will think for themselves and express their own ideas. Being straightforward and using facts and data are valued.
Americans would prefer to move quickly to an agreement, which could feel rushed to you. This goes back to the earlier points that Americans do not feel the need to first establish a personal relationship and that since “time is money”, they do not want to waste any.
The main objective of negotiations is to get a signed contract. Once signed, contracts are legally binding documents. During the negotiations, all of the contractual details will be scrutinized and if there are any disagreements later on, the contract will be referred to. There are often both state and federal laws that apply and both you and your American counterpart will have to adhere to them.
Be sure to obtain the help of a US-trained attorney that is familiar with American contract law to assist you in any contractual negotiations. Savvy Americans would not enter into a contractual agreement without legal consultation. Verbal agreements are rarely considered binding.
Women in the US workplace
Women hold many important private and public sector positions in the United States, so never assume that a woman you are working with is not in charge or your professional equal. Treat them as your equal and address them as ‘Ms.” unless it is clear they would prefer “Mrs.” or their first name. Many American women keep their maiden name after marrying, or use both their maiden and married names.
American women are often involved both in the workplace and at home and juggle a number of responsibilities quite effectively. Assume that they do not need any special consideration or help for being a woman. And beyond shaking hands, never touch a woman in a business setting.
English is the language of business in the US
While the US does not have an official language, 80% of the population speaks English and another 13% speaks Spanish. Unless you are working directly with a group that speaks another language, you can expect to do business in English. Keep in mind that it is American English, rather than British English, which will be reflected in how common words are spelled and certain phrases or words are used for common things.
Americans are fond of using idioms, many of which are sports-related, such as ‘hit it out of the park’, ‘game plan’, ‘ballpark figure’, and ‘touch base’. If you are not familiar with these idioms, you may find yourself unsuccessfully trying to directly translate. If you are not very familiar with American English, consider taking along an interpreter. You can also ask Americans what they mean by phrases that don’t make sense to you. It may even be a way to lighten the mood.
Federal and popular holidays in the US
There are 10 federal holidays in the United States that are observed every year, with an 11th, Inauguration Day, that is observed by federal workers in and around Washington, DC every 4 years. Banks typically follow the federal holiday schedule and most employers will give their employees at least some of these days off with pay. When holidays land on a weekend, the day off is generally shifted to a week day.
There are also popular holidays, such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day that, while not days off, are widely celebrated with cards, flowers, eating out, and other gifts. Here is a calendar for federal and popular holidays in the United States for 2016 and 2017. It’s useful to know the calendar for these annual holidays as you plan your media activities. Your product may take on special appeal at certain times of year, and there are holidays that you can target as well as others that you’ll avoid in your campaigns.
To help you keep track of the US’s public holidays and festivals, Globig has created a US Media Calendar through 2017. With the federal and popular holidays already loaded into the calendar, you can plan your activities around them.
Office hours in the US
Generally speaking, office hours in the United States are Monday through Friday, starting at 8 or 9 and ending at 5 or 6. The stated hours of work per week is 40, with people on an hourly wage being paid overtime for any work over 40 hours. Managers who are on a salary do not get paid overtime and often work more hours than 40 per week and even on weekends.
Many US companies offer flexible schedules, with people starting and ending at times that work for them, as long as they get their work done and/or put in the proper amount of time. It really depends on the culture of that company, the kind of service they provide, and the kind of work people are doing.
Socializing in the US
Just as for meals in American homes, business dinners in the United States range from very formal to very relaxed. Americans have business breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. There will be some socializing, but you can also expect that there will be some business talk, as well.
You’ll find that table manners are more relaxed in the US, and people won’t mind if you use Continental manners. Americans generally hold their fork in their right hand, will switch to their left to cut food, then switch back to their right to eat it. General rules are: elbows off the table and napkins in your lap shortly after you sit down.
It is acceptable to politely refuse food, or simply pass it on if it’s being served “family style”, when everyone serves themselves from the same serving dish. Americans tend to eat quickly as compared to the rest of the world, so don’t be surprised if things move along quickly.
If you are eating at someone’s house, arrive no more than 10 minutes late for small groups. You may have some time before sitting down for dinner, for conversation, drinks, and appetizers. Once invited to the dining room, wait to be seated and start eating only after the host has, or has invited you to begin. Never start eating until everyone has been served. Americans like it when people eat a lot, so feel free to take more when offered. Again, be aware that eating at someone’s home can be very casual and relaxed and is not necessarily a formal affair.
If you receive an invitation, it is acceptable to decline. People understand that you may have other plans. Do be sure to respond either way, and follow through if you do accept. It is better to decline than to accept and then not go.
Tipping protocol in the US
Tipping is common practice in the United States, and actually often supplements the income of servers. Here are some guidelines to help you.
If the service it good, leave 15% to 20%. If it’s just average, you can leave 10%. If it was terrible, you can leave no tip.
Be sure to check the bill before you leave a tip, as it may already have been added. It’s common for the restaurant to add a gratuity for parties of 6 or more, but it does happen for smaller parties, too, especially in areas where there are many tourists who may not know the local customs for tipping. If the service was exceptional and they have already added a gratuity, you can always leave more.
The standard rate for taxis is 15%-20%, adjusting up or down for bad or great service.
Tip $1 or more per bag for skycaps and for airport shuttle drivers if they help with your bags.
For daily housekeeping, leaving $3-$5 (or more in high end hotels) per day is appropriate. Leave it on your pillow, next to the bed, or somewhere obvious with a note of thanks. It is better to leave it on a daily basis, since the staff may change while you are there.
Tip the bellman $1 to $2 per bag when you have reached your room.
For room service, first check to see if a gratuity charge has already been added. There may also be delivery charge. If a gratuity has not been added, tip at least $5.
Gift giving does not hold a lot of ritual around it in corporate America. Items from your own country (or region) are good options - food, books, arts and crafts. Be aware that some companies prefer that their employees do not give or receive gifts. Government workers and some companies in regulated industries are not allowed to receive gifts. They will tell you if that is the case.
If you are invited to someone’s home for dinner, bring along a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates as a small gift. You can also bring something from your country to a private home. Americans tend to open gifts when they receive them, rather than waiting.
Cultural hints and taboos for the United States
Not surprisingly, there are certain things that will cause discomfort or are outright taboos that might be acceptable in your country. Here are some things to keep in mind.
Smoking - Smoking has become very unpopular in the US and is restricted or banned in many settings. In more than half the states, smoking is banned in all enclosed public spaces, including restaurants and bars. Many companies also ban smoking from indoors and there are often regulations around how far from a building entrance one must be to smoke. Generally speaking, you should never smoke without confirming it is legal and that you will not offend the people around you. Expect that you will unless you have otherwise confirmed. And never, ever light up in someone’s home without asking permission.
Politeness - Americans use “please” and “thank you” extensively, even for small things or for what could be considered expected behavior, regardless of rank. You should use them, too, when in the States. “Excuse me” is another common phrase, and people may “bless you” if you sneeze.
Too much information (TMI) - Americans have a tendency to share a lot of information, often what would be considered absolutely private in other countries. This can be done in casual conversation and even with strangers. You may learn more than you want to about someone. This isn’t to say that all Americans are comfortable with this behavior, they are just used to it.
Small talk - Small talk in social situations tends to be a brief back and forth. You are not expected to ask deep questions or give deep answers. In fact, Americans tend to be uncomfortable if someone dominates a conversation for too long.
Names are not sacred - In America, names are not held as sacred. If you have a hard-to-remember or hard-to-pronounce name, be prepared to have it either mispronounced or to have people use your first name. This approach is not intended as an insult. As stated earlier, Americans will also tend to quickly move to first names.
Disabilities are off limits - Do not call attention to, or ask about someone’s disability.
Flipping the bird - In the US, extending the middle finger and showing the back of your hand is called “flipping the bird” or “flipping someone off”. Don’t do this. It’s considered insulting and a challenge and could get you into trouble.
There is a lot to keep in mind regarding the business culture in the United States. It’s best to learn about it before you go and to be flexible and unruffled by it when you are there. Just as Americans should expect to adjust for business styles in other countries, you will benefit from accommodating the American style of business while in the United States. If you are uncertain, want to learn more, or would like in-country assistance, consider one of the experts in the Globig Marketplace.
KNOWLEDGE BASE Business Culture In The US