This misperception of American business etiquette leads many people to mistake friendliness and a smile for a softer approach to business. If you want to succeed working in the States, then learning about the realities of US business culture is essential.
Don’t let the informal atmosphere fool you, time is still money in the USA.
American white-collar workers work longer hours, take fewer days off and log more overtime than you might think. Although outsiders might perceive them as informal, casual and relaxed, US work culture takes full ownership of the saying, ‘time is money.’ The American dream is built on hard work and a focus on getting things done.
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Fundamentals of American business etiquette
It is extremely hard to generalize about American business etiquette – it is a culture of contradictions and opposites. It is focused on money, but relationships are built on the golf course; egalitarian, but status and rewards are high priorities. The US leads the way in direct financial services and legal business based on a reputation for dispassionate decision-making but boasts a huge creative and media sector where relationship building and instinctive judgements rule.
And there’s the East-West divide. Like everywhere else in the world, there are also some regional differences. People on the East Coast tend to work longer hours, while people on the West Coast value work-life balance more.
Wherever your business takes you in the USA, always have on your mind that transparency, direct communication, and a can-do attitude are valued above all else.
First contact and greetings
The American style of communication is direct and straight to the point. If you’re meeting someone in person a simple handshake and a “Hello” will do just fine, and don’t forget to look them in the eyes. They don’t mind being called by their first name, but if you are unsure, you can always ask how they want to be addressed.
Despite preferring straight talk, you should be more subtle giving criticism to a senior person. In a culture driven by success and ambition, criticizing your boss can be seen as a power play or trying to undermine them. Try to avoid direct confrontation if you disagree and deal with your objection in private on a one-to-one basis.
And while we’re talking about direct communication, the question ‘how are you?’ is a greeting and in no way a genuine inquiry. ‘OK’ or ‘fine is a perfectly acceptable response, regardless of your actual situation.
Americans are very comfortable with relaxed, open body language – and they smile a lot. They have a keen sense of personal space and can react defensively if you stand or sit too close. Hand gestures are muted and not overly expressive.
For most first meetings in business, formal business suits are the norm. There are some exceptions – for example start up tech companies, however unless told otherwise formal attire will be expected initially.
Punctuality is of the essence in the USA. If you are late, you are wasting both their time and money. Being somewhere on time, jumping quickly into work, and sticking to the plan is a common practice in the United States. Time is a valuable commodity, and it can be considered rude to be late.
Most formal meetings will follow the agenda quite closely. Topics will be allocated a specific time limit and the chair is likely to end a discussion when the allotted time ends. Make sure your presentations don’t overrun, particularly if you are inviting questions at the end.
Most meetings will start with a very short amount of social chat as people settle down. This can transition quite abruptly to business. If you are the host, you will be expected to draw the warmup to an end and introduce the topic.
In a negotiation, both sides will expect to move from their initial position towards a mutually beneficial compromise. All present will expect to contribute and take an active part in conversations and a good chair will ensure all are heard.
Business cards are always exchanged informally.
Business meals and gifts
It is very common for co-workers to lunch together, or to have lunch meetings with business partners or clients. For business meetings, the host will pay, but be prepared to cover your meal as a backup. Don’t forget that tipping is expected – 10-20% is normal depending on the attentiveness of the server. Unless you are celebrating a successful negotiation or the meal is after work, most people will avoid drinking alcohol.
Giving gifts is not common except for commemorative events – such as a 10-year anniversary – and even then, there are usually very strict policies governing the value of gifts.
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