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US Business Culture
Generally speaking, you should beware of overgeneralizations concerning a country’s culture, especially if the country is as large and diverse as the United States. However, there are some traits that pop up in descriptions of US business culture again and again:
- openness to innovation and change
These values influence etiquette and behavior in the workplace, as you will see in this introduction to American work culture.
Meet and Greet
When you meet your future employers, co-workers, or business contacts for the first time, it is obviously time for introductions. A firm handshake and friendly smile are appropriate in a corporate setting, regardless of the other person’s gender, age, or seniority in the company.
You should respect a "bubble" of personal space of two or three feet. However, while encroaching on other people’s space or casual touching, like hugs, is out of place in the office, maintaining eye contact while talking is a must. This applies even if it might not be respectful in some other cultures.
The lack of formality is also noticeable when it comes to names and titles. Calling everyone by their first name is standard in most American companies. Regarding your boss, you might err on the side of caution and initially address them as "Mr. Smith", "Dr. Tyler", or "Ms. Jones". But they usually do just the same as your co-workers, asking you to use their given name immediately. Don’t ignore such requests; it might be interpreted as distance or dislike.
If you aren’t officially introduced to everyone, it’s due to an oversight or a fairly casual atmosphere, rather than a lack of courtesy. Simply take a moment to stand up and introduce yourself with your full name and job position. If business cards are exchanged, people will do this very casually.
In case you need to introduce other people (e.g. during a meeting or business trip), note that a less important person is introduced to the more senior or higher-ranking one first, not the other way round. Don’t forget to add a few details about whomever you’re introducing, like job title, area of responsibility, or some personal information, like where they are from.
Once you start making small talk, you should come across as personable, social, and positive. In the United States, it is considered good manners to "put on your happy face". If someone asks you, "how are you?", the expected answer is "fine, and how about you?" It’s mostly a rhetorical question, and definitely not an invitation to discuss your digestive problems or marital crisis in public.
Similarly, the suggestion "let’s do lunch some time" when saying goodbye is frequently an empty courtesy. If you’re planning on staying in touch, you should rather follow up and make specific arrangements.
Good small talk topics include hobbies and leisure, tips concerning local arts and entertainment, or dining and nightlife, and popular US sports teams. If you already know a little about someone’s personal life or family status, you can enquire after people’s spouse, partner, kids, or relatives.
Politics and religion should be kept out of the workplace, especially controversial issues, like abortion, capital punishment, or gun control. In general, social pleasantries keep things smooth among those working together, but they aren’t necessarily a sign of close friendship.
In general, the dominant style of communication in US business culture is friendly and to the point. "Yes", "no", and "maybe" normally mean just that; you don’t have to read a lot between the lines.
You are expected to express yourself politely, but clearly, and it is assumed that you will ask directly if there is something you don’t know or understand. Be prepared to be generous with your compliments, though, and to word criticism carefully.
On the one hand, you should get to the point soon and not talk around the issue. In meetings, for example, "getting down to business" is paramount. There’s normally a clear agenda and defined goals.
On the other hand, you need to avoid being considered as overly negative or rude in your conversations. Too much bluntness appears unprofessional, and so do big emotional displays in a public setting, especially if you voice negative feelings like disappointment or anger.
Dress for Success
Don’t forget about the dress code to make a good first impression! The key is to "sell yourself" to your new employer and other employees. Your appearance is part of that.
However, dress codes vary widely among regions and fields of employment in the United States. A Wall Street broker will wear a smart suit and shirt to work, while start-up employees in Silicon Valley might show up in shorts and t-shirt during office hours.
As a rule of thumb, be slightly overdressed rather than underdressed for your job interview, an initial meeting, or your first day at work. When you choose among conservative, smart casual, and casual clothing, always go for one of the first two options, depending on how traditional the company in question is. If your duties involve personal contact with customers or clients, more formal attire is often expected.
For instance, if you schedule an appointment for a potential cooperation in finance and insurance, the most conservative choice should be your first bet: dark suit, tie, and dress shoes for men, or an understated blazer, blouse, and skirt, as well as pantyhose and pumps, for women.
But if you are invited to a job interview in the creative industry, a "smart casual" outfit with a polo shirt and khaki pants for male applicants and nice slacks and a fashionable top for female candidates will go a long way. Just leave jeans, hoodies, and sneakers at home for the time being!
Once you know the environment better, you may dress down, if appropriate. Even American offices with a formal business culture often have "Casual Friday" when you are allowed to wear a more relaxed outfit. If you’re still not sure how to present yourself, your colleagues will be happy to help.
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