CultureWise: US Business

The United States is known as a melting-pot of ethnic and cultural groups. Despite (or perhaps because of) this diversity, the cultural values that define and distinguish the nation are perhaps more visible and explicit than any other nation on earth.

American communication styles tend to be very direct. The meaning is conveyed in the words themselves, which tend to be efficient and concise, with no frills. Relational information (i.e. feelings or attitudes), which in other cultures may be expressed in subtle body language and linguistic nuances, can sometimes be hard to access for US individuals brought up in such a direct language environment.

As a result, some Americans may miss the verbal and non-verbal cues that other cultures use and are then confused when things do not go the way they thought they had agreed to.

Communication is also efficient (time is money), so there is little importance placed on too much politeness or verbal niceties. Written communication tends to be short, concise and to the point. In business presentation, the amount of background information needed to introduce a company or project can be much less than elsewhere. For most North Americans, events that took place more than three to five years ago are considered irrelevant to the current situation and background information on a project is usually limited to the latest developments. By contrast, many Europeans go back much further in time and often start the description of their company or project at the conception stage, no matter how long ago that event took place.

As a result, miscommunication can occur during joint meetings where people from both sides make presentations: North American audiences often find European presentations uninteresting, because they contain much superfluous background information (by North American standards), while European audiences often find that North American presentations are impressionistic and lack key background information, making these presentations difficult to follow.

During discussions, participants are expected to be direct. This is not a nation where considerations of saving face are high on many people’s agenda.

Disagreement is supported with facts and figures. Although one person will chair the meeting, egalitarian values imply that all are expected to participate if they have something useful or constructive to contribute.

US business culture tends to be informal, with an emphasis on getting things done. Americans will usually get down to business quickly, leaving the small talk for lunch.

The informality and approachability that characterises many American leaders can sometimes seriously mislead more consensus-minded Europeans. In fact, a glance at some of the heroes of American business demonstrates that a lack of formality and the use of first-name terms rarely indicates a lack of decisiveness, or more than a passing interest in maintaining group harmony. In a culture where the individual is placed above the company, community (or even family), establishing a personal identity as a leader can often mean imposing your own beliefs on others.

As a result, individualistic and driven American leaders rarely spend much time seeking the team consensus that is expected of their northern European counterparts. In extreme cases, they may be willing to fire anyone jeopardising their deal. Irreverence towards a leader or senior figure, particularly of the type sometimes seen in UK workplaces, is rarely appreciated. An important task for visitors can be to understand the office hierarchy and learn the rank and titles of all members of the organisation.

With first names and nicknames commonly used, US business people generally live up to their reputation as informal and approachable. But close or intimate business relationships – at least in the Asian and Latin understanding of the term – are not part of US business. It is not that Americans do not want to build personal or professional relationships; it is merely that the relationship is usually secondary to the business at hand.

Part of this is the time factor – relationships take time to develop and Americans are in a hurry to get the job done. It is also a matter of priorities and the ability to compartmentalise their lives into different segments that do not necessarily overlap. Whereas many Asians and southern Europeans will work to develop relationships before making a deal or will try over time to develop relationships with business colleagues or partners, to most Americans, this is a frill that is not necessary to the work at hand. Americans are also pragmatic – it really does not matter if they do not like you or you do not like them, you just need to figure out a way to work together and get the job done.

Because Americans are friendly and informal but do not often immediately follow up with substantial demonstrations of friendship, they are often considered to have only superficial friendships by other cultures. It would be more accurate to say that Americans have different types of friendships, often based on how they compartmentalise their lives. They may have church friends, golf friends and neighbourhood friends, none of whom know each other and who are friends only in the context of that environment. One would probably not invite the golf friends to dinner, or at least not with the church friends.

Another aspect to American communication styles that can surprise foreigners is that accepted topics of conversation are quite different from elsewhere. Europeans and Asians may feel quite comfortable discussing politics, religion or philosophy with counterparts – subjects that may be deemed too personal for their US colleagues.

Culturewise Ltd

2 Stephen Street, London, W1T 1AN, UK

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