Business English/Topics/American Business Culture

When in Rome, do as American tourists do everywhere – American proverb

Sometimes etiquette is easily explained to the non-native in a clear set of rules that any decent member of the culture follows. For example, in Japan it is considered impolite to show the soles of one’s shoes toward another person. However, sometimes the rules are not clear, and the polite person has to improvise to figure out the most polite thing to do. An example of this might be when the elder President Bush ducked below the table before vomiting at a state dinner. No book about culture or etiquette would have prepared him for that one, although now all American presidents place a strategically sited bowl beneath their chair at official events.

That said, the following is a simple explanation of the basic points of American Business Etiquette. This is a tool aimed at helping you do as Americans do when working with them on their own soil, over the telephone or even by email.

Work comes first edit

Americans and businessmen and women in particular are very task-oriented. They get a goal in mind and work until achieving it. In a scheduled meeting an American is likely to avoid chit-chat as idle chatter and will want to talk about business and little else. “Let’s focus on the task at hand” is an Americanism that reflects this tendency. Therefore be careful to not distract the conversation from the business at hand. Direct your comments towards identifying, and especially, solving problems. The people will feel more confidence in you when they feel that you are putting your heart behind the project at hand, whatever it may be. A big part of Americans’ lives revolve closely around their work, and although they may politely complain about it, the truth is that many of them like it like that. Americans do love to have fun, but it has its place, and that place should not interfere with work or a man or woman earning his or her livelihood.

Be very clear in what you say edit

Something that will madden your American partners is if they think that you beat around the bush in what you say. US culture values a person who says what he means and means what he says. "Get to the point!", frustrated teammates may demand.

Americans value clarity many times over what other cultures view as tact. It is better to lay everything out on the table, and not leave key points unmentioned for politeness’ sake. Not following this policy could be interpreted as rudeness or as gravely as dishonesty by your peers.

Honesty is the best policy edit

Related to the previous point, you will do well to avoid any kind of dishonesty in word or deed with your American partners. Do not suggest bribes, kickbacks, any other kind of illegal or unlawful payoffs, or anything else that goes against the law of the US or wherever it is that you are. Play by the rules. In the US, people get ahead while respecting the rules of the game. It has been said many times that, unlike other places, in the US it is easier to make money following the law than by breaking it, although this does not necessarily apply to US corporations operating abroad. Americans realize that if you are dishonest with the government or with anyone else, you are a dishonest person and will probably be dishonest with everyone or anyone that you work with, and are not to be trusted. That is, unless you are in a completely powerless situation where your every move can be controlled and all risk can be eliminated. But you don’t want to be in that situation, do you?

Logic rules over emotion edit

One of the worst things that you can do is appear overly emotional, or unable to make a cold, hard decision. It’s OK to get angry, and show it, about certain things, especially things that affect the bottom line. Don’t change your mind a lot of times if you don’t want to exasperate your coworkers.

That said, Americans don't like cold "robotic" coworkers either. It's fine to smile, laugh at a coworker's joke if it's genuinely funny, or to congratulate a coworker on a life event.

Respect the old guys edit

First off, don’t call them old guys. At least not to their faces. The senior partners at the firm have worked a long time to get there and although American entertainment may make fun of older citizens as worn-out or useless, the business world certainly does not treat them that way. They are to be respected as the wisest and most seasoned individuals on the team, which they likely are.

When dealing with them, speak to them and otherwise treat them with respect. Depending on the culture of the corporation, this may mean not to speak with them at all. Allow them to speak to you if they want something, otherwise it may be a good idea to not speak to them at all. A special note: if the executive is concerned about his advancing age and wants to be seen as younger than he really is, it may be better to speak to him more casually. In most cases, avoid using slang because it magnifies the difference between the generations and it may make the exec feel old or out of place, or worse yet, he may not even understand you.

Women are equal players edit

In US law, women are granted equal rights with men. Business women expect to be treated with the same respect as their male counterparts. They are considered to be equal to men in character and ability. Their gender is considered to be irrelevant in business settings.

It is absolutely inappropriate to make any sexual advances, make suggestive comments, or try to get them to go out for personal time not related to work. Do not treat them like secretaries unless, in fact, they are a secretary. Treat them with the same consideration as you would treat any co-worker.

Businessmen and sports edit

A lot of business persons were athletes in high school and college. There are many things that are similar between team sports and business activities, and both attract many of the same people. It is a good idea to become familiar with the basics of baseball, football, and basketball at least in order to make semi-intelligent sports-related small talk. Beyond small talk, business talk is filled with sports-related idioms, especially related to tactics which apply to both sports and business. These are used so commonly in American speech that the speaker probably will not even realize that he is using them.

Taboos: don’t go there edit

The big two edit

There are two main subjects that Americans agree not to discuss much in polite conversation:

  1. Politics
  2. Religion

That is because they are areas where people have deep-rooted beliefs that are not easily changed, and there is a great potential for misunderstanding or hurt feelings. Furthermore, outside of church or a political rally many people view them as unrelated to the whatever task you have on your plate at the time.

Criticizing the US edit

Besides this, avoid criticizing the US, US culture, Americans in general or US policy, unless they have recently invaded your country or have asked for your opinion (And even then consider how harsh your criticism is, and if it's warranted for the situation). Americans for the most part deeply love their country and may be offended and confused by comments that do not reflect a similar love and respect, and may take the comments personally. However, there is also a great diversity in their view of themselves; therefore do not expect them all to respond in the same way.

It's OK to be honest about the US and potential shortcomings when you are specifically asked, or if being blunt would help. For example, if a coworker is going on a business trip to your native region and they ask for advice, it's OK to mention the things Americans commonly do that won't go over well at the destination country.

Topics to talk about edit

There are certain topics that are common to talk about in casual business situations. Feel free to talk about the rich, sports, entertainment like movies, music, celebrities and books, and current events or business trends. Try to keep things general and not too personal. Nobody wants to know about your grandmother or problems with your spouse. When in doubt, talk business.