North American Business Etiquette
These tips on North American business etiquette are not intended to stereotype Americans or insist that all American businesspeople and companies operate in exactly the same way. Rather, the tips serve as a guide, providing you with greater cultural awareness and understanding of North American cultural norms when it comes to doing business. Remember to always respect the culture, value and traditions of your prospective partners.
North Americans are generally more informal and do not attach as much importance to rank and seniority as some other cultures. An appropriate greeting is a short, firm handshake and a friendly smile. In less formal settings, a handshake might not be required, and a friendly nod with a greeting such as “Hi” or “Hello” may be more appropriate.
Titles and the importance of names is also not as important as it might be in East Asian cultures, for example. It is best to err on the side of caution and refer to your American counterpart as their title (such as Mr/Miss) followed by their surname, but you will most likely be asked to call them by their given name fairly soon after meeting them. This is a genuine request and they may be surprised if you persist in addressing them more formally.
Do not be offended if you aren’t officially introduced to everybody present. This may be an oversight or your hosts might not feel the need to do this specifically. If you would like to introduce yourself, it is perfectly acceptable to wait for an appropriate occasion to go and introduce yourself. Likewise, the exchange of business cards is not ritualised and there is not as much importance attached to it as in other cultures, so do not be offended if your American counterpart takes your card with one hand and only gives it a cursory glance before putting it in his pocket. This is not done to be impolite or cause offence.
It is perfectly appropriate to spend a little time discussing social niceties before discussions start, but Americans will tend to get down to the business at hand quicker than in some other cultures. Social interactions in the USA are usually upbeat, positive and smiley. It is good to note that the question “How are you?” should be responded to with the expression “I’m fine thank you, and you?” It is more an empty courtesy rather than an invitation to begin discussing private or personal matters. That said, discussion of more personal things such as family and jobs is perfectly appropriate conversation, as long as it is kept general. Even though conversation can generally be quite casual and upbeat, and professional, non-controversial jokes are used to break the ice, do not be misled into thinking that a high level of intimacy exists between you when perhaps it does not. Friendliness often just a basic signal of politeness.
However, meetings are a lot more time conscious, and usually there is an agenda to be stuck to. You should be punctual for meetings and if delayed, you should call ahead and apologise to let them know you have been held up. There is a much stronger focus on time in North America and many people consider time not working as time wasted – “time is money”, after all! Therefore, you should not be offended if businesspeople in the USA seem to want to skip social niceties – they are not being rude, it is just the way things are done. You will find that getting-to-know-you chat might be limited to a few perfunctory questions and answers. Tasks at meetings are tackled one at a time, in a sequence and to a deadline.
Due to the focus on time and results, Americans can seem disinterested in forming personal relationships and can give the wrong impression to foreigners. It is not intended to cause offence – in American business culture, it is not as necessary to get to know potential business partners on a personal level, with much more importance given to the business at hand. Professional working relationships can therefore be a lot more distant.
Due to a much stronger focus on results and speed in the USA than in some Asian cultures, for example, negotiations may feel overly rushed or ill-considered to some. If you are used to multiple meetings and long, considered discussions of the finer points, it may come as a bit of a shock, so be prepared. A rapid, quick negotiating style should be expected, and tasks and problems are tackled one by one and resolved before moving on. Negotiations are pragmatic, goal-orientated and focused on finding a solution.
One thing that those from other cultures should be aware of is that the Arabic and Asian concept of saving and losing face does not exist in North America. In American business negotiations, it is acceptable to express open disagreement or express contrary opinions – this does not cause the same embarrassment or offence that it does in some other cultures and is considered a natural and healthy aspect of business dealings. Americans are more direct and there is less need to read between the lines – “yes” means “yes” and “no” means “no”.
Similarly, if you disagree with something that one of your American counterparts has said, and express it ambiguously with an expression such as “I am not sure” or “I will consider it” as would be appropriate in your country, somebody from the United States would take this at face value and would not read between the lines. Therefore, if you are in disagreement with something, you should state it openly.
Business Meals and Social Occasions:
Whereas in many countries, business lunches and meals are more of a social occasion, used to forge a better personal relationship with your counterparts, in the United States a business lunch can mean just that – a lunch in which you discuss business. Whereas in some countries, business lunches or dinners are ceremonious occasions to honour one’s guests, working lunches in America are a way of stretching more working time out of the day.
If you are invited to somebody’s house, you may be shocked by the lack of formality of the occasion. It may be a buffet-style occasion where you are told to help yourselves, and will certainly be less planned and ceremonious. For example, whereas in some cultures it is taboo to pour your own drink, in the USA, you may be told to “grab a beer” or told where the wine and glasses are and be told to help yourself. Your host may come around with a bottle and offer to top up your glass, but it is not expected that you do the same for others.
American table manners are slightly different to those in Europe. Whereas in Europe, continental table manners indicate that you should use your knife in your left hand and your fork in your right and use these both in conjunction to cut and scoop up your food, in American etiquette it is quite common to use your knife for cutting, place it down, swap your fork to your right hand and use it alone to eat a piece of food. If this seems complicated, don’t worry! Americans are generally more casual about how cutlery is used and if you are unsure, just watch and see what everybody else is doing.
There are certain rules of etiquette that are not as acceptable in American culture as they are in others. Things like slurping food, eating open-mouthed and eating very quickly may be frowned upon.
American business dress can really vary from place to place and is for the most part not as conservative as it is expected to be in some countries. For example, the concept of “smart casual”, which can consist of smart trousers and skirts in light colours and open-necked shirts without ties, for example, is a lot more accepted in the American business world, and “dress-down Fridays”, where completely casual clothing is worn to the office, is a lot more widespread.
If you are in doubt as to what to wear, dress conservatively on the first day in an ordinary business suit and tie, if you are a man and a smart trouser or skirt suit with tasteful accessories for a woman, and observe your American colleagues to get an idea of what to wear on subsequent days.
Don’t let it happen to you!
A Japanese manager goes to America on a business trip. He is shocked by the pace of the meeting and feels quite rushed, especially considering that there are some ideas he disagrees with. To show his disagreement, politely interjects that he will consider the points that they have proposed, which his American counterparts conversely appear to be quite pleased by. However, they keep insisting on the points that he believes he has expressed his disagreement to and are placing pressure on him to draw up a contract.
If the Japanese businessman or his American counterparts had been more aware of the etiquette of these countries, then they would have known about the very different negotiating styles in operation. Whereas the Japanese manager believed that he was expressing his disagreement by telling the Americans that he would consider their proposal, the Americans were more direct and took him at face value. He would also have known that the progress of business meetings is a lot quicker because Americans have a “time is money” approach to business dealings. Here at Lingua Translations, we offer cross-cultural training to ensure that your business dealings are not ruined by an inadequate knowledge of your target culture. Contact us now to find out more!