How to navigate your way through American workplace culture

The United States is often perceived as a country of hard workers. This belief is deeply rooted in the “American Dream” ideology that equality is available to everyone, regardless of their background, if they are willing to work hard for it. If you have the opportunity to work in the United States, be proud of your accomplishment, and understand that the American workplace culture may be vastly different than in your home country.

As you adjust to your new life in the United States, you may also be faced with unique social customs, corporate language, and unfamiliar workplace etiquette. To help ease your transition, we’ve compiled eight common themes of American workplace culture. While the examples listed are meant to be a generalization, every workplace is different and will have their own set of rules and company culture.

Living to work

Many Americans define themselves by their occupation. While it may be perceived as inappropriate in other countries when meeting new Americans, you may be asked, “What do you do?” Because a person’s occupation contributes significantly to their sense of self, Americans often have the tendency of living to work instead of working to live.

The United States is the only industrialized country without national paid parental leave. While it’s not mandatory for an American company to offer this type of leave, it is optional for them to provide it to their employees. It may take some time for you to become more accustomed to the “live to work” mentality, but that doesn’t mean that you have to live your life that way to fit in at your workplace. Take advantage of the vacation time that you are provided and don’t feel pressured to put work first in your life.

Longer work days

Contributing to the “live to work” mentality is the long work days in comparison to other countries. Reports estimate that a full-time employee in the United States will work between 47 and 50 hours a week. When it comes to vacation time, the average US employee only takes about 54% of their allotted vacation time per year.

It is all too common for Americans to respond to and check their work emails after work hours. In some highly competitive workplaces, employees who don’t work late and prioritize their family may be seen as not serious about their work. On the other hand, many companies recognize that an appropriate work-life balance helps to keep employees productive and satisfied.  

Treating breaks as a luxury

In many European countries, it may be common to take a leisurely two-hour lunch with wine in the middle of the workday. In the United States, that luxury is unheard of. While US labor laws require employees to take time away from their desks for breaks or lunches, many employees will eat while at their desks or skip their breaks altogether.

Meetings during breaks or “working lunches” are a trend that encourages American employees to stay focused on their work during all of their working hours. In some situations, companies may reward employees with breakfast or dinner if they arrive early or stay late to work on a project. More often in office settings than factories, taking a break away from your desk can be perceived as a luxury that some employees aren’t willing to take.

Depending on your company, some treat breaks as optional while others are very strict about making sure that you take your allotted breaks. As you start your new job, don’t feel pressured to follow suit and work through lunches or breaks. Time away from your work can help you de-stress and be more productive throughout the day. Consult your employee handbook or ask your supervisor the details on your breaks and take advantage of them as you see fit.  

“Do-it-yourself” mentality

Americans value individuality and a “do-it-yourself” mentality. Companies often will invest in employees that can bring value on an individual level as well as the ability to work as part of a team. Americans can be perceived as competitive and will strive to be recognized individually for their accomplishments.

This isn’t to say that your American coworkers will be unwilling to help and provide guidance. While there may be an emphasis on being unique and showcasing your strengths, many company cultures recognize that everyone brings a vital aspect the overall company goals.

The advantage of the “do it yourself” mentality is that you are encouraged to speak up and share your ideas and opinions. In many American workplaces no matter your position in the company, if you can identify an area that can be improved, your suggestions are welcomed. Possessing a strong work ethic, ambition, and accountability are values often rewarded in American workplace culture.

Sharing your opinions

As mentioned, individuality is highly valued in the American workplace. Americans often share this by freely offering their opinions during meetings, and with supervisors, and coworkers. Many American companies encourage their employees to share by creating an environment for open dialogue between all levels of seniority.

It’s common in some companies to hold meetings to gather teams for brainstorming, feedback, and project planning. If you are invited to such a meeting, know that your thoughts and opinions are welcomed and encouraged. An advantage of working with people who have a variety of experiences and the openness to share is the opportunity to combine them to create better solutions. Feel confident in your ideas and opinions because you can help drive innovation within your company and become a more valuable team member.

Keeping it casual

It would not be unheard of if your manager insists you call him or her by their first name, to see them on the dance floor at a company party, or having a casual conversation with you about your family. Americans tend to be very informal in the workplace, regardless of their position within the company. While you may not be greeted by everyone in the office at the start of the day, as the custom in other countries, but you may find yourself talking about your weekend plans with a coworker.

Americans share a belief of fairness and equality which is evident in the workplace. Regardless of your class or social position in your home country, you will most likely be addressed and spoken to just like everyone else. Depending on the company, during introductions your first and last name may be given, then afterward you are simply referred to by your first name.

Men and women are treated with the same level of formality. When sending an email, titles such as sir or ma’am are often seen as out of place and overly formal. It’s important to note that hugs and kisses on the cheeks of coworkers are usually frowned upon. While every workplace is different, pay attention to how your coworkers address others and even how they dress. Many workplaces allow for casual dress, including denim, while other companies have a uniform or strict dress policies.

Small talk with limitations

For someone new to the United States, the American art of small talk can be a source of misunderstandings. In many European cultures, it is often unheard of to talk about personal details while at work. Whereas in Latin America, it is often the custom to share the intimate details of one’s life with coworkers. In the American workplace culture, small talk will often take on a combination of both.

As with any social interaction, regardless of background, the level of openness can vary from person to person. Some coworkers will ask you about your family, your weekend plans, or your activities outside of work. While others may ask, “How are you?” in greeting, without actually wanting to discuss what is going on in your life.  

Small talk in the workplace is usually short, informal, and friendly.  In a workplace meeting, it’s often custom to start with a brief, casual conversation or social pleasantries before getting into the day’s agenda. Take your social cues from how others interact within your workplace. Some coworkers may be more friendly and open to talk than others, but don’t feel pressured to share personal details of your life if it makes you uncomfortable.  

Punctuality is preferred

Showing up on time is very important in American workplace culture. Punctuality portrays that the person is well-prepared and takes their job seriously. Lateness can be seen as a sign of disrespect, and consistent tardiness may result in disciplinary action within many American companies. Many workplaces will have a time and attendance policy that you are expected to adhere to.

On the occasion that your lateness is unavoidable, it’s common courtesy to send a message to your manager or coworkers informing them of your delay. Each company will have its own policy on who should be notified if this situation should come up. Just remember to strive to be on time and always call ahead if you can’t.

 

Just like any country, the United States has its set of cultural nuances that make it unique. While these eight themes cover some of the situations you may encounter in your new workplace setting, every company is different. But most often you will find that Americans aren’t that different from the people in your home country. We all want to be treated as a respected and valuable employee. Focus on being a good worker and will find your experience working in the United States to be rewarding.

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