Defining U.S. business culture

Every country has its own set of rules, values, and culture. These rules vary depending on region, religion, and political viewpoint. Understanding the culture will help to build relationships, present opportunities, and aid your transition to living and working in a new country. As much as culture plays a large part in day-to-day interactions, it also has a significant role within the workplace. 

Every country has a unique business culture that influences communication, customs, and etiquette. Seemingly small interactions like how you introduce yourself, respond to an email or make small talk may have the potential to influence your colleague’s perception of you and your values. Previously, we discussed the eight common themes of American workplace culture in our article, How to navigate your way through American workplace culture.” In this article, we’ll define business culture and set some basic expectations of what you’ll experience while working in the United States. 

What is business culture?

Culture is a crucial component in business and has an impact on the strategic direction of the organization. It influences management, strategic decisions, communication, and all business functions. Culture is the accepted norms, values, and behavior of a group, and it can often evolve. Every organization has its own culture, but they still follow some basic American cultural norms found in most American-based companies, such as employees’ behavior, etiquette, working styles, and habits. 

Understanding and adhering to the standard set of rules and values of U.S. business culture can help you establish trust and goodwill among your American managers and colleagues. As someone from another culture with different views on work, you may find there is a learning curve that affects how you work and communicate with your American colleagues. Take the time to learn and understand the common expectations of U.S. business culture, and you’ll be well-positioned for success within your new country. 

American management style

In the United States, companies face high levels of competition in all sectors, causing them to continuously look for more effective management styles that will boost productivity, lower costs, and create a competitive advantage. As a result, the most successful American managers encourage innovation, stay up-to-date with industry trends, and adjust their management style so that their employees have the tools and support to produce their best work.

You’ll most likely be assigned to a particular department within your organization, depending on your skillset. Within that department, you’ll be assigned a manager, and you will be a part of a team that typically includes a combination of experienced senior staff members and entry-level staff. American business structure relies heavily on teams to complete tasks and achieve objectives. As jobs in the United States are often added and eliminated over time, and employees’ responsibilities evolve, managers are responsible for developing the skills and abilities of their team members so that they can consistently contribute to the organization’s goals. 

According to a Harvard Business School article, there are five American leadership styles that you may encounter: 

Directive leadership: The manager or supervisor provides the direction with little or no input from the team. 

Participative leadership: Involves close teamwork with others and a more democratic approach to reaching team goals and objectives. 

Empowering leadership: Relies on the delegation of decision-making and responsibility to all team members. 

Charismatic leadership: Defined by a leader who uses communication skills, persuasiveness, and charm to influence others. 

Celebrity leadership: Typically, an outgoing leader whose primary goal is not to motivate employees but to attract customers and investors. 

While education is important, a manager’s demonstrated ability to achieve a high return on investment is much more valued. Businesses in America value a charismatic manager who is motivated, team-oriented, and can achieve results aligned with company objectives. Unlike in some countries, where business leaders usually gain their positions through political or family connections, in the United States, managers tend to choose their successors from among talented employees. 

American work/life balance

What an American does for work is very much a part of their identity. Americans define success in terms of their professional goals and “live to work” mentality, rather than the “work to live” philosophy of many European countries. When working in America, expect to work long hours and take less vacation. A recent Gallup poll reveals that, on average, Americans work 137 more hours every year than Japanese workers, 260 hours more than British workers, 394 hours more than German workers, and 499 more hours per year than France. Although a typical American workweek consists of five eight-hour days, The United States is the only industrialized nation without laws setting the maximum hours of work in a week.

For many Americans, an ideal work/life balance prioritizes their personal life over their work life, but many struggle to achieve that goal. Research shows that the average U.S. worker completes only 74% of their work at their workplace, opting to do their remaining tasks outside of working hours. The Bureau of Labor Statics reveals that the average U.S. employee spends 8.5 hours at work and 5.4 hours on weekends. In some extreme work environments, managers may watch their employees’ absences and productivity closely, creating social pressure to ensure they don’t take any leave unless absolutely necessary. Despite this, more American companies recognize the importance of creating a more positive work/life balance, as research shows it contributes to employee productivity and retention. 

American business communication

American communication is straightforward and to-the-point, which is also true in the workplace. To Americans, the straightforward person is seen as trustworthy and efficient. Below are some tips on the how-tos of verbal and non-verbal communication used among your American colleagues. 

  • A firm handshake with eye contact and a smile is often appreciated during an introduction, regardless of age, gender, or seniority. 
  • It doesn’t matter if they are your superior or your team member; Americans usually prefer to be addressed by their first names. 
  • A standard American greeting of “How are you?” is often not an invitation for an honest answer. Americans will respond with or expect to receive a positive reply, despite their true feelings. 
  • In general, Americans value friendly and approachable colleagues and are more likely to smile than other cultures.
  • Americans also prefer having a wider circle of personal space than what you may be used to. Be mindful not to stand too close when speaking, and minimize physical contact.
  • Gestures like hugging are generally considered inappropriate in the workplace.
  • Americans are uncomfortable with silence and will find ways to fill it. They also expect people to participate and speak up in meetings. 
  • Americans are comfortable asking questions if something is not clear to them and expect their colleagues to voice any concerns regarding a task or project. 
  • Americans tend to be comfortable with conflict and are very comfortable with publicly disagreeing, openly criticizing, or saying “no.” 

The advantage of American business casual

Americans tend to be very casual in how they live, work, and interact with one another. They are comfortable talking about their personal lives at work, and the work atmosphere is generally friendly and informal. Meetings are an interesting combination of American business acumen and the cultural emphasis on casualness. Meetings may begin with small talk, including weekend plans, family, or other glimpses into your colleagues’ personal lives. Conscious of time, the conversation generally does not last long and will quickly pivot to the meeting agendas and conclude with decisions made and outcomes documented. 

U.S. business culture is typically less formal and hierarchical than other countries, reflecting the American belief in equality. Americans believe that all people should have equal opportunities to succeed. By emphasizing casualness, commonalities can be easily highlighted. For example, the workplace is relaxed, where employees address each other by their first names, have easy access to senior management, and dress casually.

The casualness of Americans can be a great advantage for you as you become acclimated to your new life in the United States. Americans often have no problem striking up a conversation with a stranger and will be happy to answer your questions as you navigate through U.S. business culture norms and expectations. Not sure how to address your manager? Should you respond to a work email after work hours? Are there specific expectations of running a meeting? Just ask! 

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