United States

U.S. American culture differs greatly from many other cultures in its strong emphasis on individualism and task orientation. This leads to business behaviors that are challenging for many other cultures, even when they think they understand U.S. culture from T.V. and other media. Learn more about the values that drive U.S. mainstream work culture.

American Worldview

Individual Orientation
Self-reliance; responsible for conduct of own life; independence highly valued

Balanced Competition

Brings out the best in an individual; challenges help produce best possible outcomes yet, being a “team player” and “a good sport” also important

Task Orientation

Scheduling, punctuality emphasized; time is a highly valued commodity not to be wasted; “getting down to business”; work connected to identity and self-esteem

Democratic ideal; large middle class; “rags to riches”; “American Dream”; hierarchical roles are merely titles denoting no special privileges or power

Tolerance for Ambiguity
Comfortable with ambiguous situations; entrepreneurs are admired; change viewed as progress; future viewed with optimism; excessive managerial overseeing perceived as “micro-managing”: which is equated with lack of trust

Strict application of formal rules without much attention to context  

Exact Time
Focus on accomplishing tasks “one at a time” and sequentially; strong drive for speed and innovation over perfection and concrete results

Cultural Notes

  • Americans must be 16 to obtain a driver’s license, 18 to vote, join the army and buy a shotgun or rifle, and 21 to consume alcohol.
  • 1 out of 5 Americans speaks a language other than English at home.
  • About 50% of Americans live in the suburbs. The suburban nuclear family has been identified as part of the “American dream” (a married couple with 2 children who own their house). This archetype is reinforced by mass media, religious practices, and government policies and is based on traditions from Anglo-Saxon cultures.
  • Wealthier Americans are returning to urban living in “gentrified” neighborhoods resulting in the displacement of many poorer, inner-city residents.

Cultural Assumptions

  • Risk-taking and an “entrepreneurial spirit” highly esteemed; Yankee ingenuity
  • Change equated with advancement; search for novelty; ability to reinvent oneself
  • Choice is considered a right
  • Often taught to question and even challenge authority
  • Personal success or failure are primarily attributed to one’s own actions/decisions.
  • One should focus on one’s own responsibilities and problems first.
  • The resources of the world are there for me to use.

American Communication Style

People say what they mean and mean what they say.  It is important to tell it like it is.  However, great care is taken to avoid sensitive topics (e.g. politics, religion, and sex) and to avoid conflict.  Differences of opinion and disagreement are viewed as conflict.

Low Context
Little attention is given to non-verbal cues and body language.

Emotions are discredited as unprofessional; in a business context, trust and credibility are developed through suppression of emotions; tendency to be more emotionally expressive with family and friends, particularly in southern U.S. and within certain sub-cultures (e.g. African American, Latino Americans)

Interactions are relaxed, friendly, informal and occasionally spontaneous (e.g. in grocery store line).  Titles are rarely used; they only denote job function and not status of hierarchy.  Age, position, rank, and gender do not strongly influence communication style.


Values in Tension

White Anglo Saxon Culture vs. Emerging Multi-Culturalism

 European-descent legacy in leadership positions vs. 2009 election of bi-cultural president Barak Obama (born in U.S. to American mother and Kenyan father)

Religious vs. Secular

  • Separation of church and state vs. “in God We Trust” printed on dollar bills and presidents who say, “God Bless America”
  • Condemnation of religious states abroad vs. U.S. conservative religious political movements

Social Responsibility vs. Individualism

  • Pride in having some of the world’s top universities vs. higher education inaccessible for many
  • Most technically advanced in health care vs. a World Health Organization ranking of 37 in health care performance
  • Obsession with appearance, fitness and health food vs. highest obesity and junk-food consumption in the world
  • Environmental concerns vs. lack of recycling and right to drive SUVs

Guidelines for Communicating with Americans

  • Factual rather then emotional
  • Pay more attention to words than to non-verbal cues
  • Written words are binding and regulate the deal.
  • Consider interruptions impolite so pace their language to allow others to reply
  • Uncomfortable with silence and pauses in conversation; may fill space with “small talk”.
  • Tend to separate work and social life; therefore expect little “small talk” in business context
  • Seek agreement; arguments are embarrassing
  • Seldom confrontational and may become indirect when disagreeing.
  • Greetings are informal.  First names are used from the beginning.
  • Hallway conversations are considered “wasting time”.  Once you have greeted someone in the morning, there is no need to say “hello” when passing again.
  • In a business context, maintaining good relationships is second to getting the job done.
  • Americans are often at ease working with “just enough information” and they value speed over precision.
  • “Actions speak louder than words.”
  • Criticism given delicately with diplomacy (sandwich approach)
  • Praise given often and publically (e.g. “employee of the month aware”)

“The US is a culturally diverse society.  However, there is also a dominant culture and immigrants became part of this culture by giving up their differences so that they could fit into the mainstream of society.  A more accurate metaphor is that the US has had a cultural cookie cutter culture, with a white, Protestant male mold or shape”

Non-Verbal Dynamics

A polite nod accompanied by a firm handshake is a common greeting, both in a business as well as social context; eye contact is made and held during a face-to-face conversation.  Smiling is common and expected.

Hugs and embraces are common in a social context; the occasional pat on the back (from the older superior to the younger subordinate) may be seen in a work environment.  In general, not a high touch culture.  Hugging is often seen between friends and close business contacts.

Personal space is very important.  When people bump into each other, they excuse themselves and apologize.  People tend to smile in public and, in smaller towns, greet strangers on the sidewalk with a nod and smile and perhaps even a “Hello”.

Business Practices

PROBLEM SOLVING Fairly direct; fact-oriented; enjoy challenges; little saving face concerns; quick solutions preferred. Facts and logic are preferred over relying on one’s intuition or “gut feeling.” Like to plan and prepare but are flexible. Learning by trial-and-error is more accepted in the US than elsewhere
MOTIVATING PEOPLE Autonomy and initiative encouraged; change viewed as inevitable and as a normal part of progress. Individual seeks self-improvement and is motivated by receiving additional responsibility. Individual recognition for accomplishments
APPRAISING PERFORMANCE Company performance measured monthly or quarterly; employee performance measured “formally”, often through a systematic “360 degree” review process in which employee and supervisor discuss goals and achievements based on departmental input.
PERFORMANCE EXPECTATIONS “Protestant work ethic;” focus on the individual; task-oriented; expected to be “workaholics” and “team players.” Although the typical workweek is 40 hours, unpaid overtime might be expected for salaried employees.
NEGOTIATING, PERSUADING Business and contract disputes rely primarily on legal system for regulation therefore, legal advice is brought in early in contract negotiations. Extensive bargaining in a business negotiation is seldom used.
DECISION MAKING PROCESS While many have input, the leader often makes the decisions and all are expected to be supportive once a decision is made. Strategic decisions tend to be made with a shorter term outlook than in other cultures.
PARTICIPATION IN MEETINGS Meetings are frequent; punctuality is emphasized; all expected to participate; agenda is followed; “action items” created, assigned; follow-up is expected.
Casual; use first-names (and even nick-names) which denotes being liked and helps build trust; uncomfortable with hierarchy and class system; share information freely; bosses often have an “open-door policy.”
HIRING Hiring involves self-sell, taking credit, listing and slightly embellishing one’s accomplishments. Rigid anti-discrimination laws are followed when hiring. “At will employment” allows employee or employer to end working relationship at any time for any reason.
CUSTOMER RELATIONS “The customer is always right;” little vendor/supplier loyalty; generous return policies for merchandise; fierce competition and low prices affords the consumer significant choice and buying power.