One great reason to learn English is for work opportunities, which also means learning a new business culture. Let this article guide you through the ins and outs of American office language, from sports metaphors to basic manners.
Stepping into a new culture can be scary. Paying close attention to the culture in a new business situation can greatly impact your influence and leverage over a client or employer. This article contains some key tips that will help you make a great impression on your American business associates.
While business in America can seem different to business in your home country, don’t worry too much! America is a very diverse place with a variety of cultures. This is one of the things that makes American business culture so inviting. However America may seem in the news or on TV, we constantly have different ideas from people of many diverse backgrounds, and with that, anything is possible!
I’ll start with the basics. American business culture can be tricky sometimes. We are notorious for being informal and humorous but taking negotiations very seriously. Other cultures may pride themselves on building a good relationship before closing a deal but that is not necessarily the case in America. While we remain informal in our language and atmosphere, business meetings are taken very seriously. The concept that “Time Is Money” is true in our society. People look at time as something that can be bought, lost, saved, and spent. Appearance is very important: being clean cut and conservative at first is always a safe bet, then later you can dress based on the attire of your colleagues.
When you first enter the world of American business, you’ll notice that we are a busy, busy breed. American business, centered around that maxim of “Time Is Money,” has a reputation as being one of the hardest working cultures. In America, we don’t expect more than two weeks vacation a year, which is unheard of in other cultures. Sick days, personal days, and maternity leave are other things Americans get less of on average. So expect jealousy from your American colleagues when you talk about the amazing month you spent in Thailand (while you kept your job!).
Meetings and Goodbyes
“How are you?” and “How are you doing?” are phrases that you’ll hear almost instantly. These phrases are meant to be a general greeting not an actual question of health or stability. “Fine, thank you. How are you?” or “I’m doing well, how about yourself?” are acceptable responses. Most American business professionals will also greet you with a firm handshake while you exchange words. As for goodbyes. “Let’s have lunch,” and “Let’s meet soon,” are both common. Again, this is not a direct question or invitation, but rather an indication the colleague wants to talk again (or is just being polite, more on this later!).
It's best to avoid tough topics such as religion or politics, and you really shouldn’t talk about personal things like health or relationships. These tend to be heavy conversation for an introduction.
American’s (especially men) also tend to use sports terms when talking such as “touch base,” (to get in touch with, contact, or talk, as in “We’ll touch base later this week”), “in the ballpark,” (meaning close to, generally used when giving a rough estimate, for example, “our budget is in the ballpark of $1,000 for this project”) or “…hit a homerun.” (to do something with an exceptionally good result, for example “Sally really hit a homerun with that last deal, she’s going to make our company a lot of money!”) Learning these terms will bring you a long way in understanding all the business jargon you’ll hear when you step into an American business meeting!
- Written Communication
Most professionals will use first names right away. This is not meant to be disrespectful but rather used to build connections. In general, once a new business colleague introduces themselves by their first name, you should feel free to call them by that name, rather than sticking to the more formal “Mr./Ms.”.
You should make sure that you’re using proper grammar when writing business emails. Making simple mistakes (your vs. you’re, or their, there, or they’re, for example) makes your writing look unprofessional and will cost you credibility. A tool like Grammarly can help you find mistakes, but be careful as it does occasionally miss things. If you’re not a native speaker, you may need a little more help to make sure your writing is perfect. If that’s the case, a service like Writesaver, or another proofreading service, can help. Proofreading services like Writesaver instantly send your writing to native English speakers, who will quickly check your work and make sure it sounds like it was written by a native speaker.
- In-Person Communication
As we all know, different cultures have different mannerisms and gestures. You need to try to identify the difference between a genuine interaction and a polite gesture. For instance, if you show a presentation and as it ends, someone may say “That was very interesting. Thank you,” and leave. This is a polite gesture. They weren’t necessarily all that interested. However, if someone says “That was very interesting,” and goes on to ask questions and give comments, that is a genuine interaction. Realize that Americans value politeness, and generally don’t like giving negative feedback, especially to people they’ve just met! Because of this, it’s important to read the context behind their words. This is something that, as an English learner, can be very difficult to pick up, because it goes beyond simply studying vocabulary and grammar but it’s definitely something that comes with practice (and something your italki tutors can help you with!).
As mentioned above, while it’s not necessary to have a previous relationship with someone to close a deal, many American professionals still like to see your personality. Building a bit of friendship can help propel you in the business sector. A few topics of interest in America are sports, school, and hobbies. You can talk about these in interviews or at lunch with a colleague. Most people enjoy talking about themselves (this especially applies to many Americans), so you can use this to your advantage. Ask your boss what hobbies they have, for example. Show genuine interest and people will see you as a great conversationalist, regardless of your language skills!
A Word on “Proprietary Information”
If you come from a European or Asian company, your company most likely has lots of information they’d rather keep quiet. Things like company earnings, number of users, user demographics, user activity, new products being developed, and even number of employees or the names of top executives could all be closely guarded secrets, guarded as carefully as if they were a secret recipe or key to success.
If you want to do business in America, however, your partners will expect you to drop some of these high barriers and let them in to help them understand what forming a partnership and working with you will mean. They don’t mean to sell your closely guarded secrets to the highest bidder, they just want to better understand your company and how your companies might work together.
Most US enterprises are much less secretive than their European counterparts (some have even gone as far as publishing their revenue, salaries, and user metrics online), and will expect you to be just as open, or else suspect you have something to hide. The best policy is lower your barriers a little and be willing to give information to your potential partners: while also knowing what truly needs to stay secret and where to draw the line.
E-mail and social networking etiquette
E-mailing can be quite the endeavor in American business. Many people use different slang abbreviations like, lol (laugh out loud), brb (be right back), IMO (in my opinion), and many others. It is best that you try to stay away from using abbreviated slang in your business English. When e-mailing, you want to be professional and be as clear and concise as possible. To communicate effectively, you should say what you mean very clearly, and use “yes” and “no”, as often as possible when answering questions.
“Time Is Money”
In American business culture, time is the most valuable asset. Meetings are almost always started on time. Showing up to a meeting late is seen as rude and disrespectful. American culture in itself is one that enforces a strict and busy schedule to most participants. Time is seen as something that can be bought, sold, spent, lost, and invested. This is mainly because Americans stress individual work ethic on a merit based system, meaning the harder you work, the more successful you’ll be. In essence, it’s the “American Dream” that instills this behavior. Be mindful of other’s time as well as your own.
Many American business professionals see how much time one spends at the office as a sign of dedication, hard work, and loyalty to the company. This is especially true in certain industries (finance and consulting, for example). Because of this, it isn’t uncommon for professionals to spend long hours at the office, and go in on weekends as well. Many professionals also avoid taking their (minimal) vacation time for fear of falling behind in their career. This element of American business culture is becoming less prominent as employers begin to realize the value of having time to relax on employee satisfaction and wellness, but it is still very noticeable once you spend some time with American professionals.
Negotiations and Sales
You’ve likely already been a part of negotiations before. Did you ever bargain for a later curfew as a child? How about a bigger allowance? Maybe even negotiated with a friend about making plans for dinner?
Every culture goes through the negotiation process differently. In some cultures, building a strong relationship is necessary before you even begin to discuss business. In others, relationship building is actually frowned upon in business, as it is thought to hinder decision-making, and all transactions are done at arms-length. In America, you’ll often see a blend of the two, depending on the situation. As a sales person, building a strong relationship with your clients is always a positive, and if your company does work that requires you to work closely with your clients (like consulting), that relationship will likely be necessary before closing a deal.
When this is the case, find ways you can strengthen the relationship to your client during the sales process. Small talk before formal presentations, suggesting lunch meetings versus meeting in the office, remembering birthdays or other significant events, and bringing small gifts (company pens, flash drives, etc.) can all help you build a stronger relationship and ultimately make the sale.
Maintaining the Relationship
After you succeed in making a sale, the last thing you want to do is lose your newly won customer! If you’re a contractor, keep in mind that American professionals want to hear from you. They want to know how you’re progressing in your project, and want to be informed promptly with changes in timeline, delays, or other challenges. This helps avoid unwanted surprises.
Stepping into a new culture can be scary, but it’s definitely doable! If you try your best, and absorb as much information as possible, you will succeed. Learning every day should be one of your top priorities when entering a new business environment. American business culture can ask for quite a bit more work than other cultures. While this will speed up your learning curve, it can also burn you out if you’re not used to it, so make sure to take time for yourself too!
Have an interesting story about your experience with US business? Or maybe an interesting anecdote from your own culture? Let us know in the comments!