A helpful guide to American work culture and business etiquette
American business culture is a melting pot of ambitious go-getters, each with a unique way of navigating networking events, talking business and sealing deals, from the skyscrapers of Wall Street to the laid-back tech hubs of Silicon Valley.
Whether you’re looking for a job in America or you’re just curious about other countries’ work etiquette, there’s a lot to learn and discover! American business culture spans 50 states, 70 industries and almost a thousand different occupations, and while we may not be able to cover each and every one of those, we’re about to take you on a coast-to-coast ride through America’s corporate landscape as we break down the values and practices of US work culture and teach you some common American business lingo, so you’ll know that 'crunching numbers' has nothing to do with a mathematically-inclined breakfast cereal, and 'blue-sky thinking' is not a meditation technique.
American work culture is largely individualistic and many employees are motivated to advance their careers. This creates a culture that embraces innovation and forward-thinking, with a tendency to move at a fast pace, a clear focus on results and productivity, and a willingness to take risks.
Interestingly, unlike some other cultures, there isn't a strong cultural commitment or obligation to age or business hierarchies in the U.S. Instead, the emphasis is typically on individual achievement and personal progress.
Working hours in the US
In the US, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) established a work week of 40 hours, with employees receiving overtime pay (1.5 times their regular pay rate) for any hours beyond this.
This means vacation policies can greatly vary from one company to another. On average, most full-time workers in the U.S. receive about 10 paid vacation days per year. Some companies do offer “unlimited PTO", especially in the tech industry.
As in most countries, here in the US, building professional relationships is crucial. Networking and cultivating connections often play a significant role in career advancement and business growth and there are strict regulations against unfair practices such as discrimination or harassment.
In the US, business culture places a strong emphasis on equality and non-discrimination. This is reinforced by numerous laws including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in any aspect of employment. You often see a reminder of this in American job ads.
Of course, we still have a long way to go and racial injustices as well as gender gaps are an important issue to talk about in an American business context but there have been a number of movements in the right direction.
Diversity and inclusion
Diversity in the workplace is not just a legal requirement. Many American companies recognize that a diverse workforce fosters creativity, innovation, and profitability and actively recruit employees from diverse backgrounds.
Compared to people of other nationalities, Americans tend to express more excitement about new projects or ideas, which are often enthusiastically declared as “amazing” or “awesome”!
Such highly motivated and energetic expressions might take some getting used to if you come from another culture - like French business culture, where most people are a bit more cool and formal in business contexts.
In the diverse landscape of U.S. business culture, you’ll encounter many different languages and companies often look for multilingual employees to help facilitate global communication and better serve their international markets.
English remains the primary language of business but it's not uncommon to see companies offering services or materials in other languages like Spanish or Chinese, especially in areas with large non-English speaking populations.
American business communication isn’t about using the mostdifficult English wordsto impress your coworkers. Quite the opposite actually. It's all about being clear and concise. So skip the fancy words and say what you mean.
To touch base: To make contact with someone, often to update them or get an update from them.
Bandwidth: In a business context, this term borrowed from computing refers to the capacity to take on more work or another task. For example, "I don't have the bandwidth for another project right now.”
Deep dive: A thorough, detailed examination or analysis of a topic or project.
To think outside the box: To think creatively from a new perspective.
Game changer: An idea that causes a significant shift in the current manner of thinking about something.
To move the needle: To make a noticeable difference.
To circle back: To revisit or follow up on a topic or issue at a later time.
Elevator pitch: A brief, persuasive speech used to spark interest in what you or your organization does, named after the idea that it could be delivered in the length of a short elevator ride.
ASAP: As soon as possible - immediately or at the earliest opportunity.
Crunching numbers: Performing a lot of calculations or analyzing numerical data, often in the context of finances or statistics.
Blue-sky thinking: Creative brainstorming or ideation that goes beyond current realities, practicalities, and limitations to encourage innovative ideas that could lead to breakthrough solutions.
The American economy is like a classic Timex watch - reliable, diverse and consisting of lots of moving parts.
From the lightning-fast, high-stakes trading floors of the New York Stock Exchange, where seconds can make or break million-dollar deals, to the visionary corner offices of Silicon Valley, relentlessly pushing the boundaries of innovation - every segment is adding to the rhythm and momentum of the world’s largest economy, ensuring the smooth and steady ticking of progress and prosperity.
Obviously, there isn’t just one American business culture. The US business culture, in its vastness and diversity, is a lot like the country itself - a mix of different experiences, all part of one big story.
Every state is different, as is every industry, every company and even every department within that company. Day-to-day expectations and practices will be different if you're a farmer tending fields in rural Alabama, an elementary school teacher in West Philadelphia, or the CEO of General Motors in industrious Detroit.
Here are some of the regional idiosyncrasies:
Home to the world’s most prestigious and renowned Universities and educational institutes like Harvard, Yale, Brown and MIT, New England is all about education, research and development. Businesses often operate with a level of formality and stick to traditional business customs.
New York City
The city that never sleeps is known for its vibrant, fast-paced, high-stress, high-reward business culture. Quick decisions and constant movement are common. You can learn more about New York slang here.
The traditional Midwest is particularly relationship-driven. Business dealings often emphasize community involvement, personal trust and loyalty.
Known for industries like manufacturing, agriculture, and energy, the South highly values politeness and respect. Make sure you address people as 'sirs' and 'ma'ams” and use your best manners here.
The Mountain West
Cities like Denver, Phoenix and Salt Lake City value a balance between work and outdoor recreation. Their booming tech scene and a focus on sustainable energy contribute to a culture of growth and innovation that supports a lot of start-ups and small businesses.
The Pacific Northwest
With cities like Seattle and Portland, the Pacific Northwest has a very laid-back, green image. It stands for a great love for the outdoors and eco-friendly practices.
The tech industry's casual, creative home base in the heart of California, is known for CEOs wearing the same sweater every day, the blurring of work-life boundaries and crazy perks like on-site laundry services and private chefs.
Navigating the landscape of business etiquette in America is a complex task - but there are some cornerstone principles that will help you:
Be punctual and efficient. Don’t waste time with unnecessary meetings, long calls or wordy emails. The phrase "Time is money" was coined by Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s founding fathers and it’s taken pretty seriously up until today!
Greetings: Handshakes are still common for introductions but can also be skipped in a post-Covid world. Just make sure you make direct eye contact when you greet someone.
First name basis: Americans mostly use first names in business settings, even with superiors or elders. It's part of our culture's informal tone. Make sure you remember your colleagues’ names and use them often. People love hearing their own name!
Active participation: Speaking up and participating in meetings is often seen as a sign of initiative and engagement. It’s an individualistic culture, so everyone’s opinion usually counts.
Open door policy: Many businesses encourage an "open door" policy, which means superiors are usually approachable and open to discussion.
Respect is extremely important but hierarchies are flatter than in many other cultures. No need to curtsy for your superiors!
Acceptable business attire in the United States
If you believe movies like The Devil Wears Prada or Working Girl, it certainly seems like the number one key to succeeding at your job is a makeover.
The Devil wears Prada I Vogue scene
Don’t be fooled though! Makeover scenes may be fun but fancy work suits or dresses aren’t the most acceptable business attire in the United States. It certainly doesn’t have to be as classy and polished as Italian business attire!
The corporate world is actually moving away from caring about workers’ clothes at all, especially with more and more people working remotely. If you’re trying to decide what to wear for your first American job, keep the following factors in mind:
Formality varies by industry: Dress codes can range from casual jeans and t-shirt in industries like tech and the creative arts, to professional or business formal suits in finance and law. If there’s no formal dress code or uniform, take note of what your colleagues are wearing and try to fit in.
Geographical differences: Generally, East Coast businesses tend to be more formal, while West Coast ones lean towards the casual side.
Business events: For networking events or conferences, 'business casual' is a safe bet. This often includes dress pants, a blouse or collared shirt, and closed-toe shoes.
The Tech industry's impact: The rise of tech startups has significantly relaxed dress codes, with many adopting a 'smart casual' approach. Think blazers with jeans, and leave the tie at home!
Casual Fridays: Some companies practice 'Casual Friday,' where employees are allowed to dress more informally than usual.
The American Dream
If you’re a newcomer navigating the jargon-filled waters of American work culture, remember that every job is different and once you’ve found the right one for you, you’ll fit in naturally.
Wherever you end up, American work culture is as diverse as the country itself, a blend of tradition, innovation, and entrepreneurship and each region contributes to a colorful tapestry of business etiquette and practices.
After all, the country was built on the belief that everyone has a right to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. It's a country where at least in theory everyone, regardless of their background, can achieve prosperity and success with enough hard work and determination and "blue-sky thinking" can lead to the next big breakthrough that might just change the world.