The American workplace: A beginner's guide
Is working in the US really that different to the UK and other countries? Andrea Murad reports on the unique cultural nuances in American workplaces.
Many people may not realise how large and diverse the US is until they’re here. At the same time, each region has its own unique culture. Parts of the country have French or Mexican influences, while others are steeped in American traditions. There’s so much diversity that Americans sometimes feel like they’re visiting another country when they cross state lines.
“If you’re working in Texas, it’s really different than working in New York City,” says Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder.
While working in the US can be very exciting, figuring out how to work in your new environment requires some adjustment, no matter where else you’ve lived.
“You do want to do your research ahead of time to have some familiarity with the culture,” says Scott Dobroski, community expert at Glassdoor. “If you don’t, you could be in for a tougher adjustment than needed. In certain cultures and countries, there are things that are more readily accepted than others, and its up to each individual to follow the cultural rules of each nation.”
While moving to another country - or even another city - is stressful on its own, there are elements of the change that you can control. Understanding how business is conducted in the region where you’re working is one way to ensure you’re as successful as you can be.
Here are our nine tips for what you may experience.
1. Less work-life balance
“Americans definitely work longer hours than [people in] a lot of European countries in particular and the rest of the world,” says Scott. “The average American leaves about 50% of their paid time off on the floor — they don’t even take it.”
Along with longer workdays, you may be expected to answer emails outside of office hours. You can guard against work encroaching upon your leisure time by setting clear expectations with your manager.
“You’d be surprised that few people actually talk about this with their managers,” says Scott. “They just accept being connected 24-7, but it doesn’t have to be that way and in fact, it shouldn’t be that way. When people have time to rest and relax, they can come back recharged and rejuvenated.”
2. Direct and explicit feedback
American culture is more direct and confrontational than most. “You have to think about what you’re going to say and be very to the point, direct and concise — equivocating in the US is not valued,” says Sheida Hodge, a cross-cultural consultant in Seattle, Washington.
Even so, feedback is shared differently throughout the country.
“In the South, there’s always an expression or slang,” says Rosemary. “In other parts of the country, it’s very solution based.” In the South, your feedback may come with a saying, such as “You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Hidden in this message are that person’s expectations of you.
Americans also tend to be very explicit. “You can see that regionally within the US,” says Mercedes D'Angelo, director of business development at Cultural Awareness International. “Like Minnesota nice — they’re really nice and give feedback in such a positive way that the negative feedback isn’t heard.”
Midwesterners tend to be gentler with negative feedback as well, while directness is appreciated in the Northeast. You need to be able to interpret what people are really saying since what sounds like a wish may instead be a requirement.
3. Opinions matter
“When it comes to meetings, in American culture, people are expected to express themselves and have opinions and that opinion has to be expressed in a very polite manner,” says Sheida.
While decisions aren’t always made at meetings, you have to be prepared to voice what you think is best.
During a brainstorming session, don’t be afraid to share any idea, whether bad or good, since all ideas will be considered while determining the best ideas to implement.
4. Big initiative
Asking forgiveness and not permission can go far in the American workplace.
“A culture where failure is tolerated is very American,” says Mercedes. Failure is inevitable when you’re taking a risk and trying to develop something new.
“[Americans are] very individualistic, and we’re risk takers,” says Mercedes. “[Americans] have a history of taking risks and winning on those risks.”
5. Problem solved
Americans tend to be very action oriented and want to solve problems so they can move forward — going through the pros and cons of a decision isn’t an American approach.
If you’re working on a project and come across a road bump, provide suggestions on how you’ll resolve the issue when you present the issue.
“Never come up with a problem if you don’t have a solution,” says Sheida. “You start the discussion with solutions.”
6. Small talk is big
The pace at which people communicate and work can be differently regionally.
There’s always some lead in icebreakers in business settings, like the weather, American sports, or vacations, for example, but in some parts of the country, this is a bigger part of the conversation.
“Texas can be its own country,” says Rosemary. “There’s a lot more chit chat in Texas, for example. Doing business is as much around having this meal and getting to know each other, and we have to go through this step in order to get down to business.”
7. Informality equals friendliness
When Michelle Obama hugged Queen Elizabeth II, what some considered rude was really a gesture of friendship to an American.
“If you’re in the UK, the quick air kiss on the cheek is fairly common, but here it’s the full on hug,” says Rosemary. “Doing business has become a bit more casual in major markets.”
8. Jokes and smiles
Americans tend to be very smiley while doing business. “Even if we’re negotiating, there’s still a ‘yucking it up’ factor,” says Rosemary.
“There are some cultures that are more reserved, but in the US, people have a level of comfort when dealing with other people. Sometimes people don’t have a poker face, but that’s a very American thing.”
Some may consider jokes and laughter as impolite, but it’s common that people on opposite sides of the table have relationships outside of the work setting. While they may have personal conversations and laugh at each other’s jokes in the hall, they still take their jobs seriously.
9. Local nuances
Each region of the country has its own colloquialisms and if you don’t understand these, you may be at a disadvantage. “You want to fit in and make friends so that you understand the local nuances,” says Scott.
These sayings may not always make a lot of sense too, but be mindful of their meanings and the nuances of the sayings. One word you’ll hear often in the South is “y’all”, for example, and if you do, know that “y’all” is singular and “all y’all” is plural.
Share your story
Do you live in the US? What cultural differences have you experienced in the workplace? Let us know in the comments below.
About the author
Andrea Murad is a New York–based writer. Having worked on both Wall Street and Main Street, she now pursues her passion for words. She covers business and finance, and her work can be found on BBC Capital, Consumers Digest, Entrepreneur.com, FOXBusiness.com, Global Finance and InstitutionalInvestor.com.