Communication styles in business in the USA are determined by many of the approaches to business described below. The desire to debate issues directly openly leads Americans to be seen by some cultures as aggressive or rude. Coded speech and verboseness is often seen as time wasting – in time pressured corporate USA, that is criminal.
If you reach an impasse in meeting situations, the reaction is often to address it directly and ‘with feeling’. Many harmony seeking cultures would view this direct, robust debate as a signal of the breakdown of meaningful discussions and as the signal to try to abandon the interaction; in the USA this communication is viewed positively and as a sign of definite progress.
Paradoxically, on first introductions, American can seem very friendly, polite and solicitous of your well-being which juxtaposes the verbal behaviour exhibited half an hour later in the meeting. This overt friendliness (Have nice day!, Hi, how are you doing? etc.) should be taken for what it is — part of the protocol of the language and not as an attempt at establishing a life-long friendship.
Although coded speech and over-verbosity are frowned upon, the latest ‘management speak’ is often to the fore in business dealings which can make Americans sound extremely jargonistic — almost to the point of obscuring the real message.
Americans are much more open in conversation about private affairs than many European cultures and will often, quite naively, ask very personal questions at an early stage in a relationship which may be perceived by some as intrusive. (‘What do you make?’)
Technology is increasingly relied on. Email is the normal methodology of communication. Email messages are expected to be short and to the point – often ommiting both the greeting line and the closing line. Do not misinterpret this short form communication as rudeness or annoyance – it’s simply a quick and efficient approach.
Tips for Trading in the USA
Straight talking and ‘getting to the point’ is valued by Americans.
Respect is earned through a person’s achievements rather than by age or background.
Self-deprecation is often seen as a sign of weakness by Americans – sell your plus points.
Humour is used frequently in business situations, but is unlikely to be appreciated when matters become tense.
Remember: time is money in the States – wasting people’s time through vagueness shows having a lack of a sense of purpose which will not produce good results.
Compromise is often sought – at the brink. This can often equate to the end of a quarter or financial year.
Do not be offended by seemingly overly personal questions.
The dress code in the States is very variable – check on appropriate attire before departure.
Short-termism is widespread. Structure proposals to emphasise quick wins rather than long-term objectives (although these should also be included).
You may encounter an ‘American is best’ view to doing things – be prepared to counter this with quantitative and qualitative counter-arguments.
Be prepared for a parochially American view of the world – many Americans never leave the USA.
Enthusiasm is prevalent in business, and you should be party to it. Do not exhibit a jaundiced, ‘old world’ approach as this will be interpreted as defeatist.
New is good. American corporate life is constantly changing and so is the easy acceptance of new ideas, new models etc.
Gift giving is unusual in the USA. Many companies have policies to restrict or forbid the acceptance of presents.
Americans tend to work longer hours and take fewer days of vacation than their European counterparts.
Try to be punctual for meetings – if you are late you should apologise.
Despite seemingly not following a hierarchical structure, the boss is still the boss within an organisation. They are expected to make decisions and be held accountable for those decisions.
Americans often socialise with work colleagues outside the office – and this often includes family.
Titles are an unreliable guide to relative importance within an organisation due to their proliferation.
Business is a serious thing in the USA and it is important that you are seen to be serious in your intent and commitment.
Business structures in the USA are incredibly varied but tend to have several characteristics in common.
Firstly, the company is an entity in its own right, existing independently from its employees. Members come and go, perform necessary tasks at particular points in the life cycle of the company and then leave when no longer required for the wellbeing of the organisation. The relationship between employer and employee is a transactional one — where relationship and sentiment are a luxury which cannot be justified. Current economic conditions and the increasing influence of technology-based communication methods have only increased this disconnect between the employee and long-term, stable employment conditions. In a country where job-mobility and virtual working are increasing, transferable skills become the key to future success.
Secondly, the CEO of an American organisation holds great influence within the company. Senior management is more embedded in the personality at the top than in some other countries, such as Germany, where senior management is collegiate in approach. Although the company will have a Board of Directors, the Board is highly unlikely to have any input on the day-to-day running of the company which is left to the CEO who stands or falls on results. This can be seen as a high risk, high reward approach. It can bring great success but also spectacular failure.
Thirdly, accountability within the company tends to be vertical and easily recognisable. Americans like to know exactly where they stand; what their responsibilities are and to whom they report, if job security is weak, they’d like to understand the extent of liability on any particular issue.
When asked to describe meetings in the USA, a word which Americans often use is ‘aggressive’. This ‘confrontational’ approach, is very alien to those cultures who always put diplomacy and harmony at the heart of their approach to meetings. However, openly and directly debating all the relevant issues even at the expense of personal relationships is valued.
Of course, many cultures mistakenly see this direct approach between colleagues as a sign of bitter, personal animosity — which it always invariably is not. It is endemic in the American approach to communication in meetings and is seen as a positive step towards addressing whatever the vital and pressing issues might be. Time pressured, ambitious American business executives do not have time for the vagueness, diplomacy and lack of focus. They perceive these qualities to typify meeting situations in such diverse cultures as the UK and Japan.
Meetings often include formal presentations by one or more of the participants, and these presentations are a vital element in the demonstration of professional competence. Presentations should not only be relevant and well researched but also delivered in a positive, enthusiastic and committed manner. The meeting and especially one in which a presentation has to be made, is seen as an opportunity to impress which is important if personal success is to be achieved.
Meetings are increasingly virtual with one or more participants joining from a completely separate location by either conference call or video link. These meetings can often prove less successful than face-to-face meetings due to communication difficulties, especially if some participants are non-native English speakers. It is possible that the right skill-sets are not always in place to make the most of these difficult meeting types.