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Working in the United States can be equal parts thrilling and daunting.
The U.S. economy offers great opportunity, with relatively high wages and low cost of living. The American emphasis on efficiency and meritocracy have driven innovation to exciting heights—and feels downright liberating to those accustomed to strict hierarchies. And yet, expatriates working in the States find themselves navigating a work culture that can feel full of contradictions.
The casual atmosphere of many U.S. offices belies the fact that Americans work harder than most industrialized nations. That means longer hours, fewer holidays, and the feeling that you’re always “on call.” Americans who speak in meetings with near-startling directness will raise an eyebrow if you offer an honest answer to the ubiquitous question, “How are you?” We’ve broken down the essential information on navigating American business etiquette and culture below, in all its apparent contradictions and unwritten rules.
U.S. business culture is typically less formal and less hierarchical than other countries’, reflecting the American belief in equality. Employees often address one another by first name, have greater access to superiors, and exhibit a relaxed approach to dress and communication.
Certain fields prize formality more than others. Those in finance, accounting, or sales tend to dress and speak more formally than those in academia, media, or tech. Region may also play a role in workplace norms: Generally speaking, East Coast residents like those in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia are known for logging longer hours, and a “Work hard, play hard mentality,” while those in West Coast or Southern cities like San Francisco and Atlanta tend to value work-life balance, or a “work to live” approach. Err on the side of formality until you gain a sense of your office culture. Americans value transparency, direct communication, efficiency, optimism, and a “can-do” attitude.
When meeting a colleague or client, it’s polite to stand and offer a brief, firm handshake with eye contact and a smile. This is universally appropriate, regardless of someone’s age, gender, or seniority. Employees often refer to superiors by first name, rather than surname. When uncertain, you may ask how your superior prefers to be addressed, or err on the side of formality.
Also, “How are you?” is a standard greeting that often confuses expats. Americans value “putting on a happy face,” and will almost always answer in an upbeat manner—whether or not they actually feel it. "Fine thanks, how are you?" is an appropriate reply.
Americans like colleagues who are approachable and friendly, and tend to smile more than other cultures. But as a “non-contact culture,” Americans also prefer having a “bubble” of personal space. Be mindful not to stand too close when speaking, and minimize physical contact. Touching is rarely done outside a handshake, and gestures like hugging are generally considered inappropriate in the workplace.
Americans work longer hours, and take fewer holidays than most other industrialized nations. A 2016 study shows Americans work about 20% more hours than European counterparts (the equivalent of an additional day per week), and take fewer days off per year. The standard work week is Monday to Friday, 9:00am to 5:00pm, but be prepared to be flexible with your time.
Unlike many nations, the U.S. does not have laws capping the number of hours worked per week, and many salaried employees are expected to work longer hours, or be available for after-hours meetings. Since the U.S. sets employment laws at both the national and state level, there may be critical differences between working in, say, New York State and California. Research regulations on matters like working hours, overtime, holiday pay, workplace safety, and “at-will” employment, at both the U.S. Department of Labor and your state’s Department of Labor.
Americans’ communication style is direct and to-the-point. This may seem blunt to some, but Americans consider straightforward people trustworthy and efficient. That said, direct criticism will not be well-received. Disagreement is best delivered in non-confrontational terms (“I see your point, however...”). Aim for a “win-win” approach when differing with colleagues.
Small talk on income, age, politics, and religion is generally considered taboo in American workplaces. It’s best not to ask colleagues about these topics, or voice a forceful opinion. Instead choose neutral topics like hobbies, entertainment, sports, or other leisure activities.
Meetings are typically 30 to 60 minutes, with a clear agenda. Punctuality is important—the boss may arrive late, but reporting employees are expected to be on time. Attendees are expected to actively listen and participate. Remaining quiet or using laptops or phones may be construed as disinterest.
When meeting clients, business cards may be exchanged. This is done with little formality — for example, Americans will unceremoniously tuck away business cards for future reference. This is not considered a sign of disrespect.
For in-person interviews, you’re expected to bring a printed resume, even if they have yours on file. Bring multiple copies in case of a team interview.
Know when to talk salary: When beginning the interview process, it’s common to inquire about the salary range. However, salary negotiations should not begin until later in the interview process, preferably after an offer has been made.
It’s also polite to send a thank-you note to your interviewer, whether handwritten or via email.
Meals and Tipping:
The host or most senior employee will usually pay for a business meal, but be prepared to pay your own way just in case. At team lunches, junior employees generally avoid ordering alcohol unless their superiors invite them to do so. Tipping servers is expected; leave a tip of 15-25% of your bill for good service.
Dress codes vary greatly in America, and few fields still require formal dress like suit and tie. Your corporate culture, field, level of seniority, and even your city’s climate will affect workplace dress norms. Since many variables are at play, it’s best to ask HR about dress codes when interviewing, and remember it’s always a good idea to be slightly overdressed rather than underdressed for a job interview, your first day of work, or an important meeting.
HSBC commissioned this article. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of HSBC.