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United States

The People

Throughout most of its history, the United States has had influxes of immigration. The ethnic mix is 83% white (generally of European descent, but also from the Middle East and Latin America), 12% African-American, 3% Asian and about 1% Native American. Today the biggest immigrant groups are from Latin countries.

Meeting and Greeting

  • American greetings are generally quite informal. This is not intended to show lack of respect, but rather a manifestation of the American belief that everyone is equal.
  • Although it is expected in business situations, some Americans do not shake hands at social events. Instead, they may greet you with a casual "Hello" or "How are you?" or even just "Hi." In larger groups, many may not greet you at all. In social situations, Americans rarely shake hands upon leaving.
  • The only proper answers to the greetings "How do you do?" "How are you?" or "How are you doing?" are "Fine," "Great," or "Very well, thank you." This is not a request for information about your well-being; it is simply a pleasantry.
  • "See you later" is just an expression. People say this even if they never plan to see you again.
  • When saying good-bye, Americans may say "We'll have to get together" or "Let's do lunch." This is simply a friendly gesture. Unless your American colleague specifies a time and date, don't expect an invitation. If you want to have lunch, you should take the initiative to schedule it.
  • Stand while being introduced. Only the elderly, the ill and physically unable persons remain seated while greeting or being introduced.
  • It is good to include some information about a person you are introducing. Example: "Susan Olson, I'd like you to meet John Harmon. He designed the brochure we are using for this campaign."
  • Use professional titles when you are introducing people to each other. Example: "Judge Susan Olson, meet Dr. John Harmon." If you are introducing yourself, do not use your professional title.
  • Handshakes are usually brief. Light handshakes are considered distasteful. Use a firm grip.
  • Eye contact is important when shaking someone’s hand.

Body Language

  • Keep your distance when conversing. If an American feels you are standing too close, he or she may step back without even thinking about it.
  • People who like to touch really like touching, and people who do not like to touch really dislike being touched. You will need to watch your colleagues for clues on what they are comfortable with.
  • Americans are generally uncomfortable with same-sex touching, especially between males.
  • Holding the middle finger up by itself is considered insulting and vulgar.
  • Americans smile a great deal, even at strangers. They like to have their smiles returned.
  • Men and women will sit with legs crossed at the ankles or knees, or one ankle crossed on the knee.
  • Some Americans are known as "back slappers" -- they give others a light slap on the back to show friendship.

Corporate Culture

In a country that prides itself on its individualism, companies are organized and structured with many different styles depending on the industry, the company's history and its current leaders. In the United States, business relationships are formed between companies rather than between people. Americans do business where they get the best deal and the best service. It is not important to develop a personal relationship in order to establish a long and successful business relationship.

  • Americans view the business card as a source of future information and tend to exchange cards casually. There is no set ritual for exchanging business cards.
  • Americans prefer directness in communication. When Americans say "yes" or "no," they mean precisely that. "Maybe" really does mean "it might happen"; it does not mean "no."
  • It is always proper to ask questions if you do not understand something. Americans ask questions -- lots of them. They are not ashamed to admit what they do know. Americans will assume you understand something if you do not tell them otherwise.
  • Americans are often uncomfortable with silence. Silence is avoided in social or business meetings.
  • It is rude to interrupt someone who is talking. Say, "Excuse me" during a pause and wait to be recognized. Interruptions, however, are common. Do not be surprised if someone finishes your sentence if you hesitate when you are speaking.
  • Americans put a great deal of value on the written word. American law almost always requires contracts to be written out. Verbal contracts are rarely legally binding. Make sure you read the fine print.
  • Do not enter into any contract without hiring a lawyer. No savvy American businessperson would dream of signing a contract before consulting a lawyer.
  • It is very important in written communication to spell names correctly and have correct titles. If you are unsure of these, call the person's assistant to get the correct spelling and title.
  • Keep appointments once they are made. You may not get a second chance if you do not.
  • When you are doing business in the United States, you must be on time. Americans view someone being late as rude, showing a lack of respect and having sloppy, undisciplined personal habits.
  • Being "on time" in business situations generally means being about five minutes early. Five minutes late is acceptable with a brief apology. Ten to fifteen minutes late requires a phone call to warn of the delay and to apologize.
  • It is very important to meet deadlines. If you tell someone that you will have a report to them by a certain date, or that you will fax something to them immediately, they will take you at your word. People who miss deadlines are viewed as irresponsible and undependable.
  • Meetings are generally informal and relaxed in manner, but serious in content. Often an agenda will be distributed before a meeting, so the participants will be prepared to discuss certain topics. A successful meeting is short and to the point. Be prepared to begin business immediately, with little or no prior small talk.
  • Participation is expected in meetings. A quiet person may be viewed as not prepared or as having nothing important to contribute.
  • Meetings often end with a summary and an action plan for the participants to execute. A meeting is only considered successful if something concrete is decided.
  • Americans appreciate and are impressed by numbers. Using statistics to support your opinions will help you be persuasive.
  • Generally, there is one negotiation leader who has the authority to make decisions. Team negotiations are rare. Americans may begin negotiations with unacceptable conditions or demands. They are usually taking a starting position that gives them room to bargain.
  • The goal of most negotiations in the United States is to arrive at a signed contract. Long-term relationships and benefits may not be the main objective. The immediate deal may be the only important issue.
  • Negotiations may seem rushed to you. Remember that "time is money" to Americans and that they may not think that building a relationship with potential business partners is necessary.
  • Americans are very comfortable picking up the telephone and immediately conducting business with someone they have never met and perhaps never will meet.

Dining and Entertainment

  • Americans conduct business over breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some socializing may start off the meal, but often the conversation will revolve around business.
  • In a business setting the person extending the invitation to a meal pays for it.
  • The fork is held in the left hand, tines facing down. The knife is held in the right hand. After cutting the food, the knife is laid down and the fork is switched to the right hand to eat the cut food. Continental style (where the fork stays in the left hand to eat the cut food) is perfectly acceptable.
  • The guest of honor is often toasted and should reciprocate by giving a toast of thanks.
  • Your napkin should be placed on your lap shortly after you are seated and kept on your lap at all times during the meal. Do not tuck your napkin under your chin.
  • Raise your hand or index finger and make eye contact to signal a server.
  • Dinner at an American home may be fairly informal.
  • Do not be late for a dinner party. Arrive within 5 to 15 minutes after the time on the invitation. Never arrive before the time you were invited. If you are going to be more than 15 minutes late, phone your hosts and apologize.
  • Never begin eating until everyone is served and your hosts have begun. Offer food or drink to others before helping yourself. Serve all women at the table first.
  • If offered a second helping of food, feel free to take what you like. Americans like people to eat a lot.
  • When you are invited to an event, it is very important to call or drop a note letting the host know if you will attend. That said, Americans are notorious for not responding to invitations.
  • Do not be afraid of hurting someone's feelings by responding "no" to an invitation. People will be offended if you say you will attend and then do not come.
  • If an invitation reads "6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.," leave very close to the ending time stated.
  • Americans tend to eat more quickly than people from other countries. Dining in the United States is seldom the long, lingering event it is in much of the world. The point is more often to eat rather than socialize and savor the meal.


The appropriate clothing for business varies widely. Proper dress depends on the region of the country, a person's company, his or her position within it and the industry in which he or she works. The best approach is to be conservative until you have had a chance to observe what others wear in an office. You can always get more casual after you get a sense of how people dress. You cannot lose, however, if you begin with a very professional attire and manner.

  • Men: socks should match your suit. No leg should show between pant hem and shoe. Remove your hat when indoors.
  • Women: do not overdress for daytime or wear flashy or noisy jewelry. American women do not wear a lot of makeup to the office. Low-cut blouses, short skirts and tight clothing are not appropriate office attire.


  • Americans do not have as many customs and taboos concerning gifts as many other cultures have.
  • Gifts from your country will always be appreciated. Good choices are local and regional arts and crafts, books, candies, specialty foods and wine or spirits (if you are certain that the recipient drinks).
  • If you are invited to someone's home for dinner or a party, bring flowers, a potted plant, a fruit basket, candy, wine, a book or a small household gift.
  • Many companies have policies that discourage their employees from giving or receiving gifts. Most government employees are not allowed to accept gifts. Do not be offended if someone cannot accept a gift.
  • Cash gifts are never appropriate.

Helpful Hints

  • It is considered rude to stare, ask questions or otherwise bring attention to someone's disability.
  • Smoking is very unpopular in the United States. Restaurants have separate smoking and nonsmoking sections. Public and private buildings may ban smoking except in designated areas. Some people do not allow smoking in their homes and will ask you to go outside if you want to have a cigarette. Never smoke anywhere without asking permission from everyone present.
  • Names are not held as sacred in the United States. Someone may mispronounce your name and laugh a bit as they do it. Or someone may just call you by your given name if your family name is too difficult to pronounce.
  • There are several common names and nicknames that are used by both men and women. Call the person's assistant to ask if you are unsure of his or her gender.
  • "Please" and "thank you" are very important in the United States. Say "please" and "thank you" to everyone for even the smallest kindness. Americans say them regardless of rank or how much they are paying for something, and they expect others to do the same.
  • Say "Pardon me" or "Excuse me" if you touch someone or even get close to someone. Americans also say this if they sneeze or cough or do not understand something someone has said.
  • Americans often share things in casual conversation, even with strangers, that may seem shockingly private.
  • Social conversation in the United States is light. There is a standard format for small talk. People ask brief questions and expect brief answers. Americans become uncomfortable when one person talks for any length of time in a social situation.
  • If you feel uncomfortable with a question asked of you, simply smile and say, "In my country, that would be a strange question."

American Women

  • Women are leaders in all aspects of American life from business to education to government. Never assume that a working woman is in a subordinate position.
  • American women are independent. They will not appreciate any "special help" offered because of their gender. Do not assume that a woman needs more time or more help than a man doing the same job.
  • American women pride themselves on the number of responsibilities they take on. Do not assume that a working woman is no longer the primary caretaker of her family and children.
  • When addressing a woman, use the title "Ms." unless you know that she prefers "Mrs." or "Miss."
  • Many women keep their maiden names after marriage. Some use both their maiden and married names.
  • When going to dinner or lunch, the person who invites pays, whether it is a man or a woman.
  • Do not touch a woman in a business setting except to shake her hand. Hugging and kissing, even of people you know very well, is best left for social occasions.
Adapted from material compiled by Window on the World, a cross-cultural training and consulting firm. Originally based on material contained in the "Put Your Best Foot Forward" series of books by Mary Murray Bosrock.
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