The American Mindset Characteristics of Society Lifestyle & Aspirations The Essentials (10 Key Tips) Working with the Americans Making a Good Impression Business Etiquette Business Meeting Culture Motivating Others Effective Presentations Managing Relationships
The American Mindset
The American mindset is based on freedom, equality, opportunity and independence. Americans are achievement-orientated and materialistic (generally speaking), living in a celebrity-obsessed culture, chasing the American Dream of 'making it', regardless of where one began. Many Americans are only first or second generation immigrants and have to reconcile their ethnic background with this new land of opportunity, where diversity is praised but not always
practiced, and everyday tensions include gun control, drugs, race, and, for some, poverty. Americans are, however, deeply patriotic, coming from such a vast and diverse country, with astonishing natural beauty, rich culture, and a pioneering history. The psyche of the nation was knocked terribly by the events of September 11, 2001, and the fear generated by the war against terror has quickly replaced the fear surrounding the Cold War less than two decades ago.
Characteristics of Society
Land of the Free, and land of opportunity, is how Americans like to see their country. America is where the self-made thrive, and where people can follow their dreams. These beliefs have created a can-do, achievementorientated culture, where ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, as quoted in the Declaration of Independence, are what matter. People tend to be defined by their achievements, not by their skin colour, or who their father was. In reality, of course – the USA has social, economic and racial inequalities like other nations. At the same time, diversity - from legal, moral, and business perspectives - is taken seriously. Time is important in American society, with everything from labour-saving devices to speed dating to swiftly-delivered presentations and fast food chains characterising the need to get things done quickly. This is ironic, as middle class Americans work extremely long hours, and yet have not bought themselves an especially relaxed lifestyle. The US is a sales and customer-orientated culture. It is also a cost-cutting culture. American society is often accused of being parochial; the mainstream media focuses mainly on domestic issues and even though many Americans are not well-travelled outside the USA, they travel a lot within the country - due to its size and diversity, it can be seen as a 'world in one country'.
Lifestyle & Aspirations
1. Dining out. Americans eat an enormous amount of junk food, but also have access to just about every kind of ethnic cuisine in the world, particularly in the cities. Mexican food is very popular, as are Japanese and Chinese cuisine. Indian, however, is only just beginning to make its mark outside the major cities. 2. TV, movies or theatre. Almost 100% of households have a television. 3. Travel within the United States. Americans are highly mobile and it’s quite common to move a long way from home to study or work. People will travel long distances to visit friends and relatives, particularly during holiday periods. 4. Outdoor activities. Hiking, trail walking and camping are all very popular, even among city dwellers. Many people ski in winter. 5. Parties and planned events. Americans value family time and will spend at least weekends as a family unit, although the typical family is getting less and less so, with only one quarter of households consisting of the typical nuclear family. 6. Gardening and home improvements. Almost 46% of the working population is women, so men are expected to play an active role in housekeeping and childcare. 7. Sports. Baseball, basketball, American football and ice hockey are the most popular spectator and participation sports, although Americans also enjoy cycling, racket-ball (a hybrid of squash and handball), tennis, swimming, golf, bowling, martial arts, walking, jogging, and aerobic exercise. 8. Community work. Many Americans volunteer for a wide range of causes, from raising funds to help those who are less fortunate to tutoring students or leading Scout troops and youth sports.
The Essentials (10 Key Tips)
1. Demonstrate a can-do, problem-solving attitude and a willingness to innovate and take calculated risks. 2. Respect diversity; it is an important part of corporate life and must be taken very seriously. All Americans expect to be treated equally. 3. Be explicit and straightforward in your communication style, while avoiding direct criticism or open conflict. 4. Focus on being decisive and getting things
5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.
done quickly. Take the approach that time is money, and a missed opportunity is wasteful. Take individual accountability for results; while teamwork has increased in importance, the individual is still the primary focus. Expect to encounter an informal business culture with a relatively flat organisational structure. Most people in an American workplace will be on first-name terms. Make a good impression through a simple, but factual and persuasive, presentation. Selling is important, although delivering results is what ultimately matters. Expect to engage in a brief exchange of 'small talk' at the beginning of a meeting, but to move quickly to getting down to business. Be punctual to meetings, stick to the agenda, and expect the outcome to be action items that can be implemented quickly. Try to get to the main point in a discussion quickly; don't feel you need to provide all the contextual background at once. Questions are likely once the main point has been identified.
Working with the Americans
Americans work to their own agenda, which is usually hurried, with great pressure to get things done on time and to produce results. Trying to introduce pleasantries, trying to skip around a subject and failure to arrive at a decision are all considered a waste of an American's time. Respecting this is important. So, too, is respecting individuals. The USA can be a minefield of political correctness and both in meetings and in the workplace, tact is essential. Never make assumptions about anybody's background or salary grade. Acknowledge the opinions of individual members of a team and if you are the team leader, be prepared to be open and accessible, and to socialise with your team. Expect communication to be direct and explicit, with flat management structures, collaborative decision-making and individual responsibility for results.
Making a Good Impression
You'll make a good impression in the USA by appearing confident, open, friendly and direct. A firm handshake, sustained eye contact, a clear expression of opinions and an alert posture will show that you're interested and capable, although ultimately, you will be judged on the results you deliver. Foreigners are expected to assimilate themselves into American culture and certainly to speak English. Americans are not xenophobic but many people have never travelled abroad and other cultures and languages are simply alien to them and may make them feel uncomfortable. Speaking in another language at a meeting is very bad form, for example. While Americans are not big on combining work with private life, or exchanging pleasantries at meetings, it helps to have an understanding of American culture, politics and sport for small talk. Politics is not seen as an appropriate topic for conversation in business situations. Unlike Europe, where business people openly criticize politicians and policies as part of healthy debate, discussions on political views rarely happen in the American workplace. Be careful, too, when talking about the Gulf war and Iraq, as opinions are divided.
Business cards Always carry a supply of business cards. These are exchanged either before or after a meeting but are not treated with the reverence that they are in, say, Japan. You can leave someone’s card on the table during a meeting, but they probably won’t do the same with yours. If you are planning to do a lot of business in the USA, it will help to have a title on your card that Americans will be able to put into context. ‘Manager’ will appear somewhat lowly; ‘Senior vice president’ says more.
Body language Although Americans are very open and demonstrative, they maintain a distance of about one metre when having a one-to-one conversation. Physical contact may be in the form of hearty back-slapping between men, but it’s rare that a man would touch a woman in a business context, as sexual harassment suits are so common in the USA, and any gesture of affection could easily be misinterpreted. Because openness and directness are valued, stand up straight, look someone straight in the eye and smile if you want to be trusted. It is important to exude confidence, which Americans are taught from a young age at school. Americans use gestures which some cultures may find strange or offensive. The ‘OK’ sign means just that. Pointing at something is acceptable, as is a ‘thumbs up’ sign (or the reverse). Younger people may exchange ‘high fives’. Communication style The style of communication in the United States tends to be very explicit. Value is placed on being clear, direct, and ‘to the point’ regarding verbal and written communication. It is not necessary to follow certain protocols. The ideas of an individual are valued, regardless of whether that individual has seniority in the group. Because Americans tend to be fact-orientated, it is important to be very factual when communicating. Citing noted authorities or relying upon solid data can be more persuasive than passionate arguments based upon emotion, although putting a bit of feeling into your argument does help – Americans appreciate a good performance. The ultimate focus is always on the bottom line, meaning that one should be prepared to summarise thoughts and ideas with a clear purpose toward achieving the objective. Ideas that lack focus, or are seen as tangential, will often be ignored. Because Americans are so time-conscious, their communication style may seem abrupt at first, getting down to business after minimal small talk, or visibly demonstrating impatience if you have gone on too long. Do not be intimidated by this, but do prepare for it. Gift giving A lavish gift is a bad idea (unless you know someone in a social context already and are bringing them something you know they like from your home country). Otherwise, gifts may be seen as an attempt at bribery, which is illegal. Corporate gifts should not be too personal, and don’t bring alcohol unless you know the recipient drinks it. Chocolates, a book about your country, tasteful corporate items with discreet logos, or something related to the person’s interests, like golf, will be appreciated. A gift will be opened in front of you, so be prepared. It is not necessary to bring a gift for everybody on a team – it really isn’t expected.
Do not expect Americans visiting you to bring gifts, unless you have invited them to your home.
Business Meeting Culture
Business meetings tend to have clear goals and an agenda which must be adhered to. A meeting is expected to end in decision. Meetings with no clear aim – a talking shop – will be considered a waste of time. Technology means alternatives to face-to-face meetings are often used, in the form of videoconferences, conference calls and webcasts. Planning a meeting Be clear about the purpose of the meeting and what you want to accomplish. Meetings designed strictly for discussion (without making decisions or taking action) are viewed as a waste of valuable time; you should expect a decision to be reached.
Distribute an agenda and any advance material before the meeting, so that the meeting time can be used to ‘get right to the point’. The focus on time and results is so strong that often a professional facilitator will be brought in specifically to keep the team focused and to ensure that the results are accomplished during the meeting. During a Meeting The expectation is that meetings will serve to make decisions and drive action. Discussion is allowed and even encouraged in a collaborative environment, but be prepared to take action, assume responsibility, or make a decision by the end of the meeting. If data has been collected that is relevant, be sure that everyone has seen it. If an empirical answer can be obtained, it is always preferred to conjecture. For example, American business people will not waste time discussing whether a recent initiative was successful, they much prefer to simply look at the customer satisfaction data and take action accordingly.
Be prepared to take lots of notes and participate in an action planning process at the end of the meeting. Americans are extremely time conscious in meetings, and will often eliminate discussion if time is running short, in order to leave time for decisions and action. Following a meeting Often the minutes (or notes) from the meeting will be sent out by an administrative assistant. These notes will contain the decisions that were made, the activities that were agreed to, and the timelines expected for delivery. The meeting process can seem quite impersonal. There is a lot of discussion, activity, relating, and camaraderie during a meeting, but you may find that after the meeting this sense of community goes away as individuals begin to carry out their own tasks.
The primary motivation of American workers is to proceed up the ‘ladder of success’. Believing that anyone can make it to the top (earned power) motivates workers to take chances, push their limits, and develop themselves in order to be successful. Money, while effective for motivation in the short-term, does not realise long-term performance improvements. The emphasis is on outcomes rather than process. As long as the results are favourable, it is a matter of individual choice that determines how a person achieves success. American workers view job titles with healthy scepticism. Some companies use apparently lofty titles such as ‘vice president’ without commensurate power or compensation. The most powerful motivator for Americans is personal development. If an individual believes that he/she is developing new skills, learning new information, making a meaningful contribution, or demonstrating leadership capabilities they are sufficiently motivated to stay in a job. If these aspects are absent, motivation is difficult.
Presentation Essentials Americans are taught to be bold and confident when presenting. This can often be interpreted as overly self-assured by others but is expected. Good presentation skills are absolutely essential for anyone hoping to make it in a US corporate environment. If you don’t have them, a course is recommended. Showmanship is not critical (although it can help) but confidence, clarity and a lack of distractions from things like faulty equipment, nerves or inadequate preparation are all-important. Eye contact with the audience will build trust. Excessive gesturing is better than appearing wooden; if you need something to do with your hands, use a pointer, or illustrate key points on a flipchart or white board. Remember to speak clearly, particularly if you have an accent Americans may have trouble understanding. The style of the presentation will focus on specific bullet points and summaries of the facts. Anything requiring detail will be added as a supplement for participants to take with them. You will often hear Americans say "Let’s not get lost in the details; the main point is that this plan can be successful if implemented correctly". Americans tend to put a positive spin on presentations. Complicated matters will be simplified and disagreements will be minimised, as the presenter attempts to leave everyone with positive feelings. Some speakers give handouts but these should be kept until after the presentation, or people will read them instead of listening. Audience Expectations American audiences expect a presentation to be clear, to the point, accurate and backed up by visuals containing facts and figures. The presenter must be persuasive and inspire confidence, and should involve the audience by asking them questions. A presenter should start by saying what they’re going to talk about and how long they are going to take. The presentation should end with a summary of the key points. Background should be kept to a minimum. The audience should be left knowing what is expected of them as a result of the presentation, and should be given time to ask questions.
Leaders in the USA are expected to empower their teams and encourage collaborative decision-making. Managing relationships is made easier by the fact that Americans are very direct communicators and are quick to say so if something is wrong. Expect constant, twoway feedback, using sophisticated techniques, within a company and between customers and suppliers. Companies actively encourage diversity and many corporations are small melting pots. Part of the American dream is advancement and equal opportunity, which fosters hugely ambitious workers who are greatly motivated by their advancement up the corporate ladder. Managing this diversity, and this dream of equality for all, can be challenging - a legal and political minefield. Perhaps the hardest thing about managing relationships in the USA is the fact that they can be short-lived. If somebody fails to perform, they may be 'out' fairly quickly. Restructuring of teams and shake-ups of management are common. Relationships with suppliers may have to be built all over again.