How to Do Business in the USA
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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
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
- 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
- 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.
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
- 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
- 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 How to Do 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- It is considered rude to stare, ask
questions or otherwise bring attention to someone’s
- 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
- 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
- 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.”
- 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
- 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.”
- 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.
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