The Strangest American Business Customs

By Michael Jones (michael.jones@tsiglobalconsulting.com)

I have a slight confession to make. When I originally wrote my last article, “The Strangest Business Customs from Around the World,” I always had intended to do a follow-up piece on strange American business customs, but I didn’t want to mention it last time. The main reason for this is because I wanted our readers to focus in on customs that were foreign to them – doing so would make this redirect even more pronounced. However, as I mentioned last time, there are equally many American business customs that can be confusing to people who are not from our country, and doing some introspection is good for keeping things in perspective sometimes: we can always learn how to make ourselves more accessible to our foreign partners. For our foreign readers, please take this opportunity to learn about some of the stranger things that this country does in a business setting. For our American readers, while some of these may seem normal to us, it is important to remember that these customs can seem intimidating to our foreign partners. With that said, please enjoy reading about what I believe are some of the strangest American business customs!

One of the most common things that I found in my research for this article is something that may seem like a central component of doing good business: being punctual. American business culture is very much based on being on time: every day, employees are expected to be at their desks on time, at meetings before the meeting’s formal start time, and can suffer very strong consequences should they fail to do so. However, punctuality is certainly not the norm throughout the rest of the world. Consider countries such as Spain and Indonesia, where business is conducted in a much more relaxed manner. In these countries, lateness to business functions is expected, and a more relaxed attitude to deadlines is taken by both employee and employer. When people from countries such as these deal with Americans, our focus on punctuality can be quite jarring, and can even lead to damaged relationships if neither party can figure out when an appropriate time to meet is. In cases such as these, we should be aware of our own business culture, and how it can make others uncomfortable: being more flexible with meeting times can go a long way towards building a strong relationship with businesspeople from certain countries.

Another key aspect of American business that can be very jarring to foreigners is how aggressive we can be. Of course, a key aspect of American culture in general is individualism: we value our unique thoughts and opinions, and generally believe that our ideas should be heard and respected. In the workplace, this translates to a value of strong leadership: of a go-getter who can get things done and isn’t afraid of conflict if it is in the name of progress. However, this is a very different approach from the consensus-based style of business common throughout Asia, especially in countries such as Japan and Korea. In these countries, decisions are not made by a strong, individualistic leader who is able to implement their ideas, but by the careful collaboration of an entire company. These sorts of negotiations can take a long time, and can be quite frustrating to unfamiliar Americans; however, trying to step in and take charge of a business negotiation can be a fatal mistake. For the “strong leaders” of the U.S. business world – try to step back and see the need for group input when dealing in these countries, since no matter how hard you push, the company will always be bigger than you. For those in countries with traditions of collaboration, try not to be intimidated by any perceived American “aggression”; it’s not that we are mad or are trying to take away your company’s authority, that’s just how we are used to doing things.

The last American business custom that may be hard to deal with for foreigners comes from how Americans like to discuss business outside of the office. While business dinners are certainly common in American business culture, Americans are much more willing to supplement their other daily meals with talk of markets and trade. In the U.S., the “business breakfast” and “business lunch” are both used as ways for business to be conducted – it is just another manifestation of how much business and work are ingrained into daily activities here. For other cultures that may have more of a distinction between business and free-time, these business opportunities can seem like an imposition on one’s time, and attending them may leave some people with a bad taste in their mouth, regardless of the quality of the food. For those who are dealing with Americans: while it is not a guarantee that you will be expected to participate in a breakfast or lunch with your American business counterpart, it is wise to be prepared to go anyways. You may actually enjoy it; the “business breakfast” is a great opportunity to get focused on your day before it even begins!

There you have it: some of the strangest American business customs to complement last time’s more global approach. In general, most of the cultural miscommunication problems can be avoided by just doing your research and being tolerant of the actions of others: you can’t expect someone to get everything right on their first try! Please let me know if you have any thoughts on these two articles, or if there are any strange business customs from where you come from! Also, as always, if you are interested in expanding your business abroad, or just have some questions about international trade rules, give TSI Global Consulting a call at 210-757-0618 for a consultation today.

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