Conducting Business in the United States

Many people are confused when first coming to the United States.  American business practices differ from other countries and quickly adjusting can be a difficult process.  If you are doing business in America, or plan to do business in the future, this guide should prove helpful.

Travel

Americans frequently travel by automobile.  Train service in the United States is considered unreliable and buses, although inexpensive, are seen as very slow.  When going from city to city, it is very common for American businessmen to fly to their destination and then hire a car for use around the city.  Cars can be rented at any major American airport and will require a foreign driver’s license and a credit card.  Optional insurance may be purchased for the time of the rental and many offer a service to prepay for fuel.  In the author’s experience, it is usually best to refuel the vehicle yourself before returning it, as there are often refueling stations located close to the airport.  Gasoline is sold in gallons; not in liters.

Most car rental agencies will also offer an optional GPS for rent.  If you are unsure of your surroundings, it might be a good idea to accept it.  American highways are generally very good, but the extensive network can be confusing and difficult to navigate for people who have never tried it before.  Many rental agencies are also offering transponders which will automatically charge tolls to the credit card that was used to rent the vehicle.  It would be wise to ask about this option at the rental counter, since the transponders will differ from state to state.  Otherwise, you will have to pay cash at the toll booths.

Americans drive on the right side of the road.  The major highways are called interstates and are named with an “I-“ followed by a number.  North-South interstates begin with an odd one or two digit number while East-West interstates use an even one or two digit number.  I-5, for example, is the major North-South route through California, Oregon and Washington states.  I-10, on the other hand, runs East-West through Florida, Texas and most of the Southern states.  An “I-“ followed by a three digit number designates a beltway which, typically, goes in a circle around a major city.  I-495, for example, is the beltway which encircles Washington D.C.  Individual states also have their own highways which tend to be smaller and use different designations, depending on the state.

Americans tend to be very conscious of safe habits and courteous driving.  Speed limits are in miles per hour and traffic rules are strictly enforced.  Police frequently hide on interstates to catch people speeding and enforcement will be even more vigilant in areas where construction is present.

During the Winter months, roads in the Northern part of the country often become covered in snow and ice.  At this time of year and in these areas, you might want to rent a larger SUV that has 4-wheel drive.  If you are not used to driving under these conditions, consider taking a taxi or public transportation.  Local governments will apply salt to the roads to melt the ice, but this often takes time.  Check the road conditions before you decide to drive anywhere. If you find yourself in one of these storms, you probably want to turn on a local TV or radio station to discover if the schools have closed for the day.  If this happens, many parents will not come to work so their children are not alone at home.  It may affect your business dealings and you’ll want to plan accordingly.

 

Etiquette

The most important aspect of American business etiquette is the ubiquitous handshake.  Americans invariably shake hands at a first meeting and often as a greeting between acquaintances who haven’t met for a period of time.  Americans put a strong emphasis on first impressions and a proper handshake is considered very important. 

First, look your American friend in the eyes before shaking his hand.  Americans tend to distrust someone who is unwilling to look them in the eyes.  Second, extend the right hand to the other person and they will invariably do the same.  A firm grip is seen as a sign of someone who is honest, trustworthy and competent.  People using a weak grip are considered to lack confidence and to be feable.  Mind that you do not use too strong a grip so as to cause the other person pain, but strong enough to squeeze the other person’s hand a bit.  Foreigners are encouraged to practice with a friend they trust before travelling.

Americans are far more outgoing then people in other countries and tend to immediately treat new acquaintances as friends.  This tendency may seem inappropriate or rude at first, but shouldn’t be seen as such.  It is actually a mark of respect and shows a desire to become better acquainted. 

Punctuality is an absolute must when dealing with Americans, whether in business or personal matters.  Appointment times should be considered sacred.  This point cannot be stressed highly enough.  It is best to arrive at any appointment 10 or 15 minutes before the scheduled time to ensure punctuality.  If you find yourself unavoidably detained for some reason, you should immediately call your American friend, apologize, give a reasonable explanation for the delay and also give the new estimated time of arrival.  The reasons for this are simple.

Americans will very strongly judge your sense of honesty, commitment, and ability to accomplish goals by your punctuality.  People who arrive late or delay meeting times are seen as incapable of keeping deadlines, inconsiderate of others’ time, or worse, unwilling to keep a promise.  You do not want to be viewed in this light.  In short, always be on time for everything!

Business cards are widely used in America, so you will want to keep a good supply on hand to pass out to your partners.  When you give your card to your American friend, do not be surprised if he places it in his wallet and returns it to his back pocket.  Please, do not take offense.  American men keep their credit cards, money, family photos and other important things in their wallets.  He is simply placing your card there because he considers your contact important and he wants to be certain not to misplace it.  Americans do not see this as a sign of disrespect. 

Likewise, your American friend may write additional information about you on the back of your card.  Again, this is not a sign of disrespect.  Americans consider themselves frugal and efficient people.  This is just his way of retaining important information that he does not want to lose without having to waste time or additional cards or paper.

Negotiations

Negotiating business deals with your American partners can seem intimidating  at first, but they do not have to be.  As a whole, American people value honesty and frankness.  Once you understand this, everything else should become very easy.

Americans will not hesitate to use the word “no” and they will expect you to do the same thing.  For example, let’s say your American colleague is asking you to meet a deadline in three days which you know your company is incapable of doing.  Many people would simply say, “That might be difficult” or “I not sure how to do this”, in order to be polite.   Americans will probably not understand this thinking.  Business people in the US are accustomed to overcoming obstacles and they will not grasp this polite way of saying “no”.  Instead, they’ll probably ask something like, “What is the problem” or “Why can’t you do it”?  Foreigners can get frustrated by this behavior, but it isn’t really being pushy or rude.  Your American friend probably just wants to solve a problem.

Instead, a better answer to the question would be, “No, I really don’t see how we could do that in three days, but I’m sure we could manage it in a week.  Would that be alright?”   Your American friend will not see this as being rude.  In fact, he’ll respect you much more for being honest and forthright.  Americans view answers like, “It may be difficult” as evasive and you run the risk of your friend thinking that you’re trying to hide something.  It is better to simply say “Yes” or say “No, but perhaps we could…”.  This will win you many points in your negotiations.

Likewise, if you or your company makes a mistake, the best thing to do is admit to the error, apologize and explain how you intend to correct the problem.  Doing what you promise and promising what you will do is highly valued in American business culture and will cover a multitude of sins.

Do not be afraid to admit that you do not know something.  This is not considered to be a sign of weakness or stupidity.  If your American colleague asks for information and you don’t know it, you can simply say, “I’m not sure, but I can get that information for you.  Would it be alright if I e-mail it to you before Friday?”  This will earn you respect for being honest and frank by admitting your ignorance.  What’s more, you have a chance to display your ability to keep a promise by doing what you say that you will do.  (Just be sure that e-mail actually gets sent before Friday!)

Americans consider themselves independent thinkers and do not like to be told what to do.   For this reason, a very good negotiating skill to use is to ask many questions.  You can lead Americans to your own conclusions by skillfully asking questions.  When they answer them, they have to admit that the conclusions are their own ideas, instead of yours.

For example, instead of saying “I don’t see any reason you can’t meet your own deadlines, even if we make our shipment to you a week later than you want”, you might consider asking, “Even if we make our shipment a week late, you should still be able to make your deadlines, shouldn’t you?”  If your American friend agrees, your problem is solved.  If he says “no”, he’ll also tell you why he won’t be able to meet his deadline and you can negotiate from there.  Either way, you are advancing the conversation.

In many countries, a business contract is considered to be the beginning of a flexible relationship and may be easily altered.  Your American friends probably do not think this way.  Contracts are usually seen as final and inviolate.  American courts are filled with companies who tried to alter a signed contract and failed to meet the exact words in the agreement.  If, for example, you were to call your American friend a year from now and say, “I’m really sorry, but I can’t meet our agreement because the exchange rate has changed”, you probably will get very strong resistance.  He might not say it, but the American businessman is probably thinking, “That’s too bad.  You should have thought of that before you signed the contract.”   In fact, changing the terms of a contract without another signed agreement will probably cost you or your company a lot of money in legal fees that could be spent on something more useful.  American companies will, on occasion, renegotiate a signed contract.  You should expect, however, that they will ask for considerable concessions on your part for doing so.  The best goal is to plan ahead and make sure that everything that you think is important  is in the original agreement.

Do not be surprised if you find yourself negotiating with women at your US customers.  Women have worked hard over the years to be considered as equals in American companies.  Today, you will find many of them in decision making positions.  Often, they have had to work harder than their male colleagues to prove themselves and they want to be treated with respect and dignity.  Failing to do so may severely jeopardize your business dealings in America.

The United States also has VERY STRICT laws concerning sexual harassment towards women.  ANY overtures of a sexual nature towards ANY woman in ANY company may cost you more than a business account.  It may subject you or your company to a lawsuit and possibly a trip to a police station.  In short, make sure all of your dealings with your American female colleagues are STRICTLY PROFESSIONAL and you should have no problems.

Interpreters may be used for any contract negotiators, but you will have much more success if you are able to speak English as much as possible.  Very few Americans speak a second language, although Spanish is becoming more and more commonplace as Spanish speaking people assimilate into American culture.

Dress

How to dress for business is becoming more and more difficult as time goes by.  Americans do not like to perceive themselves as being “formal”, but good grooming habits will still help you make a good first impression.

Generally, suits and ties are acceptable for men while conservative dresses, suits or slacks and blouses are considered acceptable for women.  Also, women are advised to wear tasteful jewelry that is not large or flashy.  For 99% of all business encounters, these guidelines will work well.

There is currently a movement in America to dress more casually at the office.  Many software and IT companies are allowing their employees to come to work in blue jeans and t-shirts.  What’s more, a lot of other firms are allowing their employees to participate in “casual Fridays” when employees are allowed to wear whatever they like.  Do not be surprised if you encounter this, but likewise, it is advisable from a business perspective not to participate in it.

The United States is a large country and the weather varies accordingly.  If you are travelling in the Northern half of the nation between the months of November through March, you might want to consider bringing warmer clothing.  Temperatures frequently drop below 0 degrees Celsius and snow and ice are the norm.  You will need a Winter jacket along with a pair of gloves and possibly a warm cap and boots.  If you come from a warmer climate where such items are not available, you should have no problem finding them in America.  Ask your hotel clerk where the closest shopping mall is located and you will find something very fashionable to wear.  If you are looking to save money, you can also purchase these same items at any discount store such as Wal-Mart or Target.

Culture

The main language used in America is English.  You will find any business dealings you have will be greatly enhanced if you have a good command of the English language.  If you have trouble understanding people when they speak, do not be afraid to say, “Please slow down.  I’m having trouble understanding you”.  Americans originally came from many different countries and they are used to deal with foreigners.  They will not think of you as “stupid” or “rude” for asking them to repeat themselves.

You may also be surprised to find people from your own country living in the United States.  Many foreigners set up their own communities; especially in larger cities.  New York, San Francisco and many other cities have a well-known “Chinatown” for example where you will encounter many people speaking Mandarin or Cantonese.  Miami is also known as a place where Cuban people live and you will hear Spanish spoken there by many people from different countries.

Tipping is very common in America and people who do not give tips are considered “cheap”.  The amount does not have to be a lot of money and is generally considered a “thank you” for good service.  Generally, you’ll want to tip cab drivers, anyone at the airport or hotel who carries your bags and waiters or waitresses at restaurants.  If paying by credit card, you will have a chance to add a tip to the bill before you sign the final receipt.  In some restaurants, for large groups, the restaurant will add the tip onto the bill for you.  Often, this information will be printed on the menu so you will know ahead of time.  As a rule of thumb, 15% of the final bill is considered the correct amount for a tip.  20% is only given if you feel the service you received went above and beyond your expectations.

Finding things to talk about with your American friends is not difficult.  You may want to avoid asking personal questions, at first, since they could be misconstrued as intrusive.  If you ask about your friend’s family, don’t be surprised if he says “I’m divorced”.  Unfortunately, it isn’t uncommon for Americans to be separated from their spouses and not living with their children.  It is considered a big social problem that the United States is trying to deal with.   If an American mentions this to you, it might be better to change the subject.

Sports are very popular in America and almost everyone has their favorite football, baseball, basketball or hockey team.  American football is not the same as “football” played in most countries.  Americans call this sport “soccer”.  Soccer is popular with young people, but isn’t followed much on a professional level.  Most Americans have never heard of “Manchester United” or “Real Madrid”, although this is slowly changing. 

American football, however, is EXTREMELY popular.  It is played between the months of August through February and is widely followed.  Typically, high school teams play their games on Fridays, university teams play on Saturdays and professional teams play on Sundays.  Many Americans enjoy going to a local bar on Sunday afternoons where they can drink beer with their friends and cheer their favorite teams.  If you are invited to come along, you know that your American colleague considers you a good friend.  The season ends every year when the two best teams play each other in the “Superbowl”.  The event is watched by half the nation and companies pay huge sums to run advertisements during the game.  Don’t be surprised if you are invited to a “Superbowl party” on a Sunday in early February.

Baseball is also very popular and is played between April and October.  Many Americans equate the baseball season with the coming of Spring and the stadiums are usually packed full on the first day.  Baseball is considered a very traditional part of American culture.  There are foods which people usually eat at the games as well as songs they sing and stories they tell about previous games they’ve attended.  (Try googling “Chicago Cubs goat curse” if you want to read one of these stories.)  This makes baseball a very good subject for conversation.  You might consider asking your colleagues about the local team.

Golf and tennis are also popular with many Americans.  If you play these games and you find that your American business partners enjoy them also, you might suggest having a match.  A large number of business deals have been concluded on American golf courses.  It is important to briefly mention American ideals of “sportsmanship”.  Americans love competition and see a round of tennis or golf as being “friendly” and a good way to enhance a relationship.  Hence, they value people who accept losing gracefully as well as people who can win good-naturedly.  They will frequently act very competitively during the game and instantly forget who won or lost as soon as it is over.  You will be judged on this basis, so remember to act accordingly.

Many Americans also love the outdoors and hunting, fishing, hiking and camping are very popular pastimes in certain areas of the countries.  If your American friend asks you to participate in these activities, you shouldn’t be afraid.  Ask what equipment and clothing will be necessary.  Most people will not ask you to participate unless they are not willing to provide the equipment necessary to participate.  If you are not interested, simply say so and briefly explain why.  Most Americans will understand.

Dining Out

Americans come from many different ethnic backgrounds and you will find all types of restaurants in America.  Even the smallest American cities will have a Chinese, Mexican or Italian restaurant.  You might find that the food is transformed a little bit to match the American palate, but the variety or cuisines is enormous.

If you have dietary restrictions or do not eat certain foods for religious reasons, make sure to tell your waiter ahead of time.  They will help to guide you in the right direction.  Vegetarians will not find many restaurants in America that are 100% meatless, although they do exist.  Have no fear, however.  Most American restaurants have a “salad bar” which is often included in the price of an entray or can be purchased separately.  A salad bar is nothing more than a buffet with all types of vegetables where you can create your own salad.  They are a vegetarian’s delight!   You can choose whatever you like and many of them allow you to eat as much as you wish.  Many Americans order salads as the main course, since the culture is becoming more and more health conscience.  You will not feel out of place for doing so.

For formal dinners, steak or seafood restaurants are considered some of the best choices. Fast food restaurants like “McDonald’s” and “Burger King” are considered poor places to conduct business or for formal dinners. Americans are willing to discuss business during dinners, but usually prefer to do so during lunch since this occurs during working hours.  Most business people in the US find it increasing difficult to balance their home life with their professional life.  Because of this, don’t be surprised if your American friend returns your dinner invitation with, “I’d really like to join you, but I promised my son to help him with his school work this evening.”  He isn’t being rude to you.  He is probably trying his best to keep his priorities.  The best response is, “I understand.  Maybe another time.”

When eating out, you will often see Americans taking portions of their meals home with them.  This is called a “doggie bag” since, traditionally, leftovers were given to family pets.  This is not an uncommon practice since Americans consider themselves to be frugal and hate to waste something that they have paid for.  Do not be surprised if you see people doing this.  Likewise, it is probably not a good idea to ask for a “doggie bag” if you are having a business meeting.  You run the risk of your American friend thinking you are “cheap” instead of “frugal”.

It is also a general rule, during business lunches, that you should not season your food before you taste it.  This goes back to the famous American businessman Andrew Carnegie.  Mr Carnegie would take potential employees out to lunch for their job interview.  If they would salt or pepper their food before tasting it, he would assume they lacked common sense since they had no way of knowing if the food actually needed seasoning or not.  It isn’t a major faux pas, but is still considered good advice to follow in certain business circles.

On the whole, a person who invites another person to lunch or dinner is usually the one to pay for the bill.  Do not forget to leave a tip for the server, or your American friend may think you are “cheap”.

If you are invited to an American’s house for dinner, consider your work a success.  This means that he trusts you enough to bring you to his home and meet his family.  Your negotiations are probably going very well!  Small gifts are appropriate, but are not expected.  It is common to bring a bottle of wine, but only if you are sure that your host drinks alcohol.  Sweets from your homeland are ALWAYS appreciated by the children or flowers for the lady of the house are not uncommon.  The rule is to keep it small and inexpensive, as a large gift will make your host feel awkward.

If you have dietary restrictions, it is best to inform your host ahead of time.  You might say something like, “Thank you.  I appreciate your invitation.  I should tell you ahead of time that I’m a Muslim and I don’t eat pork.  I hope that won’t cause you any trouble.”  Most Americans will be very understanding as they have a lot of experience with people from other countries and backgrounds.

During the Summer months, Americans like to cook Barbeque style.  (Often abbreviated BBQ).  BBQ involves grilling meat over an open, outside fire and often applying a seasoning sauce afterward.  Pork, beef or chicken is the norm, but any type of meat can be used.  It is an American tradition and many families pass recipes and cooking methods down from one generation to the next.  You’ll also discover that BBQ styles vary from region to region.  For fanatics, annual contests are even held with trophies awarded to the person who makes the best sauce! 

If you are invited to a BBQ, it is a VERY informal affair.  You should dress casually.  Short trousers, tennis shoes and comfortable shirts are common for both men and women.  Most BBQ foods are eaten with your hands.  Families often use paper plates and plastic forks and spoons which are usually thrown away instead of being washed.  Families with swimming pools will often cook the food close to the pool and you may be asked to bring swimming attire.  Do not be surprised if alcohol is served.  If your family is with you, the chances are good they will be invited as well.   This is especially true if the host has children of his own and thinks that your children may bond and play well with them.  If you are invited to one of these affairs, you should definitely consider going and do not discuss business much while you are there.  It is simply intended as a fun time to enhance relationships.  Take advantage of it.

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