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Many expats are mesmerised by the idea of doing business in the USA and lured abroad by the fabled 'American Dream' – the belief that with hard work, every individual can succeed and prosper. And, whether it is myth or reality, the cliché remains the driving force behind immigration to what many perceive to be the world's wealthiest and most powerful country.
Despite the impact of the global economic downturn, the USA remains the largest economy in the world and a destination of choice for entrepreneurs. However, those hoping to succeed in business in the USA will need to have a solid understanding of the country's business culture and how Americans interact in the workplace.
The USA has a free market economy which has thrived because of a willingness to accept new ideas and nurture budding entrepreneurs. Furthermore, as testament to its solid business infrastructure and sound policies, the USA was ranked 6th out of 190 countries in the 2020 World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business survey. Specific areas where the country ranked highly were resolving insolvency (2nd) and getting credit (4th).
The work week in the USA is Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm, although it's common to put in extra hours.
English is spoken in business circles.
Business dress varies according to industry and location within the USA, but formal suits should be worn in corporate environments.
It is not appropriate to give gifts at business meetings and some companies will not allow their employees to accept gifts. However, if invited to a colleague's home on a more social occasion, it is appropriate to give chocolates, flowers or wine.
Women have the same rights as men in the USA and can be seen occupying top-level positions in business.
A handshake is the usual greeting in business circles. While it's best to start by addressing business contacts formally, expats will find that most Americans prefer to use first names.
Business culture in the USA
The USA is a geographically large country, which makes it somewhat difficult to generalise about business practices and culture across its different regions. However, there are a few traits that are worth bearing in mind, regardless of where in the country an expat hopes to do business.
Business culture in the USA is incredibly individualistic. The working world rewards 'go-getters' while those who lack independence, initiative and self-reliance lag behind. Status and age are largely obsolete and instead, merit, experience and past achievement are the vehicles for advancement. Expats coming from societies where seniority is a consequence of social class, length of service or maturity may find acclimating to this idea especially challenging.
In a similar vein, management is somewhat egalitarian, but ultimately big decisions and the responsibility for failure and success fall onto the shoulders of 'the boss'. Though many meetings may be had and much discussion may have taken place, senior managers may disregard the opinions of those in middle and lower level positions entirely; a particularly infuriating point for those who come from consensus-oriented cultures.
Americans tend to be very direct in the way they communicate and value logical thinking. Those able to express their opinions clearly and in a straightforward manner will find they can command greater respect in American business circles. Much of the USA’s business culture is based on the notion that time is money and expats will find that business associates get annoyed with those who waste time and beat around the bush.
Punctuality is valued in the USA, so expats should ensure they are never late for business meetings. Arriving late to an appointment will be regarded as a sign of disrespect. While business meetings may appear somewhat relaxed at times, they are taken seriously. Business does tend to be conducted quite quickly and Americans prefer to keep small talk to a minimum. In the USA, the focus tends to be on reaching an agreement and signing a contract as soon as possible rather than building a relationship.
Dos and don’ts of business in the USA
Don't arrive late for business meetings or appointments with clients.
Do dress formally for initial meetings and interviews. Afterwards, follow the example set by business associates and colleagues.
Don't waste time making small talk.
Do take the opportunity to socialise with colleagues and clients. Business in the USA is often conducted in a more informal social setting and not only within the office.