US Business Etiquette: 9 Tips for Success

Business etiquette in the United States revolves around efficiency and getting the best possible deal. Be prepared for fast, hard negotiations that are delivered with a smile.

1. Punctuality is crucial in American businesses

Punctuality is an important part of business etiquette in the USA, and poor timekeeping can have a negative effect on your business deals in the country.

There are some regional differences in attitudes towards punctuality depending on where in the country you find yourself. American companies and businesspeople in the northeast and midwest tend to be the most strict regarding timekeeping, while the south and west have a more relaxed attitude.

However, I would always recommend being on time (if not a little early) to any engagement in an American business setting. It’s always better to wait around than damage potential business relationships with tardiness.

2. Dress in traditional, professional business attire

The USA is a massive country with huge regional differences in culture and expectations. This means there is no one American business etiquette; it changes across the country. But you can never go wrong with keeping it elegant with professional shirts, suit trousers, jackets, ties, smart dresses, skirts, and dress shoes.

US business attire for male and female
US business attire for male and female

On the first meeting, it is always best to err on the side of tradition and wear classic business attire. You will never be shamed for being more dressed up than expected, but you might raise eyebrows if you’re under-dressed. If your business partners are more casual, take that as a cue for your next interaction.

There is no single dress code for men or women in social situations. Most countries across the globe consume large amounts of American culture, so take your dress code cues from that: jeans, t-shirts, shirts, and dresses are all acceptable in most social situations.

3. Business meetings start with a handshake and short small talk

Business meetings in the US usually begin with some casual small talk that is brought to an end by the host. Whoever runs the meeting is in charge of transitioning the conversation towards business. This can happen quite abruptly.

When greeting business colleagues in the US, a firm handshake and eye contact go a long way. Americans are friendly and personable, so expect to be on first-name terms quite quickly in a relationship.

 Firm handshake and eye contact
A firm handshake and eye contact with a smile

Physical contact and personal space can be confusing in the States. On the one hand, Americans are friendly and gregarious and will likely engage in some light physical touch, such as a hand on the shoulder or back or even a hug, quite early in a personal relationship.

However, on the other hand, getting too intimate in someone’s personal space could cause offence. Kisses between business partners which are quite common in some places in Europe and Asia are a no-no here.

Take your cue from your colleagues and watch their body language. If they seem uncomfortable with anything you are doing, draw back.

4. Business cards are almost non-existent

Business cards are not a large part of American business culture anymore. As most people have smartphones, it is more common to simply exchange numbers or emails.

If business cards are handed out, they will be done so casually. There is no particular importance placed on the exchange.

5. Discussions flow; decisions don’t

The United States is a place that really values its egalitarian culture. However, there is still a relatively strict decision-making hierarchy. This is one of the many contradictions in American business culture.

In meetings, everybody will be expected to contribute and put forward ideas. However, it will be the higher-ups who will have the final say.

Some bosses in the USA are more relaxed, while some are more authoritarian. Be sure to take some time to understand how your business partners want to work and match their style.

6. Negotiations are rapid

Negotiations in the United States happen much more quickly than in other countries. American people are focused on the result, not the process. They want to get the best deal they can in the shortest time.

Be prepared for aggressive negotiation tactics, such as charging a very high price or offering a very low one. Each party is expected to look out for their own outcomes rather than trying to accommodate everybody.

Despite this seemingly harsh style, friendliness and likeability are important parts of making a deal. Direct communication, honesty, and trustworthiness will take you far.

7. You don’t have to gift business partners

Gift-giving is not an expected part of business deals in the States. In fact, it could be seen as sleaziness or, worse, bribery.

However, business lunches and dinners are common when working together. The general dining etiquette is that the host will pay for a meal. If you are paying, remember that tipping generously is extremely important.

8. Americans are outgoing and talkative

They speak loudly and clearly. In fact, a common complaint about American tourists is their inability to ‘tone down’ their expressive communication style!

People from the States are often more attentive than those in other cultures, especially when working. The country is famed for its friendly customer service, which trickles into business relationships. If you are being hosted, expect to be treated like you are very important.

Underneath this amiability, however, Americans in business are direct and want to get things done. They will tell you exactly what they want and won’t beat around the bush.

9. There is a strong ‘hustle’ culture in the United States

The work-life balance can be very much tilted towards work, especially in fast-paced cities like New York. In fact, to many Americans, work is everything.

This mainly comes down to the individualistic, libertarian ideal of the ‘American Dream’ that is baked into the cultural psyche. Work hard and reap the rewards: that is the mantra of the USA.

Due to this, it is not uncommon for people to make or receive work phone calls at all hours of the day and night. Even leisure activities, such as time on the golf course, are seen as opportunities to network and get ahead in life.

What is the difference between American and international business etiquette?

Americans are friendlier, more outgoing, and seemingly more casual than many international business people. However, they are also incredibly driven and self-motivated, and their every man-for-himself attitude can come across as ruthless to outsiders.

The libertarian culture of the States means that the individual is more important than the collective. Unlike in Europe, where company policies and bureaucracy can seem stifling, business in the States is about getting the best deal in the least possible time.

Jack Fairey

Jack is a writer based in west London, England. He is a keen traveler, and has a particular interest in the fascinating differences in etiquette across the world. When not writing, he can be found dreaming up his next trip to far off places.

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