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Understanding United States Culture …

Understanding United States Culture

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  • AL
  • SKALStraight Talk -- Americans are direct-  They want people to:get to the point, tell it like it is, face the facts, let the chips fall where they may and put their cards on the table- they don't like it when peoplemince their words, beat around the bush, pull their punches, or hold back. "say what's on your mind"Examples:If you want to know something, just ask them directly. This took me a long time to get used to. Let's say that if you wanted to know the latest product plan from your boss, you sometimes expect that he will tell you.  If he does not, just go and ask him for it. He will tell you. Low contextSince Americans value their privacy and individuality, they don't tend to mix business with social connections. After work, they go their separate way. Rarely (only in special company-sponsored events) will fellow workers get together to build friendship. Good co-workers don't generally become good friends in America.This could seem strange to Asians (Chinese) that view relationships to be a continuum. Fellow workers tend to socialize after work.Note:According to Cultural Shock -- Living in the South .. Southerners do not typically fit the above characterizations.  They are more patient, less direct, and also value relationships (ie. high context) .. 
  • AL
  • SK
  • SKALGestures: 1. Americans are moderately expressive. They have open gestures. They smile easily. They use hand gestures regularly especially their palms. (See Gestures: You Body Speaks, Toastmaster International). An open palm held outward toward the audience is quite common and its meaning depends on:1. Holding the palm upward implies giving or receiving.2. Holding the palm downward can express suppression, secrecy, completion or stability.Standard space between you and your conversation partner should be about two feet.  Most US execs will be uncomfortable standing closer than that. Friends of the same sex do not hold hands.Direct ey contact shows sincerity. Don't be too intense.When sitting, US citizes often look very relaxed. They prop their feet up on chairs or desks.Giving and receiving items -- tossing or one hand only 
  • ALAmericans are informal (exception is the South per the book Culture Shock. Southerners are more formal)They call each other by their first name, regardless of rank. Chinese often find it shocking to hear some Americans call their parents-in law by their first names, which is never done in China.Question? What about India?There is also the interesting style that the higher up some one is the more they tend to use their first name especially when they sign business correspondences.At IBM there is no question that the CEO sign off with Sam as opposed to his full name Sam Palmasano.  The use of only the first name conveys both informality but also a sense that "I have arrived" and everyone knows who Sam is. If you can be known by one name only, you have arrived (succeeded) at least in your company. That explains American athletics like Tiger Wood, Michael Jordon are all known by their first names.  We all know who Tiger is.In large organizations like IBM, it is always fun to see how someone rise up the corporate ladder or their sense of accomplishment. If you are just another exec. (just made it) and you sign off with your first name only, it sometimes has a the opposite effect of being too arrogant.
  • SKALEmails style tend to be casual and conversational.Salutations are common, such as using the addresse's first name John,  In email, it is rare to have Mr. Lun.But don't be surprised some emailers do not have the habit of using salutations. Don't assume your American colleague is curt or impolite or angry (because Asians tend to pay attention to salutations ) .At their best, Americans are open, casual, inquisitive, but because of the get to the point tend to go straight to the point. 
  • Shoot the breeze: talkYou bet: yesAll hands meetingPlay ballCurve ballGo to bat for someoneTake it offlineLow ballHit a home runThrow somebody under the busIn the ball parkGo figure -Whatever - does not matter too much one way or the other
  • This section describes the style, the assumptions, and the protocol how Americans conduct negotiation and the possible pitfalls if other cultures are not aware of.Negotiation is Transactional and LegalisticAmericans do business quickly. No one needs to know you, trust you, or even see you to do business with you in the United States. Example, online purchases.  Speed is important. Many purchasing decisions are done in one visit.Americans rely on contracts. They value the legal system.  Because of the emphasis on the legal system and rights of individuals, Americans tend to be litigious and use the court system (lawsuits) to settle dispute. Recently there is another form of settlement called mediation that is becoming popular. My wife volunteers as a mediator.  It's a non-profit org which parties can go in front to have a impartial hearing to help them resolve differences. 


  • 1. Communications Presented by: Al Lun, Savita Katarya Style and LanguageVerbal and Non-Verbal expressions Workplace Communication Conversation starters Socialize, networking Negotiations 1
  • 2. How Americans Speak• English (or American English) – Accents: • Standard American Accent also known as broadcaster accent • North East (New York, New England) • Southern • There is also distinct Minnesota accent – Ethic groups also have accents – In casual conversations especially in the South dropping of g’s are common. Many politicians do that to affect a common folk touch 2
  • 3. Communication Style• Straight talk is valued – Expressions examples: Get to the point, tell it like it is, let the chips fall they may, Don’t beat around the bush – Advice to non-U.S. colleagues • Use tact, be direct 3
  • 4. Titles/Forms of Address• The order of most names is first name, middle name, last name• To show respect, use title such as Dr., Ms., Miss, Mrs and last name, for example: – You: “Glad to meet you, Dr. Smith” – John Smith: “Please call me John”• Nick names are common: Al for Albert, Niki for Nicole, Liz for Elizabeth … can be surprising, Jack for John, egBased on the book “Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands” 4
  • 5. Titles/Forms of Address - continued• Certain professions tend to be respected and honorifics are more often granted to physicians, politicians, professors – Even this is not always the case…Al was still “surprised” when his daughter called her PhD thesis professor by his first name 5
  • 6. Body language• Americans are moderately expressive in their gestures – Arm crossing could signal person is not receptive – They also have a distrust for people who are too expressive • Hand-waving is an expression to suggest that someone does not have the facts and tries to use gestures to tell the story• Spacing should be about two feet• When sitting, U. S. citizens often look very relaxed. They might prop their feet up on chairs or desks• Giving and receiving items—with one hand and tossing is also common• U. S. citizens smile easily and look for eye contact (not stare)• Same sex do not hold hands• Hand-shake – firm but not crushing 6
  • 7. Within the company• First name basis is common – The higher up a person is the more common is to be referred to by his/her first name • Therefore, IBM’s Sam Palmisano is Sam • Rule of thumb: – The more someone is referred to by his/or first name only is a sign of fame and recognition – But be careful how you sign off your letter (by first name or by first and last name). If you have not earned the spot, you cannot just sign off with your first name 7
  • 8. Workplace Communications – email and instance messaging• Emails style tend to be casual and conversational – Salutations by first name • Don’t be surprised some U. S. emailers neglect to start with salutations. – U. S. emailers can be direct. “I need this now.” “Call me.” “What is the status?”• Instant Messaging (known as sametime at IBM) is common – Even more short and direct in style than voice communication – May compound the sense of being in a hurry or short – Don’t interpret your US colleague don’t want to talk to you or that he is rude … it’s the communication medium 8
  • 9. Tips (assume the best)• U. S. citizens are direct and may appear to be too much in a hurry and even rude• Electronic communication media (email and instant messaging) make the communication even more direct• International colleagues would do well to not assume the U. S. colleagues are rude or too demanding. View it from the cultural perspective of U. S. directness and the pressure of multi-tasking• Try not to take offense or over-interpret while you maintain your own cultural style of communication of being more polite, cordial 9
  • 10. Web/phone conference• Be on time• If you don’t understand something, let them know• Agree ahead of time how to interrupt when someone on the other side is going on and on and you are lost, eg. Agree that you will press the phone key to let them know you have a question• If your team needs to talk things over, tell your U.S colleagues• If you run the meeting, send agenda and supporting material ahead of time. 10
  • 11. Learn to say No• When working with U.S colleagues, international colleagues should learn to say “No”, politely• Use technique such as to say “if to do this, we will have to give up something else”• When giving estimates for when to deliver, learn to add a xx% buffer (called fat by Americans)• This is also known as “push back” in Americanism and they do it very often 11
  • 12. United States Slangs• Very colorful and could be confusing to non-Americans• Baseball – Play ball, low ball, hit a home run, go to bat for someone• Football: – Hail Mary Pass• Misc – Shoot the breeze – Take it offline – Throw someone under the bus• Minnesotan – You bet – Whatever 12
  • 13. Conversation Starters• Greeting: How are you? Does not mean they really want to know your condition.• Weather is good as a starter especially in Minnesota• Sports – Football, basketball, golf• School• Americans have hobbits like gardening, home improvement, cooking, wood-working. Find out what your colleagues are interested in and ask them about their projects 13
  • 14. Ask for help• The majority of your US colleagues are eager and willing to help, but you have to come right out and ask• Be polite and yet still be assertive – For example • “Excuse me, tell me more about what you mean.” • “Where can I find more information?” • “Can you please put that in writing for me so I can better understand?” 14
  • 15. Networking• Within IBM – IBM clubs such as Toastmasters, PC Club also – Diversity Council sponsored by HR: ANG, BNG, Women etc. • Many of the diversity groups act as hosts for you – Also, there is cross-cultural mentoring (Teresa Kan)• Outside IBM in Rochester – Many service (non-profit) organizations – Ethnic cultural groups 15
  • 16. Negotiation• Americans favor speedy negotiations• Personal trust is good-to-have but not overriding• They rely on contracts and legal papers• Transparent, contractual, competitive bidding, upfront• Explains the number of lawyers, law suits – Community-based mediation (non-binding) is becoming an alternative 16
  • 17. Gifts• Business gifts are discouraged by law• When you visit a home … may take flowers, a plant or a bottle of wine• After visiting someone or having received a present from someone it is common to write a Thank You card. 17
  • 18. Lessons Learned 18
  • 19. Halloween• The first year I was in the US as a foreign student, one evening there was a loud pounding on my apartment door. I open the door and in front of me found the scariest scene in front of me. Half a dozen of people were all dressed in ghostly costumes and wearing make ups resembling the blood- thirsty demons. They all yelled at me and I slammed the door quickly on them. 19