Doing Business in America

I’ve spent this month applying for jobs in Trondheim. It’s has made me think about some of the differences in business culture between the USA and Norway. I know a lot of people probably see shows like The Office and wonder how accurate that is to true US business culture. The answer is: it depends.

The US has a very aggressive “sink or swim” capitalism model that is supported by the availability of just about every imaginable good and service. In fact, the failure of some businesses and their replacement by a better-performing business is seen as a natural cycle. It is part of what drives the US business culture to continuously aim for peak performance. If you aren’t doing it well, someone else will, and you will be out of business. So, here are few basic concepts of US business culture:

Time is Money

Schedules, deadlines, and punctuality are essential assets of the working culture. If your project is not on time or early, you can expect to hear about it from your supervisor. If you are regularly late or if you consistently leave early, it will be noticed. Occasionally, picking kids up from sports or school events may be okay, but it is generally expected that you will work the full shift of your assigned hours. Likewise, business meetings generally are expected to start exactly on time and be very direct. Chatting and small talk should be done at another time and place.

If you really want to annoy your colleagues, show up to a meeting late and talk about things that are not directly related to the conversation. You will quickly notice people begin to check their watches or fiddle with pens as they wonder why on earth you are keeping them from the direct task at hand. In the US, attention spans are at a premium and anything not directly related to work is just causing that person to be away from their family or frozen TV dinner or gym class or whatever they have lined up for the evening.

Small talk

Most regular daily greetings such as “how are you?” or “Hi Bob, how are the wife and kids?” are generally more of an expression than a real question. As such, responses like “great”, “fine, thank you”, or “very well, and yourself?” are proper answers. These are not usually questions of interest so much as they are pleasantries. Go into too long of an explanation and you will likely find your partner looking at his/her watch and squirming for an escape route out of awkward conversation. Likewise, parting words such as “let’s get together sometime” or “we should do lunch” are also simple pleasantries, unless a date and time is suggested. Don’t be that weird guy who accidentally chases down a dinner meeting when all that was really meant was “goodnight, see ya later”.

Business cards

Photo by Tojosan

Business cards

This one in particular really cracks me up. In the US, business cards are exchanged almost as often as handshakes. Often, it is just the quickest and simplest way of transferring contact information. At cocktail parties or business luncheons, I generally go home with an entire pocketful of business cards. Throughout the night, I make it a point to keep a pen in my pocket and write notes following the conversation if I am interested in following-up.

For instance, if we speak about a particular position or program that I am interested in then I will most likely keep that card at the top of the stack and write a couple of short notes about our conversation so that I can start the conversation via email form where we left off. This shows initiative, attentiveness, and true interest. Most of the other business cards, however, go into a rolodex just in case it should prove useful later.

Yes. No. Maybe.

Generally speaking, in US business culture, “yes”, “no”, and “maybe” mean exactly that. In many Asian cultures that I have traveled to, the answer is almost always yes, simply out of courtesy. In the US, this is not the case. When we say no, we mean it. Likewise with yes. Maybe literally means “it’s a possibility, let’s follow up”.

Facts and figures

When I worked on Wall Street, we were told to read the Wall Street Journal daily and to be able to hold conversation on things such as the current prices of oil or gold, the general trends in the stock market, and any major news relating to the financial industry. You never know when you may find yourself in an elevator with an executive or on the trading floor with a curious visitor from one of the listed companies. Knowing specific details and numbers will set you apart from your coworkers immediately and give you a reputation for being quick and knowledgeable. You definitely don’t want to be that guy who responds with “yep, the market sure is up today” when in reality it’s down 50+ points on the DJI. When I worked at NYSE, I checked the main indexes at least every 15-20 minutes.

Mind your manners

In American business culture, proper greetings and good manners are a necessity. Opening doors for others, especially for women, holding the elevator door, and using words such as “please”, “thank you”, and “excuse me” are expected. In some places around the world it is perfectly fine to run through an open door and then let it crash in someone else’s face. Not in the US. Don’t be that person.

Dress to impress

There is a saying that “clothes make the man”. While this is not directly true, it does have some truth to it. Whether your suit costs $100 or $2,000 is not so much of an issue but what does matter is how you wear it. A suit that fits well, a belt that matches your shoes (brown/brown or black/black), trousers that are properly tailored, hair that is neatly combed, and general hygiene are extremely important. I believe that you should show up to work every day as if it were an interview. Depending on your sector and job function, casual clothing may be more appropriate; however, even casual clothing should be clean, well fitting, and professional. Never be sloppy. You are a direct representation of the organization you work for.

After work drinks

Grabbing beers or cocktails after work is an extremely common part of US business culture. It is a good way to get to know your coworkers, relax, and have fun. Business culture in the US is so formal and strict that getting a chance to know one another outside of business is a really great way to build personal relationships. However, make sure that you don’t drink too much or make a fool of yourself. Although you may not be working, you can guarantee that it will be held in a negative light if you are clearly drunk. Limit yourself to one or two casual drinks and then head home. It shows self-control, professionalism, and still lets people see that you can take the tie off and relax after work.

Remember, although you are off the clock, you walk a fine line anytime you are together with coworkers. You should always be professional. If it’s your desire to go out and have a lot of drinks, that’s fine, but part ways first and head to another venue. If you’re the one dancing on top of the bar all night, it will definitely get some laughs, but it may also cost you your next promotion.

Have fun!

Even though all of these previous tips make it sound like US business culture is scary and always serious, that’s not the case. Work should be fun, regardless of what you do. My first day at the New York Stock Exchange as an intern, I “high-fived” everyone in the office; and then I sat down at my desk and got to work. It was my way of saying “Hi, nice to meet you. I’m friendly and I like to have fun but I’m also here to get work done.”

By being the positive, upbeat, happy guy at work, I always build amazing relationships and help others realize that even though there is work to be done, there is also room to smile. Everyone wishes work was more like The Office and a little fun goes a looong way in US business culture if you do it properly.

In my next post, I will cover some of the most interesting aspects of Norwegian business culture and how they pose difficulties or benefits to foreigners.

Do you have the mindset to succeed globally?

Join us in Trondheim, Norway, on 18 & 19 March as we seek to awaken the entrepreneurial mindset at Technoport 2015.