US culture: subtle differences

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GIVEN our shared language and familiarity with American TV, film and music, you’d be forgiven for thinking business trips across the pond would go smoothly enough.

According to the World Bank, the US ranks 7th out of 189 countries for the ease of doing business. So no worries there, right?

“There are whole range of things where you might assume they are like us and not do your research,” says Jeffries Briginshaw, of the British American Business Council. But that would be a big mistake.

Indeed, the Fulbright Commission, which works to foster cultural understanding between the UK and US, warns those travelling between the nations to study that they might even experience culture shock.

Americans are very open people and like to share a lot about themselves,” it says. But it points out that traits of British humour, such as sarcasm, satire and surrealism, aren’t universally appreciated.

“Punctuality, individual responsibility, a high work ethic, and proud patriotism are all valued in the USA far more than the UK,” it says, adding: “Self-deprecation is rare in the US, and laughing at yourself or your country is viewed with suspicion.”

Aerial image of New York skyline at sunset
READ: The USA: A land of opportunity?

As Briginshaw points out, sharing a language isn’t always a guarantee that we’ll understand each other.

“We say ‘let’s put something on the table’ when we want something to be discussed but in America that means ‘let’s not talk about it’.”

If you plan to do business over dinner, he says, it’s worth knowing that Americans tend to eat earlier. And while it might sound obvious, people shouldn’t forget the sheer size of the US. “You aren’t going to get to a meeting in New York and another in LA the same day.”

The Department for International Trade says there are “vast regional differences” between many states. It lists other challenges including:

  • Strong competition, causing saturation of products or services
  • High customer service expectations
  • High cost of living in major cities
  • Significant time difference
  • High cost for business insurance
  • Expensive and time-consuming process for work visas
  • Litigation is common

On the last point, DIT recommends consulting US lawyers to check contracts, carry out due diligence on prospective partners and offer tax advice.

And Briginshaw warns: “The legal system puts you on the spot in terms of liability. If you don’t do your homework, you could end up in court on a billion-dollar ticket.”

So, Land of Opportunity it might be. But it’s also the home of the brave.

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