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back to index backAMERItalk May,  2005

Making yourself at home in the United States

The United States, isolated from most of the world by two oceans, nevertheless is a leading destination for expatriates. Many would say that this historical and geographical insulation has led to a disparity between U.S. customs, practices, and characteristics and those of the rest of the world. As such, life in America can come as quite a shock for many expatriates. Adjustments may need to be made in one's speech, etiquette, and overall demeanor before one is able to fit into the American business world. The author helps to ease the transition for an expatriate on American assignment by providing the following primer on the life and culture of the United States.


So, you finally have unpacked your last box at your new home in the United States. You are about to pull up a chair, but on second thought, you instead turn over a sturdy box and have a seat. Pat yourself on the back: this is your first act of American informality. You have made it through the visa process, the questions at Customs, and the airport security checks. Now your real work begins. How will you ever understand these strange, American customs? Moving your family to the United States may seem overwhelming as you and your family will face many hidden cultural differences. However, the quicker you uncover the cultural norms, the easier it will be to adjust to life in the United States.

The American Conversational Style

We Americans slouch, lean against walls, put our feet up on chairs or desks, loosen our ties, call each other by our first names, pat each other on the backs, and give a thumbs up sign to each other when we are doing well. As a newcomer to the United States, you may be puzzled by such informality. Witnessing how young Americans talk so casually to their parents and elders also may be shocking. As Oscar Wilde aptly said, in America, the young are always ready to give those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience.”

Informality is everywhere in U.S. culture, but nowhere is it more apparent than in the way we talk to each other. It is easy for foreign professionals to feel like outsiders when trying to learn to adjust to the conversational structure of Americans. For an expatriate, the way two Americans talk to each other is like watching a game of table tennis. One person says something brief, often no more than one sentence. Then the other person asks a question. The first person answers it and says something short again. This informal conversational style is characterized by words tossed back and forth and sprinkled with jokes and friendly insults, or what we call put-downs.” Foreigners listening to this kind of joking in conversation often will feel confused by this light-hearted conversational style. The longer you stay in the United States, the more you will begin to develop a shield so that when American humor is directed at you, you will be able to laugh at yourself—rather than feel offended.

The Art of Interrupting

If you plan to get a word in edgewise in the United States' talkative culture, you will need to learn the skill of interrupting. Interrupting someone to clarify or redirect a conversation takes a lot of courage when you are coming from a culture where interrupting would be considered disrespectful. You might begin to develop a technique to use when an American pauses and takes a breath. If what was said was not clear, you always can rephrase what the American was saying by using such expressions as so what you are saying is,” or, let me see if I understand what you are saying,” and usually the American will correct you if you have misunderstood him or her. When you need to redirect Americans in order to find out information about a completely different subject, their pause might be your only chance to jump into the conversation. Responding to what the speaker said by saying something such as, really? That reminds me of,” or, what I wanted to add was,” or, I was thinking of something that is completely off the topic,” typically are good methods.

Learning Sports Metaphors

Reading a daily newspaper in the United States is a great way to keep up with American idioms, and also provides conversation topics besides the weather. Pay special attention to the sports pages because many aspects of American culture use terms from sports and games as metaphors. Americans use these phrases daily without even realizing it, especially in business situations. The ball is in your court” means that it is your turn to decide or act. When you avoid responsibility or make a mistake, you have dropped the ball.” To pitch” an idea means to present a person with your idea, with the intention of convincing him or her of the wisdom of your plan. Have you done your job thoroughly? If so, you have covered all the bases.” You are a heavy hitter,” or a major player,” typically means that you are an important person in business.

We borrow words from many sports, but baseball in particular is widely used. We present, or throw out,” an idea. And in both life and business, it is three strikes and you're out,” which means you have three chances to get something right. If you fail three times, you will lose and face the consequences.

Making Phone Calls Is Good Business

Many international executives absolutely dread making phone calls here, which is unfortunate because making phone calls is essential for doing business in the United States. I have seen international professionals get their colleagues to place a call on their behalf, choosing someone who they feel possesses superior English skills, or have seen others who avoid making phone calls by sending e-mails instead, even when they need immediate feedback.

  What makes the telephone such a challenge? When you pick up the telephone and dial a number in the United States, you often get a prerecorded voice that tells you to press a number for another option or to leave a voicemail. If and when you get a human voice on the telephone, you never know what kind of voice you are going to get. People tend to talk faster on the phone, you will hear a variety of regional voices, and you have to guess the amount of patience the person answering the phone will have. Since Americans often have difficulty understanding foreign accents, you need to be as clear as possible when you speak on the telephone.

Being clear, however, does not mean you should be passive when you make a phone call. I have caught international business executives on the telephone saying things like, yes, okay, I see, uh-huh,” and then hanging up the phone and admitting that they did not understood a word of what the other person was saying. They ended the phone call as soon as they could before the other person found out that they had not understood.

Many international professionals need be more active when they place a call. Remember that if you are the caller, you must state the purpose of your call. Americans usually identify themselves immediately and then move on to the purpose of the phone call. In contrast, international business professionals often refrain from stating their purpose immediately. They often identify themselves and then wait for some kind of feedback when all they have given to the other person is their name. If you do this, Americans might get frustrated because they want to know what you want as soon as they answer the phone. After all, they have personally answered the phone in a world of voicemails. Another problem might occur if you merely say your name and wait too long to state the purpose of your call: the person on the other end might begin playing the spelling game,” which is when you are asked to spell your foreign-sounding name not once or twice, but often as many as three times.

Americans are in the habit of spelling anything that is difficult to understand or pronounce. We will do anything to get out of using a foreign last name, especially after we have mispronounced it a couple of times. We might not tell you directly, but we cannot wait to get on a first-name basis with you if your last name is difficult to pronounce. Addressing you on a first-name basis on the telephone or in person may be a sign that we simply want to escape the embarrassment of mispronouncing your last name again.

Being Friendly vs. Being a Friend

A classic mistake foreigners make is misinterpreting the informality of Americans as friendliness. Once Americans know your name and something personal about you, you may be simply referred to as a friend.”

Americans are noted for making friends easily, but friendship is a rather functional relationship. We put friends in categories according to where we see them and by the activity we share with them. If we play tennis, we have a tennis friend. If we know someone at school, we have a school friend. We have church friends, family friends, work friends, and so on.

For some Americans, church friends are rarely invited to play tennis, and tennis friends do not normally accompany each other to church. They seldom invite one set of friends home to intermingle with family friends. Some Americans even think of a friend as being restricted to the activity with which he has been labeled—the friend is stowed away and taken out for that one activity.

This functional approach to friendship in the United States results in our making many friends, but knowing few of them well. This idea of functional friendship may have developed from the high rate of mobility in our culture. Americans move an average of 11 times in a lifetime, according to the U.S. Census. We usually move to another city or state to get a different roommate, job, or house. As a result, many Americans keep a distance and choose not to invest the time and energy needed to build a deeper friendship. We never know when we will be moving on, or when our friends will move again.

The American attitude toward friendship presents a particular challenge for relocated families. Americans might appear warm and friendly until a foreigner wants to get closer to them, and then Americans will take a step back.

Despite these initial barriers to friendship, foreigners can and do make lasting friendships with Americans, although it may take more time and a great deal of persistence. A good place to start is by joining a special interest group, which is a group of people with common interests who meet on a regular basis to share their leisure pursuits. If you are interested in fitness, you might consider joining a health club with a colleague. If golf is your passion, playing regularly at the same course might turn out to be the basis of a long-term friendship. Sharing these personal interests provides a way to see Americans on a regular basis without the pressures and time constraints of a work environment. You can tell you have made a true American friend when you share many kinds of activities with them, including going to each other's homes and getting to know each other's families. If this happens, it means you have managed to jump out of the box and transcend the idea of a functional friend.


Silence is deadly to Americans, and it makes us feel especially uncomfortable at meetings. We fidget in our seats, clear our throats, and look around the room. If you are asked for a report or information that you do not have at the moment and you remain silent, Americans may feel uncomfortable. Since direct verbal feedback is expected—even if it is negative—it would be better to say in a confident voice that you do not have that information at hand, and that you will get back to the person.

This direct communication is quite a challenge for people from other cultures when they would not want to admit in front of colleagues that you do not have certain information, and thus lose face.” Even so, Americans prefer directness, even if you do not know the answer. You can say, that is a good question, but I do not have the answer at the moment. Can I get back to you?” If you ask for information from Americans, and they do not have this information or answer, you always can ask who would have this information, or when you can get it.

Decision-making Styles

The American decision-making style illustrates another cultural trait in action. In our individualistic society, we have become accustomed to expecting a decision to be made by the individual responsible for the group, such as the team leader or project director. Because there is usually only one person being held accountable, we have become used to expecting decisions to be made rather quickly.

Our impatience with ambiguity or nuances with decision-making can be best seen when Americans fail to understand each other. We tend to say, I do not understand your line of reasoning,” or if we speak indirectly about a topic, we might urge the other person to get to the point.” The same holds for the American distaste for uncertainty. When we ask you what you want to do, we usually become irritated with any hesitation or lengthy explanation. We might even ask you rather abruptly, yes or no?” to get to the final clear-cut answer. In America, it is better to be sure and wrong than to be unsure. Americans tend not to wait for someone to make decisions that might require the consideration of many factors. We think taking action and making mistakes helps us learn, so waiting until you are absolutely certain is considered a waste of time.

This is unlike collective cultures, where a consultation with a group is necessary in order to reach a decision. Getting other people's opinions, discussing the pros and cons of the decision, reaching a consensus from colleagues, and then making a group decision takes more time than making a decision as an individual. The decision itself may be a conditional yes or no, and not the absolute answer that many Americans seek.

Numbers are also very important to most Americans when they make a decision. Statistics play a powerful role in winning confidence, and provide a basis for making decisions. To Americans, numbers prove you have done your research and you can support your opinion with facts. Opinions must have reasons, and reasons must have statistics before you can take action properly. So when you go into an American meeting, be prepared to report to colleagues with statistics to prove” what you are saying.

Becoming Cultural Ambassadors

Americans generally know little about other countries; this geographic ignorance can be shocking to relocated professionals. It is one of many paradoxes that you will encounter in the United States. Here we are, living in a country that is a leader in global politics, yet the majority of people know little about the rest of the world.

When I mentioned to my American friend that I was training Korean business professionals, she politely asked me if I was training North or South Koreans. Her question, unfortunately, illustrates the lack of knowledge many Americans have about other countries, as my friend was unaware that the government of North Korea does not allow its citizens to leave the country for the United States.

Being unaware of other countries and their political and economic situations can be attributed partly to our educational system. In our schools, the subjects of geography and foreign languages often are overlooked in the curriculum. Still another part of our geographical illiteracy can be explained by our historical inheritance. The Pacific and Atlantic oceans have both protected us and isolated us from other countries. Instead of traveling to another country during our relatively short vacations, our families often go to another U.S. state to visit relatives, or see one of our national parks or monuments. This knowledge gap concerning other countries provides an opportunity for relocated families to frequently share their countries' customs, as well as their economic and political conditions with Americans, so that our mindsets can become more global.

In the course of their U.S. assignment, foreign professionals are likely to find many American customs that they consider strange. Adapting to these new customs will take some time, but the rewards of career advancement and adventure usually outweigh the cultural mishaps. Some relocated families might even find themselves enjoying the informality of American culture and undergo a culture shock when they return home.

Source: Mobility magazine - GAI

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