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back to index backGLOBALtalk June,  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.

For the rest of the article, click here.

Source: Mobility magazine - GAI

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Making yourself at home in the United States
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Strategic management in a flat world: The imperative of best practices
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