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Think You Know the American Business Culture?

By: Michael Wynne
Posted: June 25, 2009

Americans have gotten a reputation for ignorance of other countries and cultures. For years, I have been helping American executives learn how to conduct business in other countries, and many will admit that they are clueless on how to deal with other cultures. In the last few years, however, I have also worked with a growing number of foreign executives coming to conduct business in the U.S. They tend to believe that they are very familiar with the American business culture. Many don't know that they don't know—but think they do.

What do foreign business executives need to know about the American business culture that will help them avoid making costly mistakes based on flawed cultural assumptions?

Avoid Stereotypes: Some years ago, I heard a comment from a visiting businessman that he understood American culture very well because he had seen so much of it on television. I asked him what specific programs he had watched that taught him so much about the American culture. But the stereotypes represented in media outlets are often more like cartoons and not true pictures of American culture, and certainly not any guide to successfully conducting business in the U.S.

Perception of Time: Americans, especially business people, view time differently than most cultures. To Americans, how time is used is an indicator of our competence. As a result, we frown on anything that we perceive as wasting our time. It may be wasted in our own way, but when we do, it is often excused as an exception.

The Importance of Punctuality: Because of the American time prejudice, we dislike the lack of punctuality. Most other cultures are more forgiving and flexible about this issue, but Americans consider tardiness as either incompetence or disrespect.