To understand US business culture, it is important to understand the cultural dimensions that shape Americans’ mindsets and behaviors. Let’s use David Livermore’s classification to cover this topic, keeping in mind, of course, that nuances – fortunately – do exist across geographical areas, people, and organizations.
[Identity] Individualist vs. collectivist
The USA is typically seen as the most individualist culture in the world. Identity is defined in terms of personal, individual characteristics as opposed to group, collective characteristics.
The dominant culture is rooted in a system that is organized around protecting the rights of the individual and allowing people the freedom to choose for themselves. Kids (!) are taught to develop sound logic to make decisions for themselves, be true to themselves, and pursue their dreams. In addition, free speech is highly valued and encouraged. A person’s success or failure is considered to be almost entirely due to his or her own efforts and abilities: the idea that external circumstances might determine one’s future is rejected.
Americans see themselves first and foremost as unique individuals, as opposed to people coming from more collectivist cultures, who see themselves primarily in relationship to others. There is not much emphasis on group loyalty and collective interests, and very little sense of duty and obligation towards one’s social group. People are encouraged to be themselves, not saving face.
[Authority] Low vs. high power distance
Power distance is about the amount of hierarchy and inequality that is assumed to be appropriate and normal within a society.
Of course, the USA has all kinds of hierarchies and inequalities, but the power structure in the USA is much less visible than in high power distance cultures. Americans also cringe at the thought that some people have “low” roles in life while others have “high” roles (especially as it is relatively easy to move from one social class to the other in the USA).
Individuals are empowered: they are allowed to experiment, they are encouraged to make decisions on their own, and they are welcome to question authority publicly (within reason and with a positive attitude).
Emotional distance is relatively small, and it is not unusual to socialize together and to call people by their first name even if there is a significant difference in social status, professional title, intellectual authority, or even age. When it comes to business, people prefer a boss who consults with them and involves them in the decision-making process, and subordinates are typically encouraged to work on their own, not micromanaged.
[Lifestyle] Doing vs. being
In the USA, time should primarily be spent being productive: the US is a “Doing” culture. You have most likely heard the saying “Time is money”: the truth is that American people save and spend their time as if it was money in the bank, and Americans tend to build their daily schedule so that no minute is left doing nothing.
That also applies to work, which is both a passion and a preoccupation.
Although more and more US companies are talking about a work-life balance, there is still a strong bias towards performance and achieving results. Most employees get only 10 to 12 vacation days per year, and there is no such thing as a “you work so that you can live” mindset. It’s also quite common to work 60 to 80 hours a week and to show availability at nights and on weekends, despite a constant urge to be more efficient.
Americans’ resilience and drive for performance may strike you even more when you realize that, besides so much time spent at work, many of them manage to practice several sports or arts during the week and participate in community activities and charity work, on top of having an active social life and taking care of kids and the family. When you are asked about your job, you are essentially categorized as who you are, and the way you spend time outside of the job should demonstrate a keen appetite for being productive.
“Being” cultures, on the other hand, divide their time more freely across various obligations in life. Work tends to be considered as a means, not an end. Getting more done in less time at work does not necessarily result in increasing the workload to fill employees’ time (in the USA, the motto is often “more”), but it helps them enjoy life through activities such as spending time in nature or being together with family. “Being” cultures value free time and tend to recognize leisure as the mother of creativity, while most Americans constantly worry about the number of activities they will be able to perform during their free time.
[Achievement] Competitive vs. cooperative
Societies differ in the degree to which they emphasize the importance of nurturing, collaborative (cooperative) behavior versus achieving results (competitive).
US culture is highly competitive: Americans are often seen as a very warm, friendly group of people who portray a very collaborative, personal approach, but they are deeply driven by results and aggressive competition. The driving assumption is the “survival of the fittest”: the tough will “win” and will be praised for their achievements. Competition is valued as it forces people to innovate, adapt, and thrive or become obsolete.
In such a culture, strategic planning is essential because the assumption is that someone is going to try to beat you at what you’re doing. Team-work and group effectiveness is a means to an end, not a value, nor a goal. Competition drives business, and little attention is paid by the company to an individual’s personal life despite a great deal of business literature dedicated to personal and professional growth.
On the other hand, cooperative cultures consider people’s well-being and harmony within a group to be the most important value. In such cultures, emphasis is often put on reaching a consensus, caring for people, promoting human development through shared resources, and introducing spirituality in daily life.
[Time] Clock-oriented vs. relationship-oriented
US culture’s relationship to time is marked by punctuality, “monochrony”, and short-term orientation.
There are precise times that events and appointments should begin and end. Being late has an impact on other people: the latter will be delayed in their own schedules because of you. Being on time, on the other hand, is a mark of respect and is also highly valued given that it fosters productivity.
From an individualistic point of view, individuals have control over circumstances, so there is no reason to be behind schedule if you have planned accordingly. It’s not uncommon for a meeting to be canceled if one of the attendants has not shown up 15 minutes after the meeting was scheduled to begin.
Monochrony means doing one thing at a time, and moving from one task to another only when the task at hand is completed. There is a strong drive for “getting things done” in the USA, and since individuals are praised for managing their time efficiently, getting things done amounts to having things move very fast, with great awareness of deadlines and the need to prioritize. It may seem difficult for some cultures to adjust to the US pace, especially if they emphasize consensus and one’s relationship to the world (where circumstances may be considered out of control) and to people (personal ties and duties to social groups may supersede any other obligations).
Americans tend to look at what has happened in the recent past and make decisions that will lead to quick results. They desire quick wins and have very little patience for long-term, 20-year ideas, whereas other cultures put greater emphasis on long-term goals that will be met through perseverance and patience. From a business standpoint, short-termism requires a focus on quarterly results and annual returns.
[Risk] Low vs. high uncertainty avoidance
The uncertainty avoidance index is the degree to which most people within a culture tolerate risk and feel threatened by uncertain, ambiguous circumstances.
Americans highly value strategic planning skills, logical decision-making, and project management abilities, for they seek the maximum ROI in any endeavor. However, US culture scores low on uncertainty avoidance, meaning that they are comfortable with the unknown. What lies ahead can always be figured out down the road, flexibility drives people’s behavior, open-ended instructions are stimulating, and diverse opinions are welcome.
Routine, precision, stability and predictability are much less of a concern to US culture than to cultures that score high on uncertainty avoidance. This does not mean that Americans do not experience similar levels of anxiety, but anxiety does not stem from gray areas: rather, it derives from the culture’s attachment to performance, achievement, and time management.
[Communication] Low vs. high context
The US culture is a low-context culture: things are explained explicitly and directly (people will “shoot straight”), and little is left to subjective interpretation. Very little emphasis is placed on using context to interpret meaning.
On the other hand, communication in a high-context culture presumes an understanding of unwritten rules and a shared cultural narrative. It is not necessarily assumed that people mean what they say and say what they mean.
American people may fail to notice that the context carries meaning, for they might not be trained to evaluate context: compared to high-context cultures, less emphasis is placed on the environment (setting location, etc.), appearance (clothes, personal belongings, etc.), body language, tone, and process (how a meeting is conducted, how attendants are seated, etc.). This may also partly explain why they so often remain stony-faced when foreign people venture jokes during a meeting.
If there is a misunderstanding during a conversation, the assumption is that the person doing the talk was not clear, not that the listener has failed.
[Expressiveness] Neutral vs. affective
The USA stands between 2 extremes: affective cultures (e.g. Latin cultures), in which people express their emotions quite spontaneously, and neutral cultures (e.g. some Asian cultures), in which people make great efforts to control, or even hide, their emotions. On the one hand, Americans frown on highly emotive, irrational expressiveness, but they do thrive on seeing people express warmth and responsiveness when they are talking to people.
Neutral cultures may perceive Americans as overly enthusiastic and loud, and they may even sometimes question their ability to make decisions objectively. Affective cultures may perceive Americans as lacking warmth (e.g. respecting personal space is very important in the USA) and they may question their ability to feel and act empathetically.
Standing between 2 extremes may confuse non-US people. For instance, when presenting an idea or a business concept, you may receive loud and encouraging praise, but that does not necessarily mean that the person really believes that your idea is viable or rational.
When it comes to delivering feedback, Americans can be quite candid or quite subtle, depending on the situation. However, they hate criticizing someone in front of other people: when negative (“constructive”) feedback is given, it is generally in a closed room with only the 2 people involved.
[Rules] Universalist vs. particularist
When it comes to rules and laws, US culture is universalist: there are rules for everyone and there is an obligation to adhere to standards that are universally agreed to by the culture, organization, and / or social group in which a person lives.
Legal contracts are readily drawn up and rigorously binding. Rules defined in administrations and various organizations are often communicated in written form, and they suffer very few exceptions. A rule is a rule, deadlines are deadlines, and a deal is a deal. A trustworthy person or organization is one that honors their word and contract.
A particularist culture would instead focus on the relationship: both with people and with particular circumstances, which are variables. Adjustments, exceptions, and perspectives are usually welcome.
Interestingly, the USA uses Common Law. It is somewhat a mix of the universalist approach and the individualistic cultural dimension: judges rule on precedent (trying to be fair and to have a universalist approach), but they can decide which previous cases and rulings apply to the particular case at hand (trying to assess how the individual has specifically impacted others).
[Social norms] Loose vs. tight
Hosting people from all over the world and valuing individualism, the USA has quite a loose culture. One person believes what he or she wants to believe, and another person believes what he or she wants to believe – as long as it doesn’t infringe upon one another’s freedom. The same applies to many parts of life: clothes, daily behaviors, and even business etiquette. There are few norms, or standards that rule behaviors on a large scale. For instance, wearing a suit and a tie is quite common in European offices, but only few US industries require such attire unless people must meet important clients.
Abiding by a set of social norms is rather a matter or geography and idiosyncrasy. People in rural areas for instance may tend to be more narrowly focused on being with people who adhere to the same faith, go on vacation in the same places, drive the same kinds of cars, and send their kids to the same colleges. Some companies may be stricter than others: some require suits to be worn at the office, while others will gladly accept sneakers (or even flip-flops).
In such a culture, free speech is highly valued, as are pluralism of equal rights, religious syncretism, and the empowerment of women.
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