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Cathy Wellings


Head of Intercultural Training

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Doing business in the USA – cultural considerations for HR


The USA is the world’s largest national economy and, according to many, the world’s only remaining superpower. Even with the tremendous growth of emerging economies in parts of Asia, South America and Africa, US GDP is approximately double that of China, the world’s next largest economy.

Although the US may seem familiar to many, thanks in part to the successful export of its popular culture, the US can also surprise many businesses.  Organisations that attempt to do business similar to how they do business back home may realise too late that they are on a path to failure. Understanding American cultural, ethical and business values is vital for any organisation doing business in the reality of the US’s economic environment.

The USA in Focus

The United States of America is the world’s third largest country in terms of population, with an estimated 316 million people as of 2013, according to the US Census Bureau’s Population Clock. It is also the  fourth largest country by area. The US comprise 50 States plus the District of Columbia, the location of the capital city of Washington, DC. There are additional island territories in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The US government is a Federal Presidential Constitutional Republic, with federal elections held every four years. The US Congress comprises the House of Representatives and the Senate. In addition to electing a senator and a representative of Congress, Americans also vote for a President. This system can lead to different parties controlling the House, the Senate and the office of the Presidency. The US government is highly devolved, with much power held at the State level. This includes laws and practices impacting many social, education and business matters.

The US is a nation of immigrants, with more than 99% of Americans tracing their roots to some other country or countries. The US is becoming less ‘European’, with Hispanic populations growing faster than any other ethnic group. People with African or Asian backgrounds are also growing in numbers. The US Census Bureau projects that the US will no longer be a white-majority country by 2042.

The US is outwardly more religious than many developed countries, with religion especially important to many Americans living in the “Bible Belt” of the American South and parts of the Mid-West. All religions are practised in the US; slightly more than 16% of Americans practise no religion. Although there is no official language in the US, English is the de facto language, with Spanish also spoken in many communities. Americans may speak another language at home, but usually only if they are first or second generation Americans.

According to the IMF, the US’s economy is approximately US$15.7 trillion as of 2012. Only the European Union’s combined economy of an estimated US$16.7 trillion is larger.

Core Cultural Values

The American Dream

Most Americans consider the USA to be the Land of Opportunity, where hard work is intrinsically worthy and will lead to economic achievement and thus a better life. Whether from fresh opportunities or through self improvement, most Americans – from all walks of life and no matter how long they or their families have been there – believe they have an equal opportunity to be successful. For such a diverse population, Americans are remarkably patriotic, with the symbol of the American flag in particular found everywhere.

Can Do Attitude

The US is a young nation that continues to evolve. Attitudes are generally future orientated, with a mindset to making things new, improved and better, ideally all at a lower cost. Americans are traditionally optimistic; a glass half full culture, although this optimism has been challenged in recent years both from the loss of a feeling of invincibility post September 11 as well as through the impact of a sustained economic downturn in recent years.


The US is a nation developed by pioneers who needed to have strength and self reliance. Supported by the earliest government policies where self sufficiency was rewarded, it should come as no surprise that Americans are highly individualistic people. They are also extremely competitive, and usually take pride in their competitiveness. ‘Everyone loves a winner’ is a statement that resonates loudly with most Americans, who would probably regard winners as heroes.

Important Business Values

Hard Work

Many Americans genuinely believe their country is the best in the world and are usually not shy in sharing their sentiments with others. From a business perspective, Americans are quick to identify one another by what they do, with job titles and their commensurate status surprisingly important for an ‘egalitarian’ society. Americans are often driven by improving their station in life, with visible consumerism often a measure of success.  Taking time away from work – including holiday leave beyond a few days at a time – is often regarded with suspicion.


The ‘Can Do’ attitude often prompts Americans to appear busy at all times. Americans are usually more comfortable with action than with theory or long term strategising, especially when the expectation of others is to take time to strategise, reflect or to build a consensus. For most Americans, Time is Money.

In a strong economy, Americans have been reasonably comfortable with taking risks, with the idea that taking a bigger chance could also reap bigger profits and rewards. However, in a weak economy, Americans also know that they must balance their desire for action by playing within the rules and will thus be much more reluctant to take these same risks during a downturn. The US labour market is generally much less protective of its employees than most other developed nations. In the US, not only do Americans often feel a loss of identity if they lose their job – historically, they have also lost their access to most affordable health care coverage as well.


American competitiveness has provided a major platform for American economic achievements at home and increasingly abroad as well. However, Americans can also be highly insensitive, dismissive or oblivious of other ways of approaching a problem or even understanding different styles of doing business – ‘my way or the highway.’

Aggressiveness in the workplace is often considered to be a positive attribute, including amongst businesswomen. Pushing, forcing and openly disagreeing are communication styles often seen as leadership qualities, especially against competitive businesses. Emphasis is usually placed on market share, statistics and a belief in technology, all used to quantify and focus on transactional attributes of business.  Getting the job done and getting a positive result is generally much more important than developing long term business relationships.

Do’s and Don’ts

Americans are usually friendly, generous and informal people. Although most Americans will overlook small political and social faux pas, visitors doing business in the US should be aware of the following pitfalls that could jeopardise their business relationship.


  • Be polite, smile, and use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ whenever possible.
  • Show interest in anything American, including anything that originates from the region of America you may be working with.
  • Expect most Americans to be informal and friendly as soon as you meet them.
  • Americans can come across as loud and exuberant to more reserved cultures. Try to be enthusiastic and positive about your business as well as your experience in the US.


  • Underestimate the sentiment of patriotism, especially when something challenges American’s belief of superiority or invincibility.
  • Be too indirect in how you communicate with Americans.  Most Americans are not attuned to reading between the lines or picking up subtle body language or other non-verbal communication
  • Expect the average American to know very much about your country, or perhaps they may only be able to relate to your country in broad or outdated stereotypes.
  • Assume that Americans have the same values as you.  Beneath the surface, different cultural values may prevail
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Cathy Wellings

Head of Intercultural Training

Read more from Cathy Wellings

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