America is ultimately a nation of immigrants and as a result is a cultural mish-mash in every sense of the word. Not only is the country populated by people from foreign countries but all Americans in one way or another trace their ancestry back to another culture, whether Irish, German, Italian or Scottish. Looking around any major city one will notice the ‘melting-pot’ that it is.
Most people who come to the United States may already know a few things about the people through TV. Although this is of course a skewed reality some of the stereotypes are true, especially American friendliness and informality. People tend to not waiting to be introduced, will begin to speak with strangers as they stand in a queue, sit next to each other at an event, etc. Visitors can often be surprised when people are so informal to the point of being very direct or even rude.
The rules of social behavior in the United States can be equally confusing. There is a strong dose of Puritanism mixed in with generally laissez-faire American attitude, which makes it difficult to predict how people will behave or react to others’ which means that values may differ widely from one social group to another and from one individual to another. Sometimes it may seem that no rules apply and that “anything goes”, but a newcomer should be wary of making assumptions about what is acceptable.
Americans generally believe that the ideal person is an autonomous, self-reliant individual. Most Americans see themselves as separate individuals, not as representatives of a family, community or other group. They dislike being dependent on other people or having other people be dependent on them. Some people from other countries view this attitude as selfish; others view it as a healthy freedom from the constraints of ties to family, clan or social class. Individual freedom is an important American value, but newcomers may find themselves overwhelmed by the legal and bureaucratic restrictions on their activities and confused by the complexities of social interaction.
Americans are taught that all people are created equal. Although they continually violate that idea in some aspects of life, in others they adhere to it. They treat each other in very informal ways, for example, even in the presence of great differences in wealth or social standing. From the point of view of some people from other cultures, this kind of behavior reflects lack of respect. From the point of view of others, it reflects a happy lack of concern for social ritual. Americans, as a rule, generally think nothing about starting a casual conversation with a complete stranger; this is usually meant as a sign of friendliness. Should strangers smile at you, it is a sign of welcome and acknowledgment of your presence. It is not necessarily an invitation to speak, nor is it a sign of insincerity when they do not acknowledge your presence. Americans “talk” with their hands, often touching another person to make a point, to express sympathy, or to be friendly, even in casual conversation with people not well known to them.
Americans are more concerned with honesty than with saving face. They often discuss topics which may be embarrassing to people in many other cultures. Americans are taught from birth that “honesty is the best policy” even if the truth “hurts.” This sometimes requires straddling a very narrow path between openness, which is considered a virtue, and tactlessness, which is not. In an effort to get directly to the point, Americans tend to take verbal shortcuts and are perfectly comfortable dispensing with background details and polite social conversation. Americans measure truth by the accuracy of facts rather than by the expression of a feeling or an impression.
Friendships among Americans may be shorter and less intensive than those among people from many other cultures. Because they are taught to be self-reliant and because they live in a mobile society, Americans tend to compartmentalize their friendships, having friends at work, friends from school, and so on. It has been said that Americans are very friendly but have a great deal of difficulty forming deep interpersonal commitments. Deep and lasting friendships do exist, but they take time to grow.
If there’s one single motivation uniting all Americans, it’s their desire to be rich and famous (I want it all NOW!). It’s the American Dream to be rich and money is openly admired and everyone’s favorite topic. Many Americans will do (almost) anything for money, which is the country’s national language (along with sport).
Americans are the greatest consumers in the history of the world and their primary occupation is spending money – when not spending money they’re thinking about spending it. In the US, everything and everyone is a commodity to be bought and sold for dollars (Americans believe every man has his price). Displaying the correct ‘labels’ is vital, as your status is determined by what you wear, drive, inhabit or own. Status is everything to Americans, who buy more status symbols than any other nation and believe there’s no point in buying anything expensive if it isn’t instantly recognizable and desirable. Ostentatious consumption is the order of the day (if you’ve got it, flaunt it!) and modesty is un-American and to be condemned. Most Americans can never have too much money and firmly believe that anyone who thinks money cannot buy happiness has simply been shopping in the wrong places!
Size is everything and bigger is always better; big cars, big buildings, big homes, big jobs, big pay cheques, big cities, big football players, big Macs, big guns, big stores – everything is big (most things in the US come in three sizes: big, huge and gigantic!). The US is a land of GIANTS, where everyone is twice as BIG and three times as LOUD as ‘normal’ people (and not just Texans). To Americans, size and quality are inextricably linked and your success in life is illustrated by the size of your office and the number of zeros on the end of your salary (Americans are impressed by numbers). Likewise new, which always equates to improved, and is infinitely better than old in the American throwaway society. Americans are continually ‘trashing’ or trading in last year’s model, whether it’s their car, home or spouse.
When an American buys a new toy or car, friends and acquaintances are summoned from miles around to admire it and hear what it cost (provided, of course, that it was expensive). Money is the measure of your success and wealth announces that you’re one of life’s winners (as Americans are fond of saying “If you’re so smart, how come you ain’t rich?”), although inherited wealth is less praiseworthy than a fortune amassed by a self-made man (stealing is acceptable, provided you aren’t caught). Americans not only believe that you can have everything, but that you owe it to yourself to have it all; beauty, education, fame, health, intelligence, love, money, etc. – if they cannot have it all, most Americans will settle for money. The best of everything is every American’s birthright, and they will borrow themselves into bankruptcy if they have to in order to provide it for themselves and their families.
Unlike many foreigners, Americans have no ambition to retire as soon as they have enough money (they never have enough) – they cannot bear the thought of someone else getting a bigger slice of the pie while they’re idle. Americans love winners (losers are instantly consigned to the trash can of history) and being on the winning team.
Americans are raised with a ‘can do’ mentality and to believe that they can achieve anything, from world champion horseshoe pitcher to President of the United States of America. They think that if they dedicate enough energy to it they can have a bigger house, more intelligent children, and an option on immortality (preferably in California or Florida). Most Americans have a rose-tinted view of the world, where provided you rise early, work hard and fight fairly, everything will turn out fine. America peddles dreams, hopes and lifestyles, where life’s a giant candy bar and all you’ve got to do is take a BIG bite!
Patriotism (nationalism) is like a religion in the US, both of which are branches of show business. Most Americans are deeply patriotic and demonstrate their love of their country through their reverence and allegiance to the Stars and Stripes (Old Glory!). The flag is the nation’s symbol and flies over all government offices, including post offices, and many businesses use it to demonstrate that they’re more patriotic than their competitors. Theoretically, the bigger the flag, the more patriotic you are, which is why the White House and used car dealers (both of whose integrity can use any help it can get) fly the biggest flags of all! The US flag is held in high regard and must never be ridiculed. Flag desecration is a capital offence and it mustn’t be left in the dark or be allowed to become soiled, wet or fall on the ground. After a spate of flag-burning in the ’70s, the US Supreme Court surprisingly declared that a citizen has the right to burn the flag, although most Americans believe it’s tantamount to treason (it certainly isn’t wise in public unless you have a death wish!). The flag is paraded before every sports event, no matter how small or unimportant, and the national anthem (Star-Spangled Banner) is played and sung by the crowd. At major events, such as football’s Super Bowl, a famous personality is employed to sing the anthem and Americans stand to attention, remove their hats and put their right hands on their hearts, while tears fill their eyes. American schoolchildren pledge an oath of allegiance to the flag every day: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands – one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” (Amen). Americans wrap themselves in the flag like no other nation and during a past presidential election the House of Representatives even voted to salute the flag every morning. However, despite their nationalism, Americans aren’t xenophobic, which would be highly hypocritical considering they’re mostly foreigners themselves.
Some cynical foreigners believe that the US’s patriotism is a substitute for history and tradition. After all, when your nationhood only goes back ‘a few years’ you need something to provide a sense of identity and to remind immigrants that they’re no longer Irish, Italians, Polish or whatever. Americans are bombarded with patriotic messages, and any politician who wants to be elected must take the sacred icons of God (who’s naturally an American), the flag and motherhood seriously. Americans fervently believe that the US is the promised land, the most favored nation (not a mere country) and unquestionably the greatest place on earth – and what’s more it was planned that way by God (if they did away with all the lawyers and politicians and threw away all the guns, many foreigners might even be inclined to agree with them). Americans are continually reminded of their great and wonderful nation (low self-esteem isn’t an American trait) by advertisers, politicians and anyone trying to sell something.
Time is money - the country that coined the phrase obviously lives the phrase. In America, time is a very important commodity. People 'save' time and 'spend' time as if it were money in the bank. Americans ascribe personality characteristics and values based on how people use time. For example, people who are on-time are considered to be good people, reliable people who others can count on. All aspects of time management are taken seriously in corporate America. Deadlines, punctuality, absenteeism and productivity are monitored closely and measured in any company. Note that many people will consider you late if you don’t arrive 15 minutes early.
The family unit is generally considered the nuclear family, and is typically small (with exceptions among certain ethnic groups). Extended family relatives live in their own homes, often at great distances from their children.
Women are leaders in all aspects of American life from business to education to government. Never assume that a working woman is in a subordinate position. American women are independent. They will not appreciate any "special help" offered because of their gender. Do not assume that a woman needs more time or more help than a man doing the same job. American women pride themselves on the number of responsibilities they take on. Do not assume that a working woman is no longer the primary caretaker of her family and children. When addressing a woman, use the title "Ms." unless you know that she prefers "Mrs." or "Miss." Many women keep their maiden names after marriage. Some use both their maiden and married names. When going to dinner or lunch, the person who invites pays, whether it is a man or a woman. Do not touch a woman in a business setting except to shake her hand. Hugging and kissing, even of people you know very well, is best left for social occasions. In many homes, the ideal would be for the man to work and the woman to stay home. Due to the high-cost of living, etc., most women do work outside of the home but males still tend to make a better salary than females.
Individualism is prized, and this is reflected in the family unit. People are proud of their individual accomplishments, initiative and success, and may, or may not, share those sources of pride with their elders.
Qualities most regarded in order of importance: leadership, personableness, strong communication skills, diligence, experience, education. Depending on how high up the management chain the individual is, the priority/importance of these attributes may shift a bit, but not much. Americans have a very "can do" attitude, so while formal education credentials are important, once you are in the door, demonstrated ability is far more important. For any newcomer in a management position, whether expat or not, it is important to establish credibility and rapport with the new staff. There are many ways to do this, but direct personal contact is highly valued. Seeking input and being open to suggestions is important in establishing rapport. Being informed and understanding the measurement and status reporting process for your group is critical—if there isn’t one, then create one. Demonstrate leadership and decisive ability as quickly as possible to earn credibility. Americans are pretty team oriented and don’t particularly like dictators, but they respect and will follow leaders.
Most people are motivated in order of importance: money, good working conditions, job satisfaction, loyalty and fear of failure. Having a church affiliation is very important. Living in a strong middle class will carry most of the advantages. The lower-income class will struggle to rise above its social stratum.
Ethnicity has a strong influence on community status relations. In most areas, particularly in the South, Caucasians and African Americans will live separately from the other. The attitudes in the work place toward racial tolerance aren’t much different from those outside the work place. The contrast is less noticeable with other ethnic groups, but again, relations between different ethnic communities differ from one state or city to another. Also rural areas tend to be more racially divided than urban areas where people are more used to mixing socially and in the workplace.
Although many foreigners have the impression that Americans are relaxed and casual in their dress, they often have strict dress codes. In the puritanical New England states, people usually dress conservatively and more formally than in most other regions. This is particularly true of office workers, who are usually expected to wear a suit and tie (and have short hair). In the east, casual wear (jeans or casual trousers, open-necked shirt) is acceptable for the beach or the garden but is unacceptable in many restaurants. In the south and west, casual dress is more acceptable, in the office and socially, and only the most expensive restaurants insist on ties and formal dress. Many offices have introduced a ‘dress-down’ day on one day a week (usually Friday), when employees may wear casual attire (although jeans may still be off limits). When going anywhere that could be remotely formal (or informal), it’s wise to ask in advance what you’re expected to wear. Usually when dress is formal, such as evening dress or dinner jacket, this is stated in the invitation (e.g. ‘black tie’), and you won’t be admitted if you turn up in the wrong attire. On the other hand, at some informal gatherings you may feel out of place if you aren’t wearing jeans and a T-shirt. If you’re invited to a wedding, enquire about dress (unless you want to stick out like a sore thumb). Black or dark dress is almost always worn at funerals.
There are some general observations about differences in "hospitality" between the North and the South that are fairly reasonable, and similar to Europe. In general, the people in the south appear more friendly, warm and gracious in their welcome than northerners, especially in the "deep south" of Virginia, Louisiana, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama etc. Florida and Texas are a bit different, and not traditionally thought of as "old South", but would follow the generalization of offering a warm and gracious welcome. Americans always enjoy a good laugh, so tasteful humor is appreciated and well received.
Texas and other Southern states of America are quite conformist, and many communities have a strong affiliation with the conservative Protestant Church, with many Hispanic communities centered around Catholic Church. In terms of public behavior, this means that common courtesy and upholding a somewhat modest demeanor are expected. This means that public displays of affection should be kept to a minimum – holding hands and kissing is tolerable, but anything beyond that would be considered vulgar and wholly inappropriate. There is also much less tolerance in this region for homosexuality, and any public displays of affection, particularly between men, should be discouraged. However, despite this, displays of wealth are more common, as they are often indicative of a higher social standing. When driving in Texas and the South, you should also make a point of being courteous on the roads. If someone has made space for you during a lane change, you should show your gratitude by waving your hand.