United States

English

An Open Book

By David James

In contrast to the great nations of Asia, the United States is predominantly a country of recently arrived settlers from all over the world.  Starting with the religious outcasts who arrived on its shores in 1620, and followed by waves of English, Irish, Europeans, black Africans (who arrived as slaves), and  —  more recently  —  Latin Americans and Asians, the United States has represented an open door to opportunity and a better life.  Since 1884, the Statue of Liberty has stood at the entrance of New York harbor, welcoming large numbers of new arrivals.  On its base are the words from Emma Lazarus's poem The New Colossus:

                    "Give me your tired, your poor,
                    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
                    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
                    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
                    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

statue of liberty

Today, with such a national kaleidoscope of ethnic and cultural origin, there are no typical Americans.  But freedom and opportunity, concepts central to the American Revolution (1775-83) and symbolized as well by the Statue of Liberty, constitute typical and fundamental values for Americans.  These values fuel the civil rights movement and various causes that seek equality of status or representation, such as the women's movement.  In business, they fuel a strong entrepreneurial spirit and a belief in the free enterprise system, which holds that an enterprise should be left to succeed or fail in an open market, unencumbered by government intervention.  Americans tend to resist governmental authority over an individual's personal decisions, but tolerate or support authority over activities that can abuse individual rights, such as stock market manipulation and employment discrimination.  Many also resist religious authority, and a key constitutional concept is the separation of church and state, aimed at defeating a coalition that could wield pervasive powers over the population at large.

[Tip  —  National Sensitivities:  Non-Americans, especially Asians from collectivist countries whose governments and other institutions play an active, participative role in society, should play down references to higher authorities, whether they relate to obtaining governmental approvals, headquarters clearances, or other consents.  Let such issues resolve themselves without fanfare.]

 

Chinatown, New YorkExcept for Americans from collectivist cultural backgrounds, individualism is a prominent American characteristic.  The typical American tends to be self-centered, and many are cocky and demanding.  In keeping with individualistic cultures, personal achievement for most Americans is more important than group achievement.  One's career is more important than one's organization or group.  Most Americans believe that individuals can control their own destinies, and that outside influences  —  even fate  —  will bend to the determination and resourcefulness of the individual.  As a consequence, Americans typically do not form many close personal relationships.

[Tip  —  Individual Recognition:  Do not expect an American to salute an employer's flag.  In complimenting Americans in correspondence, refer to their own personal achievements and contributions rather than the successes of their organizations.]

 

The self-sufficiency of the individualist places a greater emphasis on materialism than in collectivist cultures.  Materialism and a need for personal recognition cause most Americans to be hard-working and ambitious.  This accounts also for a quantitative, factual approach to life.  Americans like to see things in writing, to have supporting data, to trust legal contracts more than personal relationships.  These same characteristics tend to leave the individual less intuitive and less comprehending of subtlety.  Accordingly, many Americans take things literally and require direct, explicit communications.

[Tip  —  Communications Style:  Be specific in communications with Americans.  Be clear about what you request, and supply all the information that they may need to make a decision.]

 

In addition to these basic American values and characteristics, international business people who deal with Americans need to be aware of regional differences.  Here are the country’s seven principal regions and some of their more apparent features:

  • New England:  People from Boston and other cities and towns of this region tend to be among the most traditional, conservative, formal, and frugal of Americans.  Speech is to the point, and telephone calls and meetings are brief.
     
  • East:  New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, and other cities along the eastern seaboard are known for their impatient, confrontational, and competitive style.  Speech is often in the first person singular, punctuated with plenty of superlatives.  In Washington, name-dropping and influence-peddling are art forms.
     
  • South:  In cities like Atlanta and New Orleans, as well as in smaller towns, the style is often slow and deliberate, and the traditions gracious and genteel.  In the southwestern states, such as Texas and Arizona, the style is more informal and Mexican culture is much in evidence.
     
  • Midwest:  In both cities like Chicago, Cleveland, and St. Louis, and in smaller towns, people are known for their open, friendly, down-to-earth manner.  Because this region is in the middle of the country, attitudes can also be provincial, resistant to outside influences, and detached from the rest of the nation and world.
     
  • Plains and Mountain States:  Here, in states like Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho, people tend to be highly independent, utilitarian, and deliberate.  Like the midwest, attitudes are provincial and preferences are for ample size and space.
     
  • West Coast:  Many here, in the cities of Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and in cities and towns in between, consider themselves part of a "new" society, progressive and open to new ideas.  In southern California, the style is more informal, even flashy.  There are sizable Asian communities on the West Coast.  Many Chinese live in San Francisco.  Los Angeles has the largest Korean community outside Seoul, and a large Vietnamese community. In Addition, Latin Americans are heavily concentrated in southern California.
     
  • Non-Contiguous Areas:  Alaska and Hawaii are the two newest states, set apart by geography and attitude from people in other states.  Alaskans are hardy, independent frontier people who are happy to be as geographically isolated as they are.  Many of the people in Hawaii are of Asian descent; about 42 percent of the population.

[Tip  —  Regional Differences:  In communicating with Americans, be alert to regional differences in style and attitude.  Although individuals will vary, generally you can be more direct with easterners, more formal with New Englanders and southerners, and more informal with others.]

English is spoken throughout the United States except in various ethnic and immigrant enclaves and in some cities, like Miami and Los Angeles, where there are large populations of recent immigrants whose first language is different.  The English language is written with little clarity and proficiency by many Americans.  Grammar, syntax, spelling, and vocabulary are often deficient.

For non-Americans, regional accents and American slang present a challenge.  Understanding the spoken words of a native of Vermont, or Mississippi, or Brooklyn, New York, can be an impossible task.  To compound the problem, Americans often speak too rapidly.  Here are a few examples of American business slang:

Word or Phrase Meaning
Ballpark figure An estimate
Belly-up Bankrupt
Cash cow A business activity that provides good cash flow
Devil's advocate One who takes an opposing view for purposes of argument
No-brainer An obvious conclusion or decision
Proactive Taking active steps, not reactive
White knight A rescuer, a friendly merger partner

[Tip for Americans  —  Communications Style:  Be careful with your written and spoken communications to foreigners, especially to those whose first language is not English.  Keep sentences and terminology simple.  In conversations, speak slowly, enunciate carefully, and avoid slang expressions.]

 

Additional resources:

CIA World Factbook: United States