US Business Etiquette – 6 Tips for Doing Business in the US

Christophe Garnier

The United States is a global leader in business, particularly in the high-tech sector. Thanks to the tech boom and a pervasive startup culture, the US is living up to its values of innovation, entrepreneurship, and outside-the-box thinking.

Since the country offers promise and opportunity to innovators around the world, it’s no surprise companies and entrepreneurs around the world are flocking to the US to do business. Whether you’re thinking about moving your company to America or seeking professional connections in the states, here are some important tips to keep in mind.

Network, Network, Network

If you’re doing business in America, chances are you’re looking to connect with US VCs who can help you build your business. If you’re a small startup looking to come to America to make it big, networking is particularly important, as you’ll need to connect with people who can introduce you to funding opportunities.

Some of the best places to build new partnerships and to seek funding options are coworking spaces. When you work from a coworking space, you’re putting yourself in the middle of people who might just be able to guide you in growing your business. Surrounding yourself with the people in the industry is the best way to get a foot in the door in a new country.

It’s standard US business etiquette to exchange business cards with new people you meet so that you remember each other’s name, company, and contact information, so keep a stack in your pocket at all times.

Reach Out to Local Industry Groups

Connecting with relevant people and companies is a critical first step to introducing yourself to the business climate of a new country. David Birnbach, lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, points out that there are industry groups in every US state that focus on everything from medical sciences to high-tech. The best way of establishing your company’s presence in a US industry, he points out, is to reach out to these groups.

“All of these groups have robust staffs that are there to help new companies, especially companies from other countries,” Birnbach explains.

Coworking spaces, as well as industry events, can be great ways to meet people who are part of these industry groups or who can help you out by making introductions.

Introduce Yourself Appropriately

When you’re networking with American entrepreneurs, it’s important that you make a great first impression. To come across as serious and professional, make sure that you learn and practice proper American greetings.

Anytime you meet someone in a business meeting or in another professional setting, shake hands with them. This is especially important if this is someone with whom you want to have an ongoing professional relationship. Note that when it comes to handshakes, Americans like them to be firm; weak handshakes come across as passive and unassertive. It’s also standard, when greeting one another, for Americans to say “How are you?” or “It’s nice to meet you.”

If the person you’re greeting is standing, be sure to get up out of your seat to shake their hand. Likewise, when you part from someone at a meeting or in a professional setting, stand up to shake their hand. Though neglecting a parting handshake isn’t necessarily considered rude, it’s best to err on the side of caution.

Adjust to US Business Etiquette in Conversation

Just as it’s important to adjust your greeting style to US business etiquette, it’s also important to adjust your communication style. Remember that communication norms are culturally specific; practices that might be acceptable at home might be considered rude or uncomfortable in a different country.

When it comes to business conversations, you’ll notice that many Americans are assertive and direct. Still, there’s a difference between being assertive and being blunt. Americans might drive hard bargains in professional settings, but, as a rule, they tend to stay polite and appropriate. Always say “thank you,” “you’re welcome,” and “excuse me” when relevant–regardless of your relationship to the person in question.

Unlike Japanese and other cultures, American culture is uncomfortable with silence. Whether you’re in a meeting or interacting with someone casually, begin by engaging in small talk; if you don’t, you may come across as awkward or even cold.

It’s also important to keep in mind that different cultures have different standards for how much distance you should maintain between you and the person you’re speaking with. In contact cultures–like those in South America, the Middle East, and Southern Europe–it’s normal to engage in closer physical contact than it is in non-contact cultures like North America, North Europe, and Asia. Americans care about their “personal bubble,” so don’t stand too close when talking and minimize physical contact.

Know Business and Industry Rules

In some countries, it’s okay to interpret the rules loosely, or even to bend them as you see fit. This isn’t the case in the United States. It’s a rule in itself that Americans don’t like to work around the rules.

Americans’ rigid adherence to rules is important to keep in mind when learning about industry laws and regulations, and when entering negotiations with other companies. In the US, all agreements should be confirmed in writing, and a lawyer should be present before you sign a contract. It’s mutually expected that all parties will abide by a contract according to the agreed upon set of conditions.

That being said, the rule-obsessed culture of the United States isn’t a hindrance to business. Americans value innovation and entrepreneurship, and they like to see businesses succeed. So, respect the rules; many of them support business growth and will work in your favor.

Understand That Time is Money

Americans care about being productive and on time. While it’s important to be on time in all social situations, it’s particularly important in professional settings. Even arriving just a minute or two late comes across as sloppy and disorganized and makes a bad impression. If you can, try to arrive five minutes early to meetings and get-togethers. Your friends and colleagues will see timeliness as a sign of respect.

Time isn’t only valuable when it comes to social events or meetings; it’s also important when it comes to your business activities. American culture is very results-oriented, and likes to see companies and employees achieving their goals in a short period of time. Long-term goals, while important, need to be coupled with short-term strategy. The faster you can show results, the more you will impress.

Entrepreneurs from all around the world want to work in the United States to jumpstart their businesses and expand their companies into the US. As you investigate strategies for building professional relationships in the United States, keep in mind proper US business etiquette at all times. Breaking into the industry in the United States isn’t easy, but networking with VCs, connecting with industry leaders, and learning about American professional norms and expectations is an important first step.