United States cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
In general, Americans are fairly open, friendly, direct and not overly formal. At first meeting in a business setting the standard topics of conversation that are acceptable in Canada would apply in the US—likewise for social first encounters. If it is evident that someone has a spouse and/or children, these are safe (and often welcome!) topics of inquiry and discussion. Sports are generally a safe and popular topic of conversation and there are strong regional variations. Glancing through a local newspaper is an effective way to pick up on regional preferences. In university towns, there is usually a very strong following of the school’s sporting teams. Football in particular is a sport that is followed from the high-school level through university and into the professional leagues—this is particularly true in the Southern part of the United States, where players are prospected before they even get into high school (under the age of 14).
In the top 10 big cities in the US, there are usually 2-5 professional sporting teams covering the "big sports": baseball, basketball, football and hockey. Golf is also a popular topic of conversation—playing the sport as much as following its stars. In the top 10 US cities there are also extensive "arts and entertainment" topics of conversation, from opera to theatre to museums.
Discussion around politics is fine too—as long as it is not too specific or provocative around issues or specifics.
Topics to avoid during initial meetings: generally topics that are inflammatory, controversial, or bi- polar in nature: the death penalty, gay rights, abortion, civil rights, etc. If you are in the south, discussion about the civil war can be very interesting, as long as it is historical and based on curiosity—rendering an opinion about the "principles" and causes of the war is not a safe place to go during initial meetings.
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 humour is appreciated and well received.
Good discussion topics when meeting someone for the first time are work and family (more often than not, in that order). When discussing politics, be prepared to explain how the Canadian system works (especially the multitude of parties involved and levels of government) and be prepared to learn (if you don’t know already) how the American system works.
After politics, the issue of Healthcare is always one of great curiosity. Americans are as curious about how our system works as we are curious about theirs. As I learned, it is important to note that in the US it is not as simple as just paying for your own health insurance. There is a whole system to understand in regards to the types of insurance, who pays for what and the concept of a ’co-pay’. The concept of 1 paid year off for maternity is also of great interest since in the US an employer is only mandated to give 6 weeks of unpaid leave (with extensions left to the discretion of the employer.)
Until you know a person better, I would suggest avoiding the topics of religion and gun control; both can spark VERY heated discussion. Views on these two topics can range from indifferent to extreme, and it may not always be obvious where the person stands on these issues.
Humour in the US seems quite generic at first. Once you get to know a person better, they may reveal their more subtle forms of humour such as sarcasm. Quite a bit of the humour (especially among Generation X types) seems to be quite inclusive of pop culture. Also, due to the sensitivity to sexual harassment, humour involving sexual innuendos should be avoided, especially in places of work.
In terms of personal space, 2 and often 3 feet is an appropriate distance to stand away from someone you are speaking with. Americans generally do not like to have their "personal space" encroached upon. Generally, gestures and touching are not common in initial encounters, either socially or in a work context. But once you become familiar with an environment there may be a higher degree of casualness.
When meeting someone for the first time, a smile and a firm handshake with direct eye contact will usually make a good first impression. If possible, be the first to offer your hand; this demonstrates confidence. Eye contact is an important sign of respect and it communicates openness, honesty, confidence as well as warmth. Especially in the South or in small communities, if you make eye contact when passing someone in a hallway, on the street, in a grocery store, etc., always acknowledge that person with a small smile or a nod of the head. Turning away is considered rude.
Americans do not generally kiss and/or hug in greeting outside a familial or intimate relationship, although you might observe people greeting each other or being introduced with a kiss on the cheek in the largest metropolitan centres where international influences are greater. It would be unusual in a business introduction and in the US, with the sexual harassment environment and high degree of litigation—most people stay very clear of this.
You should not always wait to be introduced. While it is polite to introduce a newcomer, many Americans forget to make introductions, even in the corporate environment. In a small group you can take the initiative to introduce yourself, if it seems appropriate. In large groups it may be assumed either that you will introduce yourself, or that "everyone will get to know each other" over time. In a social setting, just saying hello with a wave of the hand is fine, especially if it is awkward to shake hands. Handshaking is appropriate for formal situations in major metropolitan areas but may not be in less formal contexts.
The best facial expression is a happy one—Americans generally "put on a happy face" when they "go out into the world", whether that is professional or social. A typical greeting is "Hi, how are you?" or, "How ’ya doing?". The typical and expected answer is "Good, thanks. How are you?" Whenever this question is asked among people who do not know each other personally, that is the expected response.
Tone of voice should be pleasant and volume moderate. Be polite but direct. Americans generally do not view loud and emotional speech as being very appropriate—in any public setting, whether professional or private. They do value courtesy and directness—"get to the point", but don’t be rude about it. Americans generally try to be sensitive in difficult situations, but they do not like beating around the bush if there is a point to be made.
In the US, much like in Canada, the personal bubble seems to range between 2 to 3 feet with closer allowances for louder places (such as a night-club or sporting event). In this context, you will usually get closer to allow yourself to be heard and then back away while reaffirming what you just said with the corresponding facial expression.
In a more intimate setting, the space bubble will decrease. In general, you don’t want to be "in someone’s face".
Eye contact is good as long as it is not confrontational (don’t stare). It usually denotes interest and understanding. It is good to nod your head in agreement occasionally to show you are engaged in the conversation.
As in Canada, people are not very tactile at first encounter. There is of course the customary handshake when you meet (right hand only, not too strong), and when you leave. In a social setting, when you don’t know people very well, a smile and wave will usually do. If you really hit it off with someone, you may graduate to the hug and kiss on both cheeks. This is not the norm in a business setting.
In business, you will always want to a firm handshake; look the person in the eye while doing so. If someone shakes your hand without letting go, you can apply slight pressure with your other hand to their shaking arm’s elbow, holding the elbow lightly. This seems to work as a subtle cue to "let go".
As for gestures and facial expressions, they are very similar to (if not the same as) Canadian ones.
Always speak clearly and be direct about what you want. Especially in a business setting, there doesn’t seem to be much patience for "beating around the bush". It is possible to be direct and tactful without coming across as harsh or crass. Also, it is important to be clear about what you are saying. If you seem to stumble on something (especially in more formal matters like a bank loan, or a speeding ticket), it will spark a series of more probing questions to make sure that you are not hiding anything.
Display of emotion
Public displays of affection are acceptable if they are tasteful. Hugging seems much more common in the US than kissing, and is perfectly acceptable. Extended embraces in public are generally not considered tasteful, but are common in some social situations (dance clubs and bars for example). Public displays of anger and other volatile emotional displays are generally frowned upon. They are most commonly displayed at sporting events, and as long as there is no provocation to violence, are generally well tolerated in that context.
Public displays of affection (unless of the extreme) are typically fine. At work (or in a formal setting) they are somewhat taboo. Holding hands (in the proper context, ie: not the office) seems to be more or less universally accepted.
Public displays of anger will typically follow much the same rules. If your anger starts to get out of hand though, be prepared to be escorted to a place of repose and explain the situation calmly.
There is no need to shy away from emotions; just be aware of your physical context and act accordingly.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Dressing for work is highly variable based on the context: job, level, client facing vs. back-office, etc. In a professional services context that is client facing, e.g. banking, consulting, sales, etc. the dress code ranges from traditional formal business attire, (suits, ties, pantsuits and/or dresses), to "business causal". In the last 10 years, the business attire in the US has become increasingly casual. For men, this means sports coats and slacks, with a collared shirt and no tie or a nice sweater. For women, this translates into slacks and skirts that are not part of a suit. Khakis are also very common. Jeans and sneakers are not, unless you are a programmer or working on a "start-up" company. When in doubt, dress on the formal side, and you can always dress down afterwards. It is always better to be over-dressed than under dressed during initial encounters, whether professional or social.
The use of first names is very typical in the US. Most people operate on a first name basis, and do not use their titles in verbal dialogue.
All aspects of time management are taken seriously in corporate America. Deadlines, punctuality, absenteeism and productivity are monitored closely and measured in any company that has over a five thousand employees. This is especially true after the last few years, when there have been more job cuts and lay-offs than ever before (since 1990). Most companies are doing a more with less, and that means employee productivity is higher. People work hard and expect others to as well. Working in a unionized environment would have a different feel than this. So would working in a smaller company, and most of the job growth in the US has been with smaller companies—less than 1,000 employees. All of the points above still apply, but they are measured and monitored on a much more personal basis, where all of the employees know each other and know the boss/owner. Note that many people will consider you late if you don’t arrive 15 minutes early.
Dressing for work will depend a lot on the corporate culture of your workplace. Some places allow you to come in shorts and T-shirts accompanied by your dog. Others require you to be more formal and wear a tie. It is common practice to ask what the dress is for a particular occasion or workplace.
When referring to people at your same level or below, it is customary to refer to them by first name. Those above you should be referred to as Mr/Ms [last name], unless told otherwise. When your boss asks you to call him Joe and not Mr Jackson, call him Joe. Otherwise, it may construed as a form of distancing or dislike (which in the long run may be a career limiting move).
In any case, when in doubt, ask.
Preferred managerial qualities
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.
Set expectations early with your new staff about communication, and seek their input on your performance. Solicit their help in ensuring your success in your new position. A winning approach is often along the lines of "together we will both be more successful".
Representative CEO quote: "Be asked to wait, do not wait to be asked."
Although education is important, leadership and experience seem to be a truer test of a manager’s mettle. A manager’s education will certainly get him/her in the door with the HR department, but when it comes down to it, it is experience and leadership that will demonstrate the abilities of a person. There is not much of a difference for a non-local person, except that there are many more degrees of separation between the new person and their colleagues. Since they can rely less on peer reference as a way of judging non-local, it will be up to the person to present her/himself in the way s/he wants to be perceived.
Hierarchy and decision-making
It is acceptable to go to the supervisor for answers and feedback. Decisions and ideas are usually generated through group meetings and assigned by the supervisor.
In the environments I have worked in, the project team typically generates ideas. The team leader is typically in charge of culling the ideas and then coming up with the definitive list of the most appropriate ones, which are then re-presented back to the team for buy-in. Then, the ideas are put forth as the plan to the client and/or superiors.
When working in a team environment it is best to keep things within the confines of the team, unless there is an issue that requires mediation and/or expertise outside the team. A lot of places have a formal review process in which your supervisor and some of your peers evaluate you. This will give you an opportunity to receive feedback on your performance.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
It is difficult to generalize. The situation is probably not that different from Canada in many parts of the United States. On the other hand, 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.
Having a church affiliation is very important. It is difficult to generalize about the impact on the workplace.
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.
Gender issues south of the "49th parallel" are pretty much the same as in Canada. The main difference we noticed here was with maternity leave. In the US, a woman is entitled to 6 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. Beyond that, each employer determines whether to grant extended time and/or pay. This was a bit of a culture shock coming from Canada with our 1 year of paid maternity leave. If you are a double-income family coming to the US and thinking of having a child here, you should keep that in mind.
"Religion" as an issue is more difficult to identify and has little to no impact in the workplace.
The local culture is predominantly Hispanic (70%), working class and the main industries are related to tourism and education/academia (U of Arizona). Tucson’s proximity to Mexico also sees an influx of migrant/seasonal workers and "illegal aliens" who seek a better life north of the border. As a result, the local culture is divided and subsequently compartmentalized geographically by class and ethnicity. ’South’ of downtown is associated with a Hispanic working class neighbourhood with high levels of crime; ’North’ of town with a high class, well educated, mostly non-Hispanic (representative of many cultures; most are not originally from the southwest).
Generally speaking, the prevailing theme here is that a person’s abilities on the job that will overcome most assumptions based on gender, class, and ethnicity. If you can prove yourself to be a valuable part of the team, then what you do outside of the work environment (provided it is not of an illegal and/or scandalous nature) is less important.
Business is very much about who you know and not what you know. Establishing a relationship with a colleague prior to business is important. I would establish this relationship by finding out what your colleagues’ interests may be and getting involved in some of the same activities.
Unlike a more European market in which it is customary to get to know about the person before you do business with them, in my experience, it is usually the other way around in North America. It is usually once you are able to demonstrate your particular value to the team that it will open the possibilities for developing a more personal relationship.
I would recommend getting a few tasks under your belt first to more or less establish your "brand" with the person before attempting to develop a personal relationship. Don’t confuse conversational pleasantries such as "how was your weekend" with developing a personal relationship. It seems to me that business comes first and personal, a close second.
Privileges and favouritism
Yes. A colleague would expect special treatment given a personal relationship. Normally, special treatment is expected in the form of hiring friends and family, leniency, etc.
Depending on how much you trust your colleague, I would recommend granting such privileges... because preferred treatment is not forgotten and on most occasions is repaid.
An employee with whom you have a personal relationship would expect you to be an advocate and coach—more or less the corporate version of a friend. Preferential treatment usually comes about as a result of someone doing a particularly good job and thereby simplifying matters for her/his superior. Again, remember the concept of the personal "brand". If your brand is strong (i.e. you are known for a certain type of behaviour and/or way of doing things that is in keeping with the expectations of the job description) then you will become the "go to" person for a lot of things.
I would recommend reading a book called The One Minute Manager to get a better insight on how to deal with rewards.
Conflicts in the workplace
Always confront directly and in private. People are very direct. However, if someone is having problems, you might experience rude remarks, exclusion from activities, and possibly sabotage professionally and privately.
It is best to first deal with an issue directly and privately with the person(s) concerned.
Remember to be clear about the issue at hand. Also, address the behaviour in context; avoid personal criticism.
If all else fails, then go to a superior, explain the situation and ask for help with mediation. This will go a long way to establishing respect with your colleagues. If you do not get any response from your superior, then follow up with the HR department. The key is to always have some sort of a paper trail to prove that you have gone about solving the issue in a professional manner.
Motivating local colleagues
Most people are motivated in order of importance: money, good working conditions, job satisfaction, loyalty and fear of failure.
Money will only motivate you for so long. Work environment, advancement opportunities and leadership opportunities become very important after the "honeymoon" with money passes. Failure, on smaller scales, is typically seen as an opportunity to learn. But, you are expected to learn.
A team or individual that likes the work environment, the people, the leadership and the job will be motivated to work because that person will do it in the best interest of the team. As they say "a team is only as strong as its members".
Recommended books, films & foods
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Eudora Welty’s The Delta Wedding and anything by William Faulkner or John Grisham.
Sitcoms, talk shows (day time or late night), and sporting events.
Places to go
Sporting events, shopping centres, libraries, fitness clubs, etc.
Apple pie, hot-dogs, hamburgers and fries.
I would start off by watching a season of Survivor. This reality Television show is somewhat of a microcosmic representation of two competing corporations. You will quickly get to see how leadership is established, issues are dealt with and relationships are formed. It is a good sampling on the culture in a slightly different context.
Out of interest, I would recommend watching the movie Bowling for Columbine by Michael Moore to understand the more extreme views of gun culture in the US (both "Pro" and "Against"). When watching this movie, please keep in mind that it is not necessarily representative of all Americans, but it will give you an idea of what it means to have the "right to bear arms".
A good site for social/political commentary is http://www.cursor.org. It has a good sampling of pretty much all the news out there with a slight lean to the left.
Sporting events are best for learning about the culture and people. Other activities would include fishing, joining a club, local card game, libraries, hunting, and visiting memorial parks. Newcomers should visit their local library or community centre and look for common activities among the locals.
As far as sports are concerned, I recommend watching the Super Bowl at the local watering hole to get an idea of how important it is to a lot of people. People watching at the mall is also another way getting to know the local culture.
Almost every city has some sort of entertainment weekly. I recommend picking it up every week to keep an eye on what’s happening and to get an idea of the type of issues and commentary that are important in that city.
John F. Kennedy and historical figures who helped found American democracy and wrote the Constitution are nation-wide heroes. Generally, which past presidents, civil rights leaders and sports heroes you consider heroes depends a lot on your background and views (racial, ethnic, religious, political). It is difficult to generalize.
There are also the bright lights of the business world who have been generous philanthropists and whom certain people would consider heros. For instance Bill Gates, or the Rockefeller family. The film and music worlds and Broadway have produced their own successes. American soldiers have a hero status among a large number of Americans, as do the fire men who lost their lives rescuing people from the Twin Towers following the September 11th terrorist attacks. Many Americans would also regard prominent entertainers and sports figures as heroes, or persons they greatly admire.
The heroes are numerous and really depend on the context. To some, Charlton Heston is a hero for his activities with the National Rifle Association; others see him as a non-hero who promotes violence through supporting guns. For this reason, it is difficult to say with great certainty who the heroes are.
Shared historical events with Canada
From anything I have witnessed, Americans consider Canada as a passive little brother—willing to jump on board with every decision. However, since Sept. 11 and the Iraq War, America has seen a much more independent Canada, which was upsetting for most Americans. So in my opinion, it is best to avoid the subject of the US & Canadian political relationship.
None that I have come across.
I find Canadians automatically think Americans are closed-minded, loud, rude and, in general, aggressive. I personally feel Americans are very open and friendly to new comers.
I must admit that in the recesses of my mind, I came to the US with many ideas about Americans and American culture, thinking that the whole society was aggressive and obsessed with guns, violence and work.
Once I got here, I realized that although people did have the right to bear arms, not many of them had a gun in their closet, and for the most part, people were just really nice. While it is a culture that is work-centric, I found that it was not that much different from Canada.
The US is much more litigious than Canada and as such, the concept of liability is ever present (even if in more subtle ways). I wouldn’t go out a get a team of lawyers on retainer as soon as you enter the country, but I do recommend being more aware in terms of risk-management of situations. One thing that struck us when we first arrived in Tucson was that when you go to a restaurant and ask to take your leftovers home, they bring you a container for you to package your food so as to avoid any possibility of contamination.
Overall, America does seem to be more about capitalism and work, but the people are very nice and are usually keen to help out when they can. They may say "out" and "about" in a funny way, but when it comes right down to it we are all quite similar as individuals.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in St. Petersburg, Florida, the fourth of six children. At age six, she moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where she lived and eventually studied at the University of Southern Mississippi. After university, she moved back to Florida and then to Charlotte, North Carolina. In July of 2002, she moved to Toronto, Ontario, where she works in banking. She is married and has one child.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Santiago, Chile the oldest of eight children. At age 10, he moved to Edmonton and later Ottawa. He studied Advertising at Algonquin College and his work sent him abroad for the first time in 2000 to work in Louisville, Kentucky for PriceWaterhouseCoopers in management consulting. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter went to various cities in the US from where he would commute on a weekly basis for the following 3 years. He is currently living in Tucson, Arizona where he is studying Architecture at the University of Arizona. He is married and has one son, a cat, and a dog.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
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The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.