Handshakes. Personal Space. Please and Thank You. Understanding U.S. business culture is extremely important for a successful internship program and to prevent potential miscommunication and misunderstandings.
Americans are taught from childhood on that it is their personal actions and decisions that affect their position and outcome in life. Your supervisor and others at your company will most likely include you in this mentality. Therefore, it is important for you to understand not only U.S. business etiquette, but the reasons behind them.
Americans place importance on individual initiative (stemming from the thirst for liberty and freedom of the European settlers), and personal achievement. Working on tasks and projects independently with minimal supervision and guidance is therefore highly valued. This mentality goes back hundreds of years to the foreign settlers in the East and to their constantly moving new frontier towards the West. Daniel James Brown describes the mentality of these people perfectly in his book ‘The Indifferent Stars Above’: “They tended to be forthright, plain-speaking, earnest, and trustworthy. They took a man at his word, unless they had good reason not to. And above all they were fiercely self-reliant, unflinchingly independent.”
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ask questions or for help when you need it, rather it means that your supervisor or colleagues shouldn’t need to “hold your hand” and supervise you constantly.
Americans value honesty and open feedback, especially in business. Things you say will generally be taken at face value, so be sure that you are clear and honest with questions, comments, and other feedback.
Depending on the customs of your home country this may take some getting used to. However, please understand that honest and direct communication shouldn’t be taken personally and is not meant to be rude. Comments about your work performance isn’t a reflection on your character as a person or your honor.
Americans use a lot of lingo in business communication. We tend to adopt sports terms in everyday language such as “Touch base”, “Call the shots”, “Ballpark figures” and “Game plan”. Try to look up some terms before arriving to make sure you understand nuance.
Knowing what ‘to do’ and what ‘not to do’ is important if you want to start your internship off right. What could be worse than leaving a bad first impression when you didn’t even realize you did anything wrong?
Be Punctual: Americans view lateness as a sign of disrespect. To be safe, you should try to arrive at your internship 5 to 10 minutes early, if possible. If you’re going to be late, it’s a good idea to call your supervisor and let him or her know that you’re on your way. A quick text message can avoid any misunderstanding. Most of the time your supervisor will understand (traffic, waking up late, missed the bus, etc).
Respect Deadlines: Americans tend to value getting things done quickly. If your supervisor gives you a project on a deadline be sure to have it done at the appropriate time. If you feel overwhelmed or don’t feel the time frame is realistic, tell your supervisor. Again, direct communication is respected and appreciated.
Follow the Chain of Command: If you have a question, request, or problem you should discuss it with your supervisor rather than discussing it with the first person you see, or worse, your supervisor’s boss. Respect for the structure and hierarchy within a company is extremely important. You should discuss things related to your internship directly with your supervisor unless you are working with a team and you need to discuss changes and ideas within your department before you present it.
Be Polite: Americans, especially in business settings, appreciate small talk. Be prepared to talk about the weather, news events, and sports with your colleagues. If you are uncomfortable with small talk it may be a good idea to practice by yourself or with a friend. Also, remember to address people by name, say “please” and “thank you”, and respect the personal space of your supervisor and colleagues. Americans generally maintain a greater physical distance than many other countries when speaking with one another. Americans do not hug, or kiss when meeting colleagues unless they have a friendly personal relationship, also.
Make sure to look up the business appropriate attire. A rule of thumb is to always over-dress on your first day. Wear nice shoes, pants, matching belt, and a button-down shirt or blouse. Do this until you get the ambiance of the office you will work in. You may find you need to wear a suit, or you can dress down in jeans.
By understanding the culture of U.S. business, and proper etiquette, you’ll be able to make a great first impression at your internship. Remember, not all companies are the same, and it may take some weeks to get familiar with your specific company’s business etiquette. Some companies are more relaxed and casual compared to others.
In general, fields like business, marketing, law, and finance are more conservative in the way they conduct day to day operations. Art, small businesses, and startups tend to forgo the suits, strict structure and the high level of formality. If you have questions about certain policies and practices, just ask.
During our internship placement process, our placement coordinator will already make sure that you get the big picture in order to, together, secure a good internship and be prepared. Then, later during your internship in the USA you will get plenty of opportunity to get a deeper understanding of all facets of the American culture.