Your guide to business etiquette in the United States

By Chris Chamberlin, June 21 2016
Your guide to business etiquette in the United States

As international travellers quickly learn, the dos and don’ts of conducting business abroad vary considerably between countries, and even though the United States can feel more familiar to Australians than the likes of China or Japan, America retains its own boardroom behaviours.

Above all else, time is money in the USA, so make your pitches concise and have figures and statistics prepared to support your position, but don’t think you’re obligated to accept somebody’s first offer just to move things along: this is one time where Americans will be patient.

You’ll also find that Americans prefer direct and straightforward communication during meetings – ‘yes’ means ‘yes’ and ‘no’ means ‘no’ – but in casual settings, the conversation can be more friendly.

Greetings, introductions and first impressions

Get off to a good start by addressing people using their title and surname. Us ‘Ms’ for women until otherwise directed, but expect first names to quickly replace the formalities.

Don’t, however, expect a handshake – a simple “How are you doing?” is common – but where a hand is extended, shake it firmly but briefly while maintaining eye contact. When meeting a line or table of people, always look at the person whose hand you’re shaking.

Speaking of greetings, if you’re asked the above or something similar, it’s not an invitation to harp on about your long flight or family troubles. Remember, time is money here. Your response will be “good thanks”, or “very well, thank you for asking” for a more formal touch.

You’ll also want to dress for success on the first encounter – that means full business attire as you’d know it in Australia with a jacket and tie for gents and corporate wardrobe for ladies – but on future meetings, feel free to dress down to match your clients or suppliers.

That rule doesn't apply when meeting with major IT companies known for being laidback such as Google and Facebook, in which case a sport coat over a nice shirt should prove more than adequate.

Schedules and business cards

Never show up at somebody’s office unannounced: always plan your appointments in advance, avoid rescheduling them unless absolutely necessary and aim to arrive at least five minutes early.

Being any more than five minutes late requires a phone call to explain and apologise for your tardiness, but at more relaxed and private dinners, aim to arrive between five and 15 minutes after the time you were advised.

Also be mindful that phrases like “let’s do lunch” and “see you soon” are usually just parting expressions and not invitations, so if you’d like to see that person again or catch up for a meal, the onus is on you to make that happen.

When you do go out for a meal, it's customary to tip your waiter. As a guide, tip 15% of the total food and beverage bill (excluding tax) for acceptable service, 18% for good service and 20% for great service.

A smart business traveller would do well to realise that your meal guests may have children paying their way through university by waiting tables, and that appearing generous in this respect, rather than 'cheap', goes a long way to creating a great impression.

Read: How tipping properly in the USA shows you're a savvy traveller

Swapping business cards is done informally – some might prefer during their first introduction, others quite casually during a meeting (“Do you have a card? I’ll send you those details today”) or when a person leaves the room, so just go with the flow.

Business meetings: quick, direct

After a brief ‘hello’, business meetings in the States tend to be shorter, to-the-point and may begin as soon as you sit down, so leave pleasantries and chit-chat at the door unless others bring it into the conversation.

You’ll want to communicate your own ideas clearly, listen intently and speak up if something is unclear – not only does the latter engage you in the conversation but it also avoids people from moving on, presuming that you’re up to speed.

Just avoid interrupting when somebody else is talking. Wait for a break in their speech, and if you pause during your own pitch, expect somebody to finish the sentence for you to keep the ball rolling.

With sport a favourite pastime in the US, other phrases like “hit a home run” and “bring it home” are also common in business talk, while “dropped the ball” is a softer way of acknowledging a mistake on your part or discussing somebody else’s.

Negotiations and business gifts

Sellers of a product or service are expected to start high while buyers will begin quite low, both with initially unappealing trading terms, giving room for each party to make concessions – so don’t make your first offer your best deal or you’ll lose your margins very quickly.

If you also feel a gift is appropriate, stick to something inexpensive but Australian, such as a nice wine (after sneakily calling somebody’s assistant to confirm whether they drink), or some chocolate to be safe, but don’t use or present a gift in a way that could appear as bribery.

Also recognise that most US government employees and many workers in the private sector are prohibited from accepting business gifts – as the working relationship is typically seen as between companies rather than their employees – in which case a hand-written note is a fine workaround.

Also read: A business traveller's guide to tipping in the USA

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ChrisCh
ChrisCh

Chris Chamberlin

Chris Chamberlin is the Associate Editor of Executive Traveller and lives by the motto that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, a great latte, a theatre ticket and a glass of wine!

HelpfulAmerican

HelpfulAmerican

06 Jan 2016

Total posts 31

That pretty much sums up how we are in a preffesional setting. I would say outside of the finance and legal settings you'd be safe to skip the tie, but an American is very unlikely to to be bothered if a new business aquatence is overdressed .

This should go witout saying to Australians who are familiar with ICAC headlines, but no gifts for goverment offciials and I'd be carefull about goverment contractors as well. Our justice department  and state level watchfdog agencies have become more strict on such things. They may not be turned down outright (some agencies put them in a pool or donate them) but its become a touchy subject and is best avoided.

patrickk

patrickk

Qantas

19 Apr 2012

Total posts 389

I would also say this applies to almost anywhere in the world with a few local variations ( a small bow in Japan, a hands clasped namaste in India) but it amounts to good manners anywhere. And yes haggling is an art that also applies anywhere that needs to be learnt but is hard to teach.

Newbie7

Newbie7

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

04 Dec 2012

Total posts 37

Chris, just want to add that while guidebooks still tout the 15% tipping standard, especially in the last few years with inflation, 15% is considered low and you may even get a waiter asking you afterward if there was something wrong with the service. Nowadays you average 18%, but in the major cities/just for ease of calculation most people leave 20% as standard. The other thing is, while techinically tipping is supposed to happen on the pre-tax bill, no one does this - and in fact, where a lot of new restaurants have the tipping suggestions on the bottom of the receipt, you can see there that the tips are calculated on the post-tax total price.

Eli

Eli

30 Jul 2015

Total posts 90

Newbie7 is correct.  Most tip at 20% or more for exceptional service to make a statement.

In Los Angeles (outside of banking, legal and government) business casual is the norm.  In the entertainment sector its extremly rare for anyone to wear a tie.

Americans love useless chit chat, and in more meetings than not, the first 5-10 mins is usually chitty chat about nothing of importance...this is just my experience as a Brit living in LA.  They also love to social in the evening...so be prepared for that, its considered rude to decline an offer for more informal discussion.

A big win with parents...if they grumble about not having a sitter for their kids (its a polite way) for YOU extending the offer to have them join in the evening/weekend if appropriate in a less formal setting.  This will close the deal for sure!   Extending an invite for them to visit Australia (a dream for most Americans) is also helpful.

ChrisCh

ChrisCh

24 Apr 2012

Total posts 2917

Hi Newbie7, indeed re: percentages, especially in larger cities like New York. My default is 18% as I rarely find service anything less than 'good' (staff are working for tips after all, so usually excel at being polite and efficient), but of course, 20%+ for great service.

On pre-tax/post-tax, that's interesting – I've spent lots of time in the US, particularly in LA and New York, and whenever I've looked at the 'tipping suggestions' (18% = x, etc.), they've always been based on the pre-tax price.

haz1003

haz1003

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

11 Nov 2014

Total posts 34

Tipping is fine when you are on a business trip, but when I was on holiday, I felt like I was spending more money giving people money than I was for getting anything in return. I literally had to run to the hotel front door so I could open it myself. Call me cheap if you want, but I find it really sad. I'm glad we don't have a full capitalist system in Australia.

aggie57

aggie57

QF

04 Apr 2014

Total posts 148

Harry, relax man!  You don't need to tip the doorman everytime you enter or leave a building.  If you stay for a day or two a couple of 'bills' on departure is fine.  Valet of course, a tip is expected each time you pick the car up but hey you can almost always self park instead. 

After a while this becomes second nature, you don't mind because the cost of most services in the US are lower $ for $ than in Australia and the minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. 

aggie57

aggie57

QF

04 Apr 2014

Total posts 148

I just looked it up and that $7.25 per hour includes tips....employers are only required to pay $2.13 per hour for tipped workers and cover the gap if tips don't already.  Try that one in Oz!


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