Leszek Kowalik
Język angielski, Artykuły

American Culture

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American Culture

The society of the United States is very complex as it is a multinational country. Many volumes have been written about American culture but it seems reasonable to present only a general description of it and mainly information connected with business behavior will be taken into consideration here. First, the four dimensions of culture described by Hofstede will be analyzed. Next, four cultural models of Gesteland (2000) will be presented. Finally, some of the social and business protocol and etiquette will be described.

Attitude Towards Power

The power distance index received by the United States in Hofstede's research shows egalitarian character of this country. Among fifty countries, the U.S. comes in thirty-eighth with a low PDI that equals 40.[1]

In American organizations all employees are given equal chances. The promotion does not depend on age or social status. High position in a company can be achieved by work and is connected with knowledge and skills. Even if there is some kind of hierarchy, its aim is to show different roles that people hold and not to highlight diversity of status.

An American organization should have clear rules about fair competition, and equal chances of promotion. Americans follow universalism in creating their organizational principles. The most important values are individual freedom and equality of chances. Although Americans have strict organizational rules, they avoid any kind of formality.[2]

Attitude Towards an Individual

American society has one of the highest indices of individualism. An individual is seen as the most important component of the organization. It is interesting that public opinion associates the company with the individual who manages it. The organization can be described as a community of competing individuals. All employees pursue their own good, and this competition enables outstanding individuals to achieve high positions in a short time. Additionally, there is a system of different rewards that promotes individual competition. Americans are profit-oriented people and they are willing to accept changes within the organization if it means promotion or a pay rise. Also the management techniques are based on individualistic decisions. The directors usually make decisions on their own, but their responsibility is individual as well. Generally, the state does not interfere in the companies' policy and there is a strict division between private and professional life of employees.[3]

Attitude Towards the Roles of Male and Female

According to Hofstede, Americans can be classified as a "male" society. During the research conducted among IBM workers, the United States had the seventeenth position and its masculinity index equaled 62.[4]

In the United States, a family expects their children to be the best. Students want to achieve the best results and any misfortunes in this field may be seen as tragedy. The research conducted among American male students shows that they are expected to succeed in their professional career.

People value materialistic goods and money. Americans also claim that the poor are responsible for their fate, and they should work instead of waiting for the support from the rich. According to them, people live to work. Conflicts are solved by the use of power and the saying "Let the best man win" clearly shows the male character of American culture.[5]

Attitude Towards Uncertainty Avoidance

According to Hofstede's research, American society can be classified by low uncertainty avoidance. The United States came in forty-third in a group of fifty countries with UAI of 46.[6] Similar conclusions are made by Sułkowski, who claims that American organizations are characterized by a high toleration of uncertainty.

American employees are accustomed to working in the situation where there is a lack of information. They also accept changes and are not afraid of risk. Thus, diversification of production will be commonly used and there will be always many variants of action. New ideas and innovations are welcome and any conflicts are seen as inseparable factors of organizational culture. Organizations try to minimize the number of laws and rules and their universalism does not cause any increase in conventionality.[7]

Affective versus Neutral Cultures

The United States is a multinational society. Thus, it is impossible to generalize about its affectedness, because it will much depend on people's ethnic rules. When compared with other cultures, American businessmen speak louder than the reserved Japanese, but seem to be calm and introvert when contrasted with people from Latin cultures. Americans feel uncom-fortable with moments of silence and will speak as soon as the other part finishes. Sometimes during transactions they may interrupt their interlocutors.[8]

Managing Time

Americans can be classified as a typically monochronic culture. They are obsessed with punctuality and perceive time as a kind of capital. They do not like losing it, because for them "Time is money." Time is used effectively, when all objectives are accomplished according to the schedule.[9]

When business people have an appointment at a specific hour, they expect their partners to arrive exactly at that time. If someone is late, it is perceived very negatively. They see such people as bad organized and not really interested in that business. When the meeting starts, Americans tend to be precise and get to the point straight away. They want to arrive at the final agreement without unnecessary interruptions. Americans get irritated when their business partners concentrate on different activities during the meeting.[10]

Attitude Towards Business

According to Gesteland American culture can be classified as pro-transactional. Because of their historical background, where most of them were immigrants, Americans had to trade and do business with strangers. Thus, they are not used to contacting mediators, but prefer to contact their partners directly. American businessmen are ready to do business straight away. It is not true that they do not want to get to know their partners before signing the contract. Their culture is result-oriented and they concentrate on making transaction first of all. The atmosphere of mutual trust is built during the business contacts.[11]

This attitude can be well summarized by two American negotiations paradigms presented by Anna Murdoch(1999). First of them, "Get to the point," shows American orientation on results. They do not lose their time on building relationship, because it is too precious. Another one, "Lay your cards on the table," reflects their pro-transactional attitude. When Americans meet to do business, they want to talk only about the transactions. They expect specific information and all the details connected with the deal.[12]

Attitude Towards Ceremonial Behaviors

People in the United States are quite informal in their behavior and dress when compared to other nations. They dress casually when not at work. The same is true for their non-verbal behaviors like the stance or sitting position. One can often see Americans putting their feet on a chair or desk.

Their language also tends to be informal and one should not be surprised to be called by his/her first name straight away. [13] Americans are known for their not ceremonial attitude toward strangers. One of the American communication paradigms presented by A. Murdoch says "Just call me John." [14] It reflects Americans' will to be friendly and build relationship quickly. They really mean to be cordial, however such an attitude is sometimes perceived as a lack of respect by people from ceremonial cultures.

Americans claim that all people are created equal and their society cannot be described as class-divided. In the United States men and women are considered equal. Young people and women can achieve success at work quite easily. It is more important what one knows and has already achieved than one's social background or sex.[15]

Non-Verbal Behavior

During a conversation, Americans tend to stand about forty centimeters from their interlocutors. They need more territorial space than people from expressional cultures. When they stand or sit in public places, they will always try to keep their personal zone.

Americans belong to people who prefer direct eye contact. They look into the face of their interlocutors to show attentiveness. Avoiding eye contact may be considered as a lack of interest or may indicate that the person is unreliable or dishonest.[16]

Americans may use body contact quite often, but not as often as Latin cultures. They are aware that improper use of it may have negative consequences. In business situations the most common form of touch is shaking hands. Other forms of showing affection like hugs or tapping are considered inappropriate. One has also to be aware that in certain situation touching may be perceived as a sexual harassment and it is advisable to avoid touching in business situations.

In certain situations, however, touching is acceptable, but it requires the knowledge of hierarchy. It is common that superiors tap the back of their employees or hold their elbow when they want to express friendship. Similarly physicians may use bodily contact when comforting patients. Thus, those of higher status may touch those of lower status, but not inversely.[17]

As Americans are a quite reserved culture, they use moderate gesturing. For example they do not wave their hands as it may indicate anger or being too emotional. People often use gestures to convey non-verbal messages. Axtell (1998) presents an interesting inter-pretation of some gestures in the United States:[18]
- Interest is expressed by maintaining eye contact with the speaker, smiling, and nodding the head.
- Nervousness is sometimes shown by fidgeting, failing to give the speaker eye contact or jingling keys or money in your pocket.
- Suspiciousness is indicated by glancing away or touching your nose, eyes, or ears.
- Defensiveness is indicated by crossing your arms over your chest, making fisted gestures, or crossing your legs.
- The lack of interest or boredom is indicated by glancing repeatedly at your watch or staring at the ceiling or floor or out of the window when the person is speaking.

Protocol and Etiquette in Business

During the introduction Americans shake their hands firmly and they look their interlocutors into eyes. Some businessmen think that a weak handshake indicates infirmity and avoiding eye contact dishonesty. Americans are known for their informality and they tend to use first names immediately.[19]

Americans may not present their business cards at the beginning of the meeting, they do it if they see a reason to contact someone later. Many people are surprised with the way Americans treat business cards. According to Gesteland, after receiving a business card from a business partner, they usually put it in the back pocket or just leave it on the desk without reading it. People from more ceremonial cultures should not be offended by this American behavior, which is connected with their egalitarian values.[20]

American businesspeople are not accustomed to giving or receiving gifts. They may sometimes feel embarrassed when they are handed something valuable. Thus, when choosing a gift for Americans, it is advisable to present something characteristic for your country or region. Americans will unpack the gift in the presence of the person giving it and express their gratitude verbally.[21]

Any kind of bribery is perceived very negatively in the United States. The U.S. law is very strict about this issue and companies found guilty of paying bribes will have to pay high fines. Americans find it very frustrating that in many cultures bribery is commonly accepted and generally practiced. [22]

Americans do not mix private and professional life. They seldom conduct their business during the meal. When one is invited to a typical American cocktail party, one should just behave like others, not expecting anyone's special attention.[23]

As in other Christian-dominated countries business is not conducted in the United States on Christmas Day or at Easter. Americans also celebrate the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving Day and their companies do not work then. Businesses are usually closed on Sunday, with the exceptions of shopping centers.[24]

Stereotypes of U.S. Culture

Athlen (1988) presented a list of stereotypes of American culture. Although stereotypes are necessary to make generalizations about the world, it cannot be forgotten that they very often do not work with individuals, just because they are individuals and because culture is not the only factor shaping their personality. Stereotypes become even more misleading when one wants to apply them to individuals who studied or worked abroad, i.e. had the contact with another culture and it is possible that some adaptation of another culture might have taken place.
According to stereotypes listed by Athlen, U.S. businesspersons tend to:[25]
- be informal in their relationships.
- be rather formal in their business attire (suits for men and dresses or suits for women); however many firms are becoming more relaxed in their dress codes or have a casual day when employees can dress less formally.
- be workaholics because they spend more time working than they do with their family or social engagements; U.S. executives tend to put in long hours at the office.
- embarrass foreign businesspeople by doing manual labor (for example, mowing their own lawns) or tasks that would be done by lower class or servants in their country.
- be overly concerned with time, money, and appointments; people of other cultures interpret the need of U.S. businesspeople to begin meetings on time and start business discussions immediately as an indication that they are unfriendly, impersonal, and cold.
- make decisions on hard, objective facts rather than on personal feelings, social relations, or political advantage.
- consider contracts and the written word as very important and to make rank-conscious foreigners very uneasy.
- be mobile; they rarely work for one company all their life which is very different from many countries in the world.
- convey superiority in their actions because they feel the United States is a superior nation.

Axtell (1991) collected the following epithets to describe Americans: arrogant, loud, friendly, impatient, generous, hard-working, and monolingual, which obviously are stereotypes. [26]

One of the icons of American movie, John Wayne, represents characteristics which are very strongly associated with American culture. According to Joyce Millet a typical American may be portrayed as someone who is:[27]
- individualistic and self-reliant
- friendly, spontaneous, and informal
- confident, arrogant, logical, and direct
- creative and innovative
- great talkers and debaters
- firm believers in the written word and contractual agreements
- uncomfortable with long period of silence
- passionate about truth, justice and equal opportunity


1) Axtell R. E., Do's and Taboos Around the World, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1993).
2) Beamer Linda, Varner Iris, Intercultural Communication in the Global Workplace, (New York: IRWIN, 2001).
3) Chaney Lillian H., Martin Jeanette S., Intercultural Business Communication, (Prentice Hall, 2000).
4) Dresser Norine, Multicultural Manners, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996).
5) Gallois Cynthia, Callan Victor, Communication and Culture, (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons,1997).
6) Gesteland Richard, Roznice kulturowe a zachowania w biznesie, (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, 2000).
7) Hofstede Geert, Kultury i organizacje, (Warszawa: Polskie Wydawnictwo Ekonomiczne, 2000)
8) Jandt Fred E., Intercultural Communication. An Introduction, (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000).
9) Murdoch Anna, Wspolpraca z cudzoziemcami w firmie, (Warszawa: Poltext, 1999).
10) Sułkowski Łukasz, Kulturowa zmienność organizacji, (Warszawa: Polskie Wydawnictwo Ekonomiczne, 2002).
11) Trompenaars Fons, Riding the Waves of Culture, (Irwin, 1993).

Internet Sources:
1) Millet Joyce, Understanding American Culture, http://www.culturalsavy.com/understanding_american_cul-ture.htm.

1. Hofstede Geert, Kultury i organizacje, Polskie Wydawnictwo Ekonomiczne, Warszawa 2000, p.65.
2. Sułkowski, Łukasz, Kulturowa zmienność organizacji, Polskie Wydawnictwo Ekonomiczne, Warszawa 2002 p.116.
3. Sułkowski, op.cit. p.116-117.
4. Hofstede, op.cit. p.144.
5. Hofstede, op. cit. pp.150-160.
6. Hofstede, op. cit. p.180.
7. Sułkowki, op. cit. p.118.
8. Gesteland Richard, Różnice kulturowe a zachowanie w biznesie, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 2000, pp.294-295.
9. Beamer Linda, Intercultural Communication in the Global Workplace, IRWIN, New York 2001, pp.94-95.
10. Gesteland, op.cit. p.295.
11. Gesteland, op.cit., pp.293-294.
12. Murdoch Anna, Współpraca z cudzoziemcamiw firmie, Poltext, Warszawa 1999. p.134.
13. Chaney Lilian H, Intercultural Business Communication, Prentice Hall 2000, p.44.
14. Murdoch, op. cit. p.133.
15. Gesteland, op. cit. p.294
16. Gesteland, op. cit p.195.
17. Chaney, op. cit. pp.112-113.
18. Chaney, op.cit. p.115.
19. Gesteland, op.cit., p.296.
20. Gesteland, op.cit., pp.94,296.
21. Gesteland, op.cit. pp.296-297.
22. Chaney, op. cit. p.185.
23. Gesteland, op.cit. p.297.
24. Chaney, op. cit. p.179.
25. Chaney, op. cit., pp. 6-7.
26. Chaney, op. cit., p.7.
27. Millet Joyce, Understanding American Culture,

Opracowanie: Leszek Kowalik

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