Etiquette Tips When Coming to America

Our experts give a German businessperson advice on how to fit in, from preparing for our casual style to asking before lighting up

Q: Can you recommend a guide to modern manners in the U.S.? I just started to prepare for a three-year stay in America and would like to learn how to behave in accordance with your rules of business etiquette.

---- R.P., Germany

A:We get this kind of question pretty regularly from readers -- most often from Germany, India, and Hong Kong, it seems -- so we thought the time had come to utter a polite "please" and ask the etiquette experts what they would suggest. Here goes:

One thing that's likely to throw you and others from countries with more formal cultures is America's high casual quotient, says Terri Morrison, author of Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands, a cross-cultural guide for business travelers. Americans of various corporate ranks sometimes engage in a free-for-all we affectionately call "brainstorming" or "problem solving." Our junior ranks are outspoken, which might strike you as insubordinate. Americans don't see it that way. After all, we speak a language that, unlike yours and many others, long ago dropped a distinction between the formal and informal "you."

The peculiarities of American-style manners play out in social settings, too. Americans are conversational: They talk to put people at ease, to massage relationships, says Martin Bennett, vice-president at the cross-cultural consulting firm Cendant Intercultural. So, what we see as graciousness, you might take as superficiality. By the same token, something we might consider an overbearing assertion, you might simply see as a straightforward, informed comment.


  Similarly, many Americans have the habit of prefacing a complaint with a compliment. Don't be startled. It's not the confusing contradiction it appears to be. It's one way we try to put people at ease, so they're less defensive when confronted with a problem.

In sum, Morrison suggests you adopt "relax" as a mantra. That way you won't be surprised at how quickly Americans use first names and call someone a friend. Or how we limit our handshakes mostly to first-time introductions, while for you, the formal handshake is a routine greeting.

There's one very important exception to all this informality, however: Unlike in Germany and many other countries, never, ever smoke without asking permission first.


  Now, for our readers who've sent similar queries from Asia, here are a few guidelines. In India, it's considered a breach of etiquette to decline an invitation, according to Liz Weiss, managing editor of, an online cross-cultural-resource service. Americans, on the other hand, think nothing of RSVPing quickly and directly with a "Sorry, I won't be able to make it." Indians needn't, therefore, feel they've been insulted if an invitation is declined.

Another pointer: Your polite way of saying "no" might seem vague and indirect to Americans. Circumspection isn't one of our strong suits.

Weiss also mentions one sensitive point among businesspeople from Hong Kong, where the custom is to treat a business card with great formality, using both hands to give it and both hands to receive it. They should try not to take offense if an American scribbles notes on the back of their card.


  For anyone coming to America, Weiss brings up a crucial consideration. You can learn about American etiquette in general, but you should remember that the U.S. is made up of many different regions with their own idiosyncrasies. In other words, your business and personal lives will be very different depending on whether you're working on buttoned-down Wall Street, geeky Silicon Valley, or cowboy-booted Houston.

We can recommend a few resources to get you started on understanding this landscape. One is Morrison's book. Two other possibilities are books by Mary Mitchell: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Etiquette.

Also, go online. When we plugged "cross-cultural training" and "Germany" into a search engine, for example, we got 11,000 hits. One good stop is Weiss's, a division of that, for a fee, allows individuals -- not just corporate clients -- to use its online services. (You can buy 90 days' access to all of's information on one country -- including etiquette -- for $95. For $250, you can buy access for one year.) Morrison's also will respond to individual requests, beyond her usual corporate clients.


  Above all, prepare to adapt. As members of an immigrant culture, we Yanks believe any non-American can learn to fit in, says Paul Bergeron, managing editor of Mobility magazine. After all, that's what our forefathers did.

Footnote: After the publication of our last column, on an executive recovering from a stroke, a reader wrote to AskCareers to offer one more piece of advice: Include a physiatrist -- a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation -- in your list of medical appointments. An evaluation by a doctor in this particular specialty, along with recommendations from a neuropsychologist, can sometimes lead to medication changes that improve "cognitive" abilities such as memory or attention.

Have a question about your career or workplace issues? E-mail us at, or write to Ask Careers, Business Week Online, 6th Floor, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information. Only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

H.J. Cummins has covered workplace, personal-finance, and work and family issues for more than a decade at Newsday/New York Newsday and the Minneapolis Star Tribune

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