Living/Working Among Americans

Contributed by Mieu Phan Coaching, 12 April, 2019

We are influenced by cultures more than ever before. Whether it is in international-business settings or in inter-cultural relationships, knowing the cultural context is paramount in crafting effective actions. Unfortunately, many are unaware of how cultures are impacting their lives. This writing brings to light the inner-workings of an American mind.

Some would recommend focusing on individuality and avoiding stereotypes. That is good advice, individuality is important and stereotyping creates conflicts and injustices. Unless we understand the cultural context of others, we fall into the trap of categorizing others through our own cultural boundaries. In working with others we must balance individuality and cultural context. If you agree or disagree with the statements in this writing I ask you to consider the relative gap between your country and American norms. For instance, if your culture makes considerable effort to minimize the impact of criticism then you likely view Americans as blunt and rude when they give negative feedback. For Americans, understanding your own culture is the first step in preventing the projection of your values, beliefs and perceptions onto others.

Communication is Easy to Understand

Americans are known for saying what they mean and meaning what they say. Thoughts are expressed in a simple, explicit, and clear manner, this is known as low-context communication. It is not surprising to know Americans have the lowest-context conversations in the world. This mode of interaction has historical origins dating back to the birth of the country. Out of necessity since its citizens came from different backgrounds, different points of reference, different educational upbringings, and even different languages. Americans have adapted the mentality of "Say what will be said, say what is intended, and then say what was said." With this strategy there is little room for ambiguity and misunderstanding. However, Americans deviate from this low-context strategy when providing feedback, which will be discussed later.

a) Language: The official language in America is English. As a language, English has few homographic words (words with multiple meanings). Practically, each word has its unique definition with little room for misinterpretation.

b) Humor: Americans preferred styles of humor are slapstick (making fun of stupid or clumsy mistakes), insult comedy or impersonation (exaggerations which are meant to be harmless), satire (the usage of many types of humor), and stand-up comedy. Most of these forms of humor involve explicit and visual cues. Many cultures deliver irony and sarcasm with a straight face, an American may suspect a joke but would not dare laugh just in case it's not.

c) Work: At work, meetings follow the low-context framework. Meetings are scheduled with an agenda with categorized sub-topics. In meetings, the topics are discussed in the order they appear closing one topic before opening the next. If anyone does attempt to discuss topics not included in the agenda, an American will request this be covered another time or elsewhere. At the end, there will be a recap of what was discussed.

High-context conversations are challenging for Americans, they have difficulty following what is said, how it is said, and what is not said. If an American is not certain, they could ask open-ended questions, reflect, ask for clarification, and watch for body language cues. Americans should also be aware of the interpretation of they habitual recap or written agreement as an insult on trust for those in high-context cultures. Those people may feel that Americans are stating the obvious is inappropriate, condescending and/or even patronizing.

Soften Criticisms

Americans give positive feedback explicitly. When it comes to negative feedback, Americans prefer to "insure domestic tranquility", a line from The Constitution. Criticism is cryptic. Criticisms are softened into a positive and encouraging language. The formulaic approach is to start with what the person has done well; followed by the important message of what could be improved on; followed by another positive. Even managers who do not use the "sandwiching criticism" approach take on the approach of softening criticism. A way to soften criticism is to use the words "a little", "a bit", "sort of", "kind of", "slightly", and so on.

In witnessing what appears as verbal sparring match in another culture, it would help Americans to remember the purpose of a healthy debate. These debates might be like "playing devil's advocate" designed to hash out ideas, bring up perspectives, and spark creativity. Another form of criticism is to exaggerate or dramatize criticism to highlight the importance. This form of criticism on unsuspecting Americans can invoke a fear response like flight or freeze. It is wrongly assumed that a criticism on an action or a result is a criticism of the person.

Application-First Persuasion

Americans uses Application-First persuasion. This starts with the research summary, explain the findings, and finally conclusions and recommendations. This mirrors in how Americans were taught in school. Let's say American students learned the Pythagorean Theorem. The students are taught the formula before applying it. Perhaps, 80% of time is spent on the application. The next 20% is spent on why Pythagorean Theorem is important, the history, and show the proof in getting to the theorem.

Another type of persuasion is the Principle-First persuasion. This method begins with setting up theoretical concepts before providing conclusions and recommendations. The theoretical concepts involved laying the foundation for the recommendations, setting up the parameters, outlining the methodologies, outlining the data, and explaining the premise for the conclusions and recommendations. Again, this mirrors in how principle-first thinkers are taught in school. Perhaps, 80% of the time is spent of developing the theory or complex concepts. The next 20% is spent on the application.

The final type of persuasion is Holistic persuasion. This starts with the big picture and show in great detail how all the pieces fit together. Let's say a team was given an assignment and each member had a specific task. Each member must know what each other are doing and how each task is related to the other tasks.

Americans have a disdain for what appears as too much information from the Principle-First and Holistic persuasions. People who uses the Principle-First persuasion are uncomfortable with swallowing the findings/results without knowing how the data was collected or the methodologies used. Holistic persuaders just can't move forward until they discussion among each other the interconnected and interdependent roles.

Egalitarian Principle

Americans live in an egalitarian society. Every one is equal. No one is better or smarter than the other. Everyone is capable of handling their own situation. An exception to the egalitarian principle is at work which will be discussed later.

a) Family Life: In a marriage, the husband and wife shares in the the decisions on budgeting, how children are to be raised, career path, where to live, boundaries of how extended family members are to interact to the family unit, and division of labor. When it comes to the children, children are encouraged to express their opinions. The parents in turn puts considerable efforts to accommodate the needs of every child. When it comes to the extended family, extended family members may give suggestions but the final decisions lays with the married couple.

b) Friends: When hosting at a home, everyone contributes to the meal. Other times, guests bring an appetizer, dessert, or wine. When friends eat a restaurant, each person pays for their own meal.

For Americans, it is uncomfortable to witness the hierarchy principle where there is a higher person and a lower person. The thought that the lower person's responsibility is to obey evokes an image similar to master and slave relationship. It is important to think not just about the lower person's responsibility to obey, but rather of the heavy responsibility of the leader. A lower person may follow instructions as requested, but in return, the leader must show paternalistic kindness. Protecting, mentoring, coaching and looking out for interests of the subordinates brings many rewards.

Top-Down Decision Making at Work

The American characteristic style of decision making have historical roots. American pioneers, for many, have fled away from hierarchical structures of their homeland. To be a successful pioneer is to arrive first, be hardworking and be adaptable. Decisions are made quickly with the top-down approach which is common in hierarchical societies. It is common for the boss to make the decision without input. Even with a consensus meeting, the boss has the final say. In large organizations, a subordinate will bring issues to his/her immediate manager. If a subordinate does bring an issue to the manager's manager then it is considered insubordination.

Americans have a disdain for lengthy discussion because it appears to slow done the decision-making process. Lengthy discussions are common in consensus decision making. Often in consensus decision making, everyone has a say in the implementation and decisions are set in stone. Because decisions are set in stone and everyone is on-board, the implementation is rather quick. In the top-down approach, decisions are made quickly with scarce information from one person or from a select few. When new data emerges, a revision may be implemented. These multiple revisions make for lengthy implementation periods.

Cognitive Trust in Business

Cognitive trust is based on confidence in another person's accomplishments, skills and reliability. Affective trust arises from the feeling of emotional closeness, empathy or friendship. In America, there is a history of separating the practical and the emotional. For this reason, mixing the two types of trust in the corporate world is considered unprofessional. Business and pleasure are separated. Mixing the two trusts is perceived as clouding business judgments; hence the term, "Business is business".

Cultures who interplay the two trusts in business settings perceive Americans as dishonest and untrustworthy because Americans are hesitant to show negative emotions or their whole selves. In these cultures, creating a personal relationship is a pre-requisite in building an effective business relationship. Social gatherings are meant to show everyone's true self, good and bad. Work is left at the door of the bar and outings with business associates are now outings with friends. Drinking is a way to show your nonprofessional side and that you have nothing to hide.

Friendliness is Not the Same as Friendship

It is easy to mistake American social customs as Americans are quick to smile at strangers, move quickly to first names, share information about themselves, and ask personal questions. Others may interpret this "friendliness" as an offer of friendship especially when there are unmaterialized invitations "Lets meet up for coffee!" This lack of follow-through in friendship are often received as "fake" or the American term "flakey". Americans have a hard time relating to those who take longer in becoming friendly and view them as unfriendly. Fortunately, once these people open up, then the relationship is long-lasting. Americans stay away from discussions involving politics, religion, and income.

Linear-Time Culture

In America, time is viewed as fixed and reliable. It's concrete and tangible. It's to be saved, killed, wasted, lost, or spent. In meetings, there is a strict start and end time, agendas are set up ahead of time, topics are discussed in the order written. Further discussions will be scheduled for another time. If a person speaks about an unscheduled topic then someone will say "Lets discuss this offline." or "Can we put it on the agenda for next week?" In keynote speeches, there is a time keeper who will display a card to count down the time limit. At zero time is up and it is time to exit the speech.

Other cultures view time as flexible. In flexible-time cultures, it is about being flexible. Anything can happen such as natural disasters or perhaps a new holiday has been announced because of the position of the moon. Other times, what was important when the meeting was scheduled is no longer important. It is possible for the agenda to change at the meeting, people may break up into groups to discuss subtopics, or people come and go for important calls. Americans find flexible-time cultures inefficient and stressful.

Christian Based Society

Life in America is based on a Christian society.

a) Most people work from 9 AM to 5PM from Monday to Friday.

b) Religious holidays are Good Friday, Easter and Christmas.

c) The tax law and health insurance policies favor married couples as opposed to two adults living together.

I hope this writing encourages you to open a dialogue with the intention to create curiosity and understanding. An understanding where all sides feel heard and understood. An understanding where each side collaborates in a creation where it satisfies the needs of all involved. An understanding where each side can see the positives of the other sides.

Tags: Lifestyle | Expats | Lifestyle | United States |



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