Expat Perspectives on the American Culture

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As Americans, we often forget we even have a culture. Here, expats to our country share their insights on what we’re really like.

What is it like to cross American borders for the first time? To enter a culture where “time is money?” Where competition is fierce and business informal? Where the pursuit of individual freedom forms the cornerstone of society?

We decided to find out. Our interviews with expatriates to the US reveal some interesting — albeit accurate — insights into the American culture. If you’re American — and you’re honest — you’ll see yourself amid their comments.

First and lasting impressions

“I’ve found it relatively easy to adjust,” says Thomas Bergenroth, a vice president at State Street Bank in Boston and a recent expatriate from Germany. “It is not as regulated or bureaucratic compared to European countries. People are very friendly, and we got an open reception, so I’d say openness and friendliness are two qualities of Americans.”

“People in the United States are very ‘United States,'” says Guido Vandenbos, director of apparel for the Americas Division at Reebok International. Vandenbos is from Holland and has been in the US for about 18 months. “There’s very little news about life outside the United States, so people here have a very limited perspective on the world outside their borders.”

“I found people here to be very noisy,” says Jennifer Roman, risk management administrator at Mobility Services International. An expatriate from England who has lived in the US since 1985, Roman was used to a more proprietary lifestyle. “Americans didn’t appear to mind people knowing their personal business, and that surprised me. They would talk in loud voices about personal conversations or finances within earshot of others. They’d balance their checkbook on the bus where everyone could see. I was always taught these were private matters.”

Americans are known worldwide for their informality, which, depending on your perspective, you’ll either welcome or despise. They are blunt and forthright and tend to “tell it like it is.” They “shoot from the hip,” “hit the nail on the head,” “wear their hearts on their sleeves,” and seldom “beat around the bush.” Still, as at least one expat found out, getting to really know them can sometimes be difficult.

“‘How are you?‘” says Vandenbos. “Nobody here pays attention to the answer. Americans are very good at making small talk, but it takes time to gain their confidence so they’ll open up to more personal things.”

“There is a sense of superficiality here,” agrees Roman. “They say, ‘I’m glad to meet you, let’s get together,’ but they never follow through. In Europe, people take you a little more seriously and expect you to follow through on your promises. I was taught, for example, never to say ‘Pleased to meet you,’ because I might not be. I might discover that I couldn’t stand you, and then where would I be? I was taught to say, ‘How do you do,’ instead.”

Getting down to business

Newcomers to America soon discover that the penchant for informality also pervades the workplace. People are introduced as “John Jones” or “Susan Connors,” and are usually addressed on a first-name basis after that, irrespective of title or position. Although the use of Mr., Mrs., or Ms., is common in business letters to people one doesn’t know, this more conventional type of address may or may not be used in subsequent correspondence.

Americans have little patience for, and practice few of the lengthier “getting-to-know-you” formalities so inherent in other cultures. Typically, business meetings in the US start on time. They are results-oriented and quickly focus on the bottom line. All members of the meeting are expected to share their input, although the CEO or senior employee usually has the final say.

“There is a much more direct way of doing business here,” admits Bergenroth. “In Germany, they will always use your last name. There are larger hierarchies and more emphasis on hierarchies in Europe. In the US, you are much more pragmatic . . . not always politically correct, but much more pragmatic.”

Vandenbos agrees. “In Europe, the steps to talk to a supervisor are harder. Here — at least at Reebok — they leave the door open, and they’re not surprised if you step through it. I can call the president of Reebok, and if he’s in, and if I really need to talk to him, he’ll pick up the phone. In Europe, you must go first through several secretaries, and then there are other ‘gates’ to get by. Here it is much more direct.”

What’s in a title?

As Vandenbos observed, however, Americans are very specific about job titles — as are Europeans, but for different reasons. “In Europe, you have a general manager supervising many managers,” he says. “All of them have differing salaries, but all are called manager. In the US, titles are tied to salary. You start out as a junior assistant or something comparable, and you work your way up through varying levels of management. You have assistant vice presidents, vice presidents, senior vice presidents, executive vice presidents — and those titles are very important to the people who hold them.”

This emphasis on titles and job position is an integral part of the American culture. From an early age, Americans are urged to be individuals, to make their own away, to achieve their own personal best. American actress Katharine Hepburn sums it up this way: “As one goes through life, one learns that if you don’t paddle your own canoe, you don’t move.” In the US, people are expected to “paddle their own canoes;” emphasizing job titles is simply one way of expressing the achievement and individuality behind those movements.

Women in the workplace

One aspect of the American culture that may catch some expatriates by surprise is the prevalence of women in the American workforce. Between 1979 and 1992, the number of women entering the US labor pool increased twice as fast as men. Today, women comprise nearly half of the American workforce. They are executives and presidents, and many own their own businesses; in 1994, more than four million women were self-employed.

But as Vandenbos has realized, the transition to the workplace culture is not always an easy one for men. Whether they grew up in America during a different time and culture, when a “woman’s place was in the home,” or are recent arrivals from a country whose culture takes a different view on life, they may find it difficult to adjust. “Generally speaking, people here are very concerned with racial and sexual relationships,” says Gandenbos. “You have to be very careful what you say, and I’m not used to that. If I’m interviewing a secretary I can’t ask her if she’s married. She can sue me if I do.”

Vandenbos may be interested in knowing he is not the only one struggling with the “rules” of modern-day America. More than two-thirds of the men interviewed by Men’s Health magazine say they are more careful of what they say or do because of heightened awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The idea of “equal rights for all,” — women included — is inherent in the American culture. Although American women today continue to fight the “glass ceiling,” they are more fortunate in this respect than their counterparts in other cultures, and their contributions to American business have been significant.

“I like the freedom that women have here,” says Roman. “I like the fact that they can progress in their given field. It’s a much freer society in that sense than a lot of others.”

Focus on the family

Americans move, on average, 11 times during their lifetime, according to the US Census Bureau, and that often means families live great distances apart. But for many, the sense and need for family closeness do still exist — although this is not always readily apparent to newcomers from other cultures. Bergenroth, for example, feels that family is a much stronger nucleus in Europe, where women are apt to stay home more often.

But Vandenbos, who has been in the USA a bit longer, sees a different perspective. “Family is as important here as in Europe,” he says. “The family may be living in different places, but I don’t sense at all that it is any less important.”

A higher quality of life

Most of the expatriates we interviewed felt that quality of life in the US is high. “You can buy everything at anytime,” says Bergenroth. “It’s convenient and customer-oriented, and sometimes the competitive environment helps in that. When you get a phone in Germany, for example, you get it from the post office. Here, I talked with three companies. You break services down further here than we do in Europe, because of the competitive environment.”

“The quality of life here is very high,” agrees Vandenbos. “It’s a huge country, and you can go a long way from a career point of view. There are opportunities here to go places quickly, opportunities that are harder to grasp in other countries. People here are more performance-driven, but that’s also a reason you are more successful.”

But not everyone sees life through the same lens. “Americans have an inability to really consider or appreciate the quality of life they have here,” says Roman. “It’s always a mad rush to go on to the next thing. There’s little appreciation for being able to relax and restore your energy. In European countries, they don’t live at such a breakneck speed. Perhaps it is an age factor, because America is a much younger country. In Europe and other countries, war and the constant threat of turbulence may have changed the idea of what is important in life.”

Obstacles to settling in

There are also obstacles expats to this country must cross that few Americans consider. “What is difficult when you move here is that if you have to buy a car or even a phone, you have no credit history, and little access to international institutions,” says Bergenroth. “This has been an obstacle, because everyone wants a credit history. Another thing is that you need a social security number; you don’t exist without one. I arrived here during the time your government was shut down, and I couldn’t get one.”

Some final words of advice

Should overseas employees accept an offer for an assignment in the US? All things considered, Vandenbos says, “yes.”

“If you have a chance to come to the US — and it’s not easy to leave family, friends, and a secure environment — but if you get the chance, and you are able to do it, always take it,” says Vandenbos. “I am thankful for the opportunity to live here and be exposed to American business. I also hope I’ll be able to give some perspective to Americans about what life is like outside this country.”

 

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