The idea of American business etiquette may seem like it should be obvious, but there are still several rules to follow—many of which vary between regions of the country. In most parts of the United States, etiquette is more relaxed than in Europe, Asia or the Middle East, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t adhere to some common rules of courtesy in business.
Business and food go together hand-in-hand in any country, and this is true in the United States as well. In many Asian countries, dining together at a restaurant is an opportunity to socialize before getting down to business, but in the United States, talking business during a meal is more accepted. It is common for business meetings to be presented as a “breakfast meeting” or a “lunch meeting”, and you should be prepared to talk business and bring your briefcase and paperwork with you.
If you’re dining in a small group, it is customary for the person who invites to pay the bill. If you are dining with your equals, you may split the bill. However, you will soon recognize a peculiar custom known as the “American check-grab”, often accompanied by a short and sometimes playful argument over who gets the privilege of paying the bill. Feel free to take part in the check-grab ritual, but don’t be too aggressive, and if your counterpart insists on paying, let him do so after making a token attempt to take possession of the bill.
In American business etiquette culture, it’s not unusual to see people in jeans and casual clothes. If you’re new to a situation, err on the conservative side. Avoid the jeans altogether. Casual clothing should be stylish, often with lighter colors. A tie may not be necessary in a casual setting, but a light-colored sport coat is a nice touch. In most of the larger cities, and especially on the East Coast, dark-colored business suits and ties are always appropriate for business meetings or sales calls.
Greetings tend to be somewhat informal. A handshake is appropriate when meeting, but not necessary to repeat on departure. The handshake should be firm, and with direct eye contact—a light handshake is considered to be a sign of weakness. In larger groups or in social events, handshakes may not be necessary. Some more aggressive handshaking styles may be accompanied by a pat on the back, usually between males. Beyond that, further touching between males (such as hand-holding, which is common in Arab countries) is not acceptable.
The verbal greeting is often short and casual, consisting of “Hi,” “Hello,” or “How are you?”. In the South, you may be greeted with “Howdy”, which is a derivative of “How do you do”.
While it is important to develop a rapport with your customers, a personal relationship isn’t seen as necessary (as is the case for example, in Japan). Most American companies will give precedence to the supplier who has the best deal, best product and best service, regardless of personal relationships. That said, it is still important to make regular contact, even if it is just a brief call once a month.
When you’re on “American time” it means being on time for meetings, or better, five or ten minutes early. Arriving late may lose you the deal. Deadlines must be met in all circumstances, and schedules are spelled out in detail ahead of time and expected to be adhered to. When a business meeting begins, very little time will be spent on pleasantries, and you will jump into the business discussion almost immediately. Expect something firm to be decided during a meeting. A meeting will never be open-ended, and at the conclusion, there will be a plan set in place, actions defined and assignments made. Don’t be afraid to ask for a conclusion or a decision during the first meeting.