On Socializing with American Colleagues
So you are taking an intensive English course in order to prepare for an important business meeting in America with your American colleagues who you have never met even though you have been colleagues for years.
You are excited and nervous at the same time. But you think you are prepared. You have learned a lot in just one week of intensif anglais and think you pretty much have the hang of what it takes to successfully communicate in English in a business setting. But there is just one thing: you are worried about the social activities that have been planned by your boss. While you know how to write effective emails and handle business calls and draft contracts, you are not so sure about socializing with American colleagues. What should you say? What should you not say?
You are right to be concerned. Success in business, whether as a lawyer or other business professional, is more than just completing your intensive course in legal English or Business English. It is also about acquiring cultural sensitivity for those with whom you associate and conduct commerce. This works both ways, of course. Some Americans do need to be more culturally sensitive to the cultural nuances and differences of others, just as much as some non-Americans need to remember that “being American” is not an abstraction. There is flesh and blood behind all that bravado. And when conducting business, failing to understand this can potentially result in “blowing” deals that otherwise would have been inked.
So what are 10 things to avoid saying when socializing with American colleagues?
1. Unless you know this person very well, it is impolite to tell an American, “I hate your President.” The problem with this statement is that it is absolute, negative and potentially insulting to the listener. You could be talking to a major supporter of this particular president. You may be talking to someone who is also a hater of the President but they may not want to hear these sentiments from a stranger or a non-American.
Sure, not every American agrees with the policies of every President who holds the job. But just because they did not agree with everything that the President did does not mean they want to hear what an “idiot” you think their President is. This can be so undiplomatic, it could actually result in a loss of goodwill between you and the listener. And if this is a potential business partner, it could be the beginning of a deal gone bad. So if you hate the President of the United States and you think the President is an idiot, do not tell it to your American colleague and potential business partner. Keep it your little secret. OK? It’s better.
2. Try to avoid telling an American, especially an African American, “Obama is the only one,” meaning that of the millions of African Americans in America, there is only one who is competent enough and smart enough and acceptable enough to be able to win the presidency of the United States. Americans have proven they are open-minded people who believe in meritocracy. Many, no matter their race and ethnicity, will find such a statement narrow-minded, insulting and racist.
3. Never ask an American, “how come Americans are so fat?” It is probably true that a large percentage of Americans are heavier than their Asian, European and African counterparts. But it is also true that some of the fittest people on the planet are Americans. Look at the Olympics and any competitive world sport. There are, in fact, a large subsection of the American population that takes health and fitness very seriously; and indeed, millions of Americans are slim and fit – even more than the world average. So do not generalize when socializing with your American colleagues and business people on this point, even if you may think “all” Americans are obese and even if you find this notion hilarious.
4. Never imply to an American that McDonalds is the main daily cuisine for the average American. Yes, many Americans proudly consume Mcdonalds burgers and fries on a fairly regular basis. But chances are they also appreciate other types of foods as well. Not every American likes fast food. And by the way, a lot of Parisians flock to McDonalds daily for lunch these days so if MacDonalds is good enough for the French, who take their food so seriously, then by all means, it can’t be so bad that some Americans enjoy it from time to time.
5. It goes without saying that you should not generalize and say to your American colleague, “I think Americans are bullies.” There are bullies in the country, of course. A lot of them. Maybe too many. But there are bullies everywhere in the world. So if you are referring to a specific bully or bullies, you should clearly make that point and not let it seem like you are generalizing. Because many American are NOT bullies and do not condone this type of behavior.
6. You probably don’t want to ask or imply to an American the notion that “All Americans are gun crazy serial killers.” Sure, there is an alarming amount of gun violence in the United States. But it is also true that there are lots of Americans who do not own guns and have never touched a gun or shot a gun. And even among those who do own guns, it is a very small percentage that goes out and commits mass murder. So even though the media and movies make it seem otherwise, you don’t want to get trapped in this discussion in a social setting with your colleagues. Gun rights are a sensitive issue in the country and could be too controversial a topic when socializing for business.
7. There is the stereotype that “Americans are dumb, ignorant and stupid.” Obviously you do not want to say anything like this with your business colleagues. A lot of the technological advancements the world enjoys comes from American invention. So obviously some people in the country are a little bit smart and such a stereotype – even an implying of this stereotype – can be highly offensive.
8. While the stereotype that “Americans put work over everything else” is not horribly negative, you still want to avoid insinuating this because it is not true of all Americans. In Silicon Valley, for example, companies specifically make a point of encouraging and supporting life/work balance for their employees. It is true that there are still many white shoe law firms that value their employees based on how long the employee stays at the office versus going home and spending a few hours per day with their family. But it is wrong to assume all firms are like that and that all Americans care only about work and consumption.
9. Americans are loud is another common stereotype. Some are; not all. Again, don’t make these generalized comments in a business setting because you never know who the listener is.
10. The notion that “all Americans are racist” or that all Americans will tolerate racist views and comments is a dangerous one. Like any other country in the world, America does have its share of racist people. Who can deny that? But, especially in a work or business setting where you are socializing for business it is folly to assume you can make so called racist statements with impugnity just because you and the listener are from the same group. Again, you never know who the listener is and what implications these types of comments will have for you and your firm. If you are referring to a specific event or events that were clearly racist, fine. But in your business meeting, surely, you have other things to discuss than these types of controversial topics.