When you travel to another country for business, you’ve probably done some research about the cultural norms. You know the answers to what’s expected when you meet someone new, if there are specific gifting customs, or even how quickly you’ll get to talking about the issue at hand. But even in our rapidly globalizing world, there’s still plenty of regional variation here in the US ready to trip you up.
In an era concerned with “authenticity” and being “genuine,” it can be hard to read the signals for people in other parts of the country. For example, when I moved to California, people seemed very friendly and would say how we needed “to get together sometime.” Professional or personal, I kept meeting people who indicated they wanted to connect, but I’d never hear from them again. It didn’t matter if I reached out first or waited, there was almost no response. Was there something wrong with me?
Turns out that folks in California will never directly say “no.” These are the masters of the fadeaway, the hazy plan to meet or do something in the far-off future. And if you do make a plan? “You set it up weeks in advance and then you cancel it three times;” it’s just like Grace (Jane Fonda) says. While most Americans have difficulty in saying no, Californians take the practice to a whole new level.
Words are transformative and powerful. If you can master the ability to decode the cultural norms of an area and what drives people, it will bring you one step closer to truly effective communication. For a start, grasp the regional differences in these three areas; we’re speaking generally, but understand what to expect and you won’t get caught off guard when you next do business:
On the East Coast, social pressure and status reign. But out West, freedom and independence are people’s biggest drivers. It’s partly the fault of history: just think about the Puritans that founded Boston in 1630, then compare them to the miners in the 1840s California gold rush. These motivations also flavor the dominant business interests of both regions. Silicon Valley and the Pacific Northwest favor a more laid-back office atmosphere and celebrate the flat organization; they might be wearing hoodies, but the maverick-driven business community values success more than tradition. Meanwhile, Wall Street and Washington, D.C. businesses emphasize their years of tradition and embrace a more uptight, formal vibe; you’ll want to iron those pants.
Heading to the South? Get ready to talk about your family, even in business contexts. Famous for their hospitality (and sweet tea), folks in the South deeply value family connections. This means questions about your background and home life are perfectly acceptable small talk topics. Small talk about seemingly everything but business also allows for relationship building and connection. But head to the Northeast and business conversations might feel aggressively all business, all the time. Expect bluntness. The Midwest strikes a middle balance—people generally are open and curious, though they’ll not sugarcoat their differing opinions. Meanwhile, out West? Ummm, is that crispy kale organic?
The laid-back attitudes of the West aren’t just sartorial. You’re also likely to meet a more relaxed sense of timeliness and a more leisurely pace even walking the streets. Meanwhile, slow down in lower Manhattan and you’re likely to be run over by five people in suits. And that’s just on foot. In the South, people might be speaking slowly, but they’re likely to be thinking fast.
We naturally mirror those we feel a connection to, but the reverse is just as powerful. Be prepared to match and mirror wherever your travels take you; you’ll quickly build rapport and leave a positive impression. The bottom line? Match where you are and you’re sure to come out ahead.
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