Crash course in American etiquette
June 14, 2013 9:58 PM   Subscribe

I'm from an immigrant family and I have never really learned American social customs. Reading the comments on recent etiquette questions has made me realize that I lack an understanding of unwritten social rules that most people take for granted.

I am a young adult soon to be joining the work force, and I'd like to learn about these unstated expectations to avoid embarrassing myself. How can I teach myself these things? Are there books I should read, or just any basic tips I should know? I'm particularly interested in expectations in social situations among work colleagues - how to act at parties/outings/in the office, how much to spend on things, that sort of thing.
posted by caesura to Human Relations (47 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, that's a tough one. Can you give some background? How long have you been here? What sort of culture do you come from?

Watch The Office, and don't be Dwight. American television might help you at least see how people interact.

Unfortunately every office situation is different. Some are very social, some aren't. As you start a new job, I'd recommend just 'lay low' (be friendly and open, but not overly so), as you learn the culture of the new place.
posted by hydra77 at 10:15 PM on June 14, 2013

Social conventions are also heavily gendered. Which isn't to say you can't "act against type", but knowing what other's expectations of you is helpful to know. Can you share your gender and and what the expected make-up of your workplace will be? The type of workplace also affects the social customs - bankers have a different set of expectations to social workers for example. As does East Coast/West coast etc.
posted by saucysault at 10:24 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think we need some further clarification here. Without that, the answer is people are people regardless of the country in which they reside. Some people expect rigid social behaviors, and others don't. It varies from group to group as I'm sure it does anywhere, but, nevertheless, I don't believe there is a "one size fits all" explanation for "American customs." It's a really diverse nation.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 10:27 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you have access to a college or university, they sometimes offer a short course in this. As an example, there are some tips available here:

The best workplace etiquette tip I've heard is Be Kind. Say please and thank you, listen, and do not say an unkind word about anyone in the work place.

Further clarification will help get you more info.
posted by wiskunde at 10:31 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I thinking reading some books could definitely help. I remember once reading such a book and although I am American born and raised, I found it fascinating and illuminating. Wish I could remember the title, but anyway there appear to be a number of such books available (including some targeted at foreign students).
posted by Dansaman at 10:35 PM on June 14, 2013

Best answer: Watch The Office, and don't be Dwight. American television might help you at least see how people interact.

Definitely don't be Dwight. Or Michael or Meredith or Kevin or Kelly or Angela or Stanley. But the problem is, no one on The Office behaves appropriately. Every character in every episode does things that would get you fired in real life. 'Cause, you know, it's a comedy. So you shouldn't even be Pam or Jim or Toby or Oscar or Phyllis. Sorry if that isn't the most helpful advice! If you really want useful, basic guidelines for etiquette at work, read Emily Post's The Etiquette Advantage in Business. Also, contrary to an above comment, it isn't true that you are "expected" to play a "type" based on "heavily gendered" norms in the office. Whether you're male or female, you should follow the etiquette rules set forth in that book, which are specifically not gendered. As you can see, it's hard for us to answer your question with so few details and almost no context. What you seem to want is a very broad, clear set of rules focused on the American workplace in general, and I think that book is what you're looking for.
posted by John Cohen at 11:07 PM on June 14, 2013 [9 favorites]

I don't know the cultural biases of "guess" versus "ask" (your google search string is guess versus ask, no quotes, and it will tell you more than I can about it), but it has always been a problem for me.

Remember at all times the unavoidable hierarchies of age, rank, and class.
posted by the Real Dan at 11:09 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

unwritten social rules

See, here's the thing about unwritten rules -- nobody will tell you about them, or even acknowledge their existence. You have to figure them out yourself. But American ways and social etiquette, books contrasting our customs aren't hard to come by -- look around in the self-help section.

Agree with others though, "how much to spend on things, how to act at parties" is a bit too vague
posted by Rash at 11:13 PM on June 14, 2013

I'm super awkward and reclusive, so I'm probably not the best person to give you advice. I have found that reading the Ask E. Jean column and the book "How To Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie has resulted in me getting less awkward stares from people, though.
posted by lotusmish at 11:13 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

American instant friendliness can be confusing. As soon as they meet you they'll call you by your first name, hug you, show concern about your personal life. But they'll be shocked if you think that means you can borrow money from them or live with them.

In a work environment the boss's orders sound like polite requests. But "Would you mind...?" means "Do it!"
posted by mono blanco at 11:14 PM on June 14, 2013 [15 favorites]

Here are a few etiquette errors / cultural misunderstandings I've seen people make from lack of familiarity with American workplaces:

- As a general rule, wash daily and wear deodorant rather than cologne.

- If you perceive Americans as constantly giving off insincere signals of friendship and openness, bear in mind they're not completely insincere, just very likely to smile at, offer advice to, go to lunch with, and josh around with casual acquaintances whom they won't necessarily keep as friends. You'll know you're friends when they've invited you to do lots of things or expect you to come along to some routine informal gathering.

- Among co-workers, you should avoid sharing your thoughts on ethnicity, religion, age, class, gender, or sexuality, except (when pressed) to say you tend to ignore things like that and think no one should be judged on criteria related to those categories. If you think you can "tell the difference among Asian peoples from looking at their facial structure," you should either risk publishing a peer-reviewed paper on anthropometrics or keep it to yourself. They may be hypocrites about it and privately hold any number of problematic views, but Americans generally think they believe in meritocracy.

- Unless you're truly friends with someone, not giving a gift is the norm for almost any occasion. Exceptions include birthday parties, weddings, and baby showers. Bringing food or drink to private parties and cultural events may be expected though--ask another attendee what to bring. Bringing a random gift to your boss could be awkward: someone once brought me a gift back from their trip to their home country on the day I had to tell them we couldn't re-hire them.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:16 PM on June 14, 2013 [12 favorites]

I am deeply fond of Miss Manners, who manages to be very funny while offering pointed and pragmatic commentary on American social interactions. For general socializing, try Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, but Miss Manners Minds Your Business is focused on workplace etiquette.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 11:26 PM on June 14, 2013 [6 favorites]

In any employment-related social situation, err on the side of being helpful but uninteresting. You may have occasions to volunteer your personal beliefs in the course of your work duties, but I advise against it. Everyone loves the guy who is awesome at his job. Not everyone loves the guy who is awesome at his job but believes in X.
posted by deathpanels at 11:56 PM on June 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

You might find something useful in this book: Cultures and Organizations
posted by akrasia at 11:56 PM on June 14, 2013

From an outsider perspective, I'm always surprised when I read questions and discussions about what is acceptable in an American workplace at how prudish the attitudes are - a lot of comments, modes of dress and behaviours that are roundly condemned on here and elsewhere would be perfectly acceptable in the UK. A lot of things seem to be perceived as harassment or unacceptable that I would find pretty normal.

Second, any kind of generalisation about any race or nationality seems to be seen as racist. However, this seems to be a bit of a fine line, as statements about other groups seem fine - seems to be better to be offensive about French people or "Brits" than others. Seems to be a minefield and probably better to avoid talking about any culture other than your own if you're going to say anything negative!

I am often surprised that the ideal relationship with your work colleagues seem to be purely professional with no personal bonds. Obviously nobody likes all their work colleagues but it seems to be thought almost inappropriate to form close friendships or be helpful when someone is in distress when you don't know them well. I wonder if this is a regional thing?
posted by kadia_a at 12:13 AM on June 15, 2013

Seconding some Miss Manners reading. It's not actually the unwritten rules you want to learn, it's the thinking behind those rules - the reasoning and values. Once you're familiar with that, you don't need rules to follow - you can apply your reason to any situation at hand. Miss Manners will explain that "why".
posted by anonymisc at 12:43 AM on June 15, 2013

kadia_a: "statements about other groups seem fine - seems to be better to be offensive about French people or "Brits" than others. "

What this is, I don't even... OP, please don't think you can make rude comments about French or Brit people here in the USA! ESPECIALLY if you work with those types

And I know all about "cheese eating surrender monkeys," "freedom fries," and that "world's largest empire" whose "ass we kicked" back just over 200 years ago.

It's crap like this that gives US'ians an undeserved bad rep. I treat people exactly how I'd like to be treated, I ask people with genuine curiosity about what they've seen while they've been outside the USA and I've always been liked and treated with respect. If you want respect, give it.

I'm proud to say that I was invited to an Iftar meal with a wonderful co-worker who happened to grow up in a Muslim country. I will always remember that as one of the greatest indications of friendship that I've ever known (I hate to say it, but I didn't even know what Iftar was at the time.)

My simple advice is treat people in the way you would like to be treated.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 12:54 AM on June 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

My simple advice is treat people in the way you would like to be treated.

This really doesn't work when you're talking about cultural differences.

When I was overseas the things that I learned the most from were books that compared cultures (like the English vs American business culture books mentioned above), friends who I could ask stupid questions of because they were used to foreigners and didn't take offense easily, and TV shows, especially kid shows (equivalent to Sesame Street, not SpongeBob.)
posted by small_ruminant at 1:01 AM on June 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

This is difficult because most people are not aware of their own fundamental etiquette. I think you should look at three different sources, both a guide to people from your country or 'abroad' generally to US etiquette and a guide to Americans going to work in your own country - those should give a rounded picture of the basic differences between your country and the US - and a US etiquette book aimed at a US audience for finer details
posted by plonkee at 1:43 AM on June 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Comment deleted; Don't fight with other commenters. And everyone, this isn't meant to be a conversation / argument among people commenting. Please just address the OP with your suggestions; you can offer your own thoughts on what you think might be bad advice that way. Also, the OP is interested in practical tips, so helpful suggestions that focus this way are better than just "here-are-my-general-thoughts." Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 1:51 AM on June 15, 2013

OP, do you have any examples of the sort of thing you're talking about? I think we could probably come up with a lot of answers if we had something more to work with here. I'm not sure what you're looking for...
posted by Justinian at 2:19 AM on June 15, 2013

Best answer: Yeah, some background would definitely be helpful. Also an idea of what industry you're going to work in. People here are right that it is best to sort of "keep your head down" in many workplaces, but there are plenty that are fun and social and less strict about interactions than others. It's always a good idea to start off conservatively and get a read on the place before relaxing too much though.

Agreed that religion and politics are two big no-nos for conversation. (I have found that is not the case where I currently live in the UK) Americans tend to feel very strongly and personally about those matters and are not good about "arguing for the sake of arguing."

Always shake hands; no half-hugs or kisses on the cheek. (This is actually a good rule in the US for non-business interactions, too. We don't really do cheek kissing.) Be prepared to "Go Dutch" (pay your own way) at lunch with coworkers unless explicitly told otherwise. Most business email interactions I see use first names, even on the first communication, rather than Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. LastName. Depending on what region of the US you'll be working in, and/or where most of your clients or customers are, women may feel very strongly about being addressed as Ms LastName (I'd say more in the liberal, coastal parts of the country) versus Mrs LastName (probably more in the south and midwest). It will be useful if you pay loose attention to one or more popular US sports -- university or professional-level football, university or professional-level basketball, pro hockey if you live in the north/northeast, pro baseball -- in order to participate in small talk at the office. Learn about the Super Bowl and March Madness and when they are. (Participating in office betting pools on these events is optional) Know that when someone asks "How are you?", or "Good weekend?", or "Big plans for the weekend?", this is largely just a conversation placeholder and they don't expect more than a few words of an answer. (The answer to "How are you" is "Good" or "Not bad" or "Fine, and you?". The answer to weekend plans is "Hiking with friends" or similar. "Oh we're driving up to Vermont, staying in a cabin, hiking these mountains, grabbing dinner in Burlington, canoeing on Sunday morning" is not what the asker wants to hear.)

If you don't already know the major American holidays (which often intersect with major Christian holidays) learn about them and typical American cultural customs associated with them. Don't forget that Christmas, and to a lesser extent Easter, can often be celebrated secularly by atheists, agnostics, and members of other religions. Holiday plans and preparation for major holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas tend to be popular conversation topics around those times, often in the context of complaining about them.

You will have to gauge your workplace's relationship with alcohol. This tends to vary with geography, industry, and size of company. Some may stop work at 2 PM one day for a champagne celebration of new business. Some may be cool if you have a beer with lunch. Some have Beer O'Clock on a Friday in the late afternoon for coworkers to socialize. Some may give you dirty looks if it ever becomes obvious that you ever have or might allow a drop of alcohol to pass your lips. Coming in to work hungover and/or drunk is always a bad (and occasionally fireable) thing.

It may be awkward asking for help in interactions with coworkers, but a good opportunity to learn is to ask someone more senior about interactions with customers, if you have an chance to do so. That way you are learning about the local norms and you can have a chance to hear feedback on how you interact with others, but without explicitly asking your boss, "How do I be less awkward to you?"
posted by olinerd at 2:36 AM on June 15, 2013 [11 favorites]

In America it is rude to ask how much someone earns, but entirely OK to ask what kind of car she drives or how many sq ft her house is.
posted by three blind mice at 2:44 AM on June 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: your written english is remarkably good for a recent immigrant. are you a native speaker? in any case - your language abilities alone will ensure you will pick up on most things quickly.

the biggest differences I can think of are between asian societies and their western counterparts. the following applies to chinese immigrants simply because I live in china and notice the differences that way. perhaps they are helpful to you.

- when you are given a present it is expected for you to unwrap it, look at it and thank people for them. do not put it into a corner and leave it unwrapped. in chinese society that would be correct because you don't want to be greedy but in american society you want to be thankful. it's what the laowai will consider appropriate.

- when handing over a business card, do it with one hand and put it away. it's not expected for you to read it. don't say the title out loud. they won't understand you are paying respect, they will think it's strange and not be able to relate to you.

- in most asian cultures, people go to restaurants together quickly and easily. americans often go to bars or cafes. a restaurant is more expensive and considered a formal (meaning it takes longer) appointment. asking work colleagues if they want to go to lunch together is ok, asking them out to dinner when you don't know them very well will make them wonder if you are asking them out on a date.

- at work, you will run into the human recourses department. never forget they exist to protect the company from you. they are never on your side, even though they are ofte the most friendly people in the building.

- everybody always says punctuality is king. that's not necessarily true. if you are invited to a birthday party at 8pm and you show up at exactly that time, you will sometimes find yourself being the first person there facing a surprised host who is barely ready. this takes a bit of time to figure out — sometimes it's important to be punctual, sometimes it's ok not to be.

- remember america is a country of immigrants. most people know what it's like to be new and not know how things are done. when in doubt, smile and ask for help. tell them "hey, I don't know how this works here yet, can you tell me if I should ...?" and most people will gladly give your advice.

- the one exception to the 'most people are friendly' rule are government officials including the police. america is the land of no exceptions. find out how to get what you want before talking to them. even if they know what you need to do to get i.e. a permit, they will rarely be helpful. they like to avoid work and get their way. be aware that an american cop is paid to control you (=write you tickets), not to help you.
posted by krautland at 2:56 AM on June 15, 2013 [10 favorites]

My boss is British and has lived and worked in the US for almost 30 years now, and he and I have conversations quite frequently in which he asks me whether a person's actions are specific to them or whether this is yet another piece of US culture he still doesn't get.

Examples include (i) his secretary telling him what to buy her as a gift when he was traveling internationally on business, (ii) the practice of hugging colleagues that had been instituted by our former (female) department head, (iii) feedback he received that he was perceived to be cold or distant with others.

Having an ally who loves Miss Manners (i.e., me) and who also understands that 90% of our colleagues are acting on poor gut instinct rather than out of any sense of etiquette has been helpful for him. For example, this wouldn't work in a vacuum, but my advice to him respecting #3 above was to sit forward in his chair and interrupt the person he was talking with -- awful manners that signal eagerness and pluck to Americans.

The upshot is: Find someone in your office setting who seems to be able to skate these interactions with ease, befriend them, and ask specific questions.
posted by janey47 at 3:05 AM on June 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

American here, FWIW.

I was going to mention How to Win Friends & Influence People. (I'd heard good things about it, had some skepticism, saw it used for about a dollar, took a shot and found it useful.)

Having worked in the USA with people who were new or pretty new to the place, and worked overseas in vastly different cultures, what's worked best on both sides in the early times is observing a whole lot, saying relatively little.

Also, having been the person asked about things and the person asking, starting questions off with, "I'm a little new to all this and don't want to offend or annoy someone so...?," is a good approach. I think it's the extremely rare person who won't help you (in part because a non-trivial number of people step into new cultures and come across as not being aware of/caring about differences, so those that are conscientious about this are appreciated).

Less generally, as people have said, no shortage of differences from one place of work to the next, and there can be huge ones from one part of the country to the next.
posted by ambient2 at 3:59 AM on June 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for the advice so far! Sorry for not being more specific. I am female, from China, working in the tech industry. I don't know anyone here that I can ask about things. I know this is a general question, but it's hard for me to know specifically what I don't know. Any general advice or books you could suggest are greatly appreciated.

I have gone to a few social events lately where I did not know what kind of hostess gift to bring, or did not know to offer to pick up the bill when others did, and so I wondered if there was some book or such that would explain to me how I should behave in the future. Also, being a woman around many male colleagues, I want to avoid accidentally doing something that would be seen as flirting.
posted by caesura at 5:35 AM on June 15, 2013

Response by poster: For instance, if a male colleague asks me to lunch or to go to the bar, is that just being friendly and normal or is that being flirty?
posted by caesura at 6:02 AM on June 15, 2013

As a woman that American culture can sometimes festishize as submissive and/or exotic working in a male-dominated workplace you also have those stereotypes to combat. I personally would not go for -solo- lunches/bar hopping with a male colleague. Are there any women who you can shadow at work, as to be a mentor to help you get a handle on your local culture?
posted by saucysault at 6:10 AM on June 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

When you go to a casual party at someone's house, you can generally bring a bottle of wine or some food. You can also always ask--when I am hosting the party, I expect people to ask and will say something non-specific for more acquaintances (some beer or a dessert) and something more specific for close friends (tortilla chips or chairs). The advice upthread about asking others what they are bringing is also a good idea.

If someone says, don't worry about it. We don't need anything--bring a bottle of wine. I always feel like a heal when I forget to bring something, even when people have told me "don't worry--we have everything we need".

Oh--and in all social circles I have been in, food from your home country is generally well appreciated. Americans love their roots and love good food. So, if you have some cool, authentic Chinese dish that you can make really well, bring that along when you go to a potluck (party where everyone brings a dish) or if the hostess tells you to bring some food.

On picking up the tab, it will generally be assumed that it will be split unless someone says "I've got it...don't worry" when the check comes. If you are out on a business lunch or dinner, and the boss is there, he will generally (not always) take care of it. It will become obvious when the check comes what is going to happen--either the boss will take care of it completely, or it will be passed around the table. Always say thank you to the boss for paying (even though, generally, the company is *really* covering it).

On the going to lunch or bar with a male colleague--it is completely up in the air. For lunch, likely being friendly. For the bar, it could go either way.
posted by chiefthe at 6:13 AM on June 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

For instance, if a male colleague asks me to lunch or to go to the bar, is that just being friendly and normal or is that being flirty?

That's not necessarily flirty, but it could be. Avoid it if you're not comfortable with it.
posted by John Cohen at 7:16 AM on June 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Watch The Office, and don't be Dwight. American television might help you at least see how people interact.

This is a great idea! You might also like other TV comedies where the humor arises out of misread social situations or faux pas. Seinfeld especially comes to mind, but The Office is a good point. Also probably Parks And Recreation if you live in a more middle-American area though I don't think the humor relies on social misunderstandings as much. How I Met Your Mother for dating. Roseanne to learn more about how people from different social classes can have differing social norms.

That said, if your social concerns are more about things like "was this a date?" or "is it appropriate for a man and a woman to do X together?" sitcoms might not help.
posted by Sara C. at 8:15 AM on June 15, 2013

As to the question of if a male colleague asks you to lunch or to go to the bar, you can decline if uncomfortable – or even just the slightest bit uncertain.

I'm someone who made mistakes this way in the past (ie as a younger woman), and I was born in the US (from a family that has been in the US for generations) and always felt myself to be in tune and au fait with general and specific interpersonal communication. But I was was totally wrong about that, because I didn't understand that a lot of men will interpret *any* social interaction, or even just a vague/impersonal smile as a sexual invitation. This is an area that it would be wise to be careful with, I think.

As for finding out what you don't know, one of the best sources for that is going to be your countrymen and women whom you have an affinity with, and who have lived in the US for some time. I say that both as an expat in a different country myself, and a person married to somebody who lived in the US many years as a green-card holder. There are many books and articles that will definitely be helpful, but only someone from your same culture will be able to explicate very specific confusing things that you might run into.

Good luck! I think you will be great... but don't don't be embarrassed if it takes an incident or misunderstanding to become aware of unstated or obscure expectations. We all go through that, even if we are born and bred in the very country or culture we are operating in.
posted by taz at 8:22 AM on June 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I would caution the OP about using popular culture (e.g. television shows) to figure out the social norms of the U.S. Often, those norms are exaggerated or downplayed for comedic effect, not for educating the populace on those norms.

Not sure where in the U.S. you are, OP, and that might make a difference in the responses. But, I am in New England and used to work in a male-dominated tech industry (I now work in a female dominated healthcare industry sector.) Some things to keep in mind:

- At work, keep it professional. I only ask after someone's family if they offer the information first. If you see a photo of people on their desk, it's okay to ask them about them, but always be positive or supportive in your responses. For example, you are in a coworker's cubicle and you see a photo of a boy in a wheelchair. The following exchange would be okay:
You: "Oh, is that your son?"
CoWorker: "Oh yes, that is my son John. He's in fifth grade!"
You: "Does he like fifth grade?" or you can offer an anecdote of a school experience from that general age range, such as, "Oh, I remember going into fifth grade, I was nervous but ended up having a great year."

The following exchange would not necessarily be okay:
You: "Is that your son?"
CoWorker: "Yes, that is my son John. He's in fifth grade."
*You: "What's wrong with him?" or "Why is he in a wheelchair?" or "It must be hard to have a son who is disabled."

That example might be exaggerated, but it illustrates the point of being positive, being respectful, and asking questions that invite people to tell you information they are comfortable sharing. Let them take the lead with sharing information. Do not probe for information.

As for men, do not take them up on solo meetings after work, unless they say they want to specifically talk about XXX thing at work, or unless you might be interested in dating them. Solo lunch is okay, but keep it professional: talk about work projects, maybe some hobbies that you enjoy, where you went to school, sports, etc. Feel free to turn them down if you feel uncomfortable, or even if you just don't feel like it. In the US, work is work, and you might make friends there, but it's not required for you to hang out with them. But, this might be regional and industry specific.

If you are at a gathering and you choose to drink alcohol, keep it to 1 or 2 drinks maximum. Keep your wits about you; not because all people are predators, but simply so you don't say or do something that embarrasses you in front of your colleagues.

As for larger gatherings and parties, some good advice has already been given: Go to restaurants prepared to pay your own way (bring cash, it's much easier). If you go to parties at someone's house, arrive with a small host/hostess gift (wine is almost always a good choice, or a small bag of candy or flowers in a vase, or a set of coasters, etc.) Always ask the host or hostess if you can bring anything, and even if they say no, bring a little something. If there is something that is particular to your culture, feel free to bring it, and preface it with a short explanation of the custom. Most people would be gracious enough to accept such a gift, and you can teach them about your culture along the way. When you leave, say goodbye to the host or hostess, thanking them for their generosity. But keep it short; there's no need for three or four goodbyes, one is enough and then go. If it's a large party you don't have to say goodbye to everyone.

I agree with finding countrymen/women to chat with about these things, maybe through a church? My University runs language and cultural training for international students for exactly these reasons. Maybe a local university near you runs one as well, and you could pay to attend a few sessions. It might be worth checking out. Also, it might not be a bad idea to talk to Human Resources about this and ask if they have any resources for you, especially if you're in a larger company. I also second Emily Post's books; they might be overly formal these days, but they are an excellent base for understanding the rules. It's always better to be overly polite than less!

Good luck, and you'll be fine. If you misunderstand something, apologize. Most people will understand.
posted by absquatulate at 8:43 AM on June 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Just to add to the complexity- of course different work places and different parts of the country have different ideas of normal.

I am American but raised in a rural area. I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and people hug all the time, even when they've just met. Well, I was a GREAT hugger and I hung on like they were my long lost brother every time someone initiated a hug. It turns out that is NOT appropriate. There are different kinds of hugs and the one you do in the workplace is a quick squeeze, maybe even with only one arm.

Do people in the workplace on the east coast even hug? I have no idea.

Fortunately, like other people have said, there are SO MANY cultural norms to pick up that people are used to people not understanding them right away. If you are regularly offending people, that's one matter, but you probably aren't.

These days I ask a lot of questions. "I'd love to come to dinner! Can I bring anything?" (If they say "no" then a bottle of wine is good, or around Berkeley anyway, an expensive bottle of olive oil or other fancy food thing.). "Oh, thanks for the gift- that's so kind of you! Shall open it now, or save it for when I'm home?"
posted by small_ruminant at 8:59 AM on June 15, 2013

As taz and absquatlate pointed out, it is highly likely that if a man wants to be alone with you, he has romantic intentions. Even if he's your boss, drastically older than you, or married with kids for 20 years. I have been on many "accidental" dates where I assumed it was Platonic, and it wasn't in their minds. It seems incredibly easy to "lead a man on" when a fairly large number of them will take anything short of totally rude behavior out of you as "she LIKES me!" In their brains. Especially if you are young. Sadly, I don't think you can do much to deflect this kind of thing beyond saying no to dates and/or possibly having a fake boyfriend (which still won't work on some people).

Generally speaking, you shouldn't date coworkers anyway unless you are willing to quit your job if the relationship ends badly. The consequences of dating a coworker can be really high, sometimes even if the relationship goes well. I would not recommend it unless you are uncontrollably crazy over a guy and are willing to risk your career.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:07 AM on June 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

caesura, with respect to other commenters on male/female work interactions and relationships, it's different for everyone. I own my own company now, but previously, when I worked in a corporate environment, 90% of my hierarchy-equivalent colleagues were men, and we always ate and hung out together. The vast majority of my friends have always been men (I'm a woman) and men rarely made "untoward" advances unless I made an obvious show of potential romantic interests -- we were all just buddies.

If you feel ill at ease being alone with a male colleague and are uncertain of their expectations, you may find it easier to be vocally cheerful but use distancing body language (if you want to go out to eat) or suggest alternate, more businesslike interactions (if you don't want to go out to eat/drink). Be assured, this dynamic can be difficult for everyone -- men and women mistake each other's intentions all the time.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 11:44 AM on June 15, 2013

I don't know how different applying for jobs is in China vs America, but I know that there are certain resume conventions that are different in different countries. For instance, in the US you don't put your marital status on your resume or attach a photo, although that's apparently appropriate in other countries.
posted by radioamy at 11:51 AM on June 15, 2013

I stumbled upon this years ago. The title was interesting enough to intrigue me, as was the author's background. I loved the way the author concluded the book. It might be helpful to you.

What I have learned from actual classes on a related subject and from my experience growing up, being a student and then a worker, is that the workplace is remarkably and increasingly international. While "fitting in" is naturally desirable, accepting diversity in outlook and opinion as a result of different backgrounds will get you much further than the first approach. And the best thing about doing so is that you can look beyond the "all Americans...." or "all Russians..." kind of statements and attitudes. For what its worth, in some workplaces even the Americans have to learn the international etiquette- in their own country!

Other than the book, the answers in this post helped a lot. I think the answers there should be applicable in any culture and setting.

You could also inquire at the International Office of a university you are close to, and if its a decent university they will be able to provide you with some information.

Finally, strongly recommend against using popular culture (and TV shows!) for learning something so basic and important. There is nothing like good observational and listening skills in real life, irrespective of the country, and I'd strongly suggest you screen your sources of information on this one.
posted by xm at 12:44 PM on June 15, 2013

I've used a few books from the "Culture Shock" series and they can vary a lot in quality. You might see if Culture Shock: USA would be helpful. The reviews disagree.
posted by ceiba at 3:59 PM on June 15, 2013

Best answer: Some additional thoughts: I've lived abroad for awhile now and recently traveled to the US with a foreign friend. Here's the thing that was most striking to us:

The idea of equality is super important. No one pumps your gas for you. No one packages up your left-over food at the restaurant -- they just hand you a box and expect you to do the work. It's unusual and even considered "bad" to hire a person to clean your house. In other words, deference and anything that might look like servitude are rare.

In the workplace, this will mean that the boss is closer to being your equal, and everyone is likely to call the boss by his or her first name. He or she is less likely to make all the decisions, so you and your colleagues might have to figure out how and when to do things. You'll be expected to give your opinion and ideas in meetings. It's okay and even encouraged to politely disagree with a colleague or even suggest that the boss is missing something important. You'll be more likely to advance if you suggest improvements and are otherwise proactive than if you just quietly do your job.

While people are respected for their age and the length of time they've worked with the company, it's not nearly as strong as in other places I've been. Younger people with good ideas could replace them in the hierarchy.

This also means that if you're in a position of some authority, you need to be careful to suggest and "lead" rather than to give orders. When I worked in the US I had a colleague who was a recently-arrived Chinese woman, and I'm not at all saying that you would do this, but it appeared to be a cultural issue about hierarchy: When she was temporarily in charge of a project, suddenly she stopped treating us like her colleagues and equals. She told us what to do even though we all knew what we were supposed to do. She also told us to do annoying little tasks that really were her job, and she expected other people to answer her phone for her if she was away from her desk.

From her perspective, she was the "boss" of the project and therefore had to make all the decisions and be unconditionally supported by everyone else. From an American perspective, we were her equals but she was treating us like her servants, and people got angry. This depends on the workplace, but in general it's very important to treat everyone like an equal, including the people you supervise, and to not tell them what to do unless it's super obvious that they have no idea what to do. And even then you do it through a conversation, and you help them see for themselves what they need to do.

I unfortunately suggest that you not go to lunch and especially not go out after work with individual men until you're confident that your workplace doesn't gossip and the men really, really just want to be friends. I ended up in a mess just because I went out to lunch once a week with a male colleague -- some women at work gossiped and invented nasty stories about us even though we were just friends. It created a lot of tension at work.

I'd definitely encourage you to go out for lunch with groups of colleagues. If you go out in a group, everyone will try to pay their share of the bill. If it's someone's birthday, a group of people might take them out to eat, and everyone will pay a little more for the bill so the birthday person doesn't pay for their share. Also, for a birthday or new baby or event like that, someone at work might pass around an envelope for you to sign and might ask you to contribute money toward a gift that someone else will buy. You don't have to give money. If you do want to give, $10 is plenty.

If you find an envelope like that on your desk, sign it and add money if you want, and then quietly give it to another person who hasn't signed it yet. Often these sorts of gifts are supposed to be surprises, so people try to hide the envelope from the eventual recipient of the gift.
posted by ceiba at 4:41 PM on June 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

If your workplace sponsors events with alcohol, and you don't drink, don't feel an obligation to drink. I don't drink, and have never been made to feel uncomfortable or out of place because of that. People usually understand, especially in a work setting.
posted by spinifex23 at 5:45 PM on June 15, 2013

Chew with your mouth closed, and don't talk with food in your mouth. Don't make slurpy sounds with your soup. Don't spit in the sink in the break room. Don't floss your teeth in the hallway.
posted by at 7:19 PM on June 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm from an Asian immigrant family too, although I was born and raised in the US, and I know what you mean by not getting the unwritten rules of American social customs 100%. I think it might help if you can talk to someone of a similar background about this, because most Americans (or really, people from any country) are not going to get what makes their own culture tick - I mean a lot of Americans basically believe they have no 'culture' because they're not aware of it and haven't really been exposed to any other.

If you've recently graduated from college then keep in mind that a lot of people, even who did *not* come from an immigrant background and should nominally be 100% familiar with American culture, still routinely commit faux pas when they start working. I mean I've seen plenty of threads just on AskMe about young workers dressing or behaving inappropriately. So just keep in mind a lot of people are trying to figure this stuff out too, even though they don't have to deal with the cultural differences.

Here are a few thoughts based on my experience working in the finance industry in the Northeast. Coming from an immigrant background, I didn't need personal hygiene tips, but I would have found these useful...

1. There are a couple TV shows that pretty much ALL (maybe like 90%) of Americans watch, and you will hear these discussed regardless of what industry or type of work you are engaged in. Right now, that show is "Game of Thrones." I work in a very macho/jock type of environment and these dudes who would normally be sneering at fantasy/nerd stuff are avidly discussing what happened in the last episode and even talking about reading the books. TV is really the great equalizer in this country. Other shows that are like this..."Breaking Bad", "The Tudors", "The Sopranos" know what I mean.

2. If you work with guys, they will generally also be very big on sports, as mentioned above. Americans are probably more obsessed with sports (the interest in COLLEGE sports especially unique) than any other nation. March Madness is a Big Thing in some offices.

3. If your office does after-work drinks, go out and have at least 1 drink, even if you're like me and dread spending precious free time with your coworkers after a long day. If you really, really don't want to go, a good excuse is wanting to go to the gym, or go for a run, or any sort of physical exercise. Fitness is a Big Thing for a lot of Americans and they will generally be understanding if you want to work out rather than drink - however, you should make an effort to attend at least some social functions w/ your coworkers to show you don't hate them.

4. Excuses and Polite Fictions are HUGE in American culture. This is probably the biggest thing it took me getting used to even having grown up in the US. So continuing on #3, if you don't want to go to a coworker event, besides "going to the gym", always have some kind of legitimate-sounding excuse like "I need to get a haircut" or "I need to walk the dog." (I've heard the former excuse countless times without seeing any noticeable change in the person's hair the next day). So unlike other cultures where you can be somewhat ambiguous or vague and the other person will assume you have your own legitimate reasons for not wanting to do something, in American culture you generally have to come up with some pleasant fiction. Being vague about things is often interpreted as "standoffishness" which leads me to my next point.

5. Americans often misinterpret silence as hostility, and reservedness as arrogance or "standoffishness." A lot of Americans expect that you make some effort to engage in minor small talk with them throughout the day, even if it means breaking your (and their) concentration and work flow to talk fluff. There is such a thing as being perceived of as "too hard working" by your peers, which has more to do with how much you socialize with your colleagues than how hard you actually work. Not saying this will be you, but a lot of Asians (including myself) have this problem.

6. Hopefully, you will not have this problem, but unfortunately, racist and other off-color humor is far too common in American workplaces. Just keep in mind that generally, people just do it in a (dickish) attempt to be funny rather than genuinely harboring such views. As Tupac once said, "keep ya head up."
posted by pravit at 10:45 PM on June 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

Building on one of the things pravit mentioned above...

It's ok to say no to things just because you don't want to do them. Not if it's your boss asking you to do something work-related, of course, but in a social context and among equals it's understood and expected. Common practice is to come up with a bit of a white lie, as in pravit's "I have to walk the dog" or "I have to wash my hair" examples. But it's also fine to just say "no thanks" or "sorry, but I can't" without giving any further explanation. If your colleague continues to pressure you after that they're the one that's being rude.
posted by MsMolly at 7:43 PM on June 16, 2013

Oh, one other thing: if you go out to eat or drink with your colleagues, be sure to tip when you pay your share. I would say 18-20% is appropriate (East Coast, larger cities), but this is likely something you can ask your colleagues.

Good luck!
posted by wiskunde at 6:17 PM on June 21, 2013

« Older Help Me Find Some Strangers   |   Trying to find a poet Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.