What traditional clothes do Americans wear

Business etiquette USA

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American business people like to be laid back and casual. But business etiquette in the US is subject to strict norms and rituals. Our America correspondent Sebastian Moll has put together the most important rules.  

When you come into contact with the American business world for the first time as a German, it is almost always a pleasant experience. Interactions in US companies are overwhelmingly friendly for Central Europeans. Everyone approaches you, everyone is courteous, everyone is obliging and attentive.

General kindness can be deceptive

However, this general kindness can be deceptive. It's all too easy to drop the kind of formalities that one is familiar with from German business life and behave as one interprets the behavior of the other person - as friendly, relaxed, open.

However, one overlooks the fact that American business etiquette has just as strict rules as European, perhaps even stricter ones. The rules are just different - often more subtle and subtle. The same situation is usually understood completely differently on the other side of the Atlantic, the faux pas are everywhere.

Social skills are one of the most important skills

Learning to create these faux pas is not a minor matter if you want to do business in the United States. "Many have talent, experience, competence and a good education," says Jaqcueline Whitmore, director of a label school for business people in Palm Beach.

Anyone who wants to assert oneself in a job market that is getting tougher, especially in times of crisis, has to stand out through something else - through less tangible, "soft" qualities. Social skills are one of the most important skills. In fact, they are an absolute must: "It can take 20 years to build a reputation," Whitmore likes to quote Warren Buffett. "But it only takes five minutes to ruin it."

In the following, we have put together ten tips to help you avoid blunders and move successfully in US business life.

dress code
How complicated it can be to find one's way around the impassability of American business etiquette is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the dress code; Or rather, the dress codes, because the dress code of the American business world is extremely differentiated.

1. Neat clothing

In general, it is important to dress properly. Formal clothing is standard in everyday working life: gray or blue suits and ties for men, a subtle costume or trouser suit for women.

2. Adapt to the situation
Strictly formal clothing is not always appropriate, however; there are countless exceptions to the rule. In the computer or software industry, for example, linen trousers and polo shirts or even jeans are often acceptable for meetings, but definitely not in the financial industry.

In gastronomy or in the media sector, you can visit customers with a jacket, jeans and an open shirt collar, which would be taboo in the insurance industry. It is also acceptable to wear the shirt open for an after work meeting in a cocktail bar, but never for a business lunch.

You should always appear in a suit and tie for an interview, even if you are applying in a "casual" industry.

3. Be careful! Business casual

Complicating the whole picture is the fact that some companies have introduced the dress code "Business Casual" - for the entire company or sometimes only on certain days, preferably on Fridays, the "Casual Friday".

It's easiest to make mistakes when it comes to business casual. So it is okay to leave the shirt collar open, but definitely not to wear the shirt over your trousers. It is acceptable to wear jeans, but definitely not to wear scuffed jeans or even sneakers. Sports socks and sports watches are also to be avoided under all circumstances.

4. Follow your superiors
It will take a while to find your way around all of these codes. It is important to develop a sensitivity for it and to pay attention to it, because these things are taken very seriously in the USA.

An inadequate look, such as an overly provocative blouse or ripped jeans, are seen as an affront. Jacqueline Whitmore recommends that when in doubt, always orientate yourself to the people who are above you in the business hierarchy.


It is easy in the USA to gamble away important points through external appearance, which are then difficult to make up for in concrete cooperation. However, it is even easier to make serious mistakes in the manners.

1. Courtesy and respect

In a business environment in the USA, it is always important to find the right balance between self-confidence on the one hand and respect and politeness on the other. You gain respect by knowing what you want and clearly articulating it. To roll over the other person or even to treat them condescendingly often brings you the opposite of what you are striving for.

For example, if you are invited to an appointment, it is advisable to treat the receptionist or assistant with the same courtesy and commitment as the contact person. Building good relationships with these important people can only be beneficial. On the other hand, condescending or ignoring people in front of the room is considered a faux pas. Take the time to ask the name and chat a little, don't rush past the antechamber person.

2. Be prepared and goal-oriented
In meetings, you should always be well prepared and have a clear idea of ​​what you want. The other person is always impressed when you know what you want and don't waste their time. At the same time, one should sound out whether the partner would prefer to break the ice with small talk first or whether he or she would rather get straight to the point.

You should start with a short conversation about general things, if your partner does not agree, but be prepared to get down to business quickly.

In any case, the key is to have the sensors ready to receive and not to blindly follow your own agenda. Really listening and responding to others is the be-all and end-all of a successful business relationship.

3. Make contacts

Many business relationships in the USA arise from private or semi-private contacts. The proverbial networking is more important today than ever before and even more important than in Germany. Jacqueline Whitmore recommends spending around 30 percent of your day-to-day work cultivating relationships, as well as a certain amount of your free time.

The American business world has developed numerous rituals for networking - from cocktail parties to the increasingly popular power breakfast (see point 6) to traditional business lunches, meetings of professional associations and interest groups or lectures. As a general rule, you should take as many such opportunities as possible, especially if you are new to the country and a stranger.

Jacqueline Whitmore also advises, however, never to push for a quick return on the relationships established when networking, but rather to be patient. Discovering common interests at a cocktail party and getting hold of a business card is already a success. Then it is important to keep in touch and expand.

The moment when the contact can be useful will come by itself sooner or later. Basically, according to Jacqueline Whitmore, one should first invest in a relationship - first listen instead of imposing oneself, first give instead of taking.

4. Binding communication
When maintaining contacts, etiquette requires always responding to inquiries, answering emails and phone calls whenever possible, and never letting the other party run aground. Reliability and punctuality are also extremely important.

5. Private relationships with colleagues and the matter of first names
In the American business world, the first name is generally used to address. However, don't let this confidentiality fool you. Even if you can call your CEO by their first name, that doesn't mean he's your buddy.

For example, you should never ask your boss whether he would like to join you for lunch or for a cocktail after work, the invitation has to come from him. With colleagues at the same level or subordinates, it is good to maintain a certain amount of private contact. However, you should first start with lunch together.

As a rule, colleagues at a new workplace will invite you to do so. If possible, you should not discuss private problems with colleagues unless you have established a real friendship over a long period of time.

6. The business lunch and the power breakfast
At a business lunch with a customer or partner, you should only push for results if the other person feels like it. Otherwise, a pleasant evening together is also a success and a basis for a meeting with stricter goals in a more business context. However, this meeting should be arranged at least at the end of the evening.

In recent years, the power breakfast has increasingly replaced the extensive business dinner in the evening - often at seven in the morning. Here, too, it is important to sound out how specifically the other party would like to negotiate business matters and how strong the small talk component is. It is always important to write a "Follow Up" email one day later and thank you for the meeting.

Of course, none of this is a guarantee of business success in the United States. Disregarding these things, however, is very likely a guarantee that you will not succeed.

Also read: Application Guide USA

(Sebastian Moll / Image: Konstantin Sutyagin, Fotolia.com)

Sebastian Moll
has lived as a freelance journalist in New York for 10 years.

He reports for German daily newspapers and magazines on a wide range of topics from American culture, society, politics and business.