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Work hours, lunch breaks, meetings and etiquette – A brief overview of work culture in the U.S.

Newcomers to the U.S. not only have to cope with the basics of moving from setting up a bank account to establishing a credit history, but they’ll also have to navigate the nuances of American culture.

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Moving anywhere is a big step, but even more so when you’re moving across borders. The United States is one of the most popular destinations worldwide — the nation has more immigrants than any other country in the world. Newcomers to the U.S. not only have to cope with the basics of moving from setting up a bank account to establishing a credit history, but they’ll also have to navigate the nuances of American culture. 

In this post, we’ll tackle some of the basics of office culture in the U.S. We’ll explore everything from lunch breaks to email etiquette and meetings.

Work hours and lunch breaks

Today, Americans work more hours than ever before. Almost one-third of American employees spend 45 or more hours at work each week, and about 10 million work 60 hours or more.

The working day for most jobs is from 9AM to 5:30PM (approximately 8 hours and a 30-minute lunch break); however, more and more jobs are adopting flexible practices enabling employees to start early and finish early. These hours may come as a surprise to people from countries such as the UK or France where one-hour lunch breaks may be more common. In fact, about half of the Americans eat lunch alone — often at their desks

Working from home is more commonplace in the U.S. than in many other countries. Over 40% of Americans now spend time working remotely, according to a recent Gallup survey; however, the practice differs across industries. For example, people working in finance or real estate, for example, are much more likely to work from home than those working in science, engineering or education.

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The culture of staying late

Many Americans work later than their contracted hours, particularly in industries such as finance, law, or IT. Some companies frown upon employees who don’t work late. While you may not be officially penalized, your performance evaluation may suffer. Even if you’ve finished all your work and head home, your American colleagues may think you are not serious about your work. 

While it is common for workers to stay late at the office, note that coming to work late is not acceptable in the U.S. Consistent lateness may lead to disciplinary action within many companies. Punctuality is seen as a sign that a person is well-prepared; you may even find that many people arrive to work 10 - 30 minutes early to set up, grab a cup of coffee from the coffee maker, and hit the ground running in the morning.

Socializing at work

For someone new to the U.S., “small talk” (light, casual conversation) can be difficult to understand. Americans are generally quite sociable, and most managers are happy for their staff to chat with colleagues. If you head to the kitchen to make tea, then it is permissible to stop and catch up on work or life outside the office. You may also find that team members might bring a cake or other treats to share with the team. 

Socializing also often extends outside the office in the U.S. Holiday parties, company picnics and team-bonding activities like bowling or game nights are key social events. In some companies, it’s common to go to a bar after work for “happy hour,” a period of the day when drinks are sold at reduced prices in a bar or restaurant. While you are not required to attend these social events, doing so may help you to build closer relationships with your colleagues that will be beneficial for your long-term career progression.

Dressing for work

Knowing what to wear to the office is hard enough for Americans, let alone newcomers who might be unfamiliar with local norms and cultures.

The simplest way to navigate the muddy waters of office dress codes is to take a look at what other people in the office are wearing. In particular, you should pay attention to what team leaders and managers wear.

This dress code can vary drastically from one company to another. In the tech industry, for example, you may find people wear casual, trendy attire whereas in law, a suit and tie is typically expected. Regardless of the workplace, however, you should generally avoid anything overly revealing and consider erring on the side of business casual for peace of mind. 

Communication

When writing emails, the tone and style you use will depend on the recipient and the context of the situation. The first time you communicate with someone new, you should use a formal structure “Dear Mr./Ms.” and sign your email off politely. Once you’ve exchanged several emails, you can address the other party more directly – there is no need for small talk every time you message!

Even in a purely professional relationship, you should demonstrate good manners such as saying please and thank you and ask some questions about the other person (for example, how was your weekend?) – rather than making the emails strictly business. The same goes for making phone calls, where it’s common to ask how someone is before diving into the subject at hand. 

American working culture places a strong emphasis on being polite, so be careful to ensure that a message you might view as direct and professional doesn’t come across as curt, abrupt, and even rude. If you find that people are reacting badly to your emails, consider asking a confidante if she thinks you need to soften your language a little bit.

The takeaway 

Like any country, the U.S. has cultural nuances that make it unique. While every company is different, observing the tips above may make your transition to the American workplace less jarring.

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