Primary AuthorNina Evason,
- Direct Communication: Americans are typically , speaking honestly, clearly and explicitly to arrive straight to the point. This does not intend to be rude or disregard courtesy in communication (for example, criticism may be delivered vaguely in order to remain polite and avoid offence). Americans generally prefer a straightforward and approach to ensure that their intention and meaning is understood clearly and correctly. In professional settings, this honesty and authenticity is a means to productivity and efficiency. However, they may miss nuances in conversation (such as polite understatements) if their conversation partner is not being similarly .
- Questions: Americans are generally comfortable with asking questions if something is not clear to them. If you don’t ask any questions, it will be assumed that you understand everything.
- Informality: Americans are generally informal in their communication, using first names and slang with those they do not know well. However, this varies across different social contexts (e.g. professional settings). Those from rural or southern regions may be more formal, using titles such as “sir” and “ma’am”.
- Confidence: Americans are generally quite enthusiastic, assertive and confident communicators. They are also generally more comfortable talking about their achievements and success than people from many other English-speaking Western cultures (e.g. Australia, New Zealand and Britain). People are expected to speak on their own behalf, instead of waiting for someone else to talk about their achievements or success. This could be summarised with the saying, “Be asked to wait, do not wait to be asked”. If you are quiet, they may assume that you have a low self-confidence or less to contribute.
- Confrontation: Some Americans may be comfortable with voicing competing views if it helps the overall objective. People tend to be frank and outspoken, share their opinions on a variety of subjects (both professional and personal). Light confrontation and debate is quite common in the business setting. Many Americans will not necessarily shy away from conflict if they feel it will help them reach their objectives, even if it creates disharmony.
- Raised Voices: Americans may speak at higher volumes in public spaces, especially when excited. However, they generally do not appreciate loud or emotional outbursts. For example, if one’s anger gets out of hand they are often taken to the side to vent in private. One is not necessarily expected to hide their emotions, but keep them in check.
- Silence: Americans can grow uncomfortable with prolonged periods of silence and may naturally speak to fill it.
- Humour: American humour tends to be , often based around physical comedy or exaggeration (for example, is popular). Less use is made of subtle irony, sarcasm or understatement.
Swearing: Many Americans may use swear words in casual settings. However, swearing around children or in professional settings is generally disapproved of. Swearing is censored on many television networks.
- Eye Contact: Americans tend to maintain eye contact with the person they are talking to. This demonstrates warmth, openness, honesty and approachability. However, people tend to avoid eye contact with strangers (e.g. on public transport). If you make eye contact with a stranger in passing (on the street, at a shop, in a hallway, etc.), it is best to give a small smile or nod to acknowledge them. Continuing on your way without doing so could mean you were simply staring or unfriendly, and can be considered slightly rude.
- Physical Contact: Americans are generally comfortable with public physical affection and contact between friends and family. It is common and acceptable for men and women to hug (etc.) in casual settings. However, people generally prefer not to touch those they do not know well, and limit physical contact with others in the workplace. People from cities that are more internationally exposed and/or diverse may adopt more physical contact in their day-to-day mannerisms.
- Personal Space: Americans generally prefer to maintain a fair amount of personal space. For example, they will usually always try to maintain a seat’s distance away from others on public transport if possible. If an American feels you are too close, they may step back without mentioning it.
- Smiling: The best expression to adopt is a happy one. Smiling shows a simple gesture of goodwill. Americans tend to smile a lot – for example, when simply passing strangers on the street – and are likely to respond well when similar warmth is reciprocated.
- It is polite to nod to signal that you are listening and interested throughout a conversation.
- It is offensive to give someone the ‘middle finger’, by which a person flips up their middle finger with their hand in a fist, palm facing inwards. This gesture shows contempt or defiance and is considered an insult when performed with either hand.
- Americans may take offence to subtle signs of the middle finger, even when it is not obviously directed at them. For example, scratching one’s face with the middle finger may be seen as a passive aggressive performance. Therefore, it is best to avoid using the middle finger alone for casual gestures.
- People indicate 'peace' or by raising the index finger and middle finger up with the palm facing outwards.
- Americans may be unaware of the symbology behind flipping the ‘peace’ gesture to have the back of your hand facing someone else. While this is a rude insult in other English-speaking countries, it is less likely to cause offence.
- Crossing the index and middle finger indicates a wish for good luck.
- Touching the thumb and index finger to make a circle, with the remaining three fingers held outstretched is the symbol for ‘OK’. The vast majority of Americans recognise this as a signal that all is well or that they approve of something.
- Recently, the 'OK' symbol has been appropriated to signfiy 'white power' by some far-right white supremacist groups. Public awareness of its political use and connotation has grown since 2017.1 Therefore, it is best to avoid using it in political settings or large public gatherings.
1 Swales, 2019
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