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Business Conversation with Americans: What’s OK/Not OK to Talk About

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Business Conversation with Americans: What’s OK/Not OK to Talk About

Managing contacts is hard enough when they’re all over the world. Beyond time zones and coordinating video conferencing, you have to adjust your manners and culture. Small talk in one part of the world may be an offensive dealbreaker to someone elsewhere.

Networking and making connections in Kenya, for example, are very different than what goes on in the Philippines business scene. There are different balances of tact, content, and socialization. Direct and indirect. And when you’re dealing with Americans, you don’t know quite what you’ll get.

Americans may be very liberal or very conservative, or anywhere in between. Especially these days! And they may give you a rundown about their family or get right to business. What’s OK to talk about, and what’s better to avoid when you talk with your colleagues in the United States? 

Acceptable Talking Points for American Business Conversation

  • DO: Be direct

Some Americans consider people who beat around the bush, side-step a specific question, or conceal certain facts to be suspicious and untrustworthy, if not ineffective. Americans value their time; early morning calls and late-night meetings are not uncommon. So show them you value the opportunity to talk by being direct, upfront, and to the point.

Other cultures might appreciate elaborate detail provided within an explanation, but if an American businessman or woman asks you a question, respond with “Yes” or “No” before describing the reasoning behind why. A long-winded answer might look like you’re trying to talk around the issue or that you lack confidence.

When pitching business ideas, remember that Americans tend to focus more on immediate benefits with quick gains. Proposals are often better based on speed, cost, and efficiency vs. long-term development strategies.

You can improve the end of your pitch by presenting the big-picture benefits, but tailor the primary content toward projected results in the near future.

  • DO: Practice small talk

At the same time, small talk is more important in the US than anywhere else in the world—but mastering the art of this form of communication isn’t easy. It requires a certain ability to read the context and know what’s going on in the US, especially where your counterpart is. The news in New York may be quite different than that in Houston, San Francisco, or rural Oklahoma.

For example you don’t want to talk on an on about a Red Sox win and find you’re speaking with a Yankees fan. Or speak about a big city issue when you’re talking with a rural supplier. This can create a competitive vibe and may be bad background for any conversation after it.

Generally speaking, open and close the conversation with brief small talk to establish a connection, but don’t get too personal or carry it on for too long. Take a look at this scenario:

Here, you can see a good balance between attention to detail that shows you care, and straightforward business talk that saves everybody time.

The same general rule of thumb applies at networking events, but you can spend more time on the casual elements of conversation. Try practicing a few topics before your next mixer so you feel fluid throughout each interaction.

Inappropriate Talking Points for US Business Conversation

  • DON’T: Ask too many questions

While showing signs of interest is encouraged, be careful not to ask too many questions.

You may meet someone at a networking event who apologizes for being late because they’re having work on done on their house. It’s totally OK to ask them what they’re working on and later ask them if they can recommend a good painter in the area. They’ll likely feel touched that you remembered their personal project and that you value their opinion.

But don’t overdo it with question after question, especially if it’s asking things you can find out yourself. Questions about, for instance, tech, like good apps for your business, are a way to keep it less personal if you do ask question.

For another example, if your account manager says you’re being passed on to a new point of contact, it’s fair to ask if the new contact has the required qualities of an employee to understand your nuanced needs. But don’t ask for a full report on the person’s work history when you can simply find it on LinkedIn.

  • DON’T: Talk politics

Be sure to leave all political references out of business conversations. You can never tell for sure which side of the coin your American colleague falls on and whether they identify as Democrat or Republican, or neither.

Political opinions can be very sensitive in today’s hyper-charged climate, so be very careful not to overstep based on assumptions alone.

Discussing current affairs related to business is okay, as long as you leave your subjective stance out of it.

For example, you may need to mention how the COVID-19 pandemic is delaying export of a certain shipment overseas. But don’t blame for the delay on the US government’s regulations. Stick to the facts to avoid saying something that may seem offensive or pushing an agenda.

  • DON’T: Use insensitive language

In the United States, political correctness extends beyond government policies. All Americans, no matter their rank or status, feel as though they deserve to be treated with equal respect.

Never talk down to someone based on their gender, background, or how much money they make. This can turn into a major point of contention that ruptures the business relationship.

Tips for American Business Etiquette

Here are some final tips on how to engage in business conversations with Americans to achieve the best results:

  • Be mindful of physical space. Don’t give hugs or cheek kisses when greeting. Handshakes always, unless there’s a pandemic and no one’s doing it.
  • Prepare for short attention spans and expect to be interrupted mid-speech. And be ready to answer. Long silences are uncomfortable.
  • Understand that Americans may seem rushed or aggressive with their communication. Don’t take it personally. Time is money for a lot of folks. Follow their lead.
  • Do your best to speak English. Foreigners are generally expected to accommodate US customs, unlike in other countries, which often don’t expect the same in reverse.
  • Try to familiarize yourself with American culture as far as body language, communicating openly, knowing what’s going on. Use it to find common ground.

Whether you’re welcoming American business partners to your country or reconnecting with overseas contacts online, here are some essential etiquette tips to keep in mind.

Author Bio

Samantha Rupp is the managing editor for She lives in San Diego, California, and enjoys spending time on the beach, reading up on current industry trends, and traveling.

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