"I am a foreign-born professional working in the US. What steps can I take to fit into the American business environment?"


1. Dress the part

There is a dress code in every company. You should be aware of it and stick to it as much as you are comfortable doing. I live and work in Silicon Valley, and here we have several kinds of companies: the start-ups with their really informal dress codes, and the VCs, banking and older institutions who often have a more formal way of dressing.

Last year, I worked with a brilliant Indian executive who was working for a large pharma company in a director position. He was dressed poorly for his position and his industry (old, unshined shoes, pants that didn’t fit well, an ill fitting brown jacket), and was having a hard time getting heard. Now I know that dressing doesn’t influence everything, but it did make an impact on the way people treated him after he changed the way he dressed. He felt better about his appearance and I am assuming he radiated this and people around him responded to that, as well as to his improved appearance.

It is important to fit into the big picture, so look at what other people around you wear (especially people at the executive level) and dress similarly.

2. Work on your English

Many professionals coming to the US have been speaking English for quite a few years. As one Harvard and Cal Tech educated Indian told his audience, “I first learned I had an accent when I came to the United States”. You should try to find out if people around you understand you well and have an easy time talking to you on the phone. Most Americans are too kind to let you know that they really couldn’t follow what you just presented, but better speaking skills will make a difference in how you are perceived.

Take your English speaking abilities seriously even if this is a “soft skill”. Record yourself and ask friends how you sound, then define your problem areas and work on perfecting them. There are accent reduction specialists (such as myself) who will work with you on this.

3. Understand US communication nuances

We think that we, who come from overseas, understand how US business communications work because we have seen so many movies or whatever other sources we had, and have heard how people speak. However, this is a common misconception. Americans are certainly more direct than Asians or some of the more implicit Europeans, but they are more indirect than you think. There are certain formulas that people use to talk to each other. Sentences such as “I think..”, “Did I hear you say..”, “It seems to me..”, “Did I understand you when you said.." allow you to be softer in your assertions and makes for a friendlier and more diplomatic communication method.

4. Network, network, network

In the US, networking is essential; Americans learn this skill in kindergarten. Networking is often misunderstood by foreigners who are either uncomfortable doing it because it is not a part of their culture, or because they believe they will get asked for a favour by a stranger.
Find people outside of your own networks or use, as Stanford Sociology Professor Mark Granovetter said in the 1970s, “The strength of weak ties”. Professor Granovetter found that the most fruitful connections for job leads were not among your close friends and family, but among those outside your inner circle. This is because people close to you generally have more or less the same information you have, whilst those outside your inner circle will know of opportunities that you and your friends don't (click here for more information on this interesting topic).

In other words, even if it is difficult, find new groups to network in, and go and make new contacts (and friends). It will beneficial for everyone involved, and when you need to find new business information, a new employee to fill an empty position, or indeed a new job yourself, you will have built up a network of people who already know you and will be glad to give you a helping hand.

By Angelika Blendstrup, PhD, Blendstrup & Associates.

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Angelika coaches high-level foreign-born executives in International Business Communications, Interviewing Skills, Accent Reduction, Presentation Skills and Personal Branding 2.0. She teaches at Stanford University on topics including cross-cultural communications, managing virtual teams, the art of interviewing successfully and how to do business in the US. Angelika holds a Ph.D. in Bilingual, Bicultural Education from Stanford University, speaks five languages and is the author of They Made It! featuring interviews with major foreign-born leaders of Silicon Valley, and co-author of Communicating the American Way, a guide to succeeding in US business communications.

For a complimentary consultation to discuss how you may work together, please email angelika.blendstrup@gmail.com, or visit www.professional-business-communications.com


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