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Workplace Culture

Making yourself comfortable in the workplace environment once you have a job will probably be the toughest adjustment you’ll have to make in America. After all, you will not only be new to the job, but also to the country. Your first job might not pay well, and you will be concerned about how well that first job will lead to better career opportunities and a higher salary. Until you are truly comfortable in an American work setting, you’ll have to view your job as an education, not just a paycheck.

Being Misunderstood. Your first safe assumption about your American co-workers is that they either will know nothing about the country you come from or be seriously misinformed about it based on bits and pieces they’ve seen on television. Some Americans have genuine difficulty understanding why people speak foreign languages or have different customs. The world beyond America is a blur to them. Nevertheless, if they show curiosity about your country or culture, be prepared to answer their questions patiently.

Company Culture. Every company or job environment has a different workplace culture. Different workers will take on different roles in that culture. For example, there will be the person who is always having bad luck in love affairs, the person who is always ill, the person with the heart of gold everybody tells their troubles to, etc.

Chains of Command. Sometimes “who’s in charge” will not be obvious. Often key people like secretaries or human resources directors, or even the person you have to go to when you need supplies, can hold real power in a company. It will be important for you to learn the points of control in your workplace and to use them to more quickly achieve your career goals.

Informality. The American workplace tends to be less formal than in many other countries, though each company will differ. Executives and other people in charge may work long hours, arriving early and staying late. They might not formally acknowledge everyone they meet in the office at all times as people in some other countries do. When you come into a work situation, therefore, pay attention to how other people acknowledge or greet people on their own, higher or lower levels. As far as dress is concerned, dress like everyone else, or one step (but not more) above. Different American regions have differing business dress customs. The Northeast is the most conservative, California the least. You’ll have to observe how people in your region, industry and company dress.

Corporate Social Life. Most work-places and offices also have social events, such as company picnics, Christmas parties, the boss’s birthday or the departure of someone (on good terms) from the company. At certain of these events, you might be asked to bring a small item to throw into a “grab bag” to act as a surprise gift for someone else; you’ll receive your own surprise gift in return. It is wise to cooperate wholeheartedly with these company practices, perhaps even volunteering to help with planning or decorating. Coffee breaks and lunch periods are also good opportunities for getting to know people.

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