Around a year ago, I moved to the U.S with my spouse and we both started working at tech companies here. Coming from a very different country, we were at first surprised at some behaviours we encountered that made us feel unwelcome.

After discussing this with some friends in similar situations, we realized that this probably wasn't a personal issue, but rather a cultural difference we had to get used too.

Specifically, the issue that struck us most is that employees tend to "keep to themselves", for instance:

  • If other team mates are in need of assistance or guidance, it is not voluntarily offered, and even when asked, it seems people leave their own task rather begrudgingly.

  • Inquiries on others progress isn't really done, even when the that knowledge would help the team as a whole progress.

  • This is relatively little room for "Out of the box" thinking - people are expected to concentrate only on their given task, and it seems polite suggestions for changes are not as well accepted here.

  • Eating lunch alone is common. I was used to lunch being a opportunity for team bonding, and skipping lunch (even if you weren't hungry) was considered very anti-social.

So, although we are getting used to the culture difference, it does extract a toll, and I was wondering if anyone here has encountered something similar. In your experience:

  • Are the above behaviours indeed part of standard workplace culture in the U.S.?
  • How would you suggest foreigners best adapt to this culture change?
  • 2
    Which country did you move from? – Bjarke Freund-Hansen Dec 9 '13 at 13:04
  • What part of the US? I've worked for clients down South who would think letting a new employee eat alone is very rude. – user8365 Dec 9 '13 at 19:02

Are the above behaviours indeed part of standard workplace culture in the U.S.?

Not in my experience, no.

While I have worked with a few companies having a few of those attributes, over the years I've come to the conclusion that there is no standard workplace culture in the US.

I've worked at many startups, and large multi-national corporations. I've worked in the retail, software, and financial sectors. I've worked in newer companies and companies that have been around for many years. No two of them are alike.

I think what you are seeing can be ascribed to company culture rather than overall US workplace culture. If you browse around some of the questions about US companies here at workplace.stackexchange, I think you'll quickly see that there is a wide array of experiences represented. I know for me, I've worked at US companies with a wide variety of cultures.

I've worked at companies where everyone felt like they were on the same page every day. Assistance was gladly given as a matter of course.

I've worked at companies where everyone had a strong sense of what others were doing, how they were progressing, and where they were stalling.

I've worked at a company where "out of the box thinking" was expected (almost demanded) of everyone, on a regular basis.

I've worked at a few companies where folks ate together virtually every day, and one where everyone at the company ate at a particular restaurant together every single Friday.

I suggest you consider the possibility that your particular company doesn't represent the vast entirety of the US Workplace. And I suggest that you try to slowly help your company's culture change to something you like more. It's rather difficult to enact change as a single individual in a large corporation (since that company's culture is usually born from the top), but if enough individuals work together, change can happen.

Perhaps you can start by inviting some of your colleagues out to lunch. There you can talk about the company - what you like and what you don't like. And perhaps eating lunch together can become a regular thing among a growing group of friends. It's a start.

  • Great answer. The only pattern which I think might well be observed is that the culture described in the question is much more likely to be encountered in a large company than a small one. – Carson63000 Dec 10 '13 at 1:00

This is true some of the time, but not always.

I worked with a government contractor on a military project where lunch often involved filling up two or three cars with coworkers and terrorizing some hole in the wall restaurant. This was a very social group and assistance flowed freely among all the parties.

I started work for another company some time later in which it two weeks for anyone to 'thaw' - I realized I was overkill for what most people in the group did. While progress reports within the project were updated weekly, people working on unrelated projects had little to talk about.

I haven't seen much objection to 'out of box thinking', but little interest in it either. I've tended to drive people crazy 'thinking outside the box', the evidence just on this board is hard to miss.

This is probably due to the particular site you're at - different kinds of organizations have different habits.

  • 1
    This is probably due to the particular site you're at - different kinds of organizations have different habits. <-- absolutely. My team of about 8-10 engineers take a morning coffee break and eat lunch together nearly every single day and all of us are more than willing to spend time helping others. – enderland Dec 9 '13 at 11:46

I'd say you're right not to take it personally, but there isn't a general rule on corporate culture in tech. Each company, and even each group with in a company has a different character, and it's helpful to keep the eyes and mind open to see what the culture in your company/group is rather than try to find a generalization that applies to all of the US.

I'll offer the following rules of thumb:

  • Over the years, I've seen more and more sensitivity to eating limitations - so communal bonding over food is in transition. I've had many social work groups form up around a common love of food, but not necessarily a nearly-compulsory all-team eating thing.

  • Also - depending on locale - commuter patterns have a strong influence on eating and drinking together. In some areas, many people will go for a very short lunch and skip after work drinks in favor of beating the commute. Particularly in high day-care situations, the rigorous rules of after school care and parent pickup don't leave much slack.

  • There's definitely a hesitancy in some offices regarding alcohol and improper use of alcohol. The US patterns of alcohol consumption can make it a work taboo. Being a lady who likes her one glass of wine at lunch, I learned at one company that I should always take my German friend with me. He'd order a beer, everyone who say "oh, he's German, it's OK" and I'd get in my glass of wine. :)

  • Sometimes team bonding occurs over sports - many people will walk or run at breakfast or lunch and informal packs build up around this. Be on the lookout. Also - look for sports groups like basketball, football (the kind you throw), soccer (aka football) and baseball.

Mileage varies - but in some styles of American culture, people can be very private about their status. What would be "sharing" in one culture is seen as "burdening others" in another. This is by no means a universal rule, and in fact some styles of corporate sharing deliberately seek to break down this idea - like Scrums - which focus on "what are you up to? what's blocking your progress?" in an effort to get teams to share more.

A thing to watch for is what role the boss plays in the hierarchy - is this an "everyone shares with the boss" culture or a "help each other first" culture? There's no one rule, so it's useful to get a sense of how status is shared. Similarly, I'd say that every company strives to be innovative, but the patterns for how innovation occurs and is acted upon are by no means universal.

Decision making and information sharing often develop with the history of the company - each company models itself in a pattern built around it's core business and what it's taken to be successful. Changing culture isn't easy, so a company may have very traditional decision making patterns that don't seem easy or obvious in a modern world...