Doing business with Americans? HSBC has some (hilarious) cultural advice

Don’t EVER joke about sex. Expect obscure sports analogies.

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So you want to do business with Americans, but worry about overcoming the cultural nuances that separate us from our neighbours to the south? HSBC bank has a handy Expats Guide to doing business in different countries that offers an (unintentionally) hilarious glimpse at the subtle differences between Canadians and Americans, including Canadians’ apparent unease with giving their dinner guests a house tour and Americans’ love of using sports analogies in business negotiations.

Here are some of the cultural traits HSBC recommends you keep in mind when doing business across the border (and we are quoting):



  • Avoid the “V” for victory and the “thumbs-down” gestures.
  • Use your entire hand to point, not just your finger.
  • Don’t compare Canada with the US


  • [Avoid] anything that might be misinterpreted as sexual harassment
  • [Don’t] boast about your accomplishments and achievements, salary, income or belongings
  • [Don’t] stand too close to someone you’re speaking with, lest you impose on their sense of personal space



  • People from the Atlantic Provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland) tend to be a bit more reserved and provincial.
  • Ontario is Canada’s business hub, and its inhabitants are generally businesslike and conservative.
  • Western Canada (Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan) tends to be open, friendly and relaxed.
  • British Columbia can be thought of as being somewhat unconventional, and often is touted as the future of the nation.
  • Quebec’s people have a proud French cultural identity, and tend to be highly independent.
  • People from the north retain a strong pioneer spirit.


Americans are raised from childhood to see themselves as distinct, separate individuals who create their own destinies and are responsible for their own lives. As such, they consider themselves accountable for their decisions. They view themselves as independent and self-reliant, and for this reason can appear self-centred to those from less individualistic cultures.



  • Be punctual, though 15 minutes late is fine for a small gathering or party.
  • Offer to help prepare before or clean up after.
  • Don’t ask for a house tour, since Canadians are private and only allow guests in their public rooms as a rule.
  • Don’t rest elbows on the table, and always keep your hands visible.
  • Continental style reigns, with fork in left hand and knife in right, though American style (switching your fork from hand to hand) is permissible.


  • Be on time for dinner, and no more than 10 minutes late for small gatherings.
  • You may be told to make yourself at home, and you’re expected to do so, and to ask for anything you require.
  • You may be given a tour of the house.
  • American table manners involve holding the fork in the right hand and using it to eat. Hold it tines up. The knife cuts and spreads things. To use it, switch the fork to your left hand. To eat, switch your fork back to your right hand.



  • Most Canadians prefer business to be concise, and meetings begin with a minimal amount of small talk. However, there may be more time spent on relationship-building in Quebec.
  • Meeting with Anglophones are more democratic. Meetings with Francophones may include less involvement of lower level employees.
  • Feelings are not considered important in business. It is better to state information with the words “I think” rather than “I feel”.


  • Meetings generally start with little or no small talk.
  • Americans may be blunt when countering ideas that others put forward, and interruptions may be common in an animated discussion.
  • When Americans say “Yes” or “No” they mean it. “Maybe” means “It might happen”; it does not mean “No”.



  • Communication is generally direct. Canadians have no difficulty saying “no.”
  • Strive to create compromises.
  • French Canadians will carefully analyze every detail of a proposal, regardless of how minute.


  • American negotiators can become frustrated if too much time is devoted to relationship building rather than negotiating.
  • Unlike many cultures where eloquence is important, Americans are more concerned with making their point.
  • It may at times seem that American negotiations are run by lawyers. This is because there is strict government legislation concerning many facets of business.



Communication is moderately indirect. Although most Canadians can disagree, they prefer to do so with tact and diplomacy. They prefer to maintain an understated demeanour. Their communication style is pragmatic and relies on common sense rather than aggression. If you come from a more direct culture, you may wish to soften your demeanour and tone so as not to appear threatening.

  • Greetings tend to be relatively informal, which demonstrates Canadians’ belief in egalitarianism.
  • Canadians enjoy debating issues. Being able to argue your position with informed opinion will help you gain respect.
  • Making eye contact during conversation adds to the credibility of the communication. Sustained eye contact throughout a conversation is expected.


For the most part, Americans do not hesitate to ask direct questions. These are not meant to be offensive. Their reliance on speaking concisely and relying on facts can make American speech seem rude, aggressive, blunt or impatient to people from cultures that are more relationship-oriented. Since many Americans speak only English, they are not always sensitive to the challenges someone faces when communicating in a foreign language. Americans often used sporting analogies that are not easily understood. The following are ones frequently used in business:

  • Ballpark figure: Give a good estimate
  • Play hardball: Compete well
  • Drop the ball: Make a serious mistake
  • Monday morning quarterback: Someone who tells you what you should have done after the fact.


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