Five cultural values that will enhance your study & job search in the U.S.

I am by no means a culture expert. But when I moved to the U.S. as a foreign attorney and thought I was already acquainted with U.S. culture, I had to learn the hard way that things were done differently than I expected. Navigating the new waters, I often asked myself Why? This just doesn’t make sense. Humans search for patterns to make things easier, and so I looked for patterns in U.S. business culture that could help me direct my career successfully. I observed and imitated until the new behavior became second nature. These patterns may not be obvious to someone who was born and raised in the U.S and for whom the way of doing things is second nature. People from a culture are in many ways the least able to see it.  

Culture is a complex topic but when living in another country we have to understand how things are done and why they are done that way. Through my work as a career consultant, I have noticed that those who did not only understand the local value systems but also work within them, are the most successful. Likewise, those who consistently struggle against them make their progress much harder. Learning how best to adapt to local values is an important element of success in a new culture.

Below are five cultural values that are critical to understand in order to fully embrace U.S. business culture.

 

1. Individualism and Personal Responsibility

The lack of motivation and failure to proactively create opportunities is one of the most common mistakes I see foreign LL.M. students make. They wait passively for things to fall into place. I often hear the complaint that law schools do not help LL.M. students enough. They are not doing anything for me. Many students from other cultures expect that others will actually do something for them rather than merely give advice upon which the student must act.

Motivation and proactivity, and the reason why you are receiving advice rather than actions on your behalf, are rooted in tenets such as individualism, egalitarianism and personal responsibility, all traits that are highly valued in the U.S. Here, we place importance on self-reliance and the expression of our qualities. We openly share our accomplishments and take credit for what we do. The elevator pitch is rooted in this very idea. For many foreign LL.M. students, the elevator pitch is extremely uncomfortable, to say the least.

In other cultures, interpersonal relationships may be more important than individual accomplishments. Your culture may not emphasize independence and self-reliance as much. This differing cultural blueprint will make your resume look different, your interview unsuccessful, or your networking ineffective.

Cultures also differ greatly in their view of the degree to which human beings can control or manipulate forces outside themselves and thereby shape their own destiny. In the U.S., the locus of control is largely internal, within the individual. There are no limits on what I can do or become, so long as I set my mind to it and assert the necessary effort. Your culture may have an external locus of control, which means that some aspects of life are seen as predetermined and built into the nature of things. The U.S. places a large emphasis on how proactively you advance your career, because here it is understood that you actively steer it. When an LL.M. student complains about the lack of opportunities, he only shows that he has not fully absorbed a core value — that of personal responsibility. 

Foreign LL.M. students, especially from cultures who have an external locus of control, often fail to see the benefit of networking because it largely consists of receiving advice rather than concrete opportunities. Why should I network if I cannot expect a job offer? For an American, advice is beneficial because it can enable one to act. We are personally responsible for the outcome of our action or lack thereof. 

Make sure to understand the importance placed on personal responsibility and self-reliance and take your career advancement into your own hands. You will always find someone who is happy to share advice, but at the end of the day, you will be the one who can execute that guidance.

 

2. Egalitarianism

The American culture is built around egalitarianism — the idea that no one is superior to anyone else because of either birth, power, age, or wealth. This is also true of less experienced, junior professionals. It is therefore encouraged and even expected that we engage in conversations and proactively contribute ideas and thoughts. Your culture may prohibit that kind of engagement in the presence of a superior. To an American, you may then seem unmotivated or unengaged. Many LL.M. students think that because they are students, they do not have enough to give and wait to be in a position that will allow them to submit thoughts and ideas. No matter in what stage you are in your current career, you will always be able to contribute to the legal community. Do not wait to express ideas and start engaging in the legal community.

 

3. Communication Style

 To this day, I am not used to being greeted Desiree, …  in an email. I feel shouted at and using this greeting myself still does not come easily to me.

There are indirect and direct communication styles. The U.S. has a fairly direct style of communicating. Facts and expediency are important and getting or giving information is the primary goal of communication  That’s why it is not uncommon to receive an email that lacks a Hello or Dear. U.S. professionals have also little patience for manipulating context to find the message between the lines. They rely on words and on those words being interpreted literally. In your culture, formality may trump expediency and direct speech may be considered rude. Not using direct communication can have an effect on the outcome of your conversations and especially your networking efforts. You may translate your language into English, but may fail to translate the communication style. The outcome can sound bizarre to a U.S. professional. In German and French, for example, it can take many more words to express what can be expressed in just a few words in English. 

Pay attention to the communication style and make use of it.  Compare emails you have written with the ones you received, especially those from professionals you respect.  Communication is the cornerstone of every engagement, so try to adopt your message accordingly.

 

4. Conception of time

There is a difference in how cultures handle and perceive time. The two most often used distinctions are monochronic and polychronic dimensions of time. The U.S., as a monochronic culture, views time as a given that cannot be adjusted. It is, therefore, we who have to adjust to time through schedules, appointments and time management.  Schedules are sacred and being late is considered rude. The U.S. also values a certain orderliness and sense of there being an appropriate time and place for everything. In your culture, time may matter less, so being late may matter less. Deadlines are an approximation. While in the U.S. five minutes is meaningful time, in other cultures waiting for 30 or 40 minutes for a meeting to begin is normal.

Furthermore, time is a commodity that has value. When it comes to networking, LL.M. students may not appreciate the time others spend with them as much as U.S. professionals expect. Not following-up with an email that expresses gratitude for the time someone spends with you are common mistakes.

Acquaint yourself with the need for scheduling every little encounter and respect someone else’s schedule, every single minute of it.  See time as a commodity and be grateful if someone spends it with you.  He literally views it as an expenditure.  To him or her, these five minutes have meaning and real value. 

 

5. Status

The U.S. has a doing culture which means that people are looked up to and respected because of their accomplishments, which they never fail to mention. You can get ahead into positions of power and influence largely by virtue of your achievements and performance. In your culture, status may not be acquirable because it is built into the person due to family, social class, affiliations, membership in certain important groups, or because of age or seniority. Professionals in the U.S. aren’t particularly impressed by titles when they are unaccompanied by actions. That’s why a typical American question is What do you do?

I often hear LL.M. graduates introduce themselves with Hello, I am … an LL.M. graduate. Share what you do rather than listing your degrees.  When drafting your resume and cover letter, do not rely solely upon your education or titles but spell out what you did with these.

All of these values may seem like cultural nuances that do not make a difference but using them will make an impact on your career in the U.S. Post these next to your computer and make sure you try to absorb and imitate them — not because it is a better way of doings, just because this is how they are done here. 

Desiree Jaeger-Fine, Esq., is a regular contributor to The National Jurist and principal of Jaeger-Fine Consulting, LLC, The Hub for Foreign Legal Talent™ - helping foreign lawyers seek employment in the U.S.