You know about American sports—baseball, (American) football, basketball. And you know about American food—cheeseburgers, hot dogs, barbecue ribs. But did you know there's an American business speaking style as well? Of course, English is the lingua franca of business the world over, but it doesn't stop there. There's also a predominant style of verbal communication that transcends state borders and regional cultures.
As the business world becomes increasingly globalized, understanding the different ways we communicate is becoming more and more important. And mastering the American style of business speaking can help give you a leg up in the global workforce. Some of its key attributes may be intuitively familiar to you already if you happen to be American, but combining them properly takes a little practice. Here's a quick tutorial to help you get started.
One of the characteristics of American business speaking style is directness. You have to get to the point quickly—you don’t need a big wind-up. You do need to provide facts, research, and background information, but it's important to wait to do this until after you’ve stated your conclusions, not before.
The relative directness of American speech is connected to anthropologist Edward Hall’s idea of "high-context" and "low-context" cultures. Low-context cultures, among other characteristics, tend to be more straightforward and direct with their communication. High-context cultures, on the other hand, tend to value more circularity and have much greater patience for details and background.
The U.S. is generally a low-context culture, while countries like France and Japan have high-context cultures. In American business speaking, a good rule of thumb is to get straight to the facts.
You may think that that directness leaves little room for visual flourishes, but you'd be wrong. The American style of speech is often quite vivid. American political speeches, especially, tend to be filled with visual imagery and colorful language. Other cultures tend to be more straightforward and cerebral.
When U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke in front of the U.N. General Assembly last year, I analyzed their delivery styles. They both began their speeches with similar content, but they were vastly different in approach.
Putin said, "In 1945, the countries that defeated Nazism joined their efforts to lay solid foundations for the postwar world order." Obama, on the other hand, put it this way: "Out of the ashes of the Second World War, having witnessed the unthinkable power of the atomic age, the United States has worked with many nations in this Assembly to prevent a third world war."
Obama’s use of dramatic visual language is one of the hallmarks of American political speech. But that approach is permeating the business world, too. As videoconferencing, social media, and remote teams become more prevalent, visual language has become necessary to keep people engaged and inspired.
Another one of the characteristics of American business speaking style is the use of simple vocabulary. This aversion to overly formal language originally stemmed from colonists’ desire to separate themselves from the aristocracy. In his book Democratic Eloquence, historian Kenneth Cmiel traces the history of American speaking style from 1775 to 1900. He explains how Abraham Lincoln continued the pre-Revolutionary tradition of using simple language to communicate in the civic sphere.
In fact, the first draft of Lincoln's first inaugural address included this line: "We are not, we must not be, aliens or enemies, but fellow countrymen and brethren." But he ended up revising it this way: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies."
Simple diction and syntax was, and still is, seen by many Americans as more democratic. And in today’s business world, where inclusivity is becoming more widely valued, simple language is a requirement, not a choice.
Finally, the American style tends to have a flat sound pattern. While countries like the U.K., India, and China frequently change pitch vertically (from low to high or high to low), the American speaking style stretches out vowels horizontally. In American business speaking, changing pitch vertically is perceived as "sing-song"—distracting, artificial, and not projecting confidence.
While the U.S. is certainly a diverse country, these business speaking conventions have remained surprisingly constant over time. And as the world grows more interconnected, they're becoming the prevailing global style, not just American.
What's more, simply by getting more attuned to this type of speaking, you'll become more sensitive to the complexities of how people in other cultures communicate. It’s not just about speaking the language; it’s much more about becoming sensitive to cultural style differences in verbal communication.