In the USA business meals and after work activities are a good social lubricant and are viewed as a standard part of a business deal. Although US-Americans are open and friendly at group common meals and activities, they do not “Only do business with friends”, as in many other parts of the world. Being a “good host” is important to Americans and efforts to organize after work get-togethers are not meant to establish long-term personal relationships or friendships, but more to solidify the business relationship. You should not misunderstand that.
All hours of the day
Business meals can occur at any hour of the day in the USA. Depending on the appointments calendar, early get-togethers even before the beginning of the proper workday are common. However, a business breakfast or lunch between two appointments will seldom last longer than a full hour.
For dinners, more time is set aside. But the after-dinner conversation doesn’t last long. Sitting together over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee at length following a meal is not part of American tradition. Even in a bar business people mostly meet for just a short drink.
Before and during a business meal engage in easy-going conversation on the usual small talk topics. If you have already established a rapport it is okay to talk business, too, although it is best to leave the transition from small talk to business topics to your US-American host.
If there is a meal for a special occasion there will be words of welcome at the start or words of thanks at the end, which you as the guest of honour should then respond to in kind. Sophisticated toasts, the clinking of glasses, etc., are not quite common, thus one round of “Cheers!” or “To your health!” is sufficient.
Drink in moderation
In US-American business life, it is rare for alcohol to be drunk during the day. Never order a beer or a glass of wine at a business lunch unless your host does and invites you to do the same. At an evening meal, there may be a moderate amount of drinking.
Celebrating success with US-American business partners mostly means meeting for a drink in a bar, and that is as far as it goes. To act totally casually and relaxed and to celebrate heartily would not be appropriate. As we said, US-Americans don’t always seek to pursue a friendly relationship with their business partners.
Who picks up the check?
In the USA, the host will take care of the bill for an official business meal. Often the check is not even brought to the table, with the host paying discreetly at the end of the meal.
But if you follow your US-American business partner into a restaurant after a meeting it does not mean that he will automatically pick up the check unless the offer is explicitly made. Otherwise, the suggestion is merely to join someone for a meal. If they do want to pay they say, for example, “My treat” or “This is on me”. If you want to pay for only your share of the meal, then say “Let’s go Dutch” or ask the waiter for separate checks.
T.G.I.F. stands for “Thank God it’s Friday”. In many US firms colleagues go out on Fridays after work for a drink with camaraderie and team spirit as the aim. However, there is an unspoken limit of one or two after-work drinks, and everyone is expected to behave professionally. Bitching about the boss or letting yourself go would not be appropriate.
It is not a big deal for US-Americans to invite their foreign business partners to their homes. A BBQ on Saturday afternoon with the whole family would be very common, although it is something that in many other countries is considered strictly for private life. In the USA, there is a border between business and private life, but it is more generous and movable.
The thing is that US-Americans, when they issue such invitations, are not automatically looking for a private friendship, and you should not go much beyond small talk. Do not ask excessively personal questions, because Americans would see that as intruding on their private life.
Always be punctual and take a small guest’s present with you. Just as with business meals, private invitations also come to a relatively quick ending. Observe closely when it is time to go. Probably your hosts will ask you if you would like to stay a little longer and drink a coffee, but that is usually only a polite expression.
Be sure that the next day you send a card of thanks or an e-mail!