Regional guide to work culture in America

Elton Stanley's advice for doing business in New York: Make your handshakes Ferrari-fast, and leave your small talk at home. Baton Rouge? Just the opposite. Talk about family, friends, sports, dogs, and the sorry state of what passes for politics before you make the pitch.

California is another story. It's deceptively fast. Work can run at the speed of Jolt Cola commercials. "You think it's laid back but it has more pace than the East," says Mr. Stanley, an insurance salesman who has relocated 15 times in his career. "The difference is suntan lotion and Ray-Bans.

Broad generalizations, perhaps. But business people ignore them at their peril.

The regions of the US maintain their own ways of working, of speed, time, and place, even in today's seamless info-world of the Internet and cell phones.

As more and more corporate mergers cross regional boundaries, avoiding a clash of cultures becomes increasingly important. Without proper attention, everything from the amount of vacation, to answering the phones after 5 p.m., can become a flashpoint of irritation.

"Within our own country we forget that there are differences among cities and people of different regions because the band of differences is so much narrower," says John Challenger of the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas in Chicago. "It's not like jumping from the United States to Japan. But it's still there."

Integrating with regional culture can be a key to business success. In Austin, Texas, for instance, visitors have to be prepared to do business over huevos rancheros. In Memphis, Tenn., deals can be closed on the golf course - a common practice in the rising economy of the new South and Sun Belt. In Seattle, dinner remains the preeminent business meal.

From flip-flops to ties

For business in Denver, high-rolling local attorney Don Bain has this advice: Don't wear cowboy boots to a business meeting. It's a dead giveaway that you're from out of town.

And in Boston, dress conservatively. Some firms still adhere to Brahmin-like sartorial codes. A New England Financial worker who asks not to be named quotes from the company's standards: "Men are to be in shirts and ties and business suits. If they are going to a meeting, their jackets must be worn. Otherwise they may work at their desks without their jackets on."

Work cultures across the country are starting to merge, in some ways. Casual Friday is everywhere, it seems. It is even taking root at New England Financial.

But casual in Chicago - khakis and a polo shirt - is very different from casual in Los Angeles. "In L.A., you wouldn't know it's casual day. Everybody is casual," says Bob Kuperman, president and CEO of the advertising agency TBWA Chiat/Day.

In the company's L.A. office, for example, everything from jeans to flip-flops and cutoffs fly. A few employees even tote surfboards to work.

And today's fast-paced business climate is pushing people to work harder and longer just about everywhere. Even Memphis, where people work a civil 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., is feeling the pressure to speed up. "The work day in the last two years has become more frantic," says Julie Johnston of Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects in Memphis. "Deadlines are shorter. Everyone wants everything instantly."

Still, speed seems to be a defining characteristic. Expectations for work hours remain different around the country.

"Places really do seem to have personalities of their own. And one of the things that drives that is pace of life," says Robert Levine, a psychology professor at California State University at Fresno. "There really does appear to be such a thing as fast places and slow places," says Professor Levine, author of "A Geography of Time."

In the book, he ranked 36 US cities by speed, measuring factors such as how fast people talk, how long it takes downtown pedestrians to walk 60 feet, and postal clerks to sell a stamp.

His findings: Boston, Buffalo, N.Y., New York City, Salt Lake City, and Columbus, Ohio, topped his charts as the fastest US cities. The slowest: Los Angeles, Sacramento, Calif., Shreveport, La., San Jose, Calif., and Memphis.

Climate drives pace

A few general trends he spotted along the way: The hotter the climate, the slower the city. The denser the population and higher the economic level, the faster the city. While he's quick to point out that neither slow nor fast is better, he argues that faster cities tend to be more productive.

"Places that have more vital economies put more pressure on people to use their time wisely ... and that leads to more productivity," Levine says.

New Yorkers and Bostonians agree, quickly. Walking, talking, working, even eating fast are the mottos of these longtime rivals. Ed Markey, vice president of NBC Sports Press in New York, describes the Big Apple this way: "It's like you are trying to make a dinner on a stove where the burners only go to high."

No more two-hour lunches

When Kimberly Barton moved to New York from Dallas a year and a half ago, she quickly had to give up her two-hour lunches. Now the regional public-relations manager at Macy's usually ends up skipping lunch altogether or eating on the run.

Others find the pace even more forbidding. "New York City, being the busy city that it is, can also be the loneliest city in the world," says Jamie Hazan, who runs his own Internet company, NY Interactive, out of his penthouse apartment. "You go home to go to sleep and you get up and you work and work and work."

In Boston, meanwhile, workers are putting in very long hours - not that they're slacking off elsewhere.

"The pace of a lot of places is pretty intense," says Fred Foulkes, a management professor at Boston University.

Much of this has to do with the reality of doing business overseas, says Mr. Foulkes. The Boston area, he says, has many consulting firms who send teams all over the world. Boston remains self-consciously cosmopolitan, a sort of San Francisco of the East.

That's probably the influence of the cities many institutions of higher learning. "There's more of an educational backdrop to everything," says Jerry Spight, a management consultant.

Levine may have rated L.A. a slow-paced city in his book, but that is not a finding everyone agrees with. Many residents say that while people want to believe in the lax California lifestyle, that's not what Southern California is really like.

"In reality they are working very hard," says Robin Samuel, a lawyer with a prestigious L.A. firm.

Compare, for example, the Los Angeles and New York offices of the advertising agency TBWA Chiat/Day.

"Most people think L.A. is la-la land, and everyone goes along without much intensity,"says Mr. Kuperman, a native New Yorker. "What I find is just the opposite. L.A. does seem to have a more easy and relaxed exterior, but it is a dynamo in terms of getting things done."

Summer slowdown

He attributes a big part of it to the warm weather and sunshine all year. In L.A., he says, people work more consistently year-round. In New York, the summer months are slower.

"At least for three months, New York isn't really operating at 100 percent," Kuperman says. "L.A. always operates at 100 percent."

Indeed, climate and landscape can play a key role in influencing a city's work culture.

In Denver, for example, life outside of work is just as important. The nearby Rockies always beckon.

"Quality of life is really important to Coloradans," says Staci Busby of Clarus Public Relations. "Maybe people come in two hours earlier so they can go rock climbing."

Also competition in Denver is stiff, but not cut-throat - perhaps due in part again to the wide-open spaces. "There's more room for people to build their own things without having to destroy someone else's business," says Jean-Claude Bosch, chair of the business school at the University of Colorado at Denver.

Relationships are important to business everywhere. But in the South and Midwest, the personal network remains crucial. Business revolves around who you know.

"People take time to build personal relationships in the South before making a deal. By the time a deal is clinched both sides know each other's family history," says Larry Henson, research director at the Memphis Chamber of Commerce.

"In the Northeast, if you had a lot of brains and a good mouth, you could get through to whomever you wanted to," adds Joyce Gioia, cofounder of the consulting firm The Herman Group, who moved to Greensboro, N.C., three years ago from New York. "In the South, you have to do the six degrees of separation."

Washington's rhythms

In Washington D.C., the work hours can be as erratic as the politics. Much revolves around Capitol Hill.

"If Congress is in session, everybody - from the lobbyists and lawyers downtown to the staffers on the Hill - works later hours," says Caroline Nielson, chief of staff to Rep. Bob Clement (D) of Tennessee. "During the summer months when Congress is working on spending bills, those work hours can be pretty unpredictable. Sometimes we're at the office until midnight."

Then there is Seattle, whose high-tech based culture is surprisingly relaxed. Says Mr. Stanley, the Houston-based sales executive: "Seattle is what Los Angeles is supposed to be. It is the most casual and embracing and laid back business climate in the country, but it's very efficient."

Reported by staff writer Yvonne Zipp in Boston, and contributors Jonathan P. Decker in Washington, Samar Farah in New York, Laura Gatland in Chicago, Jeff Kass in Denver, and Suzi Parker in Memphis.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Regional guide to work culture in America
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today