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Americans believe no one stands still. If you are not moving ahead, you are falling behind. This attitude results in a nation of people committed to researching, experimenting and exploring. Time is one of the two elements that Americans save carefully, the other being labor.
"We are slaves to nothing but the clock," it has been said. Time is treated as if it were something almost real. We budget it, save it, waste it, steal it, kill it, cut it, account for it; we also charge for it. It is a precious resource. Many people have a rather acute sense of the shortness of each lifetime. Once the sands have run out of a person's hourglass, they cannot be replaced. We want every minute to count.
A foreigner's first impression of the US is likely to be that everyone is in a rush—often under pressure. City people always appear to be hurrying to get where they are going, restlessly seeking attention in a store, or elbowing others as they try to complete their shopping. Racing through daytime meals is part of the pace of life in this country. Working time is considered precious. Others in public eating-places are waiting for you to finish so they, too, can be served and get back to work within the time allowed. You also find drivers will be abrupt and people will push past you. You will miss smiles, brief conversations, and small exchanges with strangers. Don't take it personally. This is because people value time highly, and they resent someone else "wasting" it beyond a certain appropriate point.
Many new arrivals in the States will miss the opening exchanges of a business call, for example. They will miss the ritual interaction that goes with a welcoming cup of tea or coffee that may be a convention in their own country. They may miss leisurely business chats in a restaurant or coffee house. Normally, Americans do not assess their visitors in such relaxed surroundings over extended small talk; much less do they take them out for dinner, or around on the golf course while they develop a sense of trust. Since we generally assess and probe professionally rather than socially, we start talking business very quickly. Time is, therefore, always ticking in our inner ear.
Consequently, we work hard at the task of saving time. We produce a steady flow of labor-saving devices; we communicate rapidly through faxes, phone calls or emails rather than through personal contacts, which though pleasant, take longer—especially given our traffic-filled streets. We, therefore, save most personal visiting for after-work hours or for social weekend gatherings.
To us the impersonality of electronic communication has little or no relation to the significance of the matter at hand. In some countries no major business is conducted without eye contact, requiring face-to-face conversation. In America, too, a final agreement will normally be signed in person. However, people are meeting increasingly on television screens, conducting "teleconferences" to settle problems not only in this country but also—by satellite—internationally.
The US is definitely a telephone country. Almost everyone uses the telephone to conduct business, to chat with friends, to make or break social appointments, to say "Thank you", to shop and to obtain all kinds of information. Telephones save the feet and endless amounts of time. This is due partly to the fact that the telephone service is superb here, whereas the postal service is less efficient.
Some new arrivals will come from cultures where it is considered impolite to work too quickly. Unless a certain amount of time is allowed to elapse, it seems in their eyes as if the task being considered were insignificant, not worthy of proper respect. Assignments are, consequently, given added weight by the passage of time. In the US, however, it is taken as a sign of skillfulness or being competent to solve a problem, or fulfill a job successfully, with speed. Usually, the more important a task is, the more capital, energy, and attention will be poured into it in order to "get it moving".