American Culture

Etiquette

Basic Etiquette
  • It is considered impolite to ask a question about someone’s weight or age – especially to a woman.
  • Americans generally do not appreciate questions about their salary, wealth or how much things cost. This is seen as an invasion of privacy and very rude.
  • People may begin speaking with strangers without being introduced (e.g. as they stand in a queue or sit next to each other at an event). 
  • If someone coughs while you are smoking, it is an indication that you should extinguish the cigarette.
  • It is impolite to pick your teeth without using a toothpick in public.
  • Americans place a big importance on time management and punctuality. Delays and lateness tend to reflect badly on people, often interpreted as disrespectful or rude. However, lateness can be acceptable in some contexts (for example, when attending large parties or social gatherings).
  • It is rude to push in line or skip people in a line. If you are in an urgent rush, you should ask the person before you if they are okay with you going ahead of them. 
  • If you arrive at a line or door at the same time as someone else, it is polite to offer for them to go before you.
  • It is polite to hold a door or elevator open for someone who is close behind you. If someone does this for you, you should give them a verbal “thank you”.
  • It is considered rude to speak loudly on cell phones anywhere, including outdoors, but especially in enclosed, public places such as trains, restaurants, museums, waiting rooms, and elevators. 
  • Clothing styles vary by social status, region, occupation and climate, as well as between social settings (e.g. a job interview vs. a barbeque). On a day-to-day basis, however, wearing casual clothing in public is common (e.g. sweatpants or active gear). It is also normal and accepted for women to wear what some might deem ‘immodest’ clothing that reveals their legs, arms or torso.
 
Tipping
  • American restaurant and bar menus indicate prices without sales taxes and tips. As a result, the items ordered from a menu often end up costing about 21% to 26% more. 
  • Hospitality wages in America can be quite low. Therefore, waiters, waitresses and service attendants often depend on tips. Accordingly, restaurants that offer table service do not include the service charge in the cost of the bill.
  • Americans usually tip 15-20% of the cost of the meal as a general standard. Less or more can be tipped depending on the quality of the service.
  • Taxi drivers, hairdressers and barbers also expect similar tip percentages.
  • Bellhops or valet parkers only expect about $1 as a tip.
 
Visiting
  • Visits to American households are fairly informal. However, this can also vary depending on the purpose of the visit or the level of conservatism of the family.
  • Organise your visit in advance. Americans rarely visit each other without making plans to do so.
  • Many Americans have pets (e.g. dogs and cats). If you are allergic to an animal or feel uncomfortable being in the same room as an animal, you should let your host know in advance.
  • Do not bring other friends and family with you unless you’ve asked your host beforehand. 
  • If it is an intimate visit (e.g. just you and the host), try and be as punctual as possible. It is best to notify your host if you are running late. 
  • If it is a larger social gathering or party, Americans commonly arrive roughly 30 minutes to an hour after the stated time. This is especially common if the guest doesn’t know the host very personally, or does not know many of the other people attending .
  • It is generally normal for people to enter a home without taking their shoes off, unless the host specifically asks guests to take them off.
  • In American households, it is unusual for hosts to routinely offer food or snacks – unless the guest has arrived at a meal time. 
  • If the host asks whether you would like food, it is expected you answer honestly. Americans tend to take their guests’ answers at face-value and are unlikely to be offended when a guest declines food. If you politely decline (e.g. "No thanks, I'm not hungry"), do not expect your host to serve you regardless, even if the family is eating a meal. 
  • American households may or may not offer a small drink to guests. Guests are often expected to make a request themselves if they want something to drink. Hosts may then them to where and how to get the drink themselves (e.g. "There's soda in the fridge" or "There's water cups in the cupboard above left of the stove”).
  • Alcohol is usually only served to close friends or on special occasions.
  • Avoid overstaying your welcome by remaining at a person's home longer than expected, unless they explicitly ask you to stay.

 

Eating
  • American cuisines vary across regions in the US. For example, southern-style cooking (often called "American comfort food") includes dishes such as fried chicken, collard greens and cornbread. 
  • Cuisines may also differ depending on the dominant migration populations in the region. For example, it is common to find a blend of South American and Mexican cooking styles throughout the states closer to Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico. This includes items such as chilli and burritos, and relies heavily on shredded cheese and beans.
  • Wait until everyone has been seated and served before eating. The host often indicates when it is time to begin.
  • In some religious households, families may say a blessing before beginning to eat (known as saying ‘grace’).
  • In homes, dishes are usually passed around so that each person can get a share of food. If you find you do not want one of the dishes being passed around, it is acceptable to refuse by just continuing to pass it along. 
  • Ask for someone to pass a dish to you instead of reaching across the table to grab it.
  • Americans use a knife, fork and spoon to eat food (unless eating fast foods, such as pizza, tacos or burgers).
  • Americans have a distinct set of "finger-foods" which are expected to be eaten with fingers. They may think it is strange or unusual if you eat pizza with a fork or cut these foods into smaller bites.
  • Napkins should be placed on your lap and kept there during the meal.
  • It is polite to offer to refill other people’s drinks or pass them dishes at the table.
  • It is rude to eat with your mouth open, talk while there is still food in your mouth or lick food off your fingers.
  • Burping is considered rude.
  • Portion sizes tend to be quite large. When eating out, it is acceptable to ask to have any left-over food repackaged to take home with you. 

 

Gift Giving
  • Gifts are usually given on special occasions and are often accompanied by a card.
  • People tend to open gifts in front of the giver, either upon receiving them or later along with other presents.
  • For occasions that require a gift (e.g. birthday, wedding, baby shower), a modest value of about $25 is acceptable unless you know the recipient very well.
  • It is rude to ask directly how much a gift costs.
  • It is also generally inappropriate to give someone a gift of cash, unless previously agreed upon.
  • Gifts that are given as a personal gesture outside of special occasions are often grander or more heartfelt. For example, to reflect deep gratitude for a favour someone has done for you, you may give them sports tickets or take them to an expensive restaurant.
  • It is polite to bring a small gift as a gesture of appreciation when invited to someone’s house or a dinner party (e.g. wine, chocolate).
  • It is expected that the receiver gives effusive praise of a gift, regardless of its size, appeal, monetary worth, etc. It is common for the receiver to state how they will intend to use the gift as a gesture of genuine appreciation.
  • Complaints or negative comments about a gift are considered extremely rude, even if the gift was broken, unusual or inappropriate. Commenting that you already have the same item is also considered rude. 
  • It is insulting to give away, re-gift or throw away a gift. If you do so, do not make this known to the gift-giver.

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