United States Cultural Etiquette

American culture regularly falls victim to stereotyping and belittlement, arguably thanks to its portrayal in Hollywood films and US television serials. As with all cultures, the image presented to the world is rarely representative. America is not simply a nation of baseball cap wearing, fast-food eating, obnoxious sports fans. Rather the United States has a culture rich with its own peculiarities and eccentricities, both good and bad.



If there is one thing that characterises an “All-American” it is their infallibly cheery outlook on life. Unlike the British, renowned for their cynicism, the Americans seem to maintain eternal optimism even when in the direst of straits.

Andrew Carnegie once commissioned a young writer to interview successful Americans to find out the key to their achievements. He discovered that the key to success did not in fact lie with innate intellect or wealth, but simply the conviction that they would achieve. This positive attitude embodies the American culture and inevitably led to the US becoming the most powerful country in the world.


This positive attitude and behaviour can at times be misconstrued as insincere, but it comes from the desire of the Americans to make everyone feel welcome. It also presents to the world a positive image of the nation; to contrast against the negative depiction regularly broadcast around the world. Unlike in Britain, for example, smiling at a stranger in the street in America isn't met with utter bewilderment; it is totally acceptable. It is, however, simply courteous and polite and requires no deeper analysis. The same applies to the infamous ‘How are you?’, which will be the greeting of choice for many Americans. It is the verbal equivalent of smiling at someone, and should not be taken as an opportunity to relate your life story. The correct response is merely ‘fine’ or ‘okay’. When you say “Hello” to someone, he or she may answer “Hello, how are you?” or “Hey, how's it going?” This is a common expression and you do not have to explain how you are really feeling.  In the same manner, Americans often say farewell by saying “See you later,” which does not mean that they are definitely planning to visit you or that you should show up at their house without calling first.

Meeting someone

When meeting someone for the first time, it is customary to shake hands, both for men and for women. Hugs are only exchanged between close friends. Kissing is not common, and men never kiss other men. Americans will usually introduce themselves by their first name and last name (such as "Hello, I'm John Smith"), or, if the setting is very casual, by their first name only ("Hi, I'm John"). The common response when someone is introduced to you is "Pleased to meet you." Unless someone is introduced to you with their title and last name (such as Mister Smith or Miss Johnson), you should address them by their first name. Americans normally address everyone they meet in a social or business setting by their first name. However, you should always address your college professors by their title and last name (such as Professor Jones), unless they ask you to do otherwise.

  • Greetings are casual.
  • A handshake, a smile, and a 'hello' are all that is needed.
  • Smile!
  • Use first names, and be sure to introduce everyone to each other.

Speaking on the telephone

Americans normally answer the telephone by simply saying "Hello." If you are calling a business, the person answering the phone will give the name of the business and usually their own name as well. If the person you would like to speak to has answered the phone, you should say hello and state your name. If not, you should ask for that person politely: "May I please speak with Andrew Brown?" The majority of Americans have answering machines in their homes. Also, the majority of businesses have voice mail accounts for their employees. When leaving a message, state your name clearly and leave a telephone number where you can be reached. Telephone messages should be brief and to the point.


It is generally easy to adjust to American society and its people. However, don't try to be too friendly or personal with them too soon. Americans value their privacy a lot. Don't just show up at someone's house without first calling and making an appointment. Even if someone says "come over at any time," don't take it literally. You sill have to follow etiquette. If a person wants you to visit their home, they will call you first and specify the date and time Most Americans like to have fun and want to enjoy their free time. Many engage in activities like going to the gym to exercise, going for a walk, jogging, biking, hiking, etc. Most love natural surroundings and the outdoors. Most Americans are impatient yet disciplined. No one likes to wait in line and they are easily frustrated. Yet most Americans wait in line patiently without pushing people or trying to jump ahead.You should never break into line in front of someone. It is considered very rude. If you really want to go in front, you should ask the person and then only go in front. In conversation, you should give continuous feedback to the other person, or at least nod continuously. In absence of that, the other person might think you aren't really interested or you're confused. If you happen to bump into someone or vice versa, you will promptly hear an "excuse me." Most people who are just passing by will smile at you and/or say hello. This is formality, and shouldn't be taken seriously. Smiling is simply a goodwill gesture and does not mean anything beyond that. Never make any racial comments about anyone, e.g., blacks are called "African Americans" in politically correct language. Life in the U.S. is generally fast-paced and busy. It is all about making money. People don't want to waste time on anything, even eating food. That is why the U.S. invented fast food and is the largest consumer of fast food. Personal comportment often appears crass, loud, and effusive to people from other cultures, but Americans value emotional and bodily restraint. The permanent smile and unrelenting enthusiasm of the stereotypical American may mask strong emotions whose expression is not acceptable. Bodily restraint is expressed through the relatively large physical distance people maintain with each other, especially men. Breast-feeding, yawning, and passing gas in public are considered rude. Americans consider it impolite to talk about money and age.

Don't Be Pushy

There is a difficult balance to keep between taking initiative and being too pushy. If Americans feel you are trying too hard to be friends, they might find it off-putting. You’ll want to be forward, but not “desperate.” Wanting to spend time together every day can make other people uncomfortable. Therefore, you’ll want to be careful that you and your new friend are both putting equal amounts of effort into developing your friendship. After all, you don’t want to be friends with someone who’s not willing to put the effort into being friends with you!


Most people wear casual dress. They are not fond of an overabundance of jewelry, and gold jewelry is rarely seen. No one really cares what others are wearing.

Personal Hygiene

People in the U.S.A. often draw conclusions about others based on their physical appearance, clothing, and general hygiene. Remember, they are TV watchers. On television, you will notice an emphasis on commercials which sell cleaning and personal hygiene products. It is also true that U.S. consumers spend hundreds of dollars a year on clothing detergents, soaps, perfumes, shampoos, deodorants, powders, toothpastes, and mouthwashes advertised on TV. This has helped to make them conscious of their cleanliness and appearance to an almost fanatic degree; they sometimes bathe more than once a day and are very conscious of how they look and what message that sends to those around them. Because of this emphasis, U.S. citizens react negatively to those who do not bathe regularly, use deodorants and mouthwashes, or keep their clothing clean and tidy.


In general, Americans appreciate punctuality when you have arranged to meet for dinner or lunch, for medical and business appointments, or in a public place. If the hours are stated on an invitation, you can arrive anytime within those hours, and leave at any time after a reasonable stay. Arrive at least ten to fifteen minutes early for cultural or sporting events. Invitations Written invitations should be answered in writing, unless a telephone number is given. When no answer is expected, the invitation will not have the letters “RSVP” written on it. If the invitation is made over the phone, be sure to understand the date, the day of the week, the time, and the place. If someone invites you to a dinner at their home, always feel comfortable in telling them about special dietary restrictions if you cannot eat certain foods. Your host will appreciate knowing this in advance, as many people in the U.S. have special diets that they must follow. Your host will be very embarrassed if foods are prepared which you cannot eat.

Home Visits & Gifts

An invitation to an American home will give you a chance to see American family life. Most American households do not have domestic help, so it is courteous to offer your help to your hosts. Unless the host or hostess says otherwise, do not begin eating until he or she is seated at the table. If you have any dietary restrictions, do not hesitate to say so beforehand. You do not have to bring a gift when you are invited to dinner, except on special occasions, like a birthday or holiday. If you are staying overnight, candy, wine, flowers or a small gift from your home country is a nice gesture of thanks.

Gift Giving Etiquette

  • In general, Americans give gifts for birthdays, anniversaries and major holidays, such as Christmas.
  • A gift can be as simple as a card and personal note to something more elaborate for a person with whom you are close.
  • Gift giving is not an elaborate event, except at Christmas.
  • When invited to someone's home for dinner, it is polite to bring a small box of good chocolates, a bottle of wine, a potted plant or flowers for the hostess.
  • Gifts are normally opened when received.

Dining Etiquette

  • Americans socialise in their homes and ‘backyards’, in restaurants and in other public places.
  • It's not at all unusual for social events to be as casual as a backyard barbecue or a picnic in the park.
  • Arrive on time if invited for dinner; no more than 10 minutes later than invited to a small gathering. If it is a large party, it is acceptable to arrive up to 30 minutes later than invited.
  • Table manners are more relaxed in the U.S. than in many other countries.
  • The fork is held in the right hand and is used for eating. The fork is held tines down. The knife is used to cut or spread something. To use the knife, the fork is switched to the left hand. To continue eating, the fork is switched back to the right hand.
  • If you have not finished eating, cross your knife and fork on your plate with the fork over the knife. Indicate you have finished eating by laying your knife and fork parallel across the right side of your plate.
  • If you are more comfortable eating in the Continental manner, go ahead. It will not offend anyone.
  • Feel free to refuse specific foods or drinks without offering an explanation.
  • Many foods are eaten by hand.
  • Food is often served family-style, which means that it is in large serving dishes and passed around the table for everyone to serve themselves.
  • Do not begin eating until the hostess starts or says to begin.
  • Remain standing until invited to sit down.
  • Do not rest your elbows on the table.
  • Put your napkin in your lap as soon as you sit down.
  • Leave a small amount of food on your plate when you have finished eating.


America has a somewhat dysfunctional relationship with food. On one hand table manners are of the utmost importance and on the other it is known globally for its obesity crisis and love of convenience food. Possibly contrary to popular belief, etiquette is a fundamental part of American identity, with etiquette guides written in the 19th century still in print. Most simply, talking with your mouth full or chewing with your mouth open will not go down well. It is also considered better practice to ask ‘May you pass the…?’ rather than reach across a table for something. For children, they really must ask to be excused from the table if they finish eating before others. There is a culture of eating out in America which, aligned with the somewhat ridiculous portion sizes, has meant that the custom of taking a doggy bag home with you from a restaurant is still common practice.

Eating out

All restaurants in America accept cash for payment, and most (even some fast food restaurants) also accept credit cards. A few restaurants also accept ATM cards for payment. You will rarely find a restaurant that accepts checks. It is common to have to wait for a table at a popular restaurant. There are many popular restaurants that do not accept reservations, or will only accept reservations for large parties (for example, six or more people). At these restaurants, the wait can be very long on a weekend night, sometimes up to 1 hour. However, almost all upscale, or more formal, restaurants will accept reservations. Many restaurants in America (except for fast food restaurants) have a license to serve alcohol. Beer and wine are always available, and at some restaurants hard liquor (such as vodka or whisky) is also available. Restaurants that serve hard liquor are said to have "a full bar." The drinking age in America is 21. If you look young, be prepared to show proof of your age when ordering alcohol.


There are only a few situations where tipping is expected. The one you will encounter most often is at restaurants. American restaurants do not add a service charge to the bill. Therefore it is expected that the customer will leave a tip for the server. Common practice is to leave a tip that is equal to 15% of the total bill for acceptable service, and about 20% for superior service. If the service was unusually poor, then you could leave a smaller tip, about 10%. Other professions where tipping is expected include hairdressers, taxi drivers, hotel porters, parking valets, and bartenders. The general rule is to tip approximately 15% of the bill. In situations where there is no bill (as with hotel porters and parking valets), the tip may range from $1 to $5, depending on the type of establishment and on how good the service was. Some industries are legally forbidden from accepting tips, such as government workers.


Smoking is not as common in America as in many other countries. Generally, Americans smoke less than Europeans and much less than Asians. It is a practice that is becoming less and less socially acceptable. Smoking is prohibited in many places. It is not allowed in any public buildings, on any public transportation (including airplane flights within the United States), in shops, movie theaters, schools, and office buildings. The general rule is if you are indoors, then you probably are not allowed to smoke. The exceptions are bars, nightclubs, and some restaurants. If a restaurant does allow smoking, it will only be in an area that is designated for smokers. If you are with someone, even outdoors, it is polite to ask if they mind before you start smoking. The legal smoking age in America is 18. If you are buying cigarettes (or another tobacco product) and you look young, the store clerk is required by law to ask you for proof of legal age. You should be prepared to provide identification.


A “date” occurs when a man and a woman make a special appointment to meet and share an activity together. All cultures have “acceptable” and “unacceptable” procedures concerning this type of male-female relationship. As you know, even within your own culture, these vary from region to region and, to some extent, are based on personal preference. This is also true in the U.S. Here, both men and women initiate dates, men more frequently than women. Even among U.S. citizens, there is controversy about who should pay the expenses of the date. Most Americans still assume it will be the male, even if the female initiates the date. Women should not assume this is true, however, and still be prepared to pay at least one half of the cost of the date. Most men will appreciate this gesture, even if they insist on paying the full bill themselves. It would be wise to clarify this ahead of time if you want to share the costs of the date equally. This is called “Dutch dating” or “going Dutch”. When someone asks you out on a date in the U.S., it will almost always be a verbal invitation for which you will be expected to make an immediate response. Take special note of the time for the date. It is considered quite rude to be late for a pre-arranged date. As a first date with an American, it is not unusual for two people to meet for a soda just to talk, go to a movie, go out to dinner, go to a sporting event, go dancing, or many other similar activities. You should ask about how formally or informally you should dress for a date if you are not sure. Although many U.S. TV shows and movies might suggest otherwise, it is not true that going out for an evening with an American will lead to a sexual encounter. Although this type of offer may be extended, you should always be guided in your answer by your own moral convictions.

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