Social etiquette in the US: Do’s and Don’ts
You’ve learnt the language through American movies, studied American society by watching TV shows, and even attempted to understand US politics by reading the news. But what if you want to put your theory into practice and visit the United States? How should you behave? In order to fit in with the locals, you should follow local etiquette. Here are some do’s and don’ts for visiting the US.
In restaurants and bars
Don’t forget to tip
Tipping is very important in the US. You should tip between 15-20% at restaurants, bars, cafes, and in taxis. Tipped employees are actually paid below the minimum wage, as it is assumed that they will receive tips to increase their wages. In other countries, tipping shows that you received great service; but in the US, not tipping shows that you were extremely unhappy. You may even get an angry response from the staff.
The customer is always right
You may have heard the phrase ‘the customer is always right’. There is a huge emphasis on customer service in the US, and you can be a little more demanding than you can in other countries. If you behave politely, you shouldn’t get a rude response. For example, it is usually not a problem to ask the chef to remove an ingredient from your dish if you have a dietary requirement (or even if you just don’t like a certain food). And it is completely acceptable to complain if there is a genuine problem with your meal.
Attracting the attention of staff
When you’re in a busy restaurant, trying to order a drink or get the bill can be difficult. You should make eye contact with the member of staff, and nod your head upwards or slightly raise your hand. Clicking your finger, whistling, or shouting to get the attention of wait staff or bar staff is rude. It is also offensive to address a waiter, waitress or bartender as ‘boy’ or ‘girl’.
Small talk
While it might seem pointless, small talk is more about politeness, creating a friendly environment, and passing the time, than about having a meaningful conversation. You should keep a positive and friendly tone throughout. Typical topics include your job, what you study, plans for the weekend, holidays, interesting current events, sports, hobbies, or the weather.
What to avoid
  • Avoid controversial or personal topics such as religion, politics, or how much money you earn. If you’re having a casual conversation with people you don’t know very well, these topics can make people uncomfortable. It is also rude to ask someone’s age, especially if they are a woman.

  • Avoid expressing racist or homophobic views when visiting the US. Certain words that are acceptable in your native language – for example, terms referring to black people or gay people – can be very offensive in the US, so be careful. Gay and transgender people have the same rights as everyone else in the US. Depending on which city you visit, you may see people expressing their identity in a way which is unusual to you – but you should not express intolerance towards them.

  • With few exceptions, men should avoid complimenting the appearance of women. What may be a compliment in some cultures can be seen as inappropriate and sexual in the US, and can make a woman feel very uncomfortable. What’s more, men and women are equal in American society. Expressing views about women’s ‘role’ in a professional or domestic context can cause serious offence.
Be on time
Americans place a lot of value on punctuality. If you’ll be more than 5 or 10 minutes late to meet someone, you should message or call to let them know. If you are going to a restaurant, dinner party, or small gathering, you should not be late. But for larger informal events (such as a party) where people can freely come and go, it’s okay to be 30 minutes late.
Please, thank you, sorry!
Americans say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in all situations, no matter how insignificant – for example, at the grocery store checkout or when buying transport tickets. If you don’t do this when visiting America, you will appear rude.

You should also say ‘sorry’ or ‘excuse me’ even when it seems unimportant (or isn’t particularly your fault!) – for example, stepping on someone’s foot in a crowded metro carriage, or passing close to someone in a busy store.
Body language
Eye contact
Making eye contact during conversation is polite, but you shouldn’t stare at people, as this is considered rude.
America is a very smiley culture. Like with saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, Americans have a friendly face in all situations, no matter how unimportant they seem. This can seem strange if you come from a culture where smiling at strangers is not the norm – but if someone smiles at you and you don’t do the same, they might feel confused or even offended.
Personal space
Personal space is important to Americans. You should stand an arm’s length away when talking to someone.
Don’t take everything literally!
How are you?
The correct answer to the question ‘how are you?’ should be neutral or positive – ‘Fine, thanks’ or ‘Very well, thank you’. In casual conversation, ‘how are you?’ is basically another way of saying ‘hello’, rather than a genuine enquiry. So be careful about pouring your heart out to a total stranger!
See you soon!
When saying goodbye, Americans often say something along the lines of ‘Let’s get together soon’ or ‘Let’s go for a drink some time’. This is part of saying goodbye. You shouldn’t be offended if they don’t follow up with an invitation to hang out.
Smoking and drugs
Most people in the US, including young people, don’t typically smoke cigarettes. Smoking in most indoor spaces is banned in many US states and big cities, and some states have banned smoking in outdoor public spaces. If you’re at someone’s house when visiting the US, it is polite to ask permission before smoking.

On the flip side, most Americans believe marijuana should be legalised. Smoking marijuana is legal in 15 US states – so don’t be shocked if you walk past someone smoking an unusual-smelling cigarette.

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