Customs & Traditions in the United States of America

Updated: May 5

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General Etiquette

  • In the US it is considered impolite to ask a direct question about someone’s salary, wealth, weight, or age.

  • People do not generally wait to be introduced and will begin speaking with strangers. Non-Americans can see this informality as too direct or even rude, but it’s simply the level of friendliness that they’re comfortable with.

  • If someone coughs while you are smoking, it is an indication that you should stop smoking in front of him.

  • It is impolite to pick food from your teeth without using a toothpick in public.

  • Americans place a big importance on time, punctuality is particularly important to them.

  • It is okay for Americans to be open and proud about their success as Americans like to focus on accomplishments and other positive things. It is part of sharing their life with others.

  • If giving advice or criticism, be sure to emphasize one’s good points before and after doing so.

  • Don't make fun of the US in front of Americans because 9 out of 10 Americans are proud of their country.

  • Americans avoid talking about topics such as gun control, the death penalty, abortion, civil rights, religion, etc, cause these topics can also be sensitive if you do not know everyone’s point of view.


Family

  • The American family is understood as a nuclear family (husband, wife, and children) with extended family living separately, Family structures can also vary significantly between different ethnicities and races in America.

  • However, Asian, black, and Hispanic families are more likely to live in multigenerational arrangements and have larger households than non-Hispanic white Americans.

  • Individualism is prized, and this is reflected in the family unit, people are expected to be self-independent and personally responsible for their choices*, American school systems often teach children to think of themselves as ‘special’ or ‘unique’ as they grow up.

  • Many elderly Americans choose to live alone, preferring to be self-independent in their old age.

  • American dating practices are similar to those of other western cultures. It is common for couples to meet through their social circles, workplaces, or hobbies.

  • Studies show that most young American adults now cohabit with their partner and having children while still unmarried, and fewer cohabitations transition to marriage.

*However, this norm has been subject to change following tough economic periods (such as the global financial crisis). It was estimated roughly 20% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 lived with their parents in 2018.


Naming

  • American names follow western naming protocols: personal name, middle name, and family name. For example, Jacqueline David Smith.

  • Family, friends, and colleagues use first names.

  • Nicknames are also common.

  • In formal situations, you would use your name & surname or that of the person you are introducing, for example, “Please meet Jane Doe.”.

  • Mr or Mrs may also be used in more conservative states.

  • Within work, situations use professional titles when addressing others, i.e. “Nice to meet you, Professor Lacey.”

  • Some Americans address each other by their last name alone without including ‘Mr.’.

  • Do not use professional titles when introducing yourself to others.



Meeting & Greeting:

  • Greetings are usually informal & casual.

  • A handshake is the most common greeting when meeting someone for the first time or in professional meetings.

  • Handshakes should be firm and accompanied with direct eye contact throughout the greeting. Being the first person to offer your hand can reflect confidence.

  • Now, it is becoming more common in social situations not to shake hands upon meeting and simply smile or nod.

  • In business meetings, handshakes are generally expected when meeting and leaving.

  • Americans greet their close friends & family with hugs and also in informal situations.

  • Americans generally smile a lot and are likely to appreciate when similar warmth is returned.

  • Try always to take the initiative to introduce yourself to those around you. Your American counterpart may not always give individual introductions and expect you to do it yourself.

  • Many Americans greet by saying “How are you?”. This is usually a form of greeting rather than an actual inquiry about your wellbeing. The common response is “I’m good, thanks. How are you?”. Giving an answer that is deeply personal or less positive can make the situation uncomfortable if you are not very familiar with the person.

  • Rather than say “bye” Americans may also use terms such as “call me some time,” “let’s do lunch” or “see you around” as politer ways of departing.

  • In opening deeper conversation, Americans often ask people about their occupation (e.g. “So, what do you do?”).


Visiting a home

  • Being invited to an American’s home can be fairly informal & casual.

  • You should dress casually and smartly.

  • If an invite says 6 pm-8 pm it is polite to leave as close to 8 pm as possible.

  • It is a good idea to bring a gift or if there is going to be some food, then some drinks.

  • You have to arrange a visit before going to an American’s house.

  • After you leave, you have to send a note of thanks to your host.

  • Do not arrive unannounced or bring friends and family with you unless you’ve asked them beforehand.

  • Notify your host if you will be late for 10-15 minutes.

  • Being late is more acceptable to parties and large social gatherings. Cause you don't know the host well.


Giving gifts

  • Gifts are usually only given on special occasions and are almost always 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.

  • Gifts that are given as a personal gesture outside of special occasions are often better or more heartfelt. For example, to reflect deep gratitude for a favor someone has done for you, you may give them sports tickets or take them to an expensive restaurant.

  • When you visit someone at their home gift as wine & chocolate are accepted.

Dining & Food:

  • Social meals are more about eating than chatting and taking hours over the food.

  • If you invite someone to a restaurant, you should pay.

  • The fork is held in the left hand facing down with the knife is held in the right hand.

  • A toast might take place at the start of a formal meal or for a special occasion/guest.

  • 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.

  • Americans socialize and do business over breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

  • If the business is the goal, then socializing is kept to a minimum at the start and end.



Communication style:

  • Americans are very direct communicators. They tend to send their entire message verbally, paying less attention to body language.

  • Americans are generally very enthusiastic, positive, and effective in their speech.

  • Americans are not very modest as people are expected to speak on their own behalf instead of waiting for someone to tell of their achievements or success.

  • Americans may speak at higher volumes in public spaces, however, they generally do not appreciate loud or emotional outbursts.

  • Americans sometimes grow uncomfortable when social chat is punctuated with long periods of pause or silence and often try to fill the gap in the conversation.

  • Eye contact should be maintained directly. It shows warmth, openness, honesty, and approachability. If you make eye contact with a stranger in passing give a small smile or nod to them, if you do so without smiling or nodding it means you are simply staring or unfriendly and is considered slightly rude.

  • Americans like to be given a fair amount of personal space, so try to make a personal space during a conversation.

  • It is best to nod or show some kind of sign that you are listening throughout a conversation.


Other considerations

  • Do not discuss race, religion, politics, or sex as these are sensitive topics.

  • Don't spit n the streets.

  • 13 is an unlucky number to the superstitious, and therefore some buildings may skip it when numbering floors.

  • In the USA, the date is written as month/day/year. Americans also use U.S. customary units to measure instead of the metric system (i.e. miles instead of kilometers, pounds instead of kilograms).

  • US English varies from British English spelling. The main differences are the use of “ize” instead of “ise” (e.g. organize, realize, criticize). Words ending in “or” instead of “our” (e.g. color, labor, honor), words ending in “er” where British would use “re” (e.g. center, theater, meter), and words ending in “og” instead of “ogue” (e.g. Analog, catalog).

  • Do not assume you can smoke anywhere, even outside.

Tipping

  • Hospitality wages in America are much lower than those in Australia, so waiters, waitresses, and service attendants depend on tips to make their living. 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; if it was so awful that you would never eat there again, you may leave a tip of 2 cents. Doing so shows that you did not forget to tip and were bitterly unimpressed.

  • Taxi drivers, hairdressers, and barbers also expect similar tip percentages.

  • valet parkers only expect about $1 as a tip.