Anytime you move, you’ll face changes. But when you move abroad, even temporarily, the culture will be different too. But don’t base your expectations about the USA on tv shows and movies, since they tend to exaggerate characters or lifestyles, and aren’t exactly known to be accurate. So everything you think you know about life in the USA, take lightly. Here’s our guide – and it should be used to guide you, not as the final word – to cultural and societal norms you should know as an international student in the USA.
Don’t believe all the American stereotypes you may have heard – only some of them are true! American culture tends to be more informal than other countries. It’s common for Americans to wear casual clothing to school and isn’t uncommon to call supervisors by their first name. But good manners
and politeness are always appropriate, and if you’re more formal than your American friends then at least you’ll be memorable.
Some of the more common stereotypes of Americans include:
Americans tend to require more personal space than in some other cultures. So if you try to get too close during a conversation, the person you’re talking to may feel that you’re in their personal space and will try to back away. If that happens, don’t try to close the gap and continue to discuss the weather from slightly further away.
Touching is a bit too intimate for casual acquaintances in the USA. Unless and until you have a close friendship with someone, try to avoid physical contact such as holding their hand or touching their face. If you think you’re close enough friends to touch them, check first if they’re ok with it – some may not feel the same as you, some may be afraid of germs, and some may want to do a secret handshake.
Pretty much the only exception is shaking hands, which is usually done when meeting and leaving others in a business or otherwise formal setting.
Forms of Address
American full names are written and spoken in the order of first name and then last name. So, using the most generic English name as an example, John Smith’s first name is John and his last name is Smith. In a formal setting, men are usually referred to as Mr. (pronounced “mister”) followed by their last name; married women usually go by Mrs. (pronounced “misses”) and single women by Miss, both followed by their last name. If the person has an M.D. or Ph.D., they will usually be addressed as “Dr.” (pronounced “doctor”), especially if you’re meeting with them for medical or professional advice. Many, but not all, of your instructors in school should be referred to as “Professor.”
In a casual setting – in fact, probably in most settings – most people introduce themselves with, and are addressed as, just their first name.
These forms of address are by no means official or mandatory, and can change depending on the person’s preference or the local culture. In many Southern states, for example, people use Mr. or Miss followed by first names to show respect.
Many people are also becoming more flexible in their gender definitions, and may ask you to refer to them with names or titles that are different to the ones listed above or to what you’d expect. Be respectful of their requests.
Americans can be much more assertive than most international visitors. Don’t be offended if someone says something that you find direct, and feel free to be direct back to them.
Making eye contact while talking to someone is often a big deal, and it can be considered disrespectful to avoid doing so.
It’s not polite to burp in public, to loudly slurp your soup, or to generally make loud and avoidable noises.
It is not polite to pick your nose or your teeth (with or without a toothpick) in public.
In general, follow the golden rule: Treat others as you would want to be treated. Especially in a business, professional, or educational setting but also for anyone who’s not a close friend, don’t make sexual or suggestive comments, don’t touch anyone other than a handshake, and try to have neutral (rather than personal) conversations.
The most important phrase you should learn is, “Where’s the bathroom?” “Bathroom” is the word used most often in the USA, but ironically we don’t use the word “toilet” to refer to the general room (though if you use it everyone will know what you mean). Sometimes the word “restroom” is used for more formal situations or in public venues such as a restaurant or store, but there’s no official rule.
If you’re out having fun and need the bathroom, you might not find one easily on your commute as there aren’t so many public bathrooms available. Restaurants, bars, gas stations, and stores may have bathrooms, but they also sometimes decide that only customers can use them. So plan ahead!
One of the biggest cultural aspects of life in the USA is tipping. In almost every situation where someone helps you with a service – a waiter, a hairdresser, a taxi driver, a bartender, a masseuse, etc. – Americans provide a small tip on top of the total cost of their bill. Though there’s no mandatory amount, most people pay a tip that’s approximately 15 to 20 percent of their bill, or in some cases a dollar or two per service.
Knowing when and how much to tip is tricky even for lifelong American citizens, so don’t be shy about asking your friends or the person doing the work what’s appropriate. Here are two important facts about tipping that might help you be less confused: Tips are usually automatically calculated and included on your bill if you’re somewhere with 6 or more people, and “gratuity” (sometimes printed on a receipt) is a fancy word for “tip.”
A final piece of advice: Bribery is not tipping, and is instead often illegal.
If you’re one of those people who’s always running late, you’ll need to find a way to change that for meetings, doctor’s appointments, and formal events. In the USA, it’s preferred that you’re either on time or a few minutes early for the stated meeting time. Arriving very early can be disruptive to
someone else’s schedule, and arriving more than a couple minutes late is both disruptive and considered rude. If you’re running late, though, make sure to contact the person you’re meeting to let them know so they can make adjustments to their schedule.
In a more casual situation with a small number of people, it’s still best to arrive within a timeframe of approximately 5 minutes early to 5 minutes late. But for a big party at someone’s house, for example, your timing can be much more flexible. Essentially, your timing should take into consideration if there enough people in the group or at the meeting that your late arrival won’t be noticed.
Sometimes Americans are considered to be casual dressers, though styles can differ depending on the city or town. But that’s usually for casual situations, such as running errands or meeting friends, or general times like weekends and vacations. In a business or professional setting, or for special occasions such as a wedding, you should dress more formally. In fact, if you dress too casually for a job interview, for example, your chances of getting the position are significantly reduced.
There are numerous definitions of how to dress formally, but here are a couple guidelines: In general, for a business setting, men should wear suits or nice pants (“trousers” to some UK-derived English speakers) with a button-down shirt. Women can wear a suit (with either pants or a skirt on the bottom), a dress, or nice pants or a skirt with a blouse. Unless a company explicitly says so, jeans should not be worn in professional settings. In general, for a special event, men have pretty much the same options as professional wear or can get even fancier by wearing a tuxedo, while women tend to wear dresses. But, within reason, dress in your own style!
Most Americans eat three meals during the day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Specific timing for these meals vary by schedule and family, but generally breakfast is eaten sometime between 7 and 8 am and lunch is eaten sometime between 12 and 2 pm. What time do Americans eat dinner? Usually sometime between 6 and 8 pm, and it’s considered the main meal…even if we’ve eaten snacks throughout the day.
One of Americans’ favorite pastimes is brunch, which combines breakfast and lunch and typically includes breakfast-ish foods, and is usually eaten on a weekend or other days with a flexible schedule.
If you’re invited to a wedding, baby shower, religious event, or other celebration, it’s expected that you bring a gift (or send one ahead of time). Often, hosts of big events will supply guests with a registry of gifts they’d like to receive so that you don’t have to guess if they’ll like something. If there’s no registry, you can give money or a gift, but the amount of money spent and appropriateness of the gift varies greatly.
An important point to keep telling yourself: In the USA, there’s not really a gift-giving culture. Gifts are certainly appreciated but are not always required, and are definitely not done as part of an elaborate ritual. If you’re unsure about what to give or how much to give, or even if you should give, ask a friend.
In the USA, you must be at least 18 years old to buy cigarettes, and buying them for someone under 18 is illegal. Plus, each pack you buy will be taxed at a high rate, so you’ll have to add the cost to your budget. Though specific laws about where you are prohibited from smoking vary by state and city, it’s common that smoking is banned in restaurants and bars, parks and beaches, hospitals and other medical facilities, schools, and office buildings. There are also laws against smoking on public transportation such
as buses and subways as well as on all airplanes.
Gestures vary all over the world, and we don’t you to be offended or to offend someone else simply because you’re using a gesture from your home country. Some of the main gestures used in the USA are in the image below, but here are additional pointers (pun intended!):
It’s fine to point at an object or location, but it’s not polite to point at people.
Shaking your head from side to side means no, while shaking your head up and down means yes.
If you want the waiter to bring the check, make a gesture with your hand as if you’re writing something. If you just want the waiter to come over, make eye contact and raise your hand.
Never show your fist with the middle finger extended, since it’s a big an insult. Shaking a closed fist at someone is also rude, especially if it’s in their face, and is understood to be an expression of anger.
The peace sign has positive connotations, and is signaled by making your index and middle finger into a V and closing your other fingers. However, your palm must face the other person – this is very important, as in the UK and other countries the same V, using the same fingers, is considered is
extremely rude when your palm faces you.
A period is used to indicate a decimal point, instead of the comma used in some countries. This also applies to amounts of money. So you’d see $1,243.68 when checking your bank balance.
In the USA, dates are written as month/day/year. This is the opposite of the UK method (used in most countries around the world), in which dates are written day/month/year. So while 4/3/67 would be March 4, 1967 in Europe, it is April 3, 1967 in the USA. To avoid confusing everyone, we recommend
writing out the months whenever possible.
Even though it’s the opposite of pretty much everyone else in the rest of the world, temperatures in the USA are written in Fahrenheit. The tricky math equation used to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius is to subtract 32 from the temperature and then multiply the result by 5/9, but we acknowledge that you’re very unlikely to do math when the internet can convert for you.
For simplicity’s sake, here some simple conversions that will at least help you estimate Celsius if your phone battery dies:
|212||100||Boiling point of water|
|98.6||37||Normal body temperature|
|86||30||Very hot summer day|
|68||20||Mild spring day|
|50||10||Warm winter day|
|32||0||Freezing point of water|
|20||-7||Extremely cold winter day|
The American calendar is filled with numerous holidays, some of which are almost always days off for most office workers, banks, post offices, and government offices. If those holidays, listed below, fall on a Tuesday or Thursday, it’s up to each company to decide if the Monday or Friday should be days off as well (to make a long weekend). There are several other holidays that are either considered not important enough for every office to close (e.g., Veteran’s Day, on November 11), are simply noted and ignored (e.g., Flag Day, on June 14), or are celebrated on a Sunday and do not affect office schedules (e.g., Mother’s Day).
Even though the USA technically follows a separation of Church and State, and is therefore not supposed to connect religious holidays with anything official, you’ll see that Christian holidays are the only religious holidays where everything is closed. Though some offices are closed on the day of Christmas Eve (December 24), there is no Boxing Day in the USA and offices will be open on December 26.
Depending on the local population, some school systems may be closed for important holidays of other religions. This is great if you’ve brought your kids with you to the USA, but make sure to check the school calendar before making plans.
|New Year’s Day||January 1|
|Martin Luther King, Jr. Day||Third Monday in January|
|President’s Day||Third Monday in February|
|Memorial Day||Last Monday in May|
|Independence Day||July 4|
|Labor Day||First Monday in September|
|Thanksgiving||Fourth Thursday in November|
|Christmas Day||December 25|
It is also important to be aware of the holidays of people of other religious faiths. For example, important Jewish holidays include Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkoth, Chanukah, and Passover. Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and Sukkoth occur in the fall. Chanukah occurs in December, near Christmas. Passover occursin March or April, near Easter.
Weights and Measures
Just like with temperature, Americans follow their own rules and don’t use the same measuring system as the rest of the world. Use the following guidelines to help you figure out some basic conversions.
|1 inch = 2.54 centimeters (cm)||1 centimeter = 0.39 inches (in)||1 foot = 12 inches|
|1 foot = 0.305 meters (m)||1 yard = 3 feet (ft)||1 meter = 3.28 feet|
|1 mile = 1.61 kilometers (km)||1 gallon = 3.7854 liters (L)|
|1 ounce = 28.35 grams (g)||1 gram = 0.035 ounces (oz)||1 pound = 16 ounces|
|1 pound = 0.4536 kilograms (kg)||1 kilogram = 2.2046 pounds (lb)|
|1 liter = 0.2642 gallons (gal)||1 liter = 0.2642 gallons (gal)||1 teaspoon = 5 ml|
Most electrical outlets in the USA operate with a voltage of 110-120 volts. If your equipment requires 220 volts, bring a transformer and plug adapter.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees religious freedom for all faiths. Even though the calendar is based on, and works with, Christian holidays, you are able to follow any religion you want without repercussions. In fact, there is a law saying just that: You cannot be discriminated against based on religion, and adjustments should be made in situations that prevent your religious practice.