Don’t believe all of the stereotypes you may have heard about Americans. Even the ones that are true in general may not be true about specific individuals or a large segment of the population. For example, although Americans tend to be louder and more boisterous than people from other cultures (especially at athletic events), many of the people you meet will be quiet and polite. Some people may be intolerant and xenophobic, but most will be pleasant and welcoming. Remember that American films and television exaggerate in order to generate excitement, and so present a rather distorted picture of what life in the USA is really like. Likewise, tourists are not always on their best behavior.
American culture tends to be more informal than in other countries. It is common for Americans to wear casual clothing to school and to greet professors and bosses by first name. Nevertheless, good manners and politeness are always appropriate. If you are courteous and polite, and dress a little more formally than your American friends, it will only reflect well on you.
However, there are situations and environments in which formality is the norm. Some businesses require their employees to wear a uniform or a suit. It would be inappropriate to wear a T-shirt and blue jeans to a job interview. Some of the more prestigious restaurants require a coat and tie. Americans tend to dress up for cultural events (the opera, theater and ballet) and to dress down for athletic events. Formal wear is required at weddings and funerals, or any other event with religious overtones.
Rid yourself of any preconceived notions of American behavior before you arrive. If you rely on the stereotypes, you will likely put yourself into an awkward and embarrassing situation and offend your American acquaintances. Some of the more common stereotypes of American citizens include:
When two people are talking to each other, they tend to stand a specific distance apart. Each person has an invisible boundary around their body into which other people may not come. If someone pierces this boundary, they will feel uncomfortable and move away to increase the distance between them. (The major exception is family members and other loved ones.) This personal distance is not due to body odor or bad breath, but because closeness lends a sense of intimacy that is at odds with their relationship to the other individual.
Interestingly, the average personal distance varies from culture to culture. Americans tend to require more personal space than in other cultures. So if you try to get too close to an American during your conversation, he or she will feel that you are “in their face” and will try to back away. Try to be aware of this, so if the person to whom you are speaking backs away a little, don’t try to close the gap.
Also, try to avoid physical contact while you are speaking, since this may also lead to discomfort. Touching is a bit too intimate for casual acquaintances. So don’t put your arm around their shoulder, touch their face, or hold their hand. Shaking hands when you initially meet or part is acceptable, but this is only momentary. American names are written and spoken with the given name first and the family name last. So John Smith’s family name is Smith, not John.
In a formal setting, address men as “Mister” (abbreviated as “Mr.”), married women as “Misses” (abbreviated as “Mrs.”), and unmarried women as “Miss” (abbreviated as “Ms.”). These days many women prefer to be addressed using the abbreviations “Ms.” or “M.”, pronounced “miz”. If the person has an M.D. or Ph.D., they will often be addressed as “Doctor” (abbreviated as “Dr.”). Faculty are addressed as “Professor” (abbreviated as “Prof.”).
In an informal situation, Americans will introduce each other by first name, without titles, and occasionally by just the last name. If you are introduced to somebody by first name, you can address him or her by first name the next time you meet. The only exception would be for someone who holds an important position, such as the university president or provost. Unless they tell you otherwise, faculty should be addressed using their title and last name (e.g., “Professor Smith”).
When in doubt, use the formal manner of address, since it is better to err on the side of formality. It is also appropriate to ask how they prefer to be addressed.
Children should always address adults in the formal fashion, using their title and last name.
Americans are much more assertive that most international visitors. They use words as tools to express their opinions and to accomplish goals. Speaking for yourself and attempting to persuade someone to adopt your view are not only not taboo, but expected. The USA has a rather individualistic society, with less social pressure to conform. As a result, you will need to become more assertive and to speak out on your own behalf. Take the initiative and volunteer information that will be of interest. In an interview, talk about your goals and accomplishments. An American idiom expresses this requirement succinctly: If you don’t toot your own horn, who will?
Accordingly, Americans begin a discussion with a focus on accomplishments and concrete facts, and later proceed to the abstract. So you should begin any conversation or proposal with the most important information. Be direct, and reserve the small talk for later. To quote another American idiom, you have to put your best foot forward.
It is ok to criticize someone’s opinion, as long as you are providing constructive criticism.
Eye contact is also important. It is not a sign of disrespect, but instead an indication of openness, honesty, and enthusiasm.
The most important phrase you should learn is “Where can I find a toilet?”. If you need to visit the toilet, nearly any word will do. All of the following words will work: men’s room (women’s room), restroom, lavatory, toilet, bathroom, little boy’s room, potty, head, john, and water closet. The last four are less common, but will probably be understood. The words “loo”, “earth closet”, and “usual offices” will generally not be understood by Americans. The word “outhouse” is understood to mean a toilet located outdoors, such as a portapotty, not the English meaning (farm building). If you ask for the cloakroom, you will be directed to the place where you hang or check coats, not the restroom.
There are no public toilets on the streets in the US. Public toilets can be found in hotels, bars, restaurants, museums, department stores, gas stations, airports, train stations, and bus stations. Some businesses may reserve their restrooms for the use of their patrons.
In many airports, toilets and urinals do not have a flush handle, but instead flush automatically when an infrared sensor determines that you have left. If you don’t see anything that looks like a flush handle, step away from the toilet and see if it flushes after a few seconds.
Restaurants do not include a service charge in the bill, so you should tip the waiter 15% of the total bill. If service was slow or particularly bad, some Americans will tip only 10%. Likewise, if service was particularly good, it is appropriate to tip 20%. If service was so bad that you would never eat in the restaurant again, leave two cents. This is a deliberate insult, because it tells the waiter that you didn’t forget to leave a tip. Tipping is only appropriate in restaurants which offer table service. You do not tip the cashier in a fast food restaurant.
The words “tip” and “gratuity” are used interchangeably, with “gratuity” having a slightly more formal connotation.
Taxi drivers expect to get a tip equal to 15% of the total fare. If the driver was especially helpful or got you to your destination more quickly than you expected, give a 20% tip.
Hotel bellhops expect a $1 tip for helping you with your bags. If you order room service, the gratuity is included in the bill. Coat checkroom attendants expect $1 per coat. Hairdressers and barbers expect a tip of 15% of the bill. Valet parking attendants expect a $1 tip.
Federal regulations prohibit letter carriers from accepting cash gifts in any amount, or gifts worth $20 or more from customers.
If you are in doubt, ask whether it is appropriate to tip or whether a gratuity is included in the bill.
Bribery is not considered appropriate and often illegal. Attempting to bribe a policeman will certainly get you arrested.
Americans often plan social gatherings on short notice, so don’t be surprised if you get invited to someone’s home or to see a movie or baseball game without much warning. If the time is convenient for you, by all means accept their invitation. But if you are busy, do not be afraid to decline the invitation, perhaps suggesting a time that would be better. Your host will not be insulted.
If a friend has invited you to drop by anytime, it is best to call before visiting to make sure it is convenient for them. Do not stay too long, since you do not want to overstay your welcome.
Invitations are usually issued in person or over the telephone. The main exception is for receptions and other formal occasions, in which case a written invitation will be mailed. You would normally receive a written invitation to a wedding or a bar mitzvah.
For a casual dinner invitation, do not arrive more than 5 minutes early, because your host may still be preparing for your visit. Arriving more than 10 minutes late is considered rude if very few people were invited. If many people were invited, it is ok to arrive a little late, even as much as half an hour late. For example, it is ok to arrive late for a party, for a potluck dinner or for a social gathering involving a large group of people. The main consideration is whether there are enough people in the group so that your late arrival will not be noticed.
At a party, don’t be surprised if you are asked what you do for a living. This is a normal opening line of conversation, and not an insult.
If you are invited for dinner, it is appropriate to bring the host a bottle of wine, a gift basket of fruit, a box of candy, or a small potted plant or bouquet of flowers. Do not bring roses, as they have a more intimate connotation; men often give roses to women on a date.
If you wish to thank the host for his or her hospitality, it is appropriate to call or send a brief written thank you note the next day.
Business visits, on the other hand, tend to be extremely punctual. If you arrive late to a business appointment, it will reflect badly on you. So try to arrive on time, or even a little early. If you know that you will be arriving late, you should telephone ahead to let them know of the delay.
If a business meeting takes place over a meal, expect the business discussions to begin after everyone has ordered their meal, sometimes as soon as everyone is seated. Socializing tends to occur after the business is concluded, not before. This is in contrast with the practice in many other countries, where the purpose of the meal is to socialize with and get to know each other before any business is discussed.
Many American companies have women in management positions. So don’t be surprised if the person who meets you is a woman, not a man. They are just as competent (if not more so) than their male counterparts. If you feel uncomfortable, focus on the business at hand and ignore the fact that she happens to be a woman. Do not, however, ask personal questions as you might with a male colleague. In particular, do not ask whether she is married or has children. Do not flirt with her, refer to body parts, ask her out on a date, or make suggestive or sexual remarks.
When businessmen or businesswomen meet, they usually introduce themselves by shaking right hands. When you shake hands, don’t crush their fingers, but also don’t hold their hand too lightly. A firm handshake is best.
Business cards are not normally exchanged upon meeting. If you need a colleague’s contact information, it is ok to ask them for their card. It is also ok to offer someone your card. But there is not an elaborate ritual of exchanging cards as in other cultures.
US business ethics preclude the acceptance of payments to sweeten the deal.
Proper business attire is extremely important in the US. If you dress inappropriately for an interview, for example, your chances of getting the position are significantly reduced.
Ask your American friends or professors for help in selecting a good set of business clothes. You can also ask the sales staff at the more expensive stores, such as Ann Taylor, Brooks Brothers, or Saks 5th Avenue, for advice. Even if you later buy your clothing at Sears or Caldor, it will give you a good sense of what is appropriate attire.
Men should have at least one suit, consisting of a coat and conservative tie with a white button-down shirt. Dark suit colors, such as navy blue, black, or dark gray, are best. The tie should match the suit and not be flashy. A geometric pattern with red, gray, black, and white elements is best.
Women’s clothing is more difficult to describe. The goal is to achieve a conservative and professional look. Straight lines and dark colors are preferred.
When you call someone, it is polite to identify yourself. For example, if your name is John Smith and you were calling Robert Chen, you would say “Hello, this is John Smith. May I speak to Robert Chen, please?”.
When you answer the phone, it is ok to answer just “Hello”. After your caller introduces himself, you would say one of the following:
It is not polite to call someone before 9 am or after 10 pm, unless it is an emergency. The only exception would be if he or she told you it is ok to call earlier or later.
Most Americans eat three meals during the day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast begins between 7:00 and 8:00 am, lunch between 11:00 am and noon, and dinner between 6:00 and 8:00 pm. On Sundays “brunch” is a combination of breakfast and lunch, typically beginning at 11:00 am. Students often enjoy a “study break” or evening snack around 10:00 or 11:00 pm.
Breakfast and lunch tend to be light meals, with only one course. Dinner is the main meal.
For breakfast Americans will eat cereal with milk (often mixed together in a bowl), a glass of orange juice, and toasted bread or muffin with jam, butter, or margarine. Another common breakfast meal is scrambled eggs or an omelet with potatoes (hash browns) and breakfast meat (bacon or sausage). People who are eating light might eat just a cup of yogurt. Lunch and dinner are more varied.
When eating at a formal dinner, you may be overwhelmed by the number of utensils. How do you tell the difference between a salad fork, a butter fork, and a dessert fork? Most Americans don’t know the answer either (it’s the number of tines or prongs on the fork). But knowing which fork or spoon to use first is simple: use the outermost utensils first and the utensils closest to the plate last.
If you are invited to a wedding, baby shower, bar mitzvah, or other celebration, it is expected that you will bring a gift. Unless you know the host very well, the gift should be modest in value, about $25.
For a wedding, the bride will have “registered” at one or two local department stores, indicating the items and styling she prefers. You can buy the couple a gift that isn’t listed, but most people buy something listed on the registry. If you buy an item listed on the registry, be sure to tell the store that you are doing this, so that the couple doesn’t receive duplicate gifts. For a baby shower, bring a gift appropriate for a newborn baby. For a bar mitzvah, bring a gift appropriate for a 13-year-old boy. Bar Mitzvah gifts tend to be more formal in nature. For example, a gold-plated Cross pen is quite common. Personalizing the pen by engraving the recipient’s full name will be appreciated.
If you wish to give a gift when you leave to return to your home country, the best gift is something that is unique to your country. It does not need to be especially valuable or rare, just reminiscent of your home. Possibilities include a book about your country, an inexpensive handicraft or piece of art, or something else that reflects your culture. If the children collect coins and stamps, they would be very pleased with a set of your country’s coins or a selection of mint stamps from your country. Items that are common in your country but difficult to find in the USA are also good.
If you owe a debt of deep gratitude to an American host family, a common way of repaying it is to take the family to a form of entertainment, such as a baseball, basketball, or hockey game, the ballet, or to a good restaurant.
When giving gifts to a business acquaintance, do not give anything of a personal nature, especially to a woman. Do not give cosmetics. A scarf is ok, but other types of clothing are not. Something appropriate for the office is best. But gift giving is not as important in America as it is in other countries, so there is nothing wrong with not giving a gift.
If you need help selecting a gift, talk to a salesperson at a department store. Tell them about the person who will be receiving the gift and the reason for the gift, and they will help you find something appropriate and within your budget.
Smoking has become socially unacceptable in the US, in part due to the health risks. Smoking is prohibited in government and public buildings, and many businesses, especially restaurants, will not permit smoking on the premises. Those restaurants that permit smoking will usually have a separate section for customers who smoke. Your school probably has a ban on smoking within campus buildings or near building entrances.
Tobacco products may not be sold to anyone under 18 years old, and federal law requires stores to ask to see a photo ID for anyone under 27 years old.
If you are a guest in someone’s home, you should ask whether it is ok to smoke before lighting up. If there are no ashtrays in the house, it is a good sign that smoking is not acceptable.
Smoking on airplane flights within the USA is prohibited. There are severe penalties for smoking on an airplane or in an airplane lavatory. Smoking is also prohibited on interstate trains and buses.
Smoking is prohibited on public transportation, including buses and trolleys.
Smoking around children is inappropriate. Buying cigarettes for a child, or giving a child a cigarette is illegal.
It is extremely impolite to blow smoke in someone’s face.
If you are smoking and someone coughs, it is often a polite way of asking you to extinguish the cigarette.
To wave goodbye or hello to someone, raise your hand and wave it from side to side, not front to back. Wave the whole hand, not just the fingers. Waving the hand front to back or the fingers up and down means “no”, “stop”, or “go away”. Holding your hand up with the palm facing forward but no movement means “stop”. Holding your hand with the palm toward your body and wagging the fingers toward the body means “come here”. Holding your hand with the palm up with all fingers curled and repeated curling and uncurling the index finger means “come here”.
If you want to point at an object, extend the index finger and use it to point at the object. It is not polite to point at people.
If you want the waiter to bring the check, make a writing gesture with one hand as the pen and the other hand as the paper. If you just want the waiter to come, make eye contact and raise your hand.
Shaking your head from side to side means no. Shaking your head up and down means yes.
Never show your fist with the middle finger extended. This is an insult. Shaking a closed fist at someone is also rude, especially if it is in their face, and is an expression of anger.
Although showing your fist with the thumb up or your open hand with the tips of the thumb and index fingers together forming an “O” means “ok”, this is an overused stereotype. Americans understand this gesture, but it is mainly used by actors in movies, not in real life.
It is not polite to pick your nose or chew your fingernails in public. Likewise, it is not polite to pick your teeth (with or without a toothpick) in public.
Patting a woman on her rear end is not appropriate, and will likely get your face slapped.
Winking at a woman is also inappropriate because of the flirtatious nature of the gesture. In other circumstances a wink will signal amusement or that the speaker is kidding. Because of the potential for misinterpretation, winking should be avoided.
When smiling, it is normal to bare your teeth, so long as the facial expression still looks like a smile, not a grimace.
It is not polite to burp in public or to slurp your soup.
It is not appropriate to play loud music or otherwise disturb the peace late at night. If your stereo is loud enough that your neighbors can hear it, it is too loud.
In the USA, the number 13 is symbolic of bad luck. Tall office buildings sometimes skip the number 13 when numbering the floors.
The number 7 is symbolic of good luck.
The word trillion means a 1 followed by 12 zeros, a British billion. The word billion means a 1 followed by 9 zeros, a British milliard.
A period is used to indicate a decimal point, not a comma. A comma is used to separate groups of three digits in large numbers, thus “$1,232.52”.
In the USA, dates are written as month/day/year. This is the opposite of the British method, 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. It is best to write out dates using the month name in order to avoid confusion.
Temperatures are most often reported in Fahrenheit, and occasionally also in Celsius. To convert Fahrenheit to Celsius, subtract 32 and multiply the result by 5/9. The following table lists a few common temperatures:
|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||very cold winter day|
Climate varies considerably across the USA. You will probably need an umbrella, even in Las Vegas or Los Angeles. In the northern cities, such as Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, Seattle, Washington, Denver, and Minneapolis you will need cold weather and snow gear. In the southern states, such as California and Florida, summers may be very hot and the winters mild. Depending on the part of the country, temperatures during the summer will run from the 70s through the 90s.
No matter where you are in the US, you will probably need a sweater or jacket for part of the year. If you will be living in an area that gets snow, you will need a good winter coat, boots, and gloves. If the coat does not include a hood, you will need a hat that covers your ears. But all this can wait until after you arrive in the US. Clothing is relatively inexpensive in the US, and it may be easier to find appropriate clothing at your destination. Wait until you arrive, and watch what the natives wear.
The USA has four main time zones: Pacific Standard Time (PST), Mountain Standard Time (MST), Central Standard Time (CST), and Eastern Standard Time (EST). When it is 9:00 am in California (PST) it is 10:00 am in Denver (MST), 11:00 am in Chicago (CST), and 12:00 noon in New York (EST). Alaska is one hour earlier than California, and Hawaii is two hours earlier. Puerto Rico is in the Atlantic Standard Time zone, one hour after New York. Guam is fourteen hours after New York. If you are on the east coast of the USA and calling someone on the west coast, they are probably still asleep at 9:00 am your time. If you are on the west coast and calling someone on the east coast, they are probably eating dinner at 4:00 pm your time.
The following table lists the states that occur in each time zone. States that span two time zones are italicized.
|Eastern||Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia|
|Central||Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin|
|Mountain||Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wyoming|
|Pacific||California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Washington|
The following table lists the number of hours ahead or behind Eastern Standard Time for cities around the world. Add the number to Eastern Standard Time to arrive at the time in the named city, or subtract it from the time in the named city to obtain Eastern Standard Time.
|City||Time Delta||City||Time Delta||City||Time Delta|
|Ho Chi Minh City||+13||Hong Kong||+13||Istanbul||+7|
|Quebec||+0||Rio de Janeiro||+2||Riyadh||+8|
|Rome||+6||St. Petersburg||+8||San Juan||+1|
During Daylight Savings Time clocks are set forward one hour. It begins on the first Sunday in April and ends on the last Sunday in October. The mnemonic “Spring Forward, Fall Back” will help you remember how to set your clocks. Not every state conforms to Daylight Savings Time; for example, Indiana and Guam never change their clocks.
The American calendar is filled with numerous holidays. The following table shows some of the more popular holidays. Important national holidays have been indicated in bold face. Most non-essential government offices will be closed on these days. (Fire, Ambulance and Police are always open.) Banks and post offices also tend to be closed on these days, and many businesses will give their employees the day off.
|New Year’s Day||January 1|
|Martin Luther King, Jr. Day||Third Monday in January|
|Ground Hog Day||February 2|
|Valentine’s Day||February 14|
|President’s Day||Third Monday in February|
|St. Patrick’s Day||March 17|
|April Fool’s Day||April 1|
|Patriots Day||Third Monday in April|
|Good Friday||Friday before Easter Sunday|
|Mother’s Day||Second Sunday in May|
|Memorial Day||Last Monday in May|
|Flag Day||June 14|
|Father’s Day||Third Sunday in June|
|Independence Day||July 4|
|Labor Day||First Monday in September|
|Columbus Day||Second Monday in October|
|Election Day||Tuesday after the first Monday in November
Federal holiday in years divisible by 4
|Veterans Day||November 11|
|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.
|The USA still uses the English system of weights and measures. The metric system is available, but people think quarts and inches, not liters and centimeters. The following charts convert between the English and metric systems for the most commonly used measures.
Most electrical outlets in the USA operate with a voltage of 110-120 volts, 60 cycles. If your equipment requires 220 volts, bring a transformer and plug adapter.
Videotapes recorded on foreign VCRs will not necessarily play correctly on American VCRs.
If you’re thinking of buying a computer to bring with you, you may wish to wait until after you arrive in the USA to get a computer. Computer and software prices are often less expensive in the US, and getting cheaper every day.
The USA Constitution guarantees religious freedom for all faiths. You will almost certainly be able to find a church, synagogue, or mosque near school for people of your faith.
Freedom of religion also means that you’re likely to be solicited by religious groups who want to invite you to their church. Some of these groups can be quite aggressive. There are also a few cults that prey on college students. Avoid them, as they can be extremely seductive. If you are approached by a recruiter for a cult or religious group, do not make eye contact, do not engage in conversation, and keep walking. They will often ask you a rhetorical question to open the conversation, such as “Do you believe in god?”. Either ignore them, or respond with something that will fluster them enough to let you get past, such as “only on Tuesdays and Thursdays”. Even if you’re interested in their particular brand of religion, it is best for you to seek out the local churches on your own.
Your city may have an organization that tries to help international visitors during their stay in the USA and to help familiarize them with American customs. Some of the services typically offered include matching you with a host family who will spend an evening with you, tours of the city, visits to factories and businesses, and social events. They might also offer English lessons and holiday hospitality.
Ask your friends and colleagues whether the city has such an organization, or look in the yellow pages.