Social Etiquette: USA

Americans are open, gregarious, and hospitable as a race. Their style is generally relaxed, informal, and they are not ones to stand on ceremony. Depending on where you come from, you may find their manner and conversation style refreshing or confronting.

Sense of Space:

People from the Mediterranean, take note. Americans keep a personal space distance of about two feet (roughly arm’s length), so keep your distance when conversing. Likewise, Americans don't like to be touched unless they know you very welll, so keep your hands to yourself. The distance will shorten the more comfortable they are with you, and the better acquainted you become with your American friend.

Appropriate Behavior:

Americans value punctuality, and view lateness as a sign of rudeness. It’s acceptable to arrive up to 15 minutes after the designated time for a meeting or social engagement. A phone call with an apology is warranted if you will be delayed for more than that. Arriving too early is considered just as rude.

Americans only hug and kiss family members and close friends in social occasions, as these are considered intimate gestures. You definitely know you’ve made a friend when an American gives you a backslap or bear hug. When you’ve gotten to know your American friends well, a kiss is given on one cheek. Only lovers kiss on the mouth.

Americans smile. A lot. All the time. Even at strangers. The French, British, Germans, and Russians may find this strange, even at times annoying. However, this is a sign from the Americans that all is well, and they are happy with themselves and the world at that moment in time. Do return the smile. You’ll find that it will lift your day and put you in a different space.  

Americans are fastidious about their personal hygiene. If there are certain things that they won’t tolerate, it’s body odor, unwashed hair, and bad breath. Most Americans will also have a strong reaction to armpit or leg hair on a woman. Whether you shave your body hair or not is entirely your choice. However, if you know that you’ll be doing intense physical exercise, or you are going to sweat profusely, make sure that you shower and throw on some fresh clothes before meeting up with your American friends. And never, EVER forget your deodorant.

Conversation Etiquette:

Being polite is a ‘must’ in the United States. As in Great Britain, saying “please” and “thank you” are very important to the Americans, as are “Pardon me” or “excuse me”, which can be used when they do not understand something or when they bump into someone. Failure to say these words at the appropriate times, or often enough, can lead to someone being perceived as rude.

Americans are great at small talk and social chit chat. In fact, they will more than likely get uncomfortable if someone delves too deeply into a particular topic in a casual encounter. A good rule of thumb is to keep it brief, keep it pleasant, and keep it light.

Having just said to keep it light, Americans can sometimes delve into extremely private matters, or ask extremely personal questions, which can end up making you slightly uncomfortable if you come from a more formal culture. Should this happen, it’s perfectly OK to say “If you don’t mind, I’d rather not discuss it”, or “It’s a little personal.”. The Americans’ openness and transparency gives them an appreciation for direct honesty, so they will not take offense.

Americans may have an open demeanor and be quick with the smiles. However, they say what they mean and mean what they say. “No” always means no. Not ‘maybe’, or ‘perhaps’, or ‘ask me again later’. It means “No, and do not ask again”. Many a Mediterranean or Eastern European can attest to being slapped after not taking ‘no’ for an answer.

When saying goodbye, Americans like to say “see you later” or “let’s catch up”. This is meant to be a pleasantry so DO NOT take it literally or you risk disappointment. Unless a date and time is specified, the invitation isn’t a firm one. Should you want to follow up with your American friend, it’s best that you instigate the next invitation or get-together.

Conversation Taboos:

Americans are, on the whole, more conservative than the British and Australians. Definite conversation taboos include sex, religion, abortion, politics, and racism. Americans are also very patriotic, and are proud of their country and culture. To criticize their government, country, culture, or someone’s patriotism constitutes a major faux pas. You will know if you have crossed that line in no uncertain terms.

Dining Etiquette:

Dinner or lunch at an American home is often a relaxed and informal affair. The food may be served buffet style if the numbers are larger, or platters passed from person to person if the numbers are smaller. With their plethora of sauces, marinades, salads, and grills, Americans have elevated their barbecues, or ‘cookouts’, into an art form.

While Europeans typically eat Continental style, which is the fork on the left hand and the knife on the right, Americans will eat with the hand that they write with, or their dominant hand. It is common for them to cut up their food into bite sized pieces with the fork on the left and knife on the right. Then, they will switch the fork back to the dominant hand, scoop or spear the food with the fork tines facing up, and bring the food up to their mouths. Having said that, eating Continental style is perfectly acceptable.

The napkin (or serviette) is placed on your lap shortly after you are seated, and is kept on your lap all throughout the meal. Do not tuck your napkin under your chin.

Unlike the formal European dining culture, it is perfectly acceptable in the United States to have your hands resting on your lap when you aren’t eating. This is more for comfort than anything else. When you are done eating, simply leave a small amount of food on your plate and leave your fork and knife to the side of your plate.

Gift Giving Etiquette:

Although Americans do not have the tradition of gift giving that, say, the Japanese have, it is customary to bring your host something when you have been invited to their home for lunch or dinner. An exquisite bottle of wine, box of chocolates, or good quality gift from your own country will go down well. Make sure that your gift is well presented and attractively wrapped. Regarding certain colors and flowers, they do not have the cultural taboo in the United States that they do in some countries. 

Enjoy your trip to the USA!

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