Behavior Expectations and Taboos
Although American culture is generally relaxed and open, international students and scholars are sometimes surprised to learn that there are some behaviors that are acceptable and others that are considered inappropriate or taboo.
- Greetings: The most common greeting is a firm handshake for men and women. Close friends and relatives may embrace or kiss lightly on one cheek. Smiling, especially upon greeting someone, is customary. It is common for Americans to say hello with a quick, Hi, How are you? This is intended as more of a quick greeting rather than a true question. An appropriate response might be - Fine thanks, How are you?
- Friendliness and politeness are valued. Saying please and thank-you are taught to children from an early age.
- Not looking at someone when they talk to you is considered strange. Direct eye contact with people at all levels of authority is valued but avoid staring at someone for long periods of time
- Invitations: An invitation to a party or an event will often be delivered verbally in a very casual manner. Don’t expect a written invitation except for weddings and other very special events. If you are interested in going to a party, and don’t have all of the details, such as the time and location, it is customary to phone, text, or email the host of the party to get more information.
- Timeliness: Lateness is frowned upon. If you are unavoidably late, call ahead if possible for appointments, dinner invitations, or social meetings. Arrival time is more relaxed for larger social events like parties and receptions for which you may arrive a bit later.
- Gifts: In general, gift-giving is not common in the U.S. culture except for special events like birthdays, weddings, new baby showers, and some holidays. If you are invited to someone’s house for dinner or a party, it is fine to bring a bottle of wine, cake, or other small gift. Americans are not comfortable with large expensive gifts but may appreciate a small token or sweets that come from your home country.
- Table Manners: In general, Americans value neat eating habits without making noise. Do not chew with your mouth open. Belching loudly in public is considered rude. Do not pick your teeth or your nose in public. Differences in table etiquette across cultures can be complex. You will find more information in a western etiquette guide.
- Cover your mouth if you cough. Use a tissue to blow your nose.
- Smoking is against the law in most public places. Most people do not allow smoking in their homes or cars.
- Littering is not appropriate and is often subject to a fine. Place trash and other disposed items in the appropriate trash or recycling receptacles.
- Gestures: Sticking your middle finger up is considered an insulting gesture. Remember that gestures that are considered rude in your country may not be offensive in the U.S.