American Social Customs
Americans are generally friendly, and interested in the culture of their international guests. They are also casual and informal. We hope that the following outline of social customs will help you to understand some of the expectations or interactions you may encounter. Do not hesitate to ask questions about such customs and social practices!
When you say “Hello” to someone, he or she may answer “Hello, how are you?” or “Hey, how's it going?” This is a common expression and you do not have to explain how you are really feeling. In the same manner, Americans often say farewell by saying “See you later,” which does not mean that they are definitely planning to visit you or that you should show up at their house without calling first.
Americans usually shake hands when they first meet, especially in a formal or business environment. If they see each other often, many will skip the handshake. A firm grip is common among men, though a man will usually shake hands with a woman only when she offers her hand. Men and women who know each other well may sometimes give a hug or kiss on the cheek when greeting or saying good-bye.
In general, Americans appreciate punctuality when you have arranged to meet for dinner or lunch, for medical and business appointments, or in a public place. If the hours are stated on an invitation, you can arrive anytime within those hours, and leave at any time after a reasonable stay. Arrive at least ten to fifteen minutes early for cultural or sporting events.
Americans tend to celebrate many holidays marking historical, cultural, and religious events. Some are very formal or somber, while others are silly and fun. During certain national holidays, government offices, banks, and other businesses will be closed. For a list of common celebrations, please see our list of Common US Holidays.
Written invitations should be answered in writing, unless a telephone number is given. When no answer is expected, the invitation will not have the letters “RSVP” written on it. If the invitation is made over the phone, be sure to understand the date, the day of the week, the time, and the place. If your children are not mentioned when you are invited to dinner, they are not expected to come with you. If you wish to bring them, it is all right to ask. If the children are not invited, you should arrange for a baby sitter or decline the invitation.
Home Visits & Gifts
An invitation to an American home will give you a chance to see American family life. Most American households do not have domestic help, so it is courteous to offer your help to your hosts. Unless the host or hostess says otherwise, do not begin eating until he or she is seated at the table. If you have any dietary restrictions, do not hesitate to say so beforehand. You do not have to bring a gift when you are invited to dinner, except on special occasions, like a birthday or holiday. If you are staying overnight, candy, wine, flowers or a small gift from your home country is a nice gesture of thanks.
In addition to paying for products and services, many Americans will also offer a small gratuity to certain service workers. While leaving a tip is voluntary, it has become expected in some industries and it is considered rude not to leave a tip (unless service was very bad). Depending on the type and quality of service, a usual tip will range between 10% and 20% of the total bill, before any tax is included. Tipping is most common in restaurants, bars, hotels, and taxis. For large groups, gratuity may be automatically included in your bill, so look carefully before leaving an additional amount. Some industries are legally forbidden from accepting tips, such as government workers.