Foreign visitors to the United States come to the country to see famous cities and natural wonders. More than 30 million people per year travel from far-flung locations to American soil. Some come to visit relatives and friends. Others are purely tourists, interested in absorbing the culture of one of the most powerful and famous countries in the world.
The United States is known for embracing people and customs of many cultures within its borders. In fact, so many people from other countries immigrate to the United States, it is often referred to as a “melting pot” of culture.
Foreign travelers to the US who are aware of the country’s diverse ethnicities might believe it’s a place where anything goes. By some measures, this is true. However, foreign visitors are often surprised to find out there are subtle cultural expectations and unwritten rules that must be followed in order to be perceived as a polite and respectable visitor.
Travel guidebooks often attempt to analyze these unwritten rules. Some of the books are more successful at this than others. Outdated books often share advice about traveling in the U.S. that no longer applies. Online sources, in some cases, provide better up-to-date cultural rules.
It’s okay to ask advice about culture when visiting the U.S.
The best advice may be to follow the lead of your American hosts. If you are not visiting family members or friends in the United States, it is perfectly acceptable to ask advice of anyone you encounter during your trip. For example, you can ask drivers, servers, store clerks and others to explain the country’s cultural expectations– especially those related to the service you are receiving.
Hotels often have concierge desks, where you can not only ask about interesting places to visit, but you also can obtain advice about etiquette, customs, and culture.
A few of the most common do’s and don’ts for traveling to the U.S. from foreign countries:
Do tip servers in restaurants. Many countries do not have a custom of tipping servers in restaurants . The United States has an unwritten rule that customers in restaurants share the cost of the servers’ labor. Servers often are paid a minimal hourly amount, with the expectation that customers will add a tip of 20% to the bill. Some customers pay a higher tip for exceptional service, but it can be considered cruel to pay a lower tip for so-so service. It is also customary to tip others who provide services, such as bellmen and taxi drivers.
Do be on time. In some countries around the world, an agreed-upon time for an event or meeting friends is only a guideline. In the United States, when a time is agreed upon it is generally expected all participants will arrive no later than 10 or 15 minutes after the agreed-upon time.
Do be discreet about politics. The political scene in the United States can be very volatile, depending on who you are talking to and what area of the country you are in. It’s not taboo to discuss politics, but it is important to make an effort not to offend your hosts or their friends– easy to do if you throw around your own opinions casually. It’s best to ask how people feel, rather than telling them how you feel.
Do obey all traffic signs and laws. Some countries’ laws are understood to be simply guidelines to help things run or smoothly. In the United States, laws are taken seriously, and if the laws are broken you could find yourself facing legal problems. If in doubt, ask someone about the laws in the city, county or state you are visiting.
Don’t smoke in undesignated areas. More than half of the states in the U.S. have local laws prohibiting smoking in public. Some cities prohibit smoking anywhere indoors. Because each state and city is different, it’s important to ask someone where smoking is allowed, if you are a smoker.
Don’t try to speak like an American. In the United States, you will be respected for your own mannerisms and personality. It’s not necessary to try to fit in by using American slang, taking on American habits or showing off your knowledge of American culture. In fact, if you attempt to do these things, it can be offensive and embarrassing.
Don’t make noises when you eat. In some countries, it’s okay and even expected to make slurping noises, burp or engage in loud conversation during meals. In the United States, the exact opposite is true.
Don’t get too close to people you don’t know well. Americans are somewhat formal when it comes to personal space. Most do not practice cheek kissing and, although hugs are okay in many situations, it usually is not appropriate to hug strangers or people you only know through others.
Don’t overstay your visa. Other countries may be lenient about this, but the United States takes it seriously. Many people try to get into the United States illegally, and not following the rules could land you in legal trouble.
If you follow most rules and make an effort to be sensitive to cultural habits of Americans, then you can relax and enjoy your adventure in the United States.