Immersing yourself in a new environment and culture can be exciting. However, it can be challenging at the same time since American culture and way of life will vary—possibly dramatically—from your home country. Here are a few insights to help ease your transition.
The average personal distance that people maintain from each other varies from culture to culture. In general, Americans tend to require more personal space. If you find a friend or colleague stepping back from you during a conversation, don’t try to close the gap. That person is probably just reestablishing his or her comfortable personal space. It is also best to avoid physical contact (touching an arm or hand or placing an arm around a shoulder) until you know an individual well and can tell if this is acceptable.
Americans (both men and women) shake hands when they are first introduced and when they meet again. Social kissing, as a greeting, is generally acceptable (although more common in certain regions or subcultures than others) between men and women who know each other well and between women, but American men rarely embrace or kiss on both cheeks. Bowing is only used in performance situations and not for greetings.
Forms of Address
When you are introduced to someone, pay close attention to how you are introduced and address the person in that way until you are invited to do otherwise. As a general rule, it is acceptable to address your peers and younger people by their first names and to use a title (Mr., Ms., Dr., Prof.) with those who are older or in a position of authority. If you are invited to address a person by his or her first name, do so. It is not a sign of disrespect.
Appropriate Dress and Hygiene
As a student, dressing casually (jeans, t-shirts, shorts, etc.) is generally acceptable. In the workplace (during your co-op or internship), dress is often more professional, although the standards vary greatly from company to company. It’s wise to observe what others are wearing or ask a supervisor before wearing casual clothing. Keep in mind that even though your supervisors or professors may dress casually, they should always be treated with the respect their positions deserve.
You will also notice that personal hygiene is very important in the U.S. People generally shower every day, seldom wear the same clothing two days in a row, and wear deodorant. Strong perfumes and colognes are also generally avoided. You will be well advised to assume the same practice.
Eye contact is important. It is not a sign of disrespect, but rather an indication of openness, honesty, interest, and enthusiasm.
As a general rule, Americans are punctual. Classes will start on time and you are expected to arrive on time, if not a few minutes early. For a theatre performance, most people will be in their seats 15 to 20 minutes early. (It is possible that you won’t be seated until a suitable break in the performance if you arrive after the play begins.) A 20-minute delay arriving at a popular restaurant can mean the loss of your dinner reservation.
Most restaurants do not include a service charge on the bill unless your group exceeds a certain number of people. It is customary to add 15% to the bill as gratuity for the waiter. You can reduce or increase the tip based upon the quality of the service you receive. Tipping is only appropriate for table service; you do not need to tip the cashier in a fast food restaurant.
Taxi drivers should receive a tip equal to 10% to 15% of the fare. If the driver helps you with your luggage, it is appropriate to add an additional $1 or $2.
Hotel bellhops expect $1 per bag. If you order room service, the gratuity will usually be included on the bill. Hairdressers and barbers expect a 15% tip.
While negotiation is often part of life, in the United States you will find that it is not part of every interaction. Asking for a discount is acceptable when you are purchasing an item, but if your request is declined, accept graciously. Do not expect to haggle over every price.
There are instances when negotiation is unacceptable. For example, if you are stopped by the police for speeding, do not attempt to negotiate the cost of the ticket or attempt to pay the fine at that time. (That would be considered a bribe, which is illegal. You could be arrested.)
The Meaning of “No”
It is wise to understand that in American culture, “no” means no. Whether you hear it from a professor, a police officer, or from a friend—accept it as final, absolute, and move on.
Smoking is prohibited in government and public buildings, most businesses, and even in some outdoor public spaces in the United States. It is prohibited on public transportation, including buses, subway cars and trolleys.
If you are a guest in someone’s home, you should always ask if it is OK to smoke before doing so. Don't be insulted if you are asked to smoke outside.
Even though not all of our streets are free of litter, it is not acceptable in the U.S. to throw trash into the street or onto the sidewalk. And while you may see individuals spit on the street, it is not an acceptable practice.
Waiting in Line
First-come, first-served is the rule when it comes to standing in line for anything. Attempts to ignore that practice by cutting in line – which might be acceptable in other cultures – will generally be greeted with aggressive, vocal disapproval.
Mail and e-mail Scams
Unfortunately, many students around the world are deceived by mail and email scams. The tactics may be different, but the goal is always the same: the scammers are trying to steal your money.
Keep in mind a few simple rules: if you don’t know the organization, if it sounds too good to be true, if you don’t remember entering a contest or lottery but are offered winnings, if the message is filled with poor spelling and grammar, beware. Don’t fall prey to their scam.
Never send money to anyone you don’t know. Never provide personal information or account numbers to anyone over the phone or by email unless you initiated the contact yourself or are absolutely sure they are legitimate. Remember that banks and credit card companies never call or email customers requesting this information.
You can learn more about some of the most recent scams on the FBI website.