Social Customs and Cultural Differences

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Every culture has its own unique list of social customs and nuances. Although the United States is a melting pot of many cultures, it is no different and maintains its own brand of customs. Many of the USA’s nuances can only be learned and understood by living here; however, the following list, taken from eduPass: Cultural Differences in USA, will start you on your path of understanding and functioning in American society.


Don’t believe all of the stereotypes you may have heard about Americans. Even the ones that are true in general may not be true about specific individuals or a large segment of the population. For example, although Americans tend to be louder and more boisterous than people from other cultures (especially at athletic events), many of the people you meet will be quiet and polite. Some people may be intolerant and xenophobic, but most will be pleasant and welcoming. Remember that American films and television exaggerate in order to generate excitement, and so present a rather distorted picture of what life in the USA is really like. Likewise, tourists are not always on their best behavior.

American culture tends to be more informal than in other countries. It is common for Americans to wear casual clothing to school and to greet professors and bosses by first name. Nevertheless, good manners and politeness are always appropriate. If you are courteous and polite, and dress a little more formally than your American friends, it will only reflect well on you.

However, there are situations and environments in which formality is the norm. Some businesses require their employees to wear a uniform or a suit. It would be inappropriate to wear a T-shirt and blue jeans to a job interview. Some of the more prestigious restaurants require a coat and tie. Americans tend to dress up for cultural events (the opera, theater and ballet) and to dress down for athletic events. Formal wear is required at weddings and funerals, or any other event with religious overtones.

Forms of Address

  • American names are written and spoken with the given name first and the family name last. So John Smith’s family name is Smith, not John.
  • In a formal setting, address men as “Mister” (abbreviated as “Mr.”), married women as “Misses” (abbreviated as “Mrs.”), and unmarried women as “Miss” (abbreviated as “Ms.”). These days many women prefer to be addressed using the abbreviations “Ms.” or “M.”, pronounced “miz”. If the person has an M.D. or Ph.D., they will often be addressed as “Doctor” (abbreviated as “Dr.”). Faculty are addressed as “Professor” (abbreviated as “Prof.”).
  • In an informal situation, Americans will introduce each other by first name, without titles, and occasionally by just the last name. If you are introduced to somebody by first name, you can address him or her by first name the next time you meet. The only exception would be for someone who holds an important position, such as the university president or provost. Unless they tell you otherwise, faculty should be addressed using their title and last name (e.g., “Professor Smith”).
  • When in doubt, use the formal manner of address, since it is better to err on the side of formality. It is also appropriate to ask how they prefer to be addressed.
  • Children should always address adults in the formal fashion, using their title and last name.


  • Restaurants do not include a service charge in the bill, so you should tip the waiter 15% of the total bill. If service was slow or particularly bad, some Americans will tip only 10%. Likewise, if service was particularly good, it is appropriate to tip 20%. If service was so bad that you would never eat in the restaurant again, leave two cents. This is a deliberate insult, because it tells the waiter that you didn’t forget to leave a tip. Tipping is only appropriate in restaurants which offer table service. You do not tip the cashier in a fast food restaurant.
  • The words “tip” and “gratuity” are used interchangeably, with “gratuity” having a slightly more formal connotation.
  • Taxi drivers expect to get a tip equal to 15% of the total fare. If the driver was especially helpful or got you to your destination more quickly than you expected, give a 20% tip.
  • Hotel bellhops expect a $1 tip for helping you with your bags. If you order room service, the gratuity is included in the bill. Coat checkroom attendants expect $1 per coat. Hairdressers and barbers expect a tip of 15% of the bill. Valet parking attendants expect a $1 tip.
  • Federal regulations prohibit letter carriers from accepting cash gifts in any amount, or gifts worth $20 or more from customers.
  • If you are in doubt, ask whether it is appropriate to tip or whether a gratuity is included in the bill.
  • Bribery is not considered appropriate and often illegal. Attempting to bribe a policeman will certainly get you arrested.


  • Americans often plan social gatherings on short notice, so don’t be surprised if you get invited to someone’s home or to see a movie or baseball game without much warning. If the time is convenient for you, by all means accept their invitation. But if you are busy, do not be afraid to decline the invitation, perhaps suggesting a time that would be better. Your host will not be insulted.
  • If a friend has invited you to drop by anytime, it is best to call before visiting to make sure it is convenient for them. Do not stay too long, since you do not want to overstay your welcome.
  • Invitations are usually issued in person or over the telephone. The main exception is for receptions and other formal occasions, in which case a written invitation will be mailed. You would normally receive a written invitation to a wedding or a bar mitzvah.
  • For a casual dinner invitation, do not arrive more than 5 minutes early, because your host may still be preparing for your visit. Arriving more than 10 minutes late is considered rude if very few people were invited. If many people were invited, it is okay to arrive a little late, even as much as half an hour late. For example, it is ok to arrive late for a party, for a potluck dinner or for a social gathering involving a large group of people. The main consideration is whether there are enough people in the group so that your late arrival will not be noticed.
  • At a party, don’t be surprised if you are asked what you do for a living. This is a normal opening line of conversation, and not an insult.
  • If you are invited for dinner, it is appropriate to bring the host a bottle of wine, a gift basket of fruit, a box of candy, or a small potted plant or bouquet of flowers. Do not bring roses, as they have a more intimate connotation; men often give roses to women on a date.
  • If you wish to thank the host for his or her hospitality, it is appropriate to call or send a brief written thank you note the next day.
  • Business visits, on the other hand, tend to be extremely punctual. If you arrive late to a business appointment, it will reflect badly on you. So try to arrive on time, or even a little early. If you know that you will be arriving late, you should telephone ahead to let them know of the delay.
  • If a business meeting takes place over a meal, expect the business discussions to begin after everyone has ordered their meal, sometimes as soon as everyone is seated. Socializing tends to occur after the business is concluded, not before. This is in contrast with the practice in many other countries, where the purpose of the meal is to socialize with and get to know each other before any business is discussed.
  • Many American companies have women in management positions. So don’t be surprised if the person who meets you is a woman, not a man. They are just as competent (if not more so) than their male counterparts. If you feel uncomfortable, focus on the business at hand and ignore the fact that she happens to be a woman. Do not, however, ask personal questions as you might with a male colleague. In particular, do not ask whether she is married or has children. Do not flirt with her, refer to body parts, ask her out on a date, or make suggestive or sexual remarks.
  • When businessmen or businesswomen meet, they usually introduce themselves by shaking right hands. When you shake hands, don’t crush their fingers, but also don’t hold their hand too lightly. A firm handshake is best.
  • Business cards are not normally exchanged upon meeting. If you need a colleague’s contact information, it is okay to ask them for their card. It is also okay to offer someone your card. But there is not an elaborate ritual of exchanging cards as in other cultures.
  • US business ethics preclude the acceptance of payments to sweeten the deal.


Proper business attire is extremely important in the US. If you dress inappropriately for an interview, for example, your chances of getting the position are significantly reduced. Ask your American friends or professors for help in selecting a good set of business clothes. You can also ask the sales staff at the more expensive stores, such as Ann Taylor, Brooks Brothers, or Saks 5th Avenue, for advice. Even if you later buy your clothing at Sears or Caldor, it will give you a good sense of what is appropriate attire. Men should have at least one suit, consisting of a coat and conservative tie with a white button-down shirt. Dark suit colors, such as navy blue, black, or dark gray, are best. The tie should match the suit and not be flashy. A geometric pattern with red, gray, black, and white elements is best. Women’s clothing is more difficult to describe. The goal is to achieve a conservative and professional look. Straight lines and dark colors are preferred.


Most Americans eat three meals during the day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast begins between 7:00 and 8:00 am, lunch between 11:00 am and noon, and dinner between 6:00 and 8:00 pm. On Sundays “brunch” is a combination of breakfast and lunch, typically beginning at 11:00 am. Students often enjoy a “study break” or evening snack around 10:00 or 11:00 pm. Breakfast and lunch tend to be light meals, with only one course. Dinner is the main meal. For breakfast Americans will eat cereal with milk (often mixed together in a bowl), a glass of orange juice, and toasted bread or muffin with jam, butter, or margarine. Another common breakfast meal is scrambled eggs or an omelet with potatoes (hash browns) and breakfast meat (bacon or sausage). People who are eating light might eat just a cup of yogurt. Lunch and dinner are more varied. When eating at a formal dinner, you may be overwhelmed by the number of utensils. How do you tell the difference between a salad fork, a butter fork, and a dessert fork? Most Americans don’t know the answer either (it’s the number of tines or prongs on the fork). But knowing which fork or spoon to use first is simple: use the outermost utensils first and the utensils closest to the plate last.


  • Invitation – If you are invited to a wedding, baby shower, bar mitzvah, or other celebration, it is expected that you will bring a gift. Unless you know the host very well, the gift should be modest in value, about $25.
  • Wedding – For a wedding, the bride will have “registered” at one or two local department stores, indicating the items and styling she prefers. You can buy the couple a gift that isn’t listed, but most people buy something listed on the registry. If you buy an item listed on the registry, be sure to tell the store that you are doing this, so that the couple doesn’t receive duplicate gifts. For a baby shower, bring a gift appropriate for a newborn baby. For a bar mitzvah, bring a gift appropriate for a 13-year-old boy. Bar mitzvah gifts tend to be more formal in nature. For example, a gold-plated Cross pen is quite common. Personalizing the pen by engraving the recipient’s full name will be appreciated.
  • Parting – If you wish to give a gift when you leave to return to your home country, the best gift is something that is unique to your country. It does not need to be especially valuable or rare, just reminiscent of your home. Possibilities include a book about your country, an inexpensive handicraft or piece of art, or something else that reflects your culture. If the children collect coins and stamps, they would be very pleased with a set of your country’s coins or a selection of mint stamps from your country. Items that are common in your country but difficult to find in the USA are also good.
  • Thank you – If you owe a debt of deep gratitude to an American host family, a common way of repaying it is to take the family to a form of entertainment, such as a baseball, basketball, or hockey game, the ballet, or to a good restaurant.
  • Business – When giving gifts to a business acquaintance, do not give anything of a personal nature, especially to a woman. Do not give cosmetics. A scarf is okay, but other types of clothing are not. Something appropriate for the office is best. But gift giving is not as important in America as it is in other countries, so there is nothing wrong with not giving a gift.
  • Need Help – If you need help selecting a gift, talk to a salesperson at a department store. Tell them about the person who will be receiving the gift and the reason for the gift, and they will help you find something appropriate and within your budget.


Smoking has become socially unacceptable in the US, in part due to the health risks. Smoking is prohibited in government and public buildings, and many businesses, especially restaurants, will not permit smoking on the premises. Those restaurants that permit smoking will usually have a separate section for customers who smoke. Your school probably has a ban on smoking within campus buildings or near building entrances.

  • Tobacco products may not be sold to anyone under 18 years old, and federal law requires stores to ask to see a photo ID for anyone under 27 years old.
  • If you are a guest in someone’s home, you should ask whether it is okay to smoke before lighting up. If there are no ashtrays in the house, it is a good sign that smoking is not acceptable.
  • Smoking on airplane flights within the USA is prohibited. There are severe penalties for smoking on an airplane or in an airplane lavatory. Smoking is also prohibited on interstate trains and buses.
  • Smoking is prohibited on public transportation, including buses and trolleys.
  • Smoking around children is inappropriate. Buying cigarettes for a child, or giving a child a cigarette is illegal.
  • It is extremely impolite to blow smoke in someone’s face.
  • If you are smoking and someone coughs, it is often a polite way of asking you to extinguish the cigarette.


The USA Constitution guarantees religious freedom for all faiths. You will almost certainly be able to find a church, synagogue, or mosque near school for people of your faith. Freedom of religion also means that you’re likely to be solicited by religious groups who want to invite you to their church. Some of these groups can be quite aggressive. There are also a few cults that prey on college students. Avoid them, as they can be extremely seductive. If you are approached by a recruiter for a cult or religious group, do not make eye contact, do not engage in conversation, and keep walking. They will often ask you a rhetorical question to open the conversation, such as “Do you believe in god?”. Either ignore them, or respond with something that will fluster them enough to let you get past, such as “only on Tuesdays and Thursdays”. Even if you’re interested in their particular brand of religion, it is best for you to seek out the local churches on your own.


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