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Star-spangled manners: American customs made easy

Even though we know a lot about the US from movies and TV shows, going to America can still be a culture shock. In the second episode of our series about how to make a good impression abroad, we explore tips on how to win hearts when you’re in America. (Find our first piece in the series here.)

How are you?

When you enter a store or pay for your groceries, you’ll probably be greeted with ‘Hi, how are you?’. Welcome to the world of American pleasantries, where complete strangers want to know how you’re doing. Actually, they don’t really want to know, it’s mainly just a ritual and part of an extended greeting. Don’t overthink it and just answer with ‘Good.’ or ‘I’m fine, how are you?’. End of story and end of the conversation.

What are you up to these days?

Americans can small talk like it’s their job. They not only know how to keep conversations brief and light but also how to avoid sensitive topics and stick to the weather, hobbies or weekend plans instead. Sometimes, even complete strangers strike up a casual conversation, so you’ll get a lot of opportunities to practice your language skills.

Don’t go to the toilet

When nature calls, and you’re not sure where to answer said call, always ask ‘where is the restroom/ bathroom?’ or ‘Where is the men’s/ladies’ room?’. Asking ‘Where is the toilet?’ is considered rude, no matter how cute your accent is.

When even cat people use doggie bags

When you eat at an American restaurant, you will probably get a huge plate filled with food. Good news: It’s all yours! Bad news: Unless you’re a competitive eater, you might not be able to eat it all. Don’t be sad, you can take home all the leftovers – just ask for a doggie bag or a box.

Just eat

Meals are usually rather informal in the US and dinners are rarely as elaborate and formal as in other countries. American staples, such as burgers or wings, are finger foods, but there are occasions when you’ll need cutlery. No sweat: Just hold the fork in your dominant hand – whichever that is.

Here’s a tip

Eating out, manicures, cab rides, haircuts – all of these services deserve a tip. Not as in information but as in gratuity. Tipping is tricky but here’s a general rule of thumb: When you experienced great service, tip 20%. When the service was bad but not horrible, tip 10%. Therefore, 15% is a good starting point but remember: A lot of waiters rely on tips for much of their income and 20% of something is much easier to calculate than 15%. For larger groups, gratuity is often included so make sure you check before you tip.

And here’s another tip

You usually don’t tip at fast food restaurants or when you get take-out. When you see a tip jar, tipping is optional. However, it’s always nice to tip $1-$2 for the waiter who refills your cup and picks up the dirty dishes.

Image by Mike Mozart, Flickr / Creative Commons

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