Many of the social and behavioral aspects of everyday life vary
greatly from country to country. Some students might find it
initially difficult to understand the way Americans behave and what
they really mean to say when they use certain phrases. It is
difficult to generalize about U.S. social customs, but the following
practices are fairly standard.
- "How do you do," "Good morning," "Good afternoon," and "Good
evening" are formal greetings; usually people will usually
simply say "Hi" or "Hello."
- Upon meeting each other for the first time, men always shake
hands, firmly. Women often shake hands with people they meet,
but it is not universal. Upon leaving, Americans will usually
say "Good-bye" or simply "Bye." More expressive salutations
include "Have a nice day," "Nice to see you," or "See you
- Good friends, family members, or people in a romantic
relationship might give each other a hug or even kiss upon
meeting one another. This kind of greeting is reserved only for
people who know each other very well and share a very close
- Remember that social customs might vary in different parts
of the country and between younger and older people.
- First names are more readily used in the United States than
in other countries. It is almost always acceptable to use the
first name of someone of approximately your same age or younger
as soon as you meet the person.
- You should say "Mr." (for men) or "Ms." (for women) and the
person's last name when talking to people in positions of
authority, your professors, or your elders, unless they ask you
to call them by their first name.
- Some American women prefer to be called "Ms." (pronounced "mizz")
rather than "Miss" or "Mrs." This is a neutral form of address
that can be used for married and unmarried women and can be
useful if you do not know the marital status of the woman you
are talking or writing to.
- It is not the custom in the United States to use "Mr.,"
"Mrs.," "Miss," or "Ms." with a first or given name. For
example, if you meet someone whose name is Larry Jones, you
would say "Mr. Jones" and not "Mr. Larry."
- The use of nicknames is fairly common in the United States.
Being called by a nickname is not uncomplimentary if done in
good taste, and is often considered as a sign of acceptance and
- Do not be shy to ask people how they would like you to call
them and to say what you would like them to call you. This will
make introductions easier.
Americans are reputed to be friendly people. It is not uncommon for
Americans to be informal and casual, even with perfect strangers.
When in the United States, do not be surprised if somebody you do
not know says "Hi!" to you for no reason. However, there is a
difference between friendliness and friendships. As in any culture,
it takes time for friendships and close relationships to form.
Americans' friendships tend to be shorter and more casual than
friendships among people from some other cultures. It is not
uncommon for Americans to have only one close friendship during
their lifetime and to consider other friends to be merely social
acquaintances. This attitude probably has something to do with
American mobility and the fact that Americans do not like to be
dependent on other people. They tend to compartmentalize
friendships, having "friends at work," "friends on the basketball
team," and "family friends," for example. Here are some other
characteristics of Americans' behavior in social situations:
As in any culture, it takes time to make good friends. Just be
patient, try to meet as many people as possible, and with time you
may form friendships while in the United States that could last a
- Americans might refer to acquaintances or people they meet
in class as "friends." However, there are different levels of
friendship, and even if they call these people friends, they do
not always have close emotional ties to them.
- In the United States, people often will ask, "How are you?"
or "How are you doing?" when you meet them. These are usually
polite phrases more than personal questions, and they do not
always expect an honest answer. If you are well acquainted with
this person, you might say how you truly are feeling. If not,
the accepted response is usually "Fine, thank you. How are you?"
even if you are not feeling very well.
- Americans often communicate with touch, by putting a hand on
somebody's shoulder to express warmth of feeling, by giving a
nudge to express humor, or a pat on the back to express
reassurance. Often they will hug when meeting. These friendly
gestures are common and should not be interpreted as intrusive
- Even if Americans tend to touch each other more often than
in some other cultures, they usually maintain a relatively large
physical distance between one another during conversations or
social meetings. Everybody has a different "comfort zone" around
them; do not be offended if an American takes a step back as you
approach him or her in a conversation.
- Men and women often have long-term platonic relationships,
which can surprise some foreign visitors. People of the opposite
sex might go to the movies, a restaurant, a concert, or other
event together without ever being romantically involved.
- Americans generally enjoy welcoming people into their homes
and are pleased if you accept their hospitality. Do not hesitate
or feel uncomfortable to accept invitations, even if you cannot
reciprocate — they know you are away from home and will not
expect you to do so.
- Participating in campus life is a good way to make friends.
Every university offers various organizations, committees,
sports clubs, academic societies, religious groups, and other
activities where everyone with an interest can take part.
Because the United States is a highly active society, full of
movement and change, people always seem to be on the go. In this
highly charged atmosphere, Americans can sometimes seem brusque or
impatient. They want to get to know you as quickly as possible and
then move on to something else. Sometimes, early on, they will ask
you questions that you may feel are very personal. No insult is
intended; the questions usually grow out of their genuine interest
or curiosity and their impatience to get to the heart of the matter.
And the same goes for you. If you do not understand certain American
behavior or you want to know more about what makes Americans "tick,"
do not hesitate to ask them questions about themselves. Americans
are usually eager to explain all about their country or anything
American in which you might be interested. So much so in fact, that
you may become tired of listening. Americans also tend to be
uncomfortable with silence during a conversation. They would rather
talk about the weather or the latest sports scores, for example,
than deal with silence.
On the other hand, do not expect Americans to be knowledgeable about
international geography or world affairs unless something directly
involves the United States. Because the United States is
geographically distant from many other nations, some Americans tend
not to be aware of what goes on in other parts of the world.
- Americans tend to be very polite people. This is often
expressed in conversations. It is common for an American to end
a conversation by saying: "Let's get together sometime," "Come
by for a visit when you have a chance," or "Let's meet for
coffee." However, these invitations are usually not intended to
be taken literally. An invitation is not firm unless a time and
place is set.
- If you have accepted an invitation or if a meeting has been
set, Americans usually expect you to arrive at the agreed
location at the right time. It is considered impolite to accept
an invitation and not show up or to arrive more than 10 to 20
minutes late. Americans tend to be quite punctual. If you have
to cancel an appointment or know that you will not be able to be
on time, you should call your friend or host to cancel or
- If you are invited to a person's home for a party or dinner,
it would be a good idea to ask if this will be a formal,
semiformal, or casual occasion, since the way you dress can be
considered important for certain events.
- When formally invited to someone's home, it is considerate
to bring a gift to your host. Common gifts are a bottle of wine,
a box of chocolates, or flowers. No gift is expected when
friends visit each other casually.
- Thank your host or hostess when you leave. It is considerate
to send a thank you note as well or to telephone your thanks the
For many international students, American dating and relationship
rituals can be one of the most difficult things to understand.
Unlike many other cultures, American culture does not have an
accepted pattern of behavior that regulates romantic relationships.
While not universally true, you may find the following general
"I was an MBA student in the USA and I lived in the university's
coed dormitory. In my culture, usually, if a woman talks to a man,
it is a sign of romantic interest. Therefore, in the first few days
of school, I found it strange that so many women were talking to me
and I was under the impression that some women on my dormitory floor
were interested in me. To return their politeness, I would buy them
flowers or offer small gifts, as is done in my country. However, I
was quite surprised to see that these same women now seemed
uncomfortable around me. One was even quite offended and told me to
leave her alone. Eventually I talked to the residence adviser on my
floor to see what I was doing wrong, and he explained to me the way
men and women usually interact in the USA. I was quite relieved to
hear that nothing was wrong with me, but rather with the way I was
interpreting my conversations with women. Even though I did not find
the love of my life while I was in the USA, I still made many good
female friends afterwards with whom I still maintain contact."
- Men and women generally treat each other as equals and in an
informal, casual way. There is often friendly teasing between
men and women.
- Traditionally, men ask women on dates, but it is considered
acceptable for a woman to ask a man out.
- Expenses on a date are sometimes paid by one person or
sometimes split between the two. The man will usually offer to
pay but will usually not protest if the woman offers to pay in
- Going on a date in American society is to express the desire
to get to know the other person better. It does not assume any
kind of sexual involvement. It is unacceptable — and in some
cases even criminal — to impose one's sexual desires on another
person. Make sure you respect the other person's wishes and,
likewise, make sure you are not forced to do something you do
not want to do.
- Homosexual relationships, even if not widespread, are
commonplace in the United States. While many people are still
uncomfortable with gays (homosexual men) or lesbians (homosexual
women), it is usually not accepted to discriminate or make
derogatory comments against them. If you are gay or lesbian, you
will be able to find organizations, newspapers, and magazines
targeted to you in most American cities and on some university
campuses. If you are not homosexual and somebody of the same sex
expresses an interest, do not be offended; just decline
- Remember that every situation is different and must be
approached with consideration for the other person's standards,
values, and sensitivities. Remember as well that HIV, AIDS, and
other sexually transmitted diseases are present in the United
States, and you should always take the necessary precautions to
protect yourself from infection.
— Nawuma, Republic of Togo
Every culture has accepted standards when it comes to personal
hygiene. Foreign visitors should therefore be aware of what
Americans consider appropriate and proper hygiene practices. For
some, American standards might seem exaggerated, unnatural, or even
offensive. However, if you want to fit in more easily, you will want
to adopt the practices that prevail in the United States, even
though doing so might not be easy. Here are a few tips and
- As a general rule, Americans usually consider that the odors
that the human body naturally produces — the odors of
perspiration or breath, for example — are unpleasant. Americans
usually wash with soap at least once a day to control body odors
and brush their teeth with toothpaste at least in the morning
and evening. In addition, they use underarm
deodorant/antiperspirant to control perspiration odors, and they
wash their hair as often as necessary to keep it from becoming
- While the practice is not universal, many people use
perfume, cologne, mouthwash, and other scented products to give
themselves an odor that others will presumably find pleasant.
However, Americans generally do not like others to use "too
much" of a scented product. Too much means that the smell is
discernible from more than a meter or two away.
- Most American women, though not all, shave the hair from
their underarms and their lower legs. Women also wear varying
amounts of makeup on their faces. The amount of makeup
considered acceptable is based solely on personal tastes and
preferences. However, some women do not shave their body hair or
wear any makeup at all, and they still fit in, without problem,
in American society. It is a matter of personal choice.
- Clothing should not emit bodily odors. The American practice
is to wash clothing that has taken on the smell of the wearer's
perspiration before it is worn again.
- The basic idea is that you should be clean. Makeup, perfume,
and cologne are not necessary for social acceptance, but
cleanliness is definitely expected.