American Habits and Customs

Meeting someone

When meeting someone for the first time, it is customary to shake hands, both for men and for women. Hugs are only exchanged between close friends. Kissing is not common, and men never kiss other men.

Americans will usually introduce themselves by their first name and last name (such as "Hello, I'm John Smith"), or, if the setting is very casual, by their first name only ("Hi, I'm John"). The common response when someone is introduced to you is "Pleased to meet you." Unless someone is introduced to you with their title and last name (such as Mister Smith or Miss Johnson), you should address them by their first name. Americans normally address everyone they meet in a social or business setting by their first name. However, you should always address your college professors by their title and last name (such as Professor Jones), unless they ask you to do otherwise.

Speaking on the telephone

Americans normally answer the telephone by simply saying "Hello." If you are calling a business, the person answering the phone will give the name of the business and usually their own name as well. If the person you would like to speak to has answered the phone, you should say hello and state your name. If not, you should ask for that person politely: "May I please speak with Andrew Brown?"

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The majority of Americans have answering machines in their homes. Also, the majority of businesses have voice mail accounts for their employees. When leaving a message, state your name clearly and leave a telephone number where you can be reached. Telephone messages should be brief and to the point.

Eating out

All restaurants in America accept cash for payment, and most (even some fast food restaurants) also accept credit cards. A few restaurants also accept ATM cards for payment. You will rarely find a restaurant that accepts checks.

It is common to have to wait for a table at a popular restaurant. There are many popular restaurants that do not accept reservations, or will only accept reservations for large parties (for example, six or more people). At these restaurants, the wait can be very long on a weekend night, sometimes up to 1 hour. However, almost all upscale, or more formal, restaurants will accept reservations.

Many restaurants in America (except for fast food restaurants) have a license to serve alcohol. Beer and wine are always available, and at some restaurants hard liquor (such as vodka or whisky) is also available. Restaurants that serve hard liquor are said to have "a full bar." The drinking age in America is 21. If you look young, be prepared to show proof of your age when ordering alcohol.

Tipping

There are only a few situations where tipping is expected. The one you will encounter most often is at restaurants. American restaurants do not add a service charge to the bill. Therefore it is expected that the customer will leave a tip for the server. Common practice is to leave a tip that is equal to 15% of the total bill for acceptable service, and about 20% for superior service. If the service was unusually poor, then you could leave a smaller tip, about 10%.

Other professions where tipping is expected include hairdressers, taxi drivers, hotel porters, parking valets, and bartenders. The general rule is to tip approximately 15% of the bill. In situations where there is no bill (as with hotel porters and parking valets), the tip may range from $1 to $5, depending on the type of establishment and on how good the service was.

Smoking

Smoking is not as common in America as in many other countries. Generally, Americans smoke less than Europeans and much less than Asians. It is a practice that is becoming less and less socially acceptable.

Smoking is prohibited in many places. It is not allowed in any public buildings, on any public transportation (including airplane flights within the United States), in shops, movie theaters, schools, and office buildings. The general rule is if you are indoors, then you probably are not allowed to smoke. The exceptions are bars, nightclubs, and some restaurants. If a restaurant does allow smoking, it will only be in an area that is designated for smokers. If you are with someone, even outdoors, it is polite to ask if they mind before you start smoking.

The legal smoking age in America is 18. If you are buying cigarettes (or another tobacco product) and you look young, the store clerk is required by law to ask you for proof of legal age. You should be prepared to provide identification.