A Guide to Social Etiquette in the U.S.

A Guide to Social Etiquette in the U.S.

When it comes to social etiquette, the Americans are quite laid-back. They are fairly easy-going and, except on formal occasions, you will mostly find them in casual clothes.

Because the United States of America is a huge country with fifty states and several island territories, there are certain social and cultural differences between different regions of the country. However, those only concern the people of specific regions. By and large, the following etiquette holds true for the entire country.

Eating In:

  • Like many Western countries, Americans eat with cutlery—that is, with forks, spoons, and knives. They only use their hands when they are eating food items like burgers, pizzas, or barbequed meat. There are many types of food that qualify as “finger food” (i.e., eaten without cutlery), but eating non-finger food with your hands is considered a faux pas.
  • They never eat with their hands during formal occasions, and in a sit-down dinner, wine is usually served. If you do not drink, you may politely refuse.
  • Home meals are cozy and mostly consist of one-pot dinners on a busy weekday. If you have been invited to lunch or dinner to someone’s house on such a day, offer to do the dishes in return.
  • It is very common in the U.S. to hold backyard barbeques and if you are invited, try to show up with a salad or some wine.

Dining Out:

  • If the restaurant you plan to visit has a specific dress code, make sure you follow it.
  • Diners and chain restaurants allow casual clothes, but some high-end ones, especially the Michelin Star restaurants, only allow formal attire.
  • In most high-end restaurants, tables are booked in advance, so do not expect a seat if you simply show up.
  • If you like a particular dish very much, requesting a word with the chef to express your appreciation is a good gesture.
  • Leave a generous tip for the waiters. Unlike in many countries, tipping is expected, and not leaving a tip is considered rude (except in the case of distinctly bad service). Much of the wait staff are high school and college students employed part-time, and tips make up more of their income than wages from the restaurant, which are only $2.13/hour, far below the minimum wage.


  • Americans will go pretty much anywhere in jeans and T-shirts, and when it’s cold, they will throw on a jacket. However, formal occasions like business parties and weddings require something more formal.
  • If the dress code is mentioned in the invite, make sure you follow it. It is expected for men to wear a tuxedo, a three-piece suit, or a dinner jacket to formal occasions, while women are expected to wear an evening gown or a nice dress. They are also welcome to wear the national attire of their native countries if they are immigrants.


  • Hookups and dating in the U.S. are very common, and bars are great places to mingle.
  • It is very common in the U.S. to go on blind dates or to meet someone online and go out with them for the night.
  • Kissing on first dates—if the date goes well—is considered appropriate if both the parties agree. If you are not okay with it, you can politely refuse or express through your body language that you are not interested in taking the next step.
  • Not calling back after a date is considered rude and a sign of rejection. You should take all the necessary precautions you usually would while meeting a stranger.

First Meetings:

  • When you are first meeting someone, it is polite to shake hands and refer to them as Mr., Mrs., or Miss, followed by their surnames (last name).
  • If they want you to get familiar, they will ask you to call them by their first name.
  • It is very common in the U.S. to see even very young people call older people by their first names if they know each other well. It is not a mark of disrespect, but rather, friendliness and mutual regard for each other.
  • Children will also sometimes refer to their step-parents by their first names.

Encountering Strangers:

  • Americans are not afraid to approach strangers if they need assistance with something.
  • You will also not find them going into a café and ordering their beverage or pizzas without any preamble. They usually start the conversation with a “Hi” or a “How are you today?”, unless of course, the person is unnaturally grumpy.
  • There is great stress on the dignity of labor in the U.S., which is one of the predominant reasons behind the country’s wealth and success. Hence, it is polite to show cab drivers, technicians, baristas, car washers, mechanics, and any kind of working people courtesy and respect.

Respecting Privacy:

  • Americans can be very protective of their privacy and safety. If they feel threatened, they simply dial 9-1-1 without much delay.
  • If you need any assistance, make your intentions clear, because some Americans can be very apprehensive about immigrants.
  • Do not push a stranger who is unwilling to talk to you. If you have a question that they seem reluctant to answer, ask someone else.
  • Similarly, do not go to anyone’s house unannounced. Surprise visits in the U.S. are not very common because most of the time, the house is empty as both partners are usually employed.
  • Do not simply go over to anyone’s house unless you are invited, or you have a very close bond with the residents of the house.

It is not very difficult to find your way around American life. People from other countries might be in for a bit of a culture shock because of the vastly informal nature of the American lifestyle, but with time, you will get used to it—and might even come to enjoy it.

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