American Manners, Etiquette and Protocol

If you’re visiting America or you’ve moved here recently you can fit in even quicker if you understand American manners and etiquette. America is a huge country with vast differences in cuisine, industries, political beliefs and mannerisms, depending upon the region in which you are.

In the U.S., unlike many other countries, individuals have rights which are protected by American law, no matter who their boss is. These rights include topics like race, age, religion, sexual orientation, disability, pay, safety and personal treatment. These laws are in place to insure that all people are able to find employment and be treated well in a safe environment with fair pay. Overall, America represents a diverse number of nationalities, all of whom are free.

Americans work hard, generally from 8 or 9 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. with an hour for lunch, around noon. American holidays include a two-week vacation for most, along with Christmas, New Year, Easter, Labor Day, Memorial Day and a few others. Check an American calendar for extended holidays before scheduling your trip.

Be on time for appointments since punctuality is important in the American culture. It’s acceptable to be a few minutes late for a social affair, though. Dress well yet conservatively for your first meeting. Additional meetings may find you adjusting your wardrobe to follow suit with your American counterparts. Dress tends to vary widely depending upon the type of business you’re doing and how large the corporation. Pantsuits are generally acceptable business wear for women, tailored suits for men. Leisure hours afford casual dress such as jeans, tee shirts, ball caps.

Many Americans speak only one language: English. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask an American to speak slower or repeat what he has said. Idioms, particularly sports-related ones, are abundant in this culture. Saying things like “call the shots”, “team players”, or “touch base”, are second-nature comments in America.

In some cultures compliments are seen as suspicious but in America compliments are dished out freely. Joking around is often done in meetings as well as one’s personal life. Avoid jokes of ethnic or religious humor. Sports are very popular in America and are a good way to start a conversation. Avoid conversations concerning religion, politics or controversial subjects until you know the person well.

Titles are used, along with the last name, upon introductions. Sometimes the complete name is given. If you don’t know a person’s title, or they don’t have one, “Mr.”, “Miss”, “Mrs.” or “Ms” are suitable.

In most cases, business gifts are given at the end of a business deal. Gifts are usually unwrapped upon receiving them. Gifts are often given during the holiday seasons from late November to early January. When visiting a home it’s not necessary to bring a gift. If you would like to bring one, flowers or a box of chocolates is a fine choice.

Some countries have many unspoken rules about things like if you should use a particular hand to accept or give a gift, whether or not you should decline the gift first, and whether or not the gift should be in even or odd numbers. None of these practices are associated with gift-giving in the U.S. Americans accept all colors or numbers, except for the number thirteen, considered unlucky.

In other countries, developing a friendship between business associates is a must before continuing with the deal. Not so in America. Money is the bottom line here and social pleasantries such as preventing someone from “losing face” is not practiced here. Hard-hitting, hard-selling tactics are often used, including arguing, pointing out faults in your plan, or simply saying “no” to your proposals. The direct approach is often seen as the best route to take in business. When a decision is reached, though, consider it unbreakable.

In some cultures shoving a business card into one’s back pocket is the ultimate rude gesture but in America it’s simply a matter of convenience. Often business cards aren’t even exchanged – something completely foreign in some countries. Also in the U.S. it’s just as likely that there will be a woman in charge instead of a man. It’s not unusual to see a man dishing out coffee and the woman running the show.

Many business meetings are held over lunch, a light meal usually served without alcoholic drinks. Sometimes drinks accompany lunch, depending upon the business rules for that particular company. Supper, or dinner, is the main meal of the day, usually between 6 and 8 p.m. Seldom is business conducted on Sundays.

Table etiquette is not as strict as in some countries. Use the knife or fork in either hand, or switch them at will. Some foods are eaten with the hands, such as appetizers, breads, cupcakes, fruits and some vegetables. In America, unlike many countries, it’s not considered rude to walk down the streets while eating. Do not throw your wrapper or food pieces onto the sidewalk or street.

When invited to an American’s home don’t be surprised if the women, and even the children, are a part of the group affair. In some countries only the men sit and eat together but in the U.S. all people in the house are usually included. It’s acceptable to refuse any particular food or drink without offending someone. If you smoke, ask if it’s acceptable to do so, since in many homes and restaurants, smoking simply isn’t allowed.

Do not smack your lips or slurp soup while eating. Don’t reach on to another’s plate to sample a food nor should you ever take a sample of your own food and put on someone else’s plate. When finished eating simply lay utensils down in no particular order or pattern.

Handshaking is acceptable for men or women. Women can offer their hand to a man and a man can offer his to a lady. Space while conversing is about two feet. Eye contact shows sincerity but intense eye contact is a negative sign. Pointing at someone is slightly rude but it’s okay to curl just the index finger to summon someone to you. You can also use the entire hand, palm up and curl all fingers towards yourself.

Some hand signals are seen as vulgar in other countries but are perfect acceptable in America. These include the “ok” sign of circling thumb and index finger together. Thumbs-up is another positive sign, seen negatively elsewhere. The “V” for “Victory” is also acceptable, raising the index and middle finger only, but separated. Backslapping is sometimes done to show camaraderie between pals. Group waves are okay, usually, when arriving or exiting a large group of people. In a formal business setting take the time to shake hands instead.

Americans are very casual about things that are taboo in other regions of the world. Chewing gum is perfectly acceptable in public, just don’t throw the gum on the sidewalk when finished. Yawning, sneezing or coughing can also be done in public but make sure to cover your mouth.

Although showing respect to the elderly is a common courtesy every where in the world, the emphasis is not put on this gesture as harshly as it is in other countries It’s acceptable to speak to any member of a group first, without looking around to see who is the eldest.

Your visit to the U.S. will hopefully be a pleasant one. For the most part, Americans are accepting of other cultures and people. To have the best success, though, mind the manners of the region, be kind and considerate, but most of all, be yourself.

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