United States of America has a history of unified etiquette protocols that may not seem obvious to foreigners. Millions of American families have etiquette books in their library. If you are traveling to the United States on business or for a lengthy stay, you might want to consider consulting Emily Post's Etiquette (first published in 1922 and now in it's 18th edition) or Amy Vanderbilt's Etiquette (first published in 1952). Emily Post's name has become synonymous with proper decorum in the States, and remains so even today. Any modern book on etiquette published in the States will cite either of these two historical figures. For more modern situations, you may consult the Emily Post Institute, which will help clear up any confusion on how to best represent yourself in America.
Things NOT To Forget: Tipping:
Restaurant and bar menus indicate prices without sales taxes (which varies by city/county) and tips (15 to 20%), so everything you will order on the menu will end up costing about 21% to 26% more. The sales tax will always be included on the 'check' (bill); the tip is rarely included unless you are dining with a group of 6 or more people -- in this case, many establishments automatically add a tip or 'service charge' or 'gratuity' of between 15% and 20%. Such practices are ordinarily mentioned on the menu. 'Suggested tips' might be mentioned on the bill to aid you in calculating the amount you want to tip. If the tip is not included on the menu, don't forget to add it. Waiters' and waitresses' salaries are small so they depend on tips. If you posses an iPhone or Blackberry, there are applications that calculate tips (many smartphones also include a calculator, which comes in handy.) Since sales tax is often around 9%, an easy way to calculate a tip is to look for the sales tax amount on the check and double it; if it's 9% and you double it, you'll get a figure that is 18% of the 'food/drink' amount. You can provide the tip to the server in one of 2 ways:
- 1. If you're paying the check with cash, you can pay for the meal (without tip), wait for any change that is due to you and then leave the tip you want 'on the table' before you leave. Sometimes, it's convenient to pay for the meal and tip at the same time. For example, if the check without the tip comes to $20 and you wish to leave a $3 tip, you can simply give the server $23 and it will be understood that the excess is the tip. However, in the above example, if you pay $25, there is some chance that the server will retain the $5 excess (which would reflect a tip of 25%!) so it's sometimes best to pay for the meal + sales tax only (or very close to it, e.g. if the cost without tip comes to $19.50 and you pay with a $20 bill, the server will know to return your 50-cents change since that wouldn't be a typical tip. There are a few ways to avoid any misunderstanding: Option #1: Pay with large enough bills that the server knows that you want change returned. For example, if the check without tip comes to $21 and you have two $20 bills and a $5 bill, don't pay with a $20-bill and a $5-bill unless you want to pay the server the $4 (20%) tip; instead, pay with the two $20-bills and you'll receive $19 in change. Option #2: If all you have is the $5 bill and the $20 bill and you only wish to pay a $3 tip on your $21 meal, then there's a couple of ways to ensure that you receive your correct change: When you present the $25, say to the waiter in a relaxed tone of voice "I'm going to need change, please"; another version of this that might be seen by some as more polite is to ask for the change to be returned in a special way, e.g. "May I have 'change of a dollar' or '4 quarters' as part of the change?" This tells the server that you want change back to include some coins and gives you the ability to tip amounts that are not even dollars. So, for example, if you receive $4 in change with $1 being in quarters, this allows you to tip $2.75, $3, $3.25, etc. While including coins in the tip is acceptable, it's generally frowned upon to include lots of small change (especially pennies) since the servers usually carry their tips with them during their shift and having lots of coins is heavy and noisy.
- 2. If you're paying with a credit card, you will be asked to 'write in' the tip amount on the credit card slip and then calculate the total including the tip. You then sign the slip and your card is charged the full amount and the restaurant pays the server the tip. Alternatively, you can draw a simple horizontal line on the 'tip line' on the credit card form, repeat the 'total without tip' figure at the bottom of the form and pay the server cash for the tip as outlined in the previous section.
Be aware that there are different type of restaurants that have different 'tipping protocols'. In general, one does not tip at a 'fast food restaurant'. These restaurants (like McDonald's) have a counter where you order your food and where you pick it up. As there is no server, no tip is required. Sometimes, there's a jar on the counter with a sign with the word "tips' on it which is a request for tips which will be split amongst all of the clerks at the end of the shift. If you have some spare coins in your pocket or from your change that you receive from your food purchase, you may toss these in the can but it's not necessarily expected.
In some less expensive 'sit down' (not 'fast food') restaurants where there is an actual server, you might be expected to pay the cashier near the door of the establishment as you are leaving. In such a case, you'll receive a check from the server but you will take the check to the cashier and you'll pay the cashier. ORDINARILY, the server will signal to you where you are to pay your bill in one of a few ways:
- He/she will tell you: 'Please pay me' or 'Please pay the cashier'. If he/she doesn't, you can ask "Do I pay you?"
- It will indicate on the check who to pay
- If the check is delivered on a little tray, IN MOST CASES, that means that the server will take the payment for you, bring to the cashier for payment and return your change. If the check is delivered without a tray, it usually means that you're expected to pay the cashier. If in doubt, ask.
In the case where you pay the cashier, it is perfectly acceptable to ask for change for the tip if the regular change from your purchase won't be sufficient. Say something like: "May I have some change for the tip, please?' or "May I have some singles ($1 bills)?"
Tipping is also common in the service and hospitality industry, from valet to housekeepers at your hotel. $2-$3 tips for valet each time you retrieve your car (none when you give it to the valet) are common. $2 per day for the housekeeper at your hotel, left in the room at the end of your stay is common. A note that says "Thank you" along with the money makes it understood to be a tip rather than money left behind by mistake.
Alcohol Laws. American alcohol laws are a patchwork of rules that vary by state, county, and towns. In some places (primarily in the South), entire counties or towns may prohibit alcohol. In all states, however, the drinking age is set at 21 for both sexes and is fairly well enforced with ID checks by the alcohol seller. Furthermore, it is illegal in most states to provide a minor with alcohol even in the company of his parents. Drinking in public is usually a civil offense in most communities, though many towns and beaches permit alcohol consumption in public (and it is often relaxed a little during public holidays, like the 4th of July: no policeman is going to hunt you down for brandishing a bottle of beer in time to the marching band's music at an Independence Day Jamboree or sitting on the beach in August enjoying a glass of wine at a picnic.) Driving under the influence is very much illegal and could net you a large fine and possibly jail time.
Illicit drugs Drugs have similar risks to alcohol but can have significantly more severe consequences: the more addictive or hallucinogenic, generally, the worse the consequences shall be. American prisons have a disproportionate amount of men incarcerated for involvement in the sale and distribution of drugs: purchasing such items aggravates the problem and encourages more violent crimes like murder. (Recently, the Obama Administration has increased attention to the trouble it causes over the border in Mexico: drug cartels often are intertwined with gang activities in the larger cities of both the U.S. and Mexico and many have already died violent deaths over smuggled drugs like cocaine, marijuana, and heroin.) In the long run, it really isn't worth it if it can cost another man his freedom or his life.
Pets: Bringing a dog or cat with you to America is permitted, provided they go through quarantine. The general rules for having a dog with you in America are that it should be recently vaccinated against rabies prior to arrival and that it can behave itself in public;vaccination for canine distemper is also a plus for dogs. Generally, dogs must be kept on a lead in public and cleaned up after in major cities. They should also have a tag on their collar with your name, full home address, and phone number on them: it is a quick way to identify them if they are lost. They are generally not permitted in stores or on public transportation unless they are service animals (such as guide dogs or such), but smaller ones are allowed if they are kept in a pet carrier. Dogs are allowed in nearly all parks (including national parks) and many city parks in fact have special areas for them to run and play with other dogs in. Not all hotels permit pets in them, so ask your travel agent or a hotel chain about which hotels allow pets in them. There may be additional charges or deposits for having pets in your room. Additionally, pets are not to be left alone in the room and if they cause disturbances you and your pet may be asked to leave the hotel. Any repairs needed due to damages done by the pet will be charged to your credit card.
Sexuality: The age of majority in America is 18 years nationwide for both sexes. Those caught soliciting a minor may face time in jail and there are no exceptions to this rule: statutory rape is a serious crime the law enforces rigorously and embassies may be in a position to do very little to assist you if you are arrested aside from helping to hire a lawyer. Prostitution is also illegal although occasionally found in areas of ill repute, those caught soliciting a prostitute may face similar penalties and problems. (The prostitutes themselves also get punished with up to several years in jail themselves.)
Things To Avoid (general):
- Controversial topics may include politics, religion, homosexuality, racism, abortion, criticism of the government, and criticism of an individual's patriotism. As in any country, locals generally do not take too kindly to constant criticisms of their government by foreigners. Make sure you know the political leanings and temperaments of those around you before broaching such topics.
- Discussions of wealth or money. Americans generally do not discuss how much money they make or how much they paid for certain high-end items (such as houses, cars, boats, TV systems, etc.) cost. It is considered very rude to ask and is even more uncomfortable to discuss.
- Smoking. Smoking restrictions vary greatly from place to place, from having no restrictions at all to complete city-wide bans. Smoking is prohibited on airplanes entirely-it is seen as a fire risk (this includes smoking in the toilet of the plane: you may force the plane to land if you are caught; Once on the ground, laws may be enacted by individual states, counties, and cities. Some laws even limit outdoor smoking by prohibiting smoking within a certain distance from a building's entrance. Observe to see if others around you are smoking, or ask if anyone minds before doing so. Many restaurants and hotels have special seating for smoking customers, which you may request during booking. Fines for smoking in a prohibited place range in amount from $50 on up to $1,000, plus offenders may be thrown out of an establishment for violating house rules, sometimes barred forever. Americans rarely walk around when smoking. They find a place that allows smoking (away from restricted areas) and usually stay in one place until done with their cigarette. It is considered rude to walk in crowds with a lit cigarette as this could end with someone being burned. Children especially in America are not on the lookout for such dangers and since they are right at the height of the burning embers are at increased risk. Always safely dispose of your cigarette, don't throw it out of the car window or on the ground. Littering can get you a ticket or jail time if you start a fire.
- Loud cell phone usage. It is considered rude to speak loudly on cell phones in enclosed, public places such as trains, restaurants, museums. (Obviously, if you are in a noisy bar, ball game, etc. where people aren't trying to listen or concentrate, it doesn't matter.) But if you are on a train, elevator, in a rest room, or anywhere where people are trying to concentrate, work, or listen, please don't speak loudly on your cell--any more loudly than you would if the person were sitting next to you. As for the opera, theatre, cinema. places of worship, lectures/classes, please turn your cell to "vibrate." If you absolutely must receive messages when in any of these locations please allow your cell phone to be set to vibrate and also ask any who would contact you to leave a text message instead. In some live performances even vibrate will be too much as it interferes with the sound systems. Also don't text during performances or movies, the light of the phone is distracting to others.
- Hugging, kissing or touching. Most Americans prefer a firm handshake as a first greeting. Hugging is reserved for close family members and friends. Kissing people in greeting is a more intimate affair: it's usually done only in the context of relatives, lovers, and friends; it is sometimes controversial when performed between members of the same gender. Also, refrain from touching people during conversation unless you know them well, as it generally makes them uncomfortable. When it is a kiss, friends and family typically get kissed on one cheek and lovers on the mouth. (Once an American does embrace or kiss you, however, it is a guaranteed sign you have made a friend for life or sometimes something more. Spontaneous bear hugs are not uncommon if an American grows fond of you!)
- Personal space. Americans usually talk to each other from a distance of about two feet (.6 meters); any closer is viewed as uncomfortable. (Closer contact is reserved for closer accquaintances-the barrier shall break down as they get to know you.)
- First names. In general, most Americans, even in a business setting, will prefer to be called by their first name. However, it is a good rule of thumb to address them by their title (Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr., or Professor, in general) and last name (e.g., Mr. Anderson) until you are specifically told otherwise. Americans may also address you by your first name immediately after being introduced to you; this is not considered rude at all and reflects the more casual style of Americans.
- Miss, Ms. or Mrs. There seems to be some controversy, perhaps regional, over the usage of Miss (pronounced "miss"), Ms. (pronounced "miz") or Mrs. (pronounced "miss-iz"). Generally speaking, it is polite to call a lady Ms. at first, unless you are prompted otherwise. An American woman will let you know what she wants to be called, or if she wants to let you know she is married.
- "Sir" and "Madam." Many countries outside the USA use the term "Sir" or "Madam" when greeting someone new, and it is a respectful introduction before the person's details are known. Within most of the U.S. these terms are used to address people to whom great respect and deference should be shown ("Madam Secretary [of State]"), one's senior officer in the military, or one's higher level boss at work ("Yes, Sir!"), or "older" people in the U.S. One may also be called "Sir" or "Madam" in very expensive restaurants or hotels, or in some less urban parts of the country. Colloquially, the altered term "ma'am" is considered polite for a woman older than oneself and a new acquaintance.
- No means NO in big block letters, not ask again. American women will occasionally wear short skirts, sleeveless shirts, makeup, perfume, might even show some cleavage: she's just trying to look feminine, and often she will do so whether on the beach or in the boardroom. If she smiles at you while dressed in this way, IT DOES NOT NECESSARILY MEAN SHE WANTS SEXUAL ATTENTION AND IT REALLY, REALLY DOESN'T MEAN SHE WANTS TO BE TOUCHED. A woman's place, politically and practically, is the equal of a man in America in most every way conceivable and the way she is dressed is more a nod to the fact that she is a woman, but nothing more than this. It is a very, very VERY big mistake to assume anything else. If you attempt to advance on her, and she says no, it really, truly, undoubtedly means no, never, not going to happen. As a warning to those from East Asia, India, Russia, the Middle East, or parts of Eastern Europe, many a man has found he has gotten a good hard slap across the face for mistaking the way a woman is dressed as a signal to him that she is inviting attention and many business deals have been irrevocably lost because some fool tried to proposition a woman in a low cut business suit in the elevator...and found out it was the CEO. Furthermore, outside the boardroom, even teasing as practiced in India and other areas of the world is absolutely 100 percent out of bounds and can land a young man in a great deal of trouble with the law: it falls under the legal code of most states as sexual harassment and can lose a man his job, his freedom, or possibly his dignity. In America, it is not unheard of for a good samaritan (or a crowd of them) to rain down fire upon the fool who even teases and comes to the aid of the victim and in more extreme situations, a woman is legally permitted to defend herself from an attacker: pepper spray, a spray with over 3 million scoville units of capsicum extract is both legal for use in situations where a woman feels she has no other choice and also can temporarily blind an attacker.
- Spitting Spitting is unacceptable in any public setting except for baseball players on a field. If you have a cold and cannot avoid spitting up phlegm, use a tissue and then throw it away.
- Public urination In the United States, public urination is very much frowned upon unless you are in a wilderness area-it is considered a health hazard and potential scenario where one could be fined. If a small child needs to relieve him or herself, take him or her into the nearest bathroom (most restaurants and public buildings will allow it regardless of whether or not you are a patron and few managers turn away the desperate) and assist the child if needed. If traveling with a baby, most restaurants and publicly funded places like museums and monuments have bathrooms that include a place to change the baby's diaper and clean him/her off (split pants are very impractical in a climate that can get extremely cold or extremely hot, sometimes in the space of one day.) Wet sanitary wipes designed for baby are available in any pharmacy, supermarket, or gas station.
- Chewing with your mouth wide open Generally, an American will forgive you for the occasional slip of the mouth opening while chewing one's food, but generally don't like it when a person chews with their maw wide open and may or may not be talking. It will distract them from most of what you are saying, so kindly chew and swallow first.
- Picking your nose This activity is considered childish by Americans and makes you appear uncouth. Do not do it in view of others.
- Bathing Customs surrounding bathing vary around the world, but Americans typically bathe once a day in hot water and wash their hair at least weekly; they shower directly after strenuous exercise. They also use underarm deodorant: if you have not brought any with you it is recommended you buy some as hot, humid summer weather or stressful business meetings are no excuse if people smell you before they see you!
- Shaving American women typically shave their armpits and legs. This practice is not universal, but some people will have a strong reaction to armpit or leg hair on a woman. For men, shaving is often a personal choice and how one wears his facial hair is often his business, thought generally keeping beards and mustaches trimmed and neat is preferred.
- Hand Washing It is 'good hygiene' to wash one's hands after using the toilet or if you one is about to handle food (many American families wash their hands before gathering around the dinner table, for example; this is what is meant by "washing up.") In many restaurants you may notice a sign encouraging employees to wash hands before returning to work: most of the time this is codified into law to prevent disease from spreading or in order to slow down seasonal maladies like the flu. Take part: it is worth it.
- Flatulence: Bathroom humor is a staple of comedy in America, but it is also a taboo as well: Lifting your behind up and breaking wind in front of somebody is not a good idea, especially if you have just met the person or are at the dinner table.
Public Transportation Courtesy:
- Boarding: It is typical policy for most buses to board from the front door, unless if policy says it is allowed to board other entrances with proof of payment. Passengers should never evade paying their fare to ride public buses by entering through the rear door and board the bus until all passengers, including elderly passengers exit first. On subway cars, is is basic courtesy for boarding passengers to line-up on the sides of subway train doors and permit exiting passengers to leave directly out of the doors.
- Exiting: Passengers on buses should get the bus operator's attention by pulling on the cord near the window or a designated button located on poles on the vehicle. The "bell" should be rung at least one half of a block to permit the bus driver to make a smooth stop at the designated bus stop. Late activation of the "bell" system may result in the stop being intentionally skipped, force the vehicle to stop immediately, stop several feet away from the designated stop, or cause passengers to be upset. On all transit vehicles, passengers should be prepared to exit the vehicle by moving towards the exit doors, and should never be seated when the vehicle arrives at the stop.
- Elderly and Disabled: Federal law and some state and local policies require front seats on buses to be vacated for the elderly and disabled passengers. On subway cars, seats located nearest to the doors are designated for this purpose as well. It is also respectable to permit elderly and disabled passengers to exit the vehicle first as a sign of courtesy and respect, and to permit them additional time to exit the vehicle safely.
- Pregnant: If a lady is obviously pregnant and needs assistance getting on or off of a bus or train, it is considered polite to help her, especially if she is carrying bags or the like; on large public buses (like those in New York City) similar rules of etiquette apply as if she were elderly (it is considered polite to give up one's seat so she can sit down.) When in doubt as to whether she wants assistance, ask her first and then proceed. Make room for her if possible: remember, she is carrying something much more precious than just a grocery bag!
- Seating: Passengers should extend courtesy by not taking more than one seat on the vehicle, and especially in situations where the vehicle is crowded. Passengers sitting at a window seat with a passenger sitting in the aisle seat, and requiring to exit should have the passenger in the aisle seat stand up and move away from the seat to permit exiting. In no fashion is it proper for an aisle seat passenger to turn to their side.
- Standing: On buses with front door boarding, it is typically required for passengers to move to the rear of the vehicle to allow the most passengers to board the vehicle. Passengers sometimes fear it is not acceptable to move to the rear of the bus as it has been stereotyped that the rear of the vehicle is common for "thugs" and other non savory people; while some people believe in this stereotype, this may be an advantage to find an open seat. In a situation where passengers do not move to the rear and stay within the first half of the bus, the driver may assume the entire vehicle is full and cannot pickup any more passengers, thus making passengers at stops become frustrated and forcing them to wait for another vehicle. On all vehicles (including subway cars), it is disrespectful to stand near doors and block the exit, especially when it is not your stop.
- Eating and Drinking: consumption of food and beverages is typically against transit policy for a number of reasons, but is not limited to spills, garbage left on vehicles, and increased risk of fire on subway lines using the electric third rail.
- Bicycles and Baby Carriages: Many public transportation agencies permit bicycles onboard buses because of the installation of bicycle racks, typically on the front of the vehicle that extends when unfolded. On some light rail and subway cars, they may have bicycle racks installed in designated areas or an open area used for either wheelchair passengers or bicycles. Baby Carriages are permitted onboard all public transit vehicles, as long as it can be collapsed.
- Cellular Telephones and Music: Basic courtesy is required when using cell phones and listening to music. Passengers should limit usage of a cellular telephone or force the call to their voicemail account, and earphones are required for all music devices.
- Passenger Contact: Passengers are typically uncomfortable having conversations with other passengers that are not their friends, family, or of any personal relationship; they shall be initially wary of somebody they do not know but will let their guard down once it is clear that the person trying to converse with them has good intentions. In some cases, passengers may spontaneously assist visitors and tourists who may be unfamiliar with the public transportation system: visitors should not be afraid to ask for help especially if there is an emergency. Passengers are also uncomfortable of passengers who stare at others, thus people "minding their own business." Further, if somebody has a pair of earphones on and is listening to music or is reading something, it usually is a signal they would like some privacy: they should only be interrupted when it is absolutely necessary.
- Operator Contact: Most public transportation agencies permit passengers to ask questions on destinations, or request for basic assistance to their destination. All public transit operators discourage passengers to have unnecessary conversations with the operator, particularly if he or she is already driving the vehicle.
A Day at the Seaside, Waterpark, or Swimming Pool
As in many places all over the world, fun in the sun is a perfectly acceptable and beloved pastime for people of all ages: most Americans would consider it a total waste not to utilize the nearly 20 thousand km of coastline or hundreds of swimming pools available during summer: Florida and the Los Angeles area alone have all three, for example. There are a few things to remember, however:
- Attire: Most attire found in Europe and Australia is perfectly acceptable: that pair of male Speedos in a traveler's suitcase may be a bit less commonly worn, it may raise a few amused eyebrows or a few good natured chuckles, but certainly won't spook the locals into a Puritanical frenzy. (Locals may recommend, however, wearing board shorts or wet suits to surfers or swimmers in the Northeast as the water is a little colder than southern France, Hong Kong, or Queensland). Women do not go topless in swimming pools. It is a perfectly acceptable practice to utilize a tee shirt to prevent severe burns on snorkelers and patrons of waterslides alike.
- Red Tide: Normally, it is perfectly safe to swim in the water-stories like the ones seen in Jaws are complete fiction told entirely to scare people and nothing more. However, in some places it is common for a condition known as red tide to appear: it basically means an algal bloom has appeared in the water and is a natural, normal nuisance that happens every few years and has occurred since the dawn of time (the Puritans hated it, too.) When red tide is present in the water, it can become unsafe to swim in the water: if the news mentions this condition please take it seriously as those who ignore it may die from being poisoned. (Eating seafood taken from these waters during this time is equally a bad idea as well: toxins may leach into their flesh.)
- Shower: Most public pools and some waterparks will ask patrons to take a few minutes to rinse themselves before entering the water. The idea is that it keeps the water clean in the pool.
- Food and picnics: It is perfectly an acceptable practice to bring a picnic lunch or snacks to the beach but not waterparks as the latter generally already has facilities where food is sold. At some beaches you may be able to bring something called a hibachi grill (a small portable charcoal grill) if you desire to grill some lunch and these are typically inexpensive and also available in supermarkets, but take care to ask the store clerk/hotel concierge about the policy of the local beach first.
- Clean beaches and clean water: Overall, it is also encouraged that you clean up after yourself and throw away all garbage before you leave any beach or when on any boat: there are many places where animals like sea turtles, manatees, and shorebirds will use the same beach to nest on or water to feed in and many of these animals receive some protection from the government already: those that don't do their part may face fines in thousands of dollars or disgrace themselves when they see a turtle strangled by a six pack holder later in the week. If you are on a boat and using the water , DO NOT DUMP ANYTHING OVER THE SIDE. Wait until you make berth and dispose of waste onshore.
- Topless sunbathing: it should be remembered that not all places allow for ladies to sunbathe topless, especially in areas designed for families with young children: in large commercial waterparks, (i.e., Typhoon Lagoon, Wet n' Wild, etc.) this is an absolute no-no. If topless sunbathing is something you prefer to do, it might be better to check if the beaches in the area you are visiting allow it (there are absolutely places where this is possible but it is is normally not the case, as traditionally only small babies and toddlers are allowed to strip down.)
At the Dinner Table
- Eating a pizza: Many guidebooks will tell you that you are not supposed to eat pizza with a knife and fork, and they would be right: mostly, this will make you look overly fastidious. There is only one type of pizza that is ever eaten with a knife and fork, and this is Chicago deep dish pizza: the only reason that it is consumed this way is because deep dish pizza is a literal pizza "pie," and it is too thick and messy to pick up and bite into for the first couple bites, without sauce, cheese, and/or toppings falling on you. It is perfectly fine to eat the rest with your hands, once the slice is about half eaten. To eat the average, triangle shaped pizza, take the pizza and fold it in half, so that you get a slightly smaller triangle. Take the pointy end and put it in your mouth. Chew. Swallow. Repeat until you get to the crust (eating this part is a matter of taste.) Wipe your mouth with your napkin as you go to remove any excess sauce.
- Eating a sandwich. All sandwiches are eaten as finger food, including hamburgers. The general rule is that if you see a comestible that is between two pieces of bread, pick it up by the breaded parts, open wide, and bite. Do not worry if little bits of the meat or vegetables on the roll fall out-this happens with the larger sandwiches and that is what the paper it is wrapped in is for.
- Where is the finger bowl?!! The short answer: there isn't one. There never will be one. Americans are not noted for having an elaborate spread of different kinds of flatware and tableware for an average meal and only reserve such for special occasions, like Christmas or somebody's wedding (this is also reflected in high end restaurants as well.) For most of the nation's history the average citizen couldn't even afford such a spread, and it is considered downright mean spirited to berate somebody over it. Certain pieces of tableware and flatware, in fact, are downright rarely used: egg cups, finger bowls, chafing dishes, crusets, oyster forks, and so on rarely even make it to the table in the most formal setting. The custom is similar only to Europe in that utensils are placed in order of use, but the average meal will only consist of a tumbler, a plate, a dinner fork, a knife, and a spoon.
- His hands are in his lap!! Yes, that is normal. If you aren't eating, it is polite to have your hands either rested in your lap or casually laid out on the table, so you are comfortable while you chat. The thinking isn't that you are hiding something under the table with your hands. You are just sitting patiently waiting for either the next course or for the bill, so you might as well be comfortable.
- Switching Hands Europeans typically eat with their left hand and cut with their right. When eating food, they usually put the food in the mouth so that the tines of the fork curve in to the mouth, like a backwards facing "c". When cutting up their meat, they usually cut it into pieces as they go and load the fork up using the knife.
- This is totally different to the American style of eating dinner. In America, you are expected to eat with whatever hand you use to write with. Hence, right handed people, or the majority of the table, will be expected to cut up their meat and potatoes into small, bite sized bits and then switch the fork back to their dominant hand. If you are naturally left handed, then proceed to eat lefty, and watch the others: they will be eating their food with the tines facing up, not down, spearing their food and putting it in their mouths.
- Pass it around In homes, dishes are usually passed around in a circle so that each person can get a share of food; families and friends never eat out of one large communal bowl in the middle as it is a risk for getting the whole family sick all at once. If you find you are in a home and do not want one of the dishes being passed around, it is perfectly alright to refuse-just pass it along. When you are finished, leave a small amount on your plate and leave your fork and knife off to the side: it means to the hostess or waitress, "I am done."
- What is a doggie bag? A doggie bag is not what it sounds like-it is not table scraps for the dog. When somebody asks for a doggie bag in a restaurant it means that they are full of whatever they have been eating and although they cannot finish it they would like to take home the remaining portion of the meal so they can reheat it and eat it at some later time. The term 'doggie bag' is somewhat passe now; most people just ask for a 'to go' box or simply 'a box'. ("To go" is the American version of Europe's 'take away') It is not an insult to the cook at all and for Americans this is an economical way to deal with large portions: eat some now, take some home for later, save time on having to cook!
- Needs Salt In American restaurants, the customer is always right. If you find that your dish arrives at the table too cold, too hot, or not to your liking because it doesn't taste very good you may tell your waiter to send it back to the kitchen where the cooks in the back will either attempt to fix it for you or possibly bring you something else. Most often if you voice your displeasure (and if there really is something very wrong with the order) the manager or owner of the restaurant will take it off the check as compensation. In other situations, if you find your dish needs a condiment or seasoning to make your meal more enjoyable, simply ask the waiter for it: it is not an insult to the cook and happens all the time
Common gestures considered friendly:
- Waving: Done by moving the entire hand from left to right, with the palm facing outward, waving can indicate both greeting and saying goodbye. It depends upon the context.
- Showing approval. Unlike in some Middle Eastern cultures, the OK sign or the thumbs up sign indicate approval. (A double thumbs up means eager approval.)
- The peace sign. The " peace sign" or " victory sign" is not considered rude, even when done backwards (although this is not the correct form, and is considered insulting by the British). It is used in America sometimes as a goodbye gesture or to convey happiness over victory, or that somebody would like two of something. If it is done behind somebody's head when they are not looking it is meant as a practical joke (especially in photographs) and implies "bunny ears."
- Devil horns, corna: These do not have the same meaning that they have in Europe. In American Sign Language, it is a shorthand sign meaning, " I love you" as it incorporates the signs for I, L, and U when the thumb is turned out. (American Sign Language is based on French, not British or Australian Sign Language.) When the thumb is turned in it is the sign for the letter "U". Among the hearing, it is a common symbol for American football fans at the University of Texas at Austin: the school mascot is a Texas longhorn steer, known for having huge, sharp, wideset horns: the hand gesture resembles a bull's horns. Among heavy metal fans it is an older symbol that was originally associated with the devil (it probably started at Black Sabbath concerts.) Today it usually means "Rock on!" and indicates a person at a rock concert is enjoying the music a lot and it may be accompanied by either a lit cigarette lighter raised high in the air or vigorous jerking of the head up and down with the eyes shut.
- Shaka: This is a common gesture among surfers and is especially common among Hawaiians: it is a very friendly gesture that can either mean, "Hang loose, dude!" or "Hello, how are you?!" It is done by folding over all the fingers except the thumb and pinky, with the back of the hand facing the person being greeted.
- Chest bump: This is often done at sporting events, and usually among males. It is when two men will face each other, jump in the air, and bump chests, often with a grunt following. It is done as a means of macho celebration of something good happening, like somebody scoring a basket in basketball.
- Smile Some people think Americans are phony or stupid because they smile so much. This is really not the case. The smile is just a sign of a genuinely happy fellow and otherwise it is the one gesture that is understood around the world as friendly. Considering that America is one of the most diverse nations on earth, it makes sense to smile as a nonverbal way of saying, "I am friendly. Hello world!!"
Common gestures that are obscene and should be avoided:
- The middle finger. Raising the middle finger usually referred to as "the finger," is seen as highly offensive and provocative. Avoid using it, even when pointing to objects or scratching your face.
- Flicking one's hand under the chin: this has a similar meaning to the middle finger, except the offender is telling the receiver to do it to himself. When scratching your chin and neck, separate your fingers and go up and down. It is impossible to mistake your intent this way.
- Placing one's arm at the crease of the other arm's elbow, then raising the opposite arm with the fingers of the fist facing the offender.This gesture is a little older than the finger and is still sometimes used; it has the same meaning.
- Splitting the ring finger and middle finger apart and flicking the tongue in between them: This is EXTREMELY offensive, especially to a woman: essentially it implies she is a tramp and it reduces her to her privates. Though difficult to do by accident, it is one of the worst insults that can be directed at a person nonverbally and is most certainly worth knowing about, for women and boyfriends alike.
- Making a sideways fist, fingers facing the receiver, moving it left and right and simultaneously poking the inside of the opposite cheek with the tongue so it bulges out: This also has the same meaning as above and is equally offensive: it resembles fellatio and implies this is all the woman it is directed at is capable of achieving in life. (it may be performed by members of both sexes, thus.)