A Briefing on American Culture
Politness and patience will serve you well in the United States. This includes remembering to say "please" and "thank you" in most circumstances. This common form of respect is not reserved for those in a position of authority, but for each and every person that you meet in a store, on the street, in class, or in an office. If you need a favor or have a simple request, saying "please" will be much more effective than if you are simply demanding. Provided that you are kind, the person with whom you are speaking will likely return your kindness.
Friendship and Friendliness
Americans are generally very friendly people. They will often say, "Hi, how are you?" or "How is it going?" but do not wait for you to respond. These are friendly expressions, which are not always a question but rather another version of "hello." If an American seems friendly it does not necessarily mean than she/he has developed a friendship (a close relationship) with you. As is probably true in your culture, friendships are developed over a period of time. Although Americans may refer to classmates as friend; often they are acquaintances rather than true friends. Finding true friends will take time, however, it is well worth the effort.
Americans prefer to maintain about 18 inches of space between themselves and the person with whom they are speaking. This personal space is very important and, if limited, the individual may become very uncomfortable. Typically, Americans do not hug or kiss an acquaintance upon greeting but rather shake hands or nod their heads. They also do not touch while speaking, although a brief touch on the arm or shoulder might indicate sympathy or concern to someone they know well.
Privacy and personal possessions are important to Americans. People work hard to have a car, house, clothes and other belongings. Be sure to ask how someone feels about sharing his or her space and belongings.
The family unit in the U.S. generally includes parents and their children. The American family is considered very mobile, moving approximately every five years and changing jobs often. People from other cultures often believe that Americans have a lack of love and respect for the elderly, who typically live alone. You will find that many elderly in the U.S. prefer this as it allows them to maintain their independence. Young adults and married couple generally do not live with their parents and it is not uncommon for young professional women to live away from their families in a different city. American culture encourages and respects personal independence.
A "date" is simply an agreement to meet at a certain time and place and to spend some time together. You should not interpret or expect it to be anything more. It is common that someone you have met only briefly will ask you on a date. Generally, the male will pay for the date; however, many (especially students) "go Dutch" where each pays for his or herself. In the U.S., dating is more casual and informal than in other cultures. Relationships between men and women of college age range from friendship to a strong emotion and physical relationship. As your friendships develop beyond acquaintance, you may not always understand what your partner expects of you. Be honest regarding your concerns and feelings as this can avoid misunderstandings and even greater discomfort. If your date appears interested in a sexual relationship and you are not, it is very important that you say no clearly. And if someone seems to be saying no to you, listen. Unwanted sexual attention is a very serious matter in the U.S. Do not mistake an American's friendliness for promiscuity.
Due to the friendly nature of most Americans, they are quick to use first names. Although this may make those who are accustomed to a more formal social environment somewhat uncomfortable, it is the norm for American culture. Formal titles (Mr., Ms., Mrs., Fr., Sr., Dr., etc.) are used together with the person's family name and should be used if you are speaking with the elderly or someone of authority. They may later ask you to use their first name.
Punctuality is highly valued in the U.S. and is considered a sign of respect for the person whom you are to meet. Punctuality for private parties and casual events is more flexible; however, always inform the host of a dinner or formal occasion if you will be late or must cancel. Students are expected to be on time for class and appointments with professors.
Many professors and administrators welcome personal interactions with individual students. Students are encouraged to ask questions and express their opinions in the classroom. Observe the American students' actions to identify what is acceptable behavior.
Clothing and dress in the U.S. is usually casual and informal. Formal dress is seldom worn on university campuses. Students typically wear jeans, shorts, skirts, t-shirts, sweatshirts and sweaters. For other occasions, ask the host of the event regarding the appropriate attire.
The formality of meals in the U.S. varies considerably. To be safe, follow the lead of the host and other American guests. Here are some general guidelines:
Gratuities or "Tips"
It is customary to leave money, called a "tip", for specific services performed. In restaurants (except for fast food), a 15-20% tip is sufficient depending upon the quality of the service. Tips are part of the servers' salaries and, therefore, are expected. You also may tip doormen, hairstylists, taxi drivers and others that perform a service.