What will help me not to stick out as a tourist?

Family eating spaghetti for dinner | Photo by Everett225, Depositphotos

I am by no means an expert at etiquette or knowledgeable of all cultures. But from my personal experience, here are a few tips I have learned along the way. Take it at entertainment value.


Customs & Etiquette Tips for the United States

Arrival Times

Benjamin Franklin Bill and Clock
Time is money | Photo by Levkro, Depositphotos

In general, it is customary to arrive on time in the USA.  The common view is “time is money”.  If you will be late, call your host or venue.  Don’t be late more than 15-minutes.  

  • Appointments, Reservations, and Showtimes: Arrive early or on time.  Arrivals past 5-15 minutes are usually treated as a no-show and may lead to a cancellation.  Some cancellations come with fees.
  • Business Outing: Arrive early or on time.  Tardiness will reflect on your professionalism.
  • Dinner Parties: Arrive on time or up to 15-min late.  Never arrive earlier as the host may be finalizing their preparations.  But don’t run later than 15-minutes or else you will be holding up the meal for everyone.  Try to aim for no later than 10-minutes after the invitation time.
  • Date: Always arrive early or on time.  You don’t want to leave the wrong impression that you do not care about the other person.
  • Surprise Parties: Always arrive early or on time.  Don’t run late or else you will ruin the surprise.
  • Weddings: Always arrive early.  Don’t run late or else you may interrupt the ceremony.  Aim for arriving 15-minutes early.  If you arrive late and the ceremony is already starting, wait outside until the bride is at the alter.
  • Cocktail Parties & Large Receptions: Arrive on time or up to 15-min late.  The venue may not be open earlier.
  • Barbecues and Most Informal Gatherings: Arrive on time or up to 15-min late.  Don’t arrive earlier as the host may be finalizing their preparations.  The exception to this is if the household you are visiting has cultural differences.  For more details on how different countries view punctuality visit Fashionably Early, On Time, or Fashionably Late. 

To find out more about how other countries typically view punctuality and how many minutes is too late to arrive visit my Punctuality by Country summary page.  

Greetings and Farewells

Friends greeting each other at a bar
Friends meeting each other | Photo by Mast3r, Depositphotos
Two people wearing masks and waving to each other
People waving to each other while masked | Photo by Nicomenijes, Depositphotos

Unless people are really close or are in high social circles, Americans don’t typically hug or kiss each others’ cheeks.  They usually just shake hands.  Those who remain cautious of Covid keep a safe distance from each other (e.g. 6-feet or 2-meters) and may just wave.

Typical greetings and farewells:

  • • Handshakes: Greetings and farewells during business meetings consist of a firm handshake.  Similarly, greetings, introductions, and farewells between men on other occasions (formal or informal) are also firm handshakes.  Women also shake hands during business exchanges and introductions; during informal events, however, women can simply wave.
  • • Waving: The default greeting and farewell during informal gatherings is a simple wave accompanied with or without a verbal “hello” or “bye.”
  • • Hugs: These are reserved for close friends and family

Uncommon greetings:

  • • Kisses: Air kisses or kisses on the cheek should be withheld unless the other person initiates.  It is difficult to tell if someone culturally practices this type of exchange even if ethnically they appear like they would.  The US has many second, third, and fourth generation immigrants who are unaware of ancestral traditions.  Socially, some upper class socialites practice air kisses; but again, wait for the other person to initiate.
  • • Bows: Bows are not used in the US except between ethnic cultures.  Wait to see if the other person will initiate a bow. It is difficult to tell if someone culturally practices this type of exchange even if ethnically they appear like they would.  The US has many second, third, and fourth generation immigrants who are unaware of ancestral traditions.  But if the person speaks your language they have a higher probability of reciprocating your bow.

Personal Space

Someone to close to another disturbing their space
Someone getting too close to another, disturbing their personal space | Photo by Oocuskun, Depositphotos

Americans value wide space around them.

People in the US keep at least an arm’s length distance from each other during greetings, conversations, farewells, and just being next to someone.  This distance is called their “Personal Space” or “Personal Bubble.”  Do not invade this space or else they will feel uncomfortable, threatened, or harassed.  If someone steps back away from you that is a sure sign that you are too close.

Gifts for Your Host

Woman carrying a bottle of wine, gift, and flowers to a party
Guest carrying gifts for the party host | Photo by Nicoletaionescu, Depositphotos

If someone invites you to their house it is customary to bring a token gift for the host.  This is typically wine, flowers, or a token souvenir from your home country.  If you attend an event at a restaurant or other venue, you do not need to bring a gift unless it is a birthday party; if it is a birthday, just give the birthday celebrant a wrapped gift or gift card in a birthday card.

If you are attending a potluck you will be asked to contribute something for the gathering (e.g. food, drinks, plates, cups, utensils, etc).  You typically never gift your host cash.  But there are exceptions.

Do not give cash to your host unless:

  1. They specifically ask each guest to split the cost of ordering food for the party;
  2. You are paying for your own meal + tax and gratuity at a restaurant during a group gathering; or
  3. Your friend, date, or acquaintance asks you to “Go Dutch”, which means to split the bill in half or pay your share of the meal + tax and gratuity.

Recommended Gifts:

Think of something the host or their family can enjoy by themselves after the event.  Don’t expect them to open it or use it while you are there.  It is okay if they do though.

  • • New bottle of wine (if the host is of legal drinking age in the US, 21 years or older)
  • • Bouquet of flowers
  • • Box of chocolates or candy
  • • Toy(s) for kids
  • • Souvenir from your country

Do Not Gift the Following:

  • • Fast food or other take-out
  • • Personal care items (i.e. toiletries)
  • • Money (unless it is a gift card inside a card with envelope for a birthday or wedding)

Where to Sit

Row of bar stools
Row of bar seating | Photo by Hasenokel, Depositphotos

Americans value their space and privacy.  When eating they do not like to sit with or continually chat with strangers.  By default always choose a table that is unoccupied.  Communal tables are less common in the US.

At the bar or places where long communal tables are present, choose a seat that is furthest from others (or at least one seat over if available).  But if you have to sit down next to a stranger, first ask if the seat is already taken.  

If you are at a table-service restaurant a host will designate which table you will be sitting at.  Similarly, if you are at a hosted event your host will let you know where they would like you to sit.  Formal or ticketed events will have a seating chart to map out which table or seat you are assigned.

Eating Utensils

Utensil set with fork, knife, spoon, soup spoon
Set of utensils | Photo by Kornienkoalex, Depositphotos

Americans typically eat with a fork, spoon, and knife. At ethnic restaurants you may find additional alternatives (e.g. chopsticks), but you can always ask for a spoon or fork.

Table Settings

These are examples of basic, informal, and formal table settings.

Illustration of basic table setting
Basic table setting | Illustration by Commonthings, Depositphotos

Basic table settings may be set up with a fork and knife.  Alternatively you may just be given a spoon and/or a fork.  Paper napkins are typical.

Illustration of informal table setting
Casual table setting | Illustration by Commonthings, Depositphotos

Casual settings for lunch at a table service restaurant may include a bread plate & butter knife, salad fork (outer), fork (inner), knife, spoon, dessert spoon, and cloth napkin. 

Illustration of formal table setting
Formal table setting | Illustration by Commonthings, Depositphotos

There are multiple levels of formality.  But generally you will see an additional fork and knife for eating your salad and a cake fork in addition to the dessert spoon towards the top of your plate.  If you see a second spoon on your right, it may be for soup.

Formal dinner place setting
Formal dinner place setting | Illustration by Aurielaki, Depositphotos

As far as which utensil to use when, remember “outside in”.  Use the outside fork and knife first, then work your way to the inner set of utensils with each progressive course.  Specialized utensils will be delivered with each dish that requires them (e.g. steak knife).  If there is a fork on the right side, that is an oyster fork (aka seafood fork) for shellfish.  The oyster fork is the only fork that is ever placed towards the right next to your spoon(s).

Holding a Fork and Knife

In formal settings (i.e. business dinners and where you want to impress), proper decorum calls for continental style eating.

Continental holding of fork and knife
Continental holding of fork and knife | Photo by Taigi, Depositphotos

To eat Continental Style in formal settings:

  1. Hold your fork in your left hand with tines pointed down and your knife in your right hand.
  2. Cut one bite-sized piece.
  3. Use your knife to guide food on top of fork if not pierced.
  4. Bring food to your mouth to eat while keeping fork tines pointed down.
  5. Fork and knife remains in your hands while eating; but if you need to put it down to grab something else (e.g. glass), place them on top of your plate or off to its sides.
  6. Repeat until done. 

But this is the Wild West after all. Americans tend to be more casual about holding a fork. You will see it held tines up or down and switched readily between hands to bring food to the mouth.  In formal settings, some Americans may start off cutting continental style but still switch up hands to eat.

American style fork holding
American style fork holding | Photo by Bloodua, Depositphotos

To eat American Style in informal settings:

  1. Hold your fork in your left hand with tines pointed down and your knife in your right hand. 
  2. Cut your food with your fork and knife (you can prep a few bitefulls).*
  3. Pierce one bite size (if applicable, such as for meat).
  4. Place your knife down on your plate.
  5. Switch your fork to your right hand with tines up.
  6. If you don’t have pierced food at this point, use the fork to scoop a portion.
  7. Bring food to your mouth and eat.
  8. Switch your fork back to your left hand again with tines down and pick up your knife.
  9. Repeat until done.

*Variation: Some Americans will cut their food by using the side of their fork instead of using a knife.  This again is just for casual settings.

Finger Foods to Eat With Your Hands

Holding out slice of pizza
Offering a slice as pizza as a finger food | Photo by Milkos, Depositphotos

You would typically use your fork, spoon, and knife for meals in the US.  But the following foods are considered finger foods that you customarily eat with your hands except during formal events:

Appetizers, Snacks, and Sides:

  • • French Fries
  • • Potato Wedges
  • • Waffle Fries
  • • Onion Rings
  • • Tater Tots
  • • Mozzarella Sticks
  • • Broccoli Bites
  • • Bread, Rolls, & Pitas
  • • Vegetable Crudités
  • • Cheese & Crackers
  • • Spring Rolls
  • • Summer Rolls
  • • Chips
  • • Crackers
  • • Pretzels
  • • Popcorn

Main Dishes:

  • • Fried Chicken
  • • Chicken Nuggets
  • • Burgers
  • • Hot Dogs
  • • Corn Dogs
  • • Sandwiches
  • • Wraps
  • • Tacos
  • • Burritos
  • • Nachos
  • • Pizza
  • • Barbecue Ribs
  • • French Toast Sticks

Desserts:

  • • Cookies
  • • Cupcakes
  • • Donuts
  • • Macarons
  • • Macaroons
  • • Biscotti
  • • Churros
  • • Whoopie Pies
  • • Candy
  • • Ice Cream on a Cone
  • • Popsicles

Napkins

Paper napkins folded
Paper napkins folded | Photo by Magone, Depositphotos

Napkins are always provided for table service and usually for counter service (but it may be self-serve from napkin dispensers, especially at fast food restaurants).  If you need more napkins it is okay to ask for extra.

In formal settings, when you are seated immediately unfold your napkin and lay it on top of your lap.  If you need to leave during a meal, place your napkin on your chair (not the table). When you are done with your meal, place your napkin neatly folded back on top of the table next to your plate.

In casual settings, people really don’t care what you do with your napkin (especially if it is just made of paper).  The only thing that matters is that you don’t litter.  It is irresponsible and there may be fines for tossing it not in a trash can.  

Which is My Bread or Water?

Round table place setting
Round table place setting | Photo by Antoniotruzzi, Depositphotos

BMW

Bread, Meal, Water.

Think “BMW”.  Your bread plate is on your left, meal is in the middle, and water glass is to your right.

b d

Bread & Drink

Another way to remember is to form a “b” and “d” with your hands.  “b” for bread (which is on your left) and “d” for drink (which is on your right). So now you know which bread plate and glass is yours.

Passing Food

Passing food around table
Passing food around table | Photo by Pressmaster, Depositphotos

If you want to be formal, at the beginning of a meal ‘modern etiquette’ says to pass food counterclockwise to the right. If it is bread, offer it first to the person on your left, then take a piece for yourself, and pass the bread basket to the person on your right.  The exception to this is if you are in a military setting where bread is passed from right to left (clockwise) or if your party goes by the ‘historical rationale’ that most people are right-handed so you should pass serving plates from right to left so guests can select food with their dominant hand.

As a guest, you are better off just following other people’s lead.  Pass plates in the same direction so everyone has the opportunity to grab food.

Regardless if you start counterclockwise or clockwise, once everyone has been initially served, during the meal do what is easiest and pass food and bread in any direction. If someone asks you specifically for something, just pass it to them.  If you are not close enough to reach them, then pass it around.  Likewise, don’t reach across the table for something far away; ask someone closer to pass it to you.

Superstition on Passing Salt

Salt and pepper shakers on table
Salt and pepper shakers on table | Photo by Tamifreed, Depositphotos

One more thing on passing etiquette.  If someone asks you for salt, pass them both the salt & pepper and place it directly on the table (i.e. not in their hands). There is a superstition that if salt spills, you will get bad luck. But don’t worry if it does. There is a counter curse.  Yay.  Just take a pinch of the spilled salt and throw it over your left shoulder. Problem solved!

Pouring Drinks

Waiter pouring wine for diner
Waiter pouring wine for diner | Photo by Vitalikradko, Depositphotos

If your cup/glass is empty there are a number of ways that you can get it topped off.  For table service, ask your waiter if you can get a refill.  If you bought a bottle of wine at a fine dining establishment, your waiter or sommelier will pour it for you; you can of course pour more yourself if they are busy.  For afternoon tea, your waiter will also refill your teacup if you haven’t done so already.  For self-serve drink stations at counter service establishments, ask the cashier if beverages are free to refill. 

As far as etiquette, when you are out with friends or colleagues and there is a communal pitcher or bottle at your table, to be hospitable you can pass it along or offer to pour it for someone if if their glass looks low.  But when it comes to tea or alcohol in the US, unlike other cultures, there is no superstition against pouring your own glass or a fixed tradition to pour for others.

Slurp or No Slurp?

Woman eating soup
Woman eating soup | Photo by CITAlliance, Depositphotos

No slurping. 

In the US, it is considered rude to slurp, chew with your mouth kept open, or make other food smacking noises.

Eating the Last Piece of Food

Of a little take a little, manners so to do; of a little leave a little, that is manners too” 

–A Way With Words podcast “Last Piece of Food

Last piece of pie
Last piece of pie | Photo by NatashaBreen, Depositphotos

Did you know there is an actual word or phrase for the last piece of food? It is called the “mannersbit” or “manners piece.” In Spanish it is “la vergüenza” meaning “the shame.” A Way With Words had a fun podcast about these phrases which included the fun doggerel poem quoted above. I am not sure who the original author was.

But the general premise is to ‘save face’ (or avoid humiliation) for your host. By not eating the last piece, you are assuring your host that they made enough food for everyone to eat. If the last piece is eaten, then there wasn’t enough food prepared; this infers that they were a bad host. So, if you want to be a gracious guest at someone’s house or event, take food in moderation and do not eat the last piece.

But what if you still want to eat that last bit? In the US, to minimize shame, out of courtesy offer it to the people next to you first. If they decline, go for it. But if you are eating in another country or at someone’s house, their customs and etiquette prevails on whether or not you should even consider taking the mannersbit. It may be more than just embarrassment at stake; you may inadvertently cause dishonor or disrespect.  It is better to be civil than rude.

Insult to Leave Food on Your Plate?

Unfinished plate of food
Unfinished plate of food | Photo by New_Photos, Depositphotos

Generally no in the US.

It is okay if you don’t finish everything.  You will not bother anyone.  It matters more that you don’t leave a ton of food remaining on your plate.  Your host will wonder if there was something wrong with the meal or you didn’t like it.

Please note, if you are invited to a meal and your host is from a different culture follow your host’s lead.  See Dining Etiquette by Country and whether or not to finish what’s on your plate.  

Okay to Pack Leftovers?

Various takeout containers
Various takeout containers | Photo by Fotofabrika, Depositphotos

Yes at most restaurants, unless at a buffet or an all-you-can-eat meal.

It is not unusual in the US to ask for a “To-Go Box” or “Doggy Bag” to package your remaining food to go.  I do it all the time to save leftovers for lunch the next day.  The only time I wouldn’t recommend asking to pack leftovers is if you are at a party, business luncheon/dinner, formal event, or will be going somewhere for an extended period of time before your food can be stored safely in a refrigerator.

Buffets and all-you-can-eat restaurants will not usually let you take food home.  If they do allow you take leftovers, you are often charged an additional premium.  At some buffets, if you leave an excessive amount of food on your plate they will charge you a penalty for waste.

Getting the Bill

Signaling for waiter to come over
Signaling for waiter to come over | Photo by Vitalikradko, Depositphotos

For table service, ask for the bill from your waiter.  Most servers will wait until you appear to be done before delivering your check but some may drop it off sooner (e.g. if the restaurant will be closing soon).  For counter service you will pay when you order.

To hail your waiter, when you see them make eye contact, lift your hand up briefly, and then bring your hand back down.  

If you are ordering with a group, it is customary to contribute enough money to cover your portion of the bill (including tax and tip).  Unlike other cultures which traditionally have people compete for who pays for the whole meal, in the US if you are invited to go out to eat you are usually expected to still pay for your own food and drinks.  A common exception to this though is if an employer says he will treat his employees. 

Who Should Pay?

Couple paying bill for dinner at a fine dining restaurant
Couple paying bill for dinner at a fine dining restaurant | Photo by Vitalikradko, Depositphotos

In the US, everyone is expected to pay their own share of the cost including tax and tip.  This holds true even if you were invited by someone. 

The exception to this is if you are at a business outing and the boss says they will pay or your expenses are covered by the company.  The other exception is after a few playful back-and-forths, where you motion to pay for the bill (or just your share) and your host insists that they pay for everyone.  If they say, “It is an insult to not let them pay” then let them pay. 

Please note, some people are not polite enough to follow this ‘fight for the bill’ ritual; if you offer to pay the bill some may not even pretend to resist your offer and expect you to pay outright.

Give money to pay for YOUR SHARE if:

  1. Going out with friends or acquaintances, even if invited;
  2. You are specifically asked to split the cost of a group event/catering/delivery/take-out;
  3. You are ordering food or drinks for yourself at work;
  4. Your friend, date, or acquaintance asks you to “Go Dutch”, which means to split the bill in half or pay your share of the meal + tax and gratuity.

SPLIT THE COST of the bill:

  1. Split the Bill Evenly: Everyone pays the same amount if you agree to “Split the bill evenly.” To calculate, divide the total, including tax and tip, by the number of participants.  Someone will propose the tip rate, usually 15-20%.  But if you are dining at a restaurant with groups of 6 or more a set tip rate may already be built into the bill by the restaurant (e.g. 18% gratuity).
  2. Go Dutch: Everyone agrees to either splits the bill evenly or pay for their own share of the bill, tax, and gratuity.  You can ask, “Do you want to split evenly or each person’s share?”
  3. Pay for Kids: If you are dining with children, adults cover the cost of kids meals and do not expect them to pay.  Please note, however, there are rude adults that will not reciprocate this for your kids; always give your children money to pay for their own expenses in case the chaperone is not polite enough to cover them.

Pay for the ENTIRE BILL if:

  1. You are the boss;
  2. You are the host;
  3. You are taking care of children;
  4. You are on a date (In the US typically gentlemen pay for ladies; but if your date asks you to “Go Dutch” it is okay to split the bill evenly or each other’s share);
  5. You would like to offer it as a thank you gift;
  6. If you are okay with loaning someone money (e.g. they forgot their wallet and they said they would pay you back)

NEVER GIVE MONEY to your host for invitations to:

  1. Birthday Parties (unless you are giving a gift card within a birthday card as a gift)
  2. Dinner Parties
  3. Barbecues
  4. Parties at someone’s home
  5. Potlucks (unless the organizer is specifically asking everyone to contribute money for catering)
  6. Weddings (unless the bride or groom specifically ask for cash in lieu of gifts as wedding presents; cash or check in a wedding card is acceptable in that instance)
  7. Business outings (unless you are paying for your tickets to an event that is not covered by the company)

Tip or No Tip?

Paying the bill with pay terminal
Paying the bill with waiter’s pay terminal | Photo by Vitalikradko, Depositphotos

Yes tip. 

Like it or not, the US has a deeply embedded tipping culture.  Workers depend on it for a livable wage. 

For counter and table service, it is typically 15-20% of your pre-tax subtotal.  At the bar it is $1 per beer and $1-2 per cocktail (or 15-18% of the final bill; if paying in cash, round up to the next dollar bill, no coins).  You do not need to tip at fast food restaurants and drive-thrus. 

In the US you are able to pay for tip using your credit card.  There will either be a tip line on your credit card slip to write in your desired gratuity or you can select a tip percentage on a pay terminal.  Alternatively, you always have the option to pay for tip with cash.

For more details read our USA Tipping Guide.

Forms of Payment Accepted

Tap to pay at restaurant
Tap to pay at restaurant | Photo by Vitalikradko, Depositphotos

Cash is usually preferred but the US is not a cash-based society.  Credit cards for your bill and gratuity are readily accepted at most establishments; the type of cards that can be processed will be displayed on either the store window, register or menu (most take Visa or Mastercard).  Food carts are usually cash only. 

During the Covid pandemic, contactless payment in the US rose in popularity (e.g. credit card, Apple Pay, or Google Pay).  Some counter service restaurants may even require you to order and pay ahead of time before arriving (through a website or mobile application). 

Currently there is a nationwide coin shortage.  If you do pay with cash, be prepared with exact change.  If you pay with credit card, Visa and Mastercard are the most widely accepted forms of payment.

Restrooms

Travel Phrase:

Restrooms in the US are called:

  • Bathroom Restroom Toilet

To find out where they are located use the following phrase:

  • Where is the bathroom?

Men’s restrooms are usually marked with a symbol similar to the following:

  • Symbols for men's restroom

Women’s restrooms are usually marked with a symbol similar to the following:

  • Symbols for women's restroom

Restrooms designated as FAMILY, UNISEX, or simply as RESTROOM are for any gender to use:

  • Unisex Restroom

Availability:

Most but not all restaurants have a free restroom for customers to use.  Usually stores have a separate restroom for men and women, some may have a ‘family’ or ‘unisex’ restroom.  Smaller establishments have a single restroom for all patrons.  Restaurants in a mall or larger building may share restroom facilities with other stores.  Fairs and festivals will usually only have outdoor portable toilets with hand sanitizer pumps (also known as porta-potty or porta-john). 

Special note for international travelers.  Urinating or defecating in public (i.e. outside of restrooms) is illegal in the United States.  Offenders will be charged with indecent exposure or public lewdness; this in turn may result in having to be registered as a sex-offender.

Architecture:

US restrooms are equipped with western sit-down toilets with flush levers.  The biggest culture shock for most international travelers is that stall doors usually don’t extend all the way up to the ceiling and down to the floor (i.e. legs and feet will be partially exposed). 

Larger stalls with higher from the ground toilet seats are customarily for handicapped visitors or parents with small children; these stalls usually have diaper changing tables attached to the wall (if they are not already out in the common areas).  But if there is a long line for the restroom use any stall that becomes available.

Equipment and Supplies:

Indoor restrooms are stocked with toilet paper, plumbed sinks, hand soap, and something to dry your hands with (paper towels, hand dryer, or linen).  If a restroom is running low on supplies let a staff member know.  But if you are attending a fair or festival, nobody will be readily available to refill hand sanitizing stations so it is best to bring your own bottle.  

Diaper Changing Stations:

Diaper changing tables are usually in the women’s restroom somewhere on a wall and/or inside the handicap stall; unfortunately men’s restrooms rarely have a folding changing table.  As a parent safety tip, if you do use a changing table, wipe it down or cover the table with a changing pad or paper towels for sanitary reasons. 

Bathroom Attendants:

Note, some clubs, casinos, restaurants, and high end establishments may have a restroom attendant who hands out towels; they double up as a deterrent for criminal behavior and may or may not be the same person who cleans the restroom.  You are not obligated to tip if they only hand you a towel.  If you do tip, spare change or a dollar is fine on your first trip to the restroom and not necessary for subsequent visits; but if you take an item from their courtesy basket (e.g. candy, mouthwash, hairspray, sanitary napkin, etc.) or ask for additional assistance then kindly leave at least $1-2 in their tip jar.  Toiletries may come out of the attendant’s own expense and the attendant’s salary may be based solely on tips.  As awkward as it is to have the attendant there in the first place, seriously consider leaving a consolation tip if you leave the stall embarrassingly smelly. 

Last updated August 24, 2023 by Jacyln