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10 American Culture No-Nos

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

You may believe that most Americans are extremely easygoing, that they freely say and do whatever they like. It's a myth. It isn't true. Surprisingly, many Americans are quite traditional. There are certain things they feel uncomfortable talking about; many things that unaware travelers might do which could make them uneasy. An obvious example might be, say, tickling a local on the street with a falcon feather -- a bad idea. But some things are less obvious. If you travel to the magical land of the USA there are a few things you should NOT do if you want to be liked. This kind of social mistake is called a faux pas (fo pa).

So, here are 10 American faux pas:

10. Giving someone a dead fish

Shaking hands is a common greeting for both men and women in the USA. When you are introduced to others you may need to shake hands. It’s most common when you meet coworkers or not-so-close friends (some friends prefer to hug), and often when saying goodbye. It’s important to keep in mind that a handshake should be firm. That means, it should be strong enough to show confidence but not so strong that you seem aggressive. I remember my father always told me, ‘don’t give anyone a dead fish, son.' So, if you need to shake hands in the US, have a firm grip but don’t try to break the other person’s hand.

9. Not making eye contact

Not meeting people’s eyes when you talk to them is a particularly strong faux pas in the USA, though it is common in other cultures too. Americans will feel they can’t really communicate with someone unless that person is looking at them. That doesn’t mean you have to stare at them without blinking like a mystified salmon, but at least some eye contact is necessary. Also, don’t look at your phone when they are talking.

8. Calling a million times and taking every call

If you are talking with someone in a real situation, don't answer a phone call unless it is really really important--pizza delivery qualifies. Dismissing the call or putting it on silent shows that you care more about the conversation. It's polite. Also, only call someone once or twice. Don't keep calling until they answer. It's considered rude to pester people until they call you back.

7. Reaching across the table

At dinner, avoid reaching for anything. If your hand crosses another person’s plate or even passes in front of it, you’ll be lucky to escape with your life. Americans at dinner consider it polite to ask for things needed and not give others anything unless it’s asked for. Don’t eat off another person’s plate either.

6. Burping and elbows

Burping is a big no-no. When I was a little boy I burped loudly at the table and my father sent me away to live in the woods for three years so that I would ‘learn my lesson’ (I’m kidding. It was five years.) Almost as bad is resting your elbows on the table.

5. Not Tipping

I’ve covered this before in a previous post, but in American restaurants and bars, you should tip. This doesn’t include fast food places like KFC or Burger King, but service jobs depend on tips. If you don’t tip, don’t return to that place.

4. Pushing choices on people

Freedom of choice is a big one in the USA. At dinner, don’t ask anyone to eat anything or tell them what they should choose. Don’t put anything on their plate and don’t ask them if they want something twice. Americans value their freedom to choose with an almost pathetic desperation (Coke is for me and Pepsi is rubbish). In America, sadly, our choices define us. So, it’s better to ask someone what they want.

3. Racism / bigotry

Showing hatred for certain races or groups other than your own is looked down upon in America; it’s really uncool. If you hate a certain group of people (I'm talking to you, Stupid), keep it to yourself. America used to be a very racist and hateful place, but in recent years it has become much more open and equal (at least, publicly). So, expressing these kinds of attitudes will only make others think you are an unsavory outsider, ironically.

2. Being too critical of American culture

Unless you know the people you are talking to very well, it’s a good idea not to go out of your way to insult or criticize the country you are visiting. You’ve probably heard of American freedom of speech, and maybe you’re looking forward to insulting as many things as possible. Well, you can if you really want to, but it might not get you many friends. I can say, ‘I think Obama is a big-eared dingus,’ if I want because I come from the USA and it’s my duty to be critical, but it isn’t as acceptable to do so as an outsider visiting the states, at least not in the eyes of the average American.

1. Haggling / trying to bargain

Bargaining isn’t really a thing in America. If your neighbor is selling his 1937 Toyota Mustang, sure, haggling will happen, but in shops and markets, prices are listed. If they are, don’t even think about asking for a lower price. If you do, my dad will find you and force you to live in the woods for 3 years.

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