18 Things Not to Do in the United States

Traveling to the United States may be an exciting and eye-opening experience. However, there are certain cultural norms and unwritten rules that visitors should be aware of to prevent awkward or even dangerous situations. Here are 18 things not to do when visiting the US.

Tipping is Expected

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In the US, tipping isn’t just a nice gesture. It’s an essential part of the service industry. Waitstaff, bartenders, and other service workers sometimes rely on tips for a large amount of their earnings. So, when you’re eating out or taking a cab, remember to give a tip, which is normally between 15-20% of the total bill. Skipping this can be considered extremely disrespectful and may result in dirty glances or even a lecture about American customs.

Being Loud in Public Spaces

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Americans are typically polite and outgoing, but there is a line when it comes to volume, particularly in public places such as restaurants, subways, and theaters. Speaking loudly or making a scene can attract unwanted attention and make people uncomfortable. It’s always a good idea to use your indoor voice while out and about. Consider it a sign of respect for people around you who may prefer a more peaceful environment.

Not Giving People Personal Space

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Unlike some cultures where intimate closeness is the norm, Americans tend to keep some distance, particularly with strangers. Maintaining an arm’s length distance is often appreciated whether waiting in queue, going to the grocery store, or talking with someone new. Invading someone’s personal space may make them feel uncomfortable or even threatened.

Making Assumptions

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In America, making assumptions about someone’s background, beliefs or lifestyle is one of the quickest ways to offend someone. The US is a melting pot of cultures and viewpoints, so approach conversations with an open mind and avoid stereotypes. Instead of making assumptions, ask questions and demonstrate genuine curiosity in hearing about other people’s experiences.

Political Talk at the Dinner Table

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Politics can be an explosive subject anywhere, but in the US it’s usually best to avoid discussing politics at social gatherings, especially with people you don’t know well. Dinner parties and casual get-togethers are often intended to be light and entertaining, and discussing politics can quickly make things controversial. Save those debates for more appropriate times.

Disrespecting the Flag

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The American flag holds a lot of significance and respect for many people in the US. Disrespecting the flag, whether by mishandling it, wearing it incorrectly, or making disparaging remarks, can upset many people. It is regarded as a symbol of the country’s principles and liberties, thus treat it with the same respect as any other significant symbol.

Not Engaging in Small Talk

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Small talk is a social lubricant in the US. It’s how people communicate and show kindness. Whether you’re waiting in line, speaking with a cashier, or meeting someone new, making small talk about the weather, sports, or other neutral topics can go a long way. It may appear insignificant, but it’s how Americans build relationships and make each other feel comfortable.

Left Lane Driving

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In the US, the left lane on highways is usually dedicated to passing. If you cruise along in the left lane with no intention of passing, you are sure to irritate other drivers and may even cause traffic problems. For regular driving, stick to the right lanes, and only use the left lane to pass slower vehicles.

Bribing Cops

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Bribery of a police officer is a serious crime in the United States that can result in severe legal consequences. If you find yourself in difficulties with the law, you should comply respectfully and resolve any concerns through legal means. Offering money or favors to a cop can swiftly worsen the situation and get you in deeper trouble.

Getting Out of the Car When a Cop Pulls You Over

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If you are pulled over by the police, remain in your vehicle with your hands visible, usually on the steering wheel. Getting out of the car may be viewed as a threat, making the police suspicious. Wait for the officer to approach and issue instructions.

Making Jokes about Bombs and Security at Airports

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Airport security in the US is no joke. Making comments or jokes about bombs, weapons, or anything linked to security can result in severe consequences, including imprisonment. TSA agents and other security workers must take any potential threat seriously, so keep your remarks light and unrelated to security concerns when at the airport. 

Not Understanding Drinking Laws

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The legal drinking age in the US is 21, and the law is strongly enforced. If you’re under this age, it’s illegal to buy or consume alcohol in public. Open container laws also differ by state, but many places restrict open alcohol containers in public areas. To prevent fines and legal issues, become familiar with local legislation. 

Improper Store Behavior

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When shopping in the U.S., certain behaviors are expected. Standard norms include waiting in line, not eating or drinking before paying for products, and treating store staff with respect. Also, be aware of store restrictions about returns and exchanges, as certain businesses have strict rules that you must follow.

Taking Photos Without Permission

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In the US, it is customary to ask permission before photographing someone, particularly in private or semi-private settings. While it is normal to photograph landmarks or public events, photographing people without their permission can be considered intrusive and insulting. Always ask first to avoid misunderstandings and negative reactions.

Ignoring Local Dress Codes

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While many places in the United States are casual, several establishments and events have strict dress codes. Ignoring these can make you stand out negatively. Exclusive restaurants, nightclubs, and formal events might require elegant clothing. Checking beforehand and dressing appropriately demonstrates respect for the establishment and its patrons.

Not Paying Sales Tax

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Remember that the price tag isn’t the total amount you pay in the US. Sales tax is charged at the point of sale and varies by state and region. When budgeting for shopping, always include an additional percentage to cover taxes.

Not Understanding Restaurant Etiquette

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In American restaurants, there are some unspoken rules.  Wait to be seated unless there is a clear sign inviting you to seat yourself, and don’t wave your hand or snap your fingers to gain a server’s attention.

Ignoring Traffic Signals and Signs

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Whether you’re driving or walking, always obey traffic signals, stop signs, and pedestrian crossings. Running a red light or jaywalking can result in dangerous situations and legal consequences.

About the author
Amy Watkins

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