"Excuse me?!" - A USA etiquette guide

On your first visit to the United States, things can get embarrassing if you aren't familiar with the unwritten laws of American coexistence. Learn how to avoid the typical mistakes many tourists make in the USA.

"Why is everyone staring?" For many US visitors, it's quite a surprise when they slip up for the first time in contact with American.

The United States seems familiar to us, but the unwritten rules of everyday American life often remain hidden from us in movies and books. So if you're planning your first trip to the United States, a crash course in American etiquette really can't hurt.

Here are the 20 most common mistakes made by tourists to the States, and a few tips on how to avoid putting your foot in your mouth:

1. Under-tipping

In restaurants or for other services in the USA, you should allow for a generous tip of at least 15% - ideally even 20%.

Tipping too little in the United States is no way to make friends. Because of the low wages for certain professions, the tips for waiters, cab drivers, hairdressers, and other service staff in the USA are essential for survival.

2. Disregarding the American Flag Code

Nowadays, using the "Stars & Stripes" in the USA is not seen quite as strictly, but as a foreigner, you should not be too lax with the so-called "Flag Code."

The "United States Flag Code" lays down rules for using the national flag of the United States of America. For example, it should not cover any person or object, never touch the ground, and never hang near an advertising sign.

3. Smoking in public places

The American Non-Smoking Protection Act was created to save your fellow citizens from "second-hand smoke." However, it is interpreted slightly differently in each US state.

Smoking is prohibited on most beaches and in many parks. Even on your own balcony, you may be fined. To be safe, you should only smoke in designated areas in the US. If you are unsure, look for a public ashtray or ask the locals.

4. Using the metric system

If you don't want people to give you puzzled looks in a conversation with an American about temperatures, distances, weights, or quantities, learn the difference between the units of measurement beforehand.

Meters, liters, and kilos won't get you far in the USA. The Anglo-American system of measurement consists of pounds, gallons, miles, ounces, inches, yards, quarts, and - unfortunately - degrees Fahrenheit. Looks like you're in for another lesson.

5. Fueling without a plan

If you drive up to a gas station in the USA, get out of your car and just pick up the nozzle, you're likely to get some confused looks. This is because there are different procedures for refueling depending on the gas station.

First, make sure you're not at a "full service" station, where a service employee takes care of everything. Then look for the credit card slot at the pump or go directly to the counter: in the United States, you must pay before filling up or deposit money or your credit card as security.

6. Public drinking

You may love a “beer to go” in your home country, but In the USA, it's best not to enjoy alcohol in public places.

Alcohol laws in the United States are strict, and public consumption is prohibited in most places. If you don't want to give up your beer outdoors, it has to go in a bag. You're probably familiar with the so-called “brown-bagging” from television. By the way, public drinking is neither cool nor hip in the US but rather considered primitive.

7. Jokes at the US border

To lighten the tense atmosphere at the border crossing into the USA, many tourists resort to their more or less good humor. Unfortunately, this can go very wrong.

The scowling officer at the US border is serious for a very good reason: it's his job to ensure the homeland security of the United States of America. If you make a joke during the questioning, at best, you will only earn an eye roll from the surrounding travelers. In the worst case, however, you could risk your entry permit.

8. Table manners in a US restaurant

In American restaurants, there are a few rules you should know to avoid slipping up.

Reserve a seat beforehand and upon arrival, remain in the reception area until you are assigned a table. Finally, when a delicious burger is in front of you, just start eating. “Enjoy your meal” or "Bon appetit"-wishing is rather uncommon in the US.

At best, you eat your burger with your hands because some Americans call it "blasphemy" to eat fast food with a knife and fork. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio once got a sense of that when he was photographed eating pizza with cutlery. New York Magazine called this incident a "disaster.”

9. Sending WhatsApp messages to Americans

What is taken for granted in other countries is nowhere near as common in the USA: communicating via WhatsApp. Therefore, don't assume that your messages will reach new contacts in the US.

The USA's market for cell phone contracts is dominated by flat rates for text messages and free phone minutes. On the other hand, data packages are comparatively expensive in the States, which makes communication via WhatsApp rather unattractive. Therefore, you should refrain from sending unsolicited pictures, voice messages, or videos to your new American friends.

10. Writing long emails

Perhaps your visit to the USA is a short business trip with an ESTA travel permit. In that case, you will certainly have to clarify a few things by email around the meeting with your business partners. The rule here is: keep it short!

Hardly anything is more off-putting to Americans than long texts in emails. That's why they are always written in telegram style. It may seem rude to you, but it saves an enormous amount of time. Despite the brevity, always pay attention to the correct spelling and do not use abbreviations or slang.

11. Not knowing the dating rules

Have you fallen in love with an American? Congratulations! And: Beware, because the American dating rules can be a real cultural shock.

The first thing you should do is ask him or her out. The word "date" is important here because it is, so to speak, the code word for "this is more than friendship".

On the first date, you need to clarify in advance who is going to pay the bill. Otherwise, it will be awkward! Then comes a second date - for this, one of you must get in touch within three days. On the third date, it's finally clear: you are now a couple and may kiss!

12. Wandering around without your Green Card

You just won a Green Card? Great! You can now live and work in the USA permanently. But be careful: You must carry the Green Card with you at all times!

Under Section 264(e) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.), you may be fined up to $100 if you are caught without your Green Card. In cases of hardship, you may even be imprisoned for 30 days..

Apart from that, you will have to present your Green Card regularly during your life in the USA, e.g., when opening a bank account, acquiring an American driver's license, or applying for a job in the USA.

13. Bringing Kinder Surprise to the USA

The entry requirements for the USA hold many surprises in store - or maybe not, because Surprise Eggs are banned in the United States.

If you don't want trouble at the border, better leave the thrilling sweets at home. The reason for the egg ban in the USA is the non-edible toy inside, which US authorities believe poses a safety risk due to potential ingestion.

14. Forgetting Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day has a great significance in the USA. That's why you should not only remember it but also know the most important unwritten laws about the celebration of lovers.

What is needed is a little Valentine's greeting to everyone you like. Otherwise, someone might be offended. Friends, acquaintances, relatives, colleagues, and even teachers should get a little heartfelt greeting on this day.

15. Ignoring someone

If someone approaches you on the street in the USA, you should not ignore that person and just keep walking.

Not responding to a friendly approach seems extremely strange to Americans. In the US, it is completely normal for strangers to talk to each other in public. Don't worry: Afterwards, everyone goes their own way, and you don't have to maintain any further contact.

16. Being opinionated

In a conversation with an American, if you think your counterpart is wrong, better keep it to yourself.

In the USA, talking back vigorously or correcting your fellow human beings in front of an audience is considered very impolite, if not even assaultive. Let others have their opinions, beliefs, and even misconceptions, or you will quickly become an outsider.

17. Wearing white clothes after Labor Day

A somewhat outdated rule, but still enforced by many older Americans, is the ban on white clothing after Labor Day on the first Monday in September.

Many Americans don't follow this rule, but you should at least be prepared in case a retiree picks a fight when you're walking around in white pants.

18. “Where is the toilet?”

A phrase that might seem quite strange to people in the USA is: "I have to go to the toilet".

Whether in a restaurant, at the airport, or in a private home, the awkward word "toilet" is avoided. Instead, it is called "restroom" or "bathroom" in the USA. Sometimes you also hear, "I have to use the facilities.”

19. Unpleasant conversation topics

You should save your political views or your opinions on sex, drugs, violence, and crime for your personal space.

Many Americans are very sensitive to delicate and polarizing topics in conversation. Anything can happen, from confused looks to avoidance of your person.

20. Police control fails

Police officers in the USA are much tougher than in many other countries. Therefore, it is important that you know the rules of conduct in police stops.

Never just get out of the car when a patrol pulls you over. Also, keep your hands on the steering wheel, the engine off, and the interior lights on if it is dark. After pulling over, wait patiently for the officer to step up to the car window, which you have previously opened completely.

To avoid stress with the police and your fellow citizens, you should also be sure to follow all applicable laws, traffic rules, and current regulations for entering the United States.

Have you already packed your bags? Then we wish you a great time without a single slip-up in the USA!

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