American Manners Customs

American Manners, Customs, and Strange Habits or What the Tourist Book Didn’t Tell You

Every culture has its own ways of doing things. There is usually a reason but that is not always apparent. Sometimes the “natives” do not observe the customs and manners but they know them anyway and it’s good for people coming into the culture to know about them. So, here goes


The best advice is to watch you host or hostess if you are not sure what to do. But here are some hints.

Americans use a napkin (yes, we know that’s what the British call a baby’s diaper, but we call it that anyway) when they eat. Unfold it and spread it over your lap, not tuck it under your chin. When the meal is over, place the unfolded napkin back on the table. If you have to leave the table during the meal lay the unfolded napkin in your chair while you are gone.

Food is picked up with a fork. You can use either your left hand or your right one but most Americans use the right hand except when cutting food when the fork is in the left and the knife in the right. If you hold the fork in the left hand you can keep your knife in the right to push the food onto the fork. If you use the right hand then a small piece of bread may be use to push things with the left hand…(yes, I have been known to use my finger to push but that’s when no one is looking!)

If you end up at a seated dinner, you might find several forks on the left of the plate and several spoons on the right. Start with the utensils that are the most far away from the plate. Or, better yet, watch what the host is doing or quietly ask someone sitting next to you.

Many individuals will say a prayer at a meal. This is called a “blessing” and you should not start to eat until your host starts so you aren’t chomping on a carrot when the prayer starts. At the blessing, close your eyes, bow your head and wait quietly until the end of the prayer which is when the person praying says “Amen”. NOW get the carrot!!

It is still considered correct for a man to seat the females at the table before he sits down. If everyone is seated and a lady comes in to join the table, the men should stand up until she is seated. (O.K., this may be a little old fashioned but it’s best to know it anyway!!)

Don’t put your elbows on the table while eating. It’s all right after the meal when you are just talking. Americans are great talkers. We talk at meals and consider them social occasions. Politics, religion are sometimes controversial so you may want to avoid them although your host may be interested in what it is like in your home country and if you feel comfortable talking about it, then that’s o.k. Keep your voice at a moderate level and keep that pleasant look on your face!

Americans chew with their mouth closed. Our mothers kept telling us to not “smack”, “slurp, “burp”, or make other strange noises while eating. We don’t always follow that rule when alone but when eating with others we try to remember.

Toothpicks are not used at the table. If you need to use one it is considered to be polite to do it in a private place or at least away from the table.

In a restaurant, to call a waiter you should attempt to catch the eye of the waiter and then raise a finger. Do not wave your arm, whistle, or call loudly. If necessary you can ask another waiter to get your waiter for you.

Tips are not added to the bill in the U.S. except in rare cases or where there is a large party, so it is proper to tip the waitress or waiter for service. The usual amount today (2001) is from 15% to 20% depending on the service and whether it’s a really nice restaurant or not. You do not tip in fast food places like McDonalds. Unlike some countries the tips go directly to the wait-staff and not to the owners. Just leave it on the table or add it to the bill if you are using a credit card.

If the food is bad, it’s not the fault of the waiter so talk to the manager and a tip would still be appropriate for the waiter.

If you drop a fork ask the waiter to get you another. It’s o.k. to either pick up the one you dropped or let the waiter do it.

If you encounter a problem in the restaurant (maybe a glass with lipstick on it or the food has been double salted) it is o.k. to tell the waiter or the manager in a nice way.

Americans are curious about food and are usually anxious to know about things you eat and how you prepare them in your homeland. It is good to explain the dishes at a meal if the friends you are with might not know the items.

If you go to a restaurant and there is food left over you can ask for a “doggy bag”. Don’t be embarrassed; remember you are trying to be as just like the local folks.

If you go to a cafeteria, you go through the line, select the food and then get a table. If you go to a restaurant you will usually see a person greeting and seating you or a sign saying, “wait to be seated”. If not, you can go ahead and find a table for yourself. If there is an eating counter in the restaurant, it is o.k. to take an empty seat at the counter even if there is a waiting line for a table.

In a cafeteria the food is displayed so as to sell as much as possible, so the desserts are usually put first. Despite this the order of food consumption in the U.S. is: salad, main course, dessert. Bread is eaten from your fingers and along with the main course and/or the salad. Most Americans do not normally serve soup.

As a student you will immediately encounter a “pizza party”. There is some question about how to eat pizza nicely but it is generally considered a finger food. You pick up a wedge shaped slice, slightly bend it down the middle (long ways) and start to eat.


Asking for “tea” in the southern U.S. will most likely get you a glass of tea with ice and sugar (and I mean a LOT of sugar). You can ask for unsweetened tea and they will have that . If you want hot tea you must say, “hot tea”. [Good luck!- but go ahead and try our tea, it’s goooood!!]

Be on time. Promptness is considered polite. If you are going to be late it is best to call and let people know.

Bathing or showering is done everyday by virtually all U.S. natives. Personal odors are not acceptable. Ninety-some percent of Americas use deodorant under the arm after each bath. (It is found in a drug store (apothecary) or near the toothpaste in all stores.

In stores or on the sidewalk try to walk to your right. This helps your get around more easily and oncoming traffic is on your left.

Observe a “personal space” around people. When talking to someone, do not stand very close. Americans do not touch much and it is not considered polite to touch a person on the shoulder or arm to gain attention. People from the southern U.S. will often hug (embrace) old friends when meeting or departing but it is probably safer to just shake hands. Persons of the same sex do not hold hands in public.

Speaking of touching….DO NOT touch or play with children unless you know them well and/ or their parents are present.

Entering a door a man can show good manners by allowing ladies through first (unless it trying to get on MARTA or something!!) or by holding the door open for a woman or the elderly. (Again this is considered “old fashioned” by the few women who insist that women be treated equally with males in all things, and you just might get into trouble”.)

Many people wear caps these days. They are still hats and fit the general rule: Men remove their hats when entering a building; women may or may not remove theirs.

Handshakes should be firm…but not bone crushing. Men stand to shake hands, women, if they are seated, may remain seated and shake. To be really technical, a lady must offer her hand to the man but not the opposite….but almost no one remembers this rule anymore; it’s sort of like the hat rule!!

If you have doubts how to dress for something, call and ask your host. If they say “casual dress”, just dress neatly in clean clothes that you would wear daily to class. [Take advantage of being around your hosts and observe how they dress so you will get an idea of how to dress the next time you are invited out].

In the event the event is “formal” men should wear a tie and/or jacket. Ladies will be dressed in dresses rather than slacks. Although they might not remind you, men wear dark socks with dark shoes on formal occasions.

Taxes are added to most items at the point of sale. This applies to food served in a restaurant. The rate of this “sales tax” varies from county to county but is usually about 8 % in the Charlote area.

Work is considered noble in the U.S. (believe it or not) and the person working at the lowest paid job is a valuable human being. It is important to always be polite and courteous to all persons.

Telephone calls are private conservations. If you have a cell phone it is NOT good manners to take calls in restaurants, movies, church, etc. If you just absolutely have to talk to someone, excuse yourself and go somewhere that you will not bother others.

Smoking is a dying habit in the U.S. Many building and businesses are smoke free environments. If you smoke, you should check to see if it is permissible. In some instances it is against the law and you could get into trouble.

You may be offered beer or wine or “whiskey”. They are all alcohol with the percent of alcohol being higher as you go from beer to whiskey. Many Americans do not drink and it is proper to ask for a soft drink, tea, or water instead.

DO NOT drink and then try to drive a car nor should you ride with anyone who has been drinking.

In North Carolina you MUST wear a seat belt in the car if it is moving. It is against the law to not do so.

You will see signs that advertise YARD SALE (or Garage Sale or Estate Sale). No one is really selling the yard or the garage! Instead, it a way to sell items that someone no longer needs. These sales are very informal and a good way to buy everything from beds and furniture to pots and clothing. All prices are negotiable and there is no sales tax (except in a very few instances where a professional company is conducting the sale). Check things out carefully before offering a price. These sales usually take place on weekends.

Police officers are friendly. If you need assistance do not be afraid to call on them.

Credit cards are everywhere. Applications are readily available and there are many offers that come via the mail. One special target for the companies is students. Be very careful in applying for a card. While they are good in the event of an emergency it is possible to encounter a large debt very rapidly. The interest rates are high and if you get a card try to pay off the entire balance each month.

American terms you might want to know

Dutch treat – Each person pays for their own food, drink, entertainment, etc.

B.Y.O.B. – Bring your own bottle. Usually in connection with an occasion where there is alcohol being served.


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