Cultural Tips for New Americans


For those newly arrived in the United States, cultural norms can be difficult to understand. How do Americans decide what to tip? Why do Americans say “let’s get together sometime” and then not make further plans? What is “small talk” and why is it so important to Americans? We look at these and more American customs.

Greetings and Small Talk

Have you ever heard a complete stranger say hello to you as you pass him or her on the street? Don’t worry. That’s not unusual. Americans often greet people they don’t even know. They may talk to strangers while waiting in line, or comment on the weather when standing in an elevator, or even strike up a conversation while sitting next to someone at a public event. It’s true that this kind of behavior may seem too casual – or even just plain strange – to others, but many Americans consider it friendly.

Of course these little pieces of “small talk” aren’t meant to discuss anything very serious or personal or make new friendships. When they end, the participants go their separate ways and rarely commit to any kind of social involvement. This is normal for Americans, who often have a lot of acquaintances – at work, in their neighborhoods, at stores and restaurants, at the gym. But Americans also make an important distinction between casual acquaintances and close friends.

Eating at a Restaurant and Tipping

When going to a restaurant with friends, payment of a meal may be divided among the members of the group so that each person pays for his or her own meal. If one person invites another to dinner, that person usually pays unless specified prior to the meal. If one person pays for the other’s meal, then usually the other person offers to pay the next time. It’s also common for a group of friends to divide a bill evenly, no matter what each individual ante or drank. This is usually simply called “splitting the bill.”

Americans usually tip their waitperson 15 to 20 percent of the bill. If they do an especially good job, they could receive even more for their efforts. This is because in restaurants, the waitstaff is allowed to be paid under minimum wage; they are expected to make up the difference by giving good service in exchange for tips from their customers. Always assume that you will need to add a tip to the price of your meal. However, you do not need to tip in fast food restaurants, where the employees are paid minimum wage.

“Let’s Get Together Sometime!”

When Americans run into people they haven’t seen for a while, or sometimes when they meet new people, it is customary to say something like “Let’s get together sometime.” The other person responds by agreeing that they should get together. If this is as far as it goes, it is just a cordial way to say, “See you around.” It may not truly be an invitation to get together. it only becomes a concrete plan when something more specific is said, such as “What about this weekend?” or “Give me your number and I’ll give you a call so we can make plans.”

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