United States

Traditions & Customs

Traditions & Customs

Given its size, the United States is a very diverse country, meaning that cultural norms can vary significantly from region to region, and it is difficult to generalize what could be offensive and what could not. For instance, while making homophobic statements would be very offensive in a liberal area like New York City, the opposite could be true in a strongly evangelical rural town in the South.

  • It is polite to shake hands when meeting someone or being introduced, though handshaking is often skipped in less formal situations. Some people prefer to fist-bump; you can tell depending on whether someone offers you their open hand or closed fist, but mistakes in this situation are no big deal at all. Kissing on the cheeks in greeting is rare and usually done only between close friends and family.
  • Unless it is really crowded, leave about an arm's length of personal space between yourself and others.
  • Punctuality is valued: being five minutes late is not usually a problem, but any more should warrant a forewarning when possible.
  • As a result of the country's history of racial discrimination and the modern push toward equality, Americans are exceptionally touchy about issues of race. If you have to reference race, Black or African-American, Asian, Latino or Hispanic, Native American or American Indian, and White or Caucasian are acceptable terms.
  • There are Native American reservations scattered throughout the country. Many of these reservations are home to sites that are sacred to the tribe, and certain places may be off-limits to all but tribe members. If you enter a reservation, respect its land and people.
  • The Swastika symbol is considered to be very offensive in the U.S. owing to its association with anti-Semitism, Nazism and white supremacy. Hindu, Buddhist and Jain visitors should keep all Swastika symbols out of sight.
  • Confederate symbols, especially the "Confederate flag" though widespread in the South are controversial in most of the country and increasingly associated with racism and negative stereotypes about the South

Also see the section on tipping, and the section on smoking.

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United States - Travel guide

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