So you want to visit the US. You’ve packed your bags, gotten your documents together, maybe paid for a pricey tourist visa, to visit the sprawling land of barbecue and purple mountains. Now for the mental preparation: How to handle etiquette, bribery, and conversations about controversial US president Donald Trump when visiting the United States.
Lucky for you, Wikitravel, the free, crowd-sourced travel guide has advice to address all your anxieties about traveling in the world’s most powerful country. Whether you’re in the US for business or pleasure, the page highlights unspoken social differences between people from different cultures, and the particular worries that plague visitors to the US. For Americans, it also offers a fascinating lens into how we are perceived around the world: Friendly, but we prefer personal space. Diverse, yet easily offended.
This year, people seem less willing to chance travel to the US. As Leslie Josephs wrote last week: “After Trump took office under the banner ‘America First,’ searches for flights from abroad to the US dropped. Other recent developments, like the United States’ recent ban on in-cabin electronics on flights from the Middle East, or this week’s viral video of a United Airlines passenger being violently dragged off a flight, aren’t likely to encourage tourism, either.” But in the spirit of the free movement of people and ideas, here’s the advice most likely to make the journey smooth for first-time visitors, and to give Americans a surprising glance in the mirror.
Avoid slang terms that you might hear Americans use for women (“babe”, “broad”, “chick”) and to be safe, avoid any equivalents in your language. It is just best to simply address an American woman by her given name.
Many restaurants serve portions well in excess of what can normally be eaten in one sitting, and will be willing to box up your leftover food (typically referred to as a “to go box”). Do not feel the need to finish what you have been served.
… Cleaning your plate is a sign that you enjoyed your meal, and doesn’t imply that the host didn’t serve enough or should bring more.
When it comes to polite eating, every culture has its own dance: What to do with a plate of food when you’re a guest in someone’s home? Eat all of it? Leave a little bit at the end? Ask for more? Refuse offers for more twice, before accepting the third time? In the US, it’s expected to simply eat until full, and not worry beyond that.
Americans are generally against communal dining in public restaurants, though that’s changing. As the guide notes:
It is usually inappropriate to join a table already occupied by other diners, even if it has unused seats; Americans prefer and expect this degree of privacy when they eat.
From the guide (emphasis from Wikitravel):
Do not offer bribes to a police officer in any way or under any circumstances. While bribery may be expected in other countries, the stark opposite is true in the US; bribery is actually a crime for which one can and will be arrested and detained. Foreigners are seldom given the benefit of the doubt, even if they are from a country where bribery is common. Even a vague gesture that could be interpreted as an attempt at bribery will offend the officer.
Americans are strong-willed with somewhat weak sensibilities, implies the guide. In one section on expressing political opinions, the page says:
Most Americans will change the subject or excuse themselves from the conversation if they think you are being inappropriate. If this happens, do not pursue the offending topic further. Upon becoming better acquainted with someone, political discussion and criticism may become more acceptable.
Political debates often become heated and lead to insults, vulgarities, and personal attacks being exchanged.
“For these reasons, unless you are intimately familiar with American politics or already know and agree with the political views of the person you are talking to, you are best off not talking about politics at all,” Wikitravel wisely concludes.
The US struggles with its racist history. The page’s editors indirectly call out a longtime hypocrisy of the country: Legendary American friendliness, with the protection of extremely unfriendly speech. Contrast with Germany, where Holocaust denial is a crime, or Turkey, where likening the president to a hobbit can land you in jail.
Most travelers to the US will not encounter overt racism. However, free speech is protected in the United States, so, as such, racist speech is still legal to a large extent (racial discrimination and hate crimes are illegal). You may come across familiar hate signs when traveling across the US. There is an extremely small chance of running into someone who is a member of a supremacist group such as, the Ku Klux Klan, New Black Panther Party, La Raza, “Neo Nazi” or various other hate groups. Symbols like swastikas and other Nazi imagery are legal in the US, and may be found in tattoo art among members. However, they usually cover these up in public to avoid drawing hostility from others.
Wikitravel sums it up: Americans love to clean themselves. Compared to parts of Europe, American obsessiveness with the daily shower and twice-a-day teeth-brushing probably looks strange.
The average American takes a bath or shower at least once per day, and expects others to do the same. Excessive body odor is frowned upon, as is excessive use of perfumes and colognes….Bad breath (halitosis) is also frowned upon. Americans are taught from a young age to brush and floss their teeth twice daily.
The state of the US bathroom mirrors its economic system. The pricier the establishment, the nicer the bathroom. But overall, it’s not likely you’ll find many public bathrooms. Observes the guide:
The full-time restroom attendants often seen in certain European countries are extremely rare in the US. Some facilities may be pristine, such as in upscale shopping malls, fine restaurants, or commercial office buildings. Others will be shockingly unkempt, such as at many gas stations and bars.
Americans openly divide up their countrymen into lower, middle, and upper class on planes and trains. But actually talking down to someone because they look poorer than you is considered rude. The class distinctions remarked upon routinely in a country like India are virtually unheard of in the US.
The number one rule of respect among Americans is that it must be earned by your actions and integrity. Being honest, polite, and open-minded will win you much more respect than your age, wealth, or level of education. …When Americans refer specifically to “lower class,” “middle class” or “upper class” people, they are referring strictly to economic status, not social status. Disrespecting someone because they have less money than you is widely regarded as terrible behavior.
The physical intimacy between women in Turkey, or men in India, can seem strange in the US. On New York City public transport, tourists quickly give themselves away when they sidle up too close to others.
As the guide notes:
Unless it is extremely crowded, leave about an arm’s length of personal space between yourself and others. On public transportation, it is considered invasive to sit directly next to a stranger if there are open seats available elsewhere. With the exception of handshakes, Americans do not like to be touched by members outside of their family and will respond aggressively if poked, pushed, or grabbed by a stranger. Unlike many cultures, Americans do not perform cheek kissing as a way of greeting strangers, and if they do cheek kissing at all, it is only with family members.
In contrast to cultures where reaching out and casually grabbing a baby you don’t know is commonplace, the US is protective of its young ones’ privacy. Showing intimacy with strangers’ children is a no-no, particularly for men. Accordingly, the guide recommends:
Adults should never approach or speak directly to children they don’t know. American children are taught to be wary of strangers and also many American adults are wary of pedophiles who are highly despised in the United States. If you have something you’d like to say to a child, address the adult he or she is with.
In some cities it might be easy to assume, based on signs and paraphernalia, that people there lean entirely one way politically. But the explosively divisive current president is a sensitive subject in the US. Notes the guide (emphasis Wikitravel’s):
Note that while incumbent President Donald Trump is not popular, not everyone in the US hates him and some are passionate supporters of Trump, so be cautious when discussing President Trump.