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Etiquette in US – How People Greet, Gestures, Thank you, Sorry ?

As international students or professionals, we are used to our own culture and social behavior in our country. It can be a cultural shock for us when we come to America and see certain social behavior exhibited by people. Though we are from other countries, we should not misunderstand American people’s behavior or behave rudely to anyone because they did something that we are not used to…I am not a psychologist or intercultural mediator, I will share my experiences what I think are common and what I felt were different from my home country.

How do people greet in America? What is etiquette?

It is very common in the US that if you see a person and make eye contact (if your looks connect with other people), when you are walking down the street or anywhere in a building, or in closed public places, it is very common to say a friendly phrase:

“ Hi! How are you doing ?”

Typically you smile and then say the phrase. This is a very common and most important way to greet people. Irrespective of if you know the person or not, you always ask the person “How are you doing ?”. It is common etiquette in America.  I was not used to greeting someone on the road or anywhere back in my country, but now I kind of got the feel of it.  If you are a student, you greet the professor in the same way, but add ‘Professor’ before.

If you do not say,  “How are you doing or smile”, you just nod the head down just as a gesture to acknowledge the other person. You may say “Hi” and then nod your head down.  I was not used to this too…In our culture, we do not say Hi to random people on the street and it is socially considered intruding someone’s personal space, but in US it is very common and it is the way you do it.

Few other ways to greet people in the USA

“ Hey! What’s up ?” or  “ What’s up man ?”

This is very common to say “What up ?”. Other countries are picking up the western lingo and most of the students know this…

If you know the person or if the guy is close to you, you may say

“ Hey Dude! What’s up ?”

If you greet someone, they would respond

“ I am fine, Thanks! How are you doing ?”

Did you see the word “Thanks”. People use Thanks or Thank you a lot here in US. It is  common etiquette to thank someone. You may continue the conversation if you know the person by basic questions like,

  • How are things with you?
  • How is life treating you, buddy?
  • How is work?

Gestures – Hug and Shaking hands

Typically,  you shake hands when you meet someone and you shake hands firmly. This is common everywhere. One additional thing is, if you are meeting a girl or woman and you know the girl or woman well, it is common to Hug the person. Just a light hug, where you just put your arm around her back and just touch your head lightly. This is not the hug like they show in movies 😉  Just a friendly way to hug someone if you know the person well ( You do not do this with strangers, only people you know very well ).

It is etiquette to just greet a lady by shaking her hand for the first couple of times until you know the person. But, sometimes if you meet someone in the club while dancing, then it is different, you may hug the person a second time or so depending on how they greet you next time and if they try to show hugging gesture by coming close to you…the reason is that you danced with them and you already had some sort of physical contact and they know you better…anyways, it depends, you cannot randomly hug anyone…you need to read the cues.  In general, you only hug women or girls you know very well and it is etiquette to hug women, whom you know very well, in America.

Opening Doors and Thanking in America

Let’s say, you are walking into a building and someone in front of you holds the door for you, then you have to say “ Thank you”, that is etiquette. Also, if you are the first one, then it is your courtesy to open the door for the one coming behind you. Also, if you are going with a lady or girl, it is your courtesy as a guy to open the door for a girl. 

You never slam the door on someone coming behind you. If someone is like 10 feet away, you keep the door open and wait for the person to come. Typically, you are supposed to thank anyone if they do something for you. Let’s say, they press a button for you to go to the 3rd floor in the elevator, then you say “Thank you”. You always, ask by adding a friendly word, “ Can you please press the second-floor button”

Using Bus and Thanking the Bus Captain/ Driver:

Let’s say, you used the city bus for traveling, it is a courtesy to thank the driver. We may not be used to this, but in the US, people thank Drivers when they are getting down. The general etiquette rule, if someone does a favor to you, you just thank them. If not, it is considered rude.

Sneezing and Bless you :

If someone sneezes, then you say “ Bless you”. We may use different things in our country, but here usually people say “Bless you”. It is good etiquette.

Never Break into the line :

You should never break into line in front of someone. It is considered very rude. If you really want to go in front, you should ask the person and then only go in front. If you approach a line and there is a woman at the same time, you let the woman go first. Never compete with women. Also, the same case when you are forming a line in Airport when the boarding a plane, boarding a bus or in a Bank too.

Saying Sorry and Apologizing

Let’s say, if you missed holding up a door and it just slams on someone’s face or did anything that is a little rude, you just say “Sorry”. Apologizing for any mistake or wrong social behavior is very common. People say sorry all the time. It is just like Thank you. If you hear any bad news related to someone or if you see anyone in pain or trouble, you just say ” Sorry to hear this or I am sorry “.  You do not need to say sorry for everything. Only if you have done something that is against common etiquette, then you apologize.

People in America are very casual and etiquette plays a big role in US and you better be nice to everyone and thank properly. You may also read, Common American English words used in daily life vs British English equivalents

What has been your experience living in US ? What are your thoughts on Etiquette in America ?

Image Credit:http://www.flickr.com/photos/clintjcl/2879259256/


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  1. Nama : Widik Zulvan Zakaria
    NIM : 5190411617
    Kelas : S1 Teknik Informatika J

    So far, I think that America is a country that has a bad ethic compared to Indonesia, but after I read the information on this website, it turns out that Indonesia is worse than America, ethically American people are even friendly.

  2. Nama: Ricky Alfandi S. Mogel
    NIM : 5190411329
    Kelas : F

    I really appreciate how people US say hello, how are his movements,and the way they thanked me and also apologized,I think in the US is not much different in Indonesia in terms of it.thank you

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  4. I’m an Indian and I don’t think these etiquette are followed in US only. I follow each and every point mentioned above here in India too. It depends on the education and upbringing of an individual how you treat and greet people. It may not be common here but people like me do follow them here in India too. For instance, I even thank a sweeper on road and the bathroom cleaners, in public places like malls, who keep it tidy for us. I’m not blowing my own trumpet but it’s just the way how you are taught right from your childhood.

    • Yes, you are right, it depends on the upbringing of an individual and the place you grew up. You tend to see these things in bigger cities, where people are more educated..Also, we have seen these changes in the last 10 years, before that it was different.

      • I would say that people in towns and smaller cities use better manners and are more thoughtful and caring than people in larger cities. Just because people live in urban cities does not mean they are more educated and I know many “smart” people who are downright rude.

        • Michelle,
          Agree with you. I have had the same experience living in smaller cities and towns. There is more empathy in people living in smaller places as they see each other often and not caught up in their busy life.

  5. Is giving present to a recently meet person also a etiquette in US for American ?
    It seem like whenever i meet a friend from the US also talking about giving me somethings. Can anyone advice, because in Asian we don’t do that…

    • Gift giving is actually something that’s different in the US depending on where and who.

      For example it used to be new neighbors would receive welcoming gifts. In return, when visiting neighbors for the first time they would give a gift as a hello or thank you. This isn’t practiced as much anymore though. At least where I live. Other places may still do this.

      Where I live, if someone buys a new home or moves to a new place and has a party people bring gifts. If there is no party a gift isn’t required, but close friends might still bring one.

      Most likely if they wish to give you something, you can graciously accept it the first time they offer it and let them know they don’t have to do that. A gift most of the time isn’t expected in return.

      • We would graciously accept the gift if just a normal and simple present, but they always give a present that costly that why we rejected them and it seem like rejecting the present mean no more friend.
        Is it true that culture there is like this? When a person rejectin the present mean they don’t like you or something?

    • I have seen people usually carry something in US, when they visit someone. If you are invited to a party, it is common to carry a wine bottle or something that guests can have as part of party, etc. It does not hurt to carry it…

  6. Nice post. Nice comments, too. However, I think customs and etiquette are different in different parts of the country and different types of cities. I lived in California for many years and people there do not make eye contact. I didn’t realized this until I moved to North Carolina, where everyone did and that was shocking to me at first. I wasn’t sure why they were looking at me and nodding or saying hi! 🙂 I was like, do you know me? Do I know you? LOL! Once I realized this was normal and common courtesy, I embraced it completely. Love it! Hugs… in my experience, nobody hugs here or there, except at church or close family. Shaking hands is also done only in professional settings; otherwise, a hi and courteous “nice to meet you” are the norm. In Latinamerica, we do hug a stranger and even give each other a kiss on the cheek when first introduced.

  7. I come in North America 3 years ago and since now I notice a lack of education at the younger generations (24-34). I am working in a company and people around here are not use to say “Hi” to someone. Usually I am the first at the office because I like to be on time. My collegues are coming a little bit later and when they enter the room they don’t say anything. As far I know when someone is entering to an office he has to say Hi or Hello. When I am walking around the company when I have things to do people don’t reply to my “Hi” . When I am sneezing they should say “Bless you” . If they are sneezing and I say Bless you they don’t say anything. The eye contact here is just in the books. People don’t know what’s an eye contact. I am not a complicated person, am have some friends around and I am not weird. I am frustrated because in my homeland Romania things like this are normal and I was learning the “The Book of Good Manners” when I was a small kid. These days people and schools don’t educate their kids and they end up in jail or on the streets doing bad things. I am 38 years old and since I am in North America they smash the windows from my car twice to still and for fun. In Romania I had a car since I was 21 and I was travelling all around the country and nobody was touching my car. I don’t want to say bad things about America, please don’t take it wrong. Some of the things are good here but the lack of education here is everywhere because people don’t afford to send their kids to the good schools because is too expensive and they spoil the kids to much. I sow many time hen kids didn’t respect the parents. As a kid you don’t know what’s good for you and you have to respect the parents but here is exact opposite :). What I said here is not from books, is from my almost 4 year experience around here. I am not saying all the people from America is the same. I am sure there are nice people too. Maybe I got in the wrong place and in the wrong time. I found this article on Google after doing a search on how people greeting in north america I was looking for: The Book of Good Manners because I am very frustrated at work and I don’t know how to act in some situations because of this lack of education that I found around me.

    • I am so sad to hear your stories. I do wonder where you are living that people have smashed your car and I wonder where you are working that people are unfriendly. This is a very big country and there are many, many areas where people feel so free and safe that they do not lock their doors, where they are friends with all their neighbors, and where you can count on each other for any sort of help. There are other places, especially in the cities, where there are so many people that they prefer to ignore each other. That people do not respond to you where you work is very sad and somewhat alarming. This must just be the “culture” of your particular work place or type of work. Maybe you need to move to a smaller, more friendly town.

  8. I think this article is missing a few things. You’re greetings and introductions are mostly accurate, but it is important to explain that when we ask: “How are you?”, the common response its something similar to “I’m good. You?” Unless you are close friends with the person, you shouldn’t say you are having a bad day, even when you are. It is a greeting and should not be considered a sincere question as to your current emotional state.

    Also… I’m not sure where you got the idea that its okay to hug people when you first meet them, but a handshake is be sufficient. Some might feel uncomfortable if you initiate a hug with a stranger, regardless of gender. Typically, its okay to hug when you say goodbye, more so when its a female, but only when you are good friends.

  9. I’m an American and agree with this article. However, like everywhere, there are people who aren’t used to being courteous and weren’t taught etiquette in their home. So you will meet American people who don’t do the things in this article.
    Also, as other commenters said, you don’t greet strangers in dangerous neighborhoods.

  10. This was really cute and really interesting. I’m American, I was just curious how other people perceive our culture. It’s pretty accurate, but it’s unrealistic to hug women you’ve never met. That’s not normal anywhere I’ve been, handshakes are generally fine for anyone.

    Also, a professor is for college or specific types of schools. Public schools, the teachers are referred to as ‘mister’ or ‘miss (if not married) misses (if married) followed by their names.

      • I think there is something missing in American social behavior , and that is” eye contact”.
        In most countries on the earth,there is eye contact for better communication and concentration. But the people in US do not know the definition and purpose of eye contact and they usually misunderstand it.
        Another comment I like to make is that in most countries in middle -east and Asia shaking head and saying Hi is common, not just in US.

    • I adore hugging ladies but i guess most American ladies will refuse a stranger to hug them and it can be considered type of sexual abuse right?

  11. Very helpful etiquette tips for newcomers to the US. Check out our website for international women to the US – theexpatwoman.com

  12. I would like to add that to stranger you do not have to say” hello” when just passing. You can walk right by them and do not even look in there direction. Where I am from making eye contact and saying hi can lead the person into thinking that you are looking for drugs. And then from you saying hi the other person is trying to get you to buy street drugs. If you do accidently make eye contact with someone a slight nod of the head is all that is required. Also in very small towns, yes you would say hello to a stranger. But in a city like Miami you do not want to be asking everyone on the street “” how are you doing” and a handshake is powerful. Firm grip if they grip you firm you don’t try to overpower but you will grip a healthy man harder than an old feable man. So in short in a busy sidewalk ignore eye contact mind your own business. On a 1 on 1 sidewalk make eye contact and nod you do not need to ask “how are you” they could say back ” how Much drug you want”. In a small town or your neighbors if you make eye contact nod and say hello “how are you ” is extra and if they ask you that then you say “good, how are you” and keep walking don’t stop, saying” how are you “is another way of saying hello. Watch out never look timid like a target most Americans are in drugs or need money do not make it look like your a weak idiot.

    • In reference to your closing comment: “Watch out never look timid like a target most Americans are in drugs or need money do not make it look like your a weak idiot.”

      Wow. “… most Americans are in drugs…” ?
      I don’t know what kind of Americans you’ve been exposed to but I’ll tell you right now, most Americans are not “in drugs”. It’s good to be aware of the criminal element in any country, though. Head up, alert, brisk, confident walk… all good things to remember.

      Also the word “your” is not the same as the contraction between “you” and “are”. It has a completely different meaning. It is a common mistake, so don’t feel bad. You should have used either “you are” or the contraction: “you’re”.

  13. Word of warning: the rules for who offers a hand to shake first are VERY complicated, even Americans have to learn them. Basically the “weaker” party gets to offer, so the woman offers her hand, the man takes it. However, age also is important, so an older person offers their hand to a younger. Importance…the judge offers his/her hand — the clerk takes it. For a young man to go around offering his hand to women and older men isn’t right, even if you’ve shaken their hand before. Just say hello politely and wait to be offered. If you perceive yourself on an even footing with someone….same age, rank, sex….then you can offer.

    • Handshaking in America is actually a little weirder than that once I think about it. I never really though about it until I read this and was like ‘that isn’t quite right.’ I am sure it differs in different areas too. In the midwest, if a random person I just met and they want to give me a handshake that is just freaking weird. I wouldn’t know what to do other than awkwardly and reluctantly shake their hand. Instead people in informal settings and with strangers wave their hand, say hi, and introduce themselves. If I have a meeting with someone though, it comes with the introduction and the person who set up the meeting or ‘host’ for lack of a better word starts the handshake.
      Professional settings, which are formal, handshakes go with introductions. If I was meeting with my employer and fellow employees (who already work there) I would be offered my employer’s hand, and then I would in turn introduce myself to the others present and shake their hands as they tell me their names.
      There isn’t really a ‘weaker’ party, and to suggest that it would be the woman isn’t really true either. Though there is a difference in how to give a handshake between sexes. Men grasp hands firmly, and give it some strength. Women are more demure; that is softer and less stiff. It can also be considered rude in different settings to have a stronger/softer handshake between same and opposing sexes.

      • I am an American woman and I’ll shake the heck out of your hand. I love a friendly, firm handshake. Eye contact, handshake, smile and a friendly “How are ya?” is just fine. It’s not always necessary to shake hands though. It’s optional.

  14. You will also see a difference in the way people react in small towns on in the west vs the east in America. Coming from the west coast, I always thank the driver, although I would never call him driver. That would be classing him as his role and not be acknowledging him as a person.

    Thank you and please are used all the time, and to not do so is considered pretty rude. Women tend to say “I’m sorry” more than men do.

  15. Ah, thanks for posting this! I’d completely forgotten the customs here in the U.S. I’ve been in latin america for a few years now (in fact, in Argentina) and I’ve kinda gotten used to the culture they have over there. So, I got here and now I don’t know when to hug or just extend my hand to greet them. It’s good to know this. (:

  16. If two guys are close that doesn’t mean they’re gay. Usually people who think like that are the ones who analyze it so much because they themselves are scared deep down inside that they are gay. You started talking about gay when it had nothing to do with it. We can see where your mind is coming from. Its okay though. It’s not judged like it once was. Its not a big deal.

    • Nobody in America calls the continent with Argentina “Latin America”, it is called South America. And the countries bewteeen South America and Mexico are referred to as Central America

  17. I think all this etiquette is really common all around the American continent and even in some Europe countries. I find it weird the fact that you find saying thanks and sorry a lot weird hahaha… but that’s how it works. I wonder if you in Asia don’t say thanks, hold doors and that stuff.

    • I am Asian, but not Chinese. (Thank God). In China, people DO NOT say sorry, thank you or EXCUSE ME. If you’re on the street and someone from behind you needs you to walk fast, you WILL BE PUSHED. I know this for a fact from the numerous times I had to go to China due to work. Terribly rude people.

  18. Very nice article.

    I’m American and I did want to comment upon something the author included. He states that it is considered normal to thank bus drivers as you depart and I must disagree.

    While it is considered courteous to thank a drive who physically assists you or one that you perhaps see every day and are on first name basis with, I don’t think it’s necessary, or even considered normal courtesy, to thank your driver as you disembark.

    • I always thank anyone who has done anything for me including drive my bus or taxi, fly my plane, conduct my train, or even walk me to my table at a restaurant.

    • Yeah, I don’t think I have ever said, “Hey bus driver, thanks so much for driving the bus and not getting in a wreck.” Think about it – a bus driver sees hundreds of people a week. If every single one pauses and says, “Thanks for driving the bus.” they’d be late for every connection and it would be very wearing to have to say, “you’re welcome” to each total stranger. That said, I have gotten on a bus and said, “Good morning” to a bus driver, though.

  19. I am an American who frequently travels to India for business, and I will confirm that everything the author says is true, but I would like to expand on two points from the American perspective:
    Hugging. Americans love to hug. If you’re a woman, hug as much or as little as you like, but if you’re a man, a good rule to follow at first is don’t “start” a hug with anyone, even a man. Always start with your hand out as if to shake their hand. If the person wants to hug you they will either take your hand and “pull you in” while putting their hand on your back. Men will sometimes pat you on the back with force several times. If so, this is a good sign they really like you. In fact, you can roughly estimate there is a correlation between the amount he likes you with the amount if force used. More is better. For men, it’s quite common to “keep the handshake” with the right hand while hugging with the left. If men are best friends they will fully hug with both hands. I know it seems strange, but this is one if the only times it’s appropriate to touch another man. Men don’t hold hands or put their arms around each ither while walking in the US (unless they are a gay couple). Typically men in the US don’t want to be perceived as gay, so any touching between men is usually not gentle or soft. A firm pat on the leg or shoulder or back is a sign of affection. Men holding hands while walking in the US are definitely gay (or foreign).
    Hugging women. As I said before, never “start” a hug with a woman unless she’s your wife or girlfriend, or you’ve hugged many times before. The first several times you meet a woman, always offer a handshake when you meet and when you depart. Eventually, once she’s comfortable with you, when you offer the handshake, she’ll slap your hand away and feign being insulted that you “only” wanted to shake her hand and she will come and hug you with both hands. This is an important moment. You’ve gained her trust – but you can lose it fast if you don’t react correctly. Hug back but only with one hand. Contrary to the author’s advice, do NOT touch her head. Just a light pat on the back. Always remember a hug is not sexual for women. Even if she presses her body against you it doesn’t mean she’s attracted to you, but it does mean she trusts you. Always be the first to “leave” the hug. In other words, if she hugs you, let her decide when to “break” the hug. Don’t pull her closer or keep hugging after she releases. Unless specifically told otherwise, always interpret a hug from an American as: “I like you and trust you.” As a final note, it’s important to remember that while she hugged you last time, it might not mean she’ll hug you next time or for several times. She might not remember hugging you previously, or maybe there was some awkwardness the first time you hugged.
    In summary, you’ll always be right if you wait to receive a hug, but as soon as you receive one, reciprocate with the same “enthusiasm” as the other person.
    Now, for foreign women, you might be hugged by a an American man (although this isn’t common unless you’ve hugged him first). First off, don’t be shocked. If you’re uncomfortable with the hug, just don’t hug back. Your reaction will be quickly recognized as saying that the hug was unwelcome. He probably won’t ever try it again. To be sure, the next time you meet or depart, firmly extend a handshake in front of you and look at him in the eyes. In every culture, some men can be stupid and this will help him understand the boundary.
    Women hugging women. If a woman hugs you, it’s a coomon sign of friendly affection. Often, when a couple meets another couple for dinner (even for the first time), the women will hug each other, but won’t hug the men, and the men certainly won’t hug each other until they become friends. So don’t be insulted at all if you are a man and no one hugs you. In time, it will happen and all of this will seem like second nature.

    Second: Cutting the queue or cutting in line. As the author says, this is extremely rude and disrespectful, but I just wanted to re-emphasize the point. Basically it will make sense to think of it like this: If you’re cutting in line, you’re essentially saying to everyone else in line, “Hi everyone, I know you’ve all been waiting patiently in line for a long time, but since MY time is more valuable than YOUR time, I’m going to completely disrespect you by cutting in front if you.” Now, thee may be circumstances where it truly is an emergency, but someone had honestly better be bleeding from the head, or cutting is not justified. Even if you’re late for a flight, don’t cut in line. It’s not their fault you’re late for the flight, so why make them pay? If its absolutely necessary to cut, address as many people you can by saying out loud that you’re extremely sorry and you have an emergency and can you please cut the line. If someone says no, you should respect it and get behind them. No one will be happy you’re cutting the line (certainly don’t expect any hugs!), but if you do cut, once you’re finished with the service, it’s appropriate to turn to the first several people in line and say thank you and sorry again. You can’t be humble enough in this situation, and if you do it more than once in a year, you’re doing it WAY too much.

    Final note, the author’s advice on door opening and saying thank you and sorry are spot on. When in doubt, say thank you, even if someone simply moves to make room for you in an elevator. You should even say thank you to people who’s job it is to serve you, like waiters at a restaurant. Every time they fill up your water or bring you a napkin, say thanks or thank you.


  20. Is America the only part of the world they say dude , becuase I noticed everytime someone says “Dude ” on the internet everyone assumes off the bat their american are Americans the only ones with these speech patterns ? ” I think thier must be some other culture in the world with some kind of simularity to America no ? Are americans so Odd in their customs ? and americans are most Characterized by the phrase ” Dude” or ” Whats up Dude ” which i can say for a fact is no Exageration alot of americans do speak like that . So is it really that thier is no one with simalar phrases ” ?and dude just means a person or a Guy ?
    ( I put amerika both ways becuase most of the world spells it with a K not America however who themselves use a c )

    • Amerika ( America ),
      “Dude” is an American English slang word that originated in US (first reference being in Putnam Magazine). Yes, it is popular in rest of the world, but b/c of historical ties, it is most closely related to US. I can give you another analogy. “Namaste” is a Hindi word which originated in India, but is used elsewhere as well. However, when someone says “Namaste”, the first thing that comes to mind is an Indian. It’s similar co-relation w/ the word “Dude”.

      RE your last statement “( I put amerika both ways becuase most of the world spells it with a K not America however who themselves use a c )” – I don’t know what you mean by most of the world. Besides Americans themselves, 1 billion Indians refer to it as America. Doesn’t that put a hole in your theory that “most” of the world uses “K”. Not saying that no one uses “K”, but I am sure the ones using “C” out number the ones using “K”.

      • I can’t speak for non-Americans spelling it was a ‘K’, but a more recent reason for Americans to spell it ‘Amerika’ is to imply that the country is turning communist with the increase in big government.

        • “Amerikkka,” or “Amerika,” nothing to do with communism, but rather fascist or racist ideology. Especially when Republicans in control.

          KKK = Ku Klux Klan. Horrid organization. Still exists.

  21. Though I know ‘Thank you’ and ‘Sorry’ are commonly used words, it was interesting to know when exactly they use them…I guess we are adapting to these words super fast 🙂

    Enjoyed reading!

  22. I cannot begin to tell you how entertaining it is to read this! I’ve lived in the Us my whole life, and hearing all of our customs being perfectly explained by you is really great, in my opinion!

    Thank You! (See what I did there?)


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