18 Unwritten Rules: What Not to Do in America

Like any country, the U.S. has its own cultural norms and expectations that people who live here automatically abide by and understand. While these may not be actual laws, following these social rules can make a trip to the U.S. smoother and friendlier and ensure you don’t accidentally offend your hosts. Here are 18 things you shouldn’t do while in America.

Forget Personal Space

Photo Credit: Zamrznuti tonovi/Shutterstock.

This isn’t Spain or Italy, so remember that most Americans value personal space, especially in big cities and northern states. Avoid standing too close to someone during conversations, and don’t assume that a new acquaintance wants to hug or kiss on the cheek when you’re introduced. Be especially mindful in crowded spaces, like on public transportation.

Fail to Tip

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Service workers like wait staff, hotel room service, bartenders, and taxi drivers don’t always make minimum wage, so they rely heavily on tips. Travel Insider writes that “a gratuity of 20 to 25 percent on top of the bill (before sales tax) is standard, with extra given for top-notch service.” If you fail to tip, the worker will assume you found their service lacking and may take offense.

Use Indirect Communication

Photo Credit: bbernard/Shutterstock.

Subtle body language and vague euphemisms might work elsewhere, but Americans tend to be more direct in their communication style than most cultures. They may seem blunt or even rude, but this isn’t their intention. If you have a request or complaint, be direct and assertive without being aggressive—this is the best way to ensure you are understood and respected.

Be Publicly Affectionate

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

While public displays of affection (PDAs) aren’t entirely forbidden, American couples tend to be more reserved in public and rarely caress or make out in public places. If you’re visiting, a quick hug, peck on the cheek, or holding hands is generally acceptable, but keep passionate displays of romance to private places. Otherwise, you might make others feel uncomfortable.

Misunderstand “Small Talk”

Photo Credit: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock.

The Harvard Business Review states that Americans often converse casually with strangers and are comfortable talking about themselves during initial meetings. If an American talks to you on the bus or while waiting in line, they aren’t being weird or invasive; they’re merely passing the time by chatting about lighthearted topics like the weather, sports, or current events.

Be Unappreciative

Photo Credit: Kite_rin/Shutterstock.

Expressing gratitude is essential in American culture, and anyone who doesn’t say “thank you” or “I appreciate it” when necessary is considered rude. Ensure you thank servers, cashiers, bartenders, and anyone who helps you during your stay. Gratefulness is so ingrained in U.S. social norms that many Americans won’t forgive a failure to give thanks, even from foreigners.

Cut in Line

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Queuing is known as ‘waiting in line’ in the U.S., and it is expected in any situation that requires waiting your turn. Pushing in (cutting in line) is severely frowned upon and may be met with verbal disapproval from others. Accept that your turn will come in due course, and don’t expect to jump the line for anything other than an emergency or genuine need. 


Photo Credit: mediandrew/Shutterstock.

Crossing the street outside of designated crosswalks or against traffic signals is illegal almost everywhere in the U.S. and can even result in a fine. This is often difficult for foreigners to remember, given that most countries don’t punish such behavior. Always use crosswalks and obey pedestrian signals for your safety and to avoid a run-in with local police officers.


Photo Credit: Mykola Romanovskyy/Shutterstock.

Even small, privately run stores and casual food stalls have fixed prices, and bargaining over them isn’t expected in America. Attempting to haggle can appear rude and inappropriate, so avoid doing so unless you are absolutely sure that some negotiation is acceptable, such as at flea markets or used car dealerships.

Moan About Guns

Photo Credit: melvin abanto jr/Shutterstock.

According to Pew Research Center, gun ownership is relatively high in the U.S., with 40% of men and 47% of adults in rural areas owning a firearm. The constitutional right to bear arms is a sensitive, divisive topic, and discussing your opinions loudly or openly in public isn’t wise. Be tactful and aware of your surroundings, or avoid hot topics altogether.

Wear Shoes Indoors

Photo Credit: Carrastock/Shutterstock.

As in most Asian countries, removing your shoes at the entrance of an American home is customary. This is for hygiene and cleanliness, to keep dirt and bacteria from the street from entering the house. Your host might offer slippers or guest shoes in cooler climates, or you can simply walk in your socks or bare feet if others are doing so.

Worry About Table Manners

Photo Credit: Drazen Zigic/Shutterstock.

In general, American dining is faster and more casual than elsewhere, and, while formal table manners do exist, they are typically reserved for upper-class restaurants and formal dinners. You don’t need to be overly concerned with strict dining rules so long as you avoid eating with your fingers, chewing with your mouth open, or talking while your mouth is full.

Throw Litter

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Throwing trash on the ground (especially non-biodegradable items like food packets) is strictly prohibited by law in most states. Besides being illegal, it is also considered rude, childish, and disrespectful to local people and the environment. Always dispose of trash properly in designated bins, including small, everyday items like cigarette butts and chewing gum.


Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Smoking laws vary by state, but smoking indoors in public places is almost entirely banned. The CDC reports that, as of 2023, over 61% of Americans enjoyed a 100% smoke-free indoor environment, particularly in the northern and western U.S. Even if you’re permitted to smoke, be aware of those around you and avoid smoking near pregnant women, children, or people who are eating.

Be Inconsiderate When Using Public Transportation

Photo Credit: pcruciatti/Shutterstock.

Be mindful of others when using planes, trains, buses, and subways. In America, it isn’t polite to engage in loud conversations or phone calls or to play music or videos without headphones. Make sure you leave as much space as possible between you and other passengers, and consider giving up your seat if someone with reduced mobility may need it.

Mock Religion

Photo Credit: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock.

The U.S. is a religiously diverse country, but don’t assume your religious views or atheism will take precedence over local beliefs. Avoid making derogatory comments about religion or churches and try to be respectful of local faith and customs, particularly in the more Christian southern states. Also, remember to dress modestly if visiting religious sites or buildings.

Neglect Gift Giving

Photo Credit: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock.

Don’t worry; gift-giving is not expected in most everyday interactions in the U.S. However, bringing a small gift is appropriate and will be appreciated if you are invited to someone’s home for dinner or a special occasion (like a birthday party or baby shower). Take something that everyone enjoys, like flowers, wine, or chocolates, or an appropriate gift for the celebrator.

Argue About Splitting the Bill

Photo Credit: Ground Picture/Shutterstock.

When casually dining out with friends or colleagues, splitting the bill is common practice in the U.S. This usually involves dividing the total cost of the meal (excluding tax) equally among everyone at the table, regardless of what each individual ordered or consumed. If someone offers to pay the entire bill, you can graciously accept or politely offer your share.

Read More: 17 Things Society Can No Longer Do Because Gen Z Said So

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Gen Z, our digital-native, trendsetting generation, is making waves in the cultural sea, steering the ship of societal norms in fresh and unexpected directions. As they charter new territories, there are certain practices they’d rather we say goodbye to. Curious? Let’s take a look at 17 things the rest of us can no longer do because Gen Z said so.

17 Things Society Can No Longer Do Because Gen Z Said So

18 Common Traits Found in Adults Who Had Unhappy Childhoods

Photo Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock.

Being a parent is a hard job, so even those who are truly trying their best will often miss the mark on creating the best environment for their children. Unfortunately, this means that many of us grow up with far-from-perfect childhoods that affect us into adulthood. Here are 18 common traits found in adults who had unhappy childhoods.

18 Common Traits Found in Adults Who Had Unhappy Childhoods

18 Things Old People Just Can’t Get On Board with Today

Photo Credit: Andrii Iemelianenko/Shutterstock.

Over the past few decades, society has evolved, and with it, so have a few things that older generations find it uncomfortable to get the hang of. While younger generations are easily able to adapt to these changes, some of which are drastic, others may be struggling slightly. Here are 18 things the elderly may have difficulty learning.

18 Things Old People Just Can’t Get On Board with Today

19 Big Mistakes People Make After Losing a Spouse

Photo Credit: Blue Titan/Shutterstock.

Losing a spouse is one of life’s most tragic experiences, and when we’re overwhelmed by grief, we might make some decisions that we’ll later regret. Here are 19 mistakes people make after losing their spouse.

19 Big Mistakes People Make After Losing a Spouse

20 Time-Honored Practices Our Grandparents Followed That We Should Bring Back

Photo Credit: Zoran Zeremski/Shutterstock.

Our grandparents had a far simpler life. There was no such thing as social media. Instead, there was more walking and meals were always fresh and homemade. With so many things keeping us busy nowadays, sometimes life would seem much easier if we lived the way our grandparents did.

20 Time-Honored Practices Our Grandparents Followed That We Should Bring Back