Welcome to the United States, where you can find the American flag on anything from sunglasses, to socks, to car decorations. You’re sure to run into some strange behaviors and practices that may confuse you.
We hope this article can help ease your culture shock by providing you with a better understanding of why we Americans do what we do. Some things still might not make much sense, but at least you’ll be prepared when you come face to face with our strange “Americanisms.”
Ten strange habits and customs you’ll find in the United States
1. Leaving a tip regardless of the quality of service:
The custom of tipping is not mandatory, but not tipping is frowned upon. The practice is common in the United States because waitstaff in the restaurant industry are often paid well below minimum wage, and they depend on tips to make a living. Federal minimum wage requirements do not apply to servers because of the assumption that they will be compensated through tips.
Although it is optional to tip, keep in mind that it is the social norm to do so, even if you receive bad service. The tip you leave behind is usually split up at the end of the night between all the staff, including busboys and the kitchen crew.
Outside of restaurant staff, it is also customary to tip hairdressers, some hotel staff, and driving services. The standard tip amount is 20%. An easy way to calculate this is to add $2.00 for every $10 you spent.
2. The friendliness of complete strangers:
The United States has a reputation for being overly friendly. Americans often smile at total strangers to bond socially. In the workplace, everyone addresses each other by their first names, without the formal “Mrs.” or “Mr.”, even at an upper management level. It’s even rarer to hear someone being called “Sir.” It’s common to know way too much about your officemates’ personal lives. Americans are usually comfortable talking to anyone about anything. In some cases, friendliness and politeness can override an American’s true feelings.
In addition to the friendliness you’ll encounter, you’ll often hear people ask you, “How are you?” They aren’t asking to know about your day or how you’re feeling. In the United States, it’s just another way of saying hello. A common response is something along the lines of, “Fine, you?” If you answer that question honestly, you may run into some confused looks from your American friends.
3. The culture of convenience:
There’s a popular saying in the United States that “time is money”, and Americans do take that to heart. We like things fast, simple, and above all, convenient. Americans want things delivered fast, and for free. We like drive-thru options wherever possible, we want our stores to open 24/7, and we never want to wait for what we need.
Many Americans see no issue with paying more for convenience. We love to eat out and order coffee to go so we don’t have to spend time preparing it at home. For better or for worse, if there’s ever something you want or need, we can almost guarantee that there’s a way to get it quickly without ever leaving your home.
4. Tax not included:
The price you see on a sales tag is never the actual price you pay at the register because the sales tax is always excluded. This practice is most likely because the sales tax rate differs in each state and sometimes from city to city. By removing sales tax from the price tag, merchandisers can more easily advertise the same price nationwide. It’s safe to assume you’re going to pay a little bit more once you get to the register. If you’d like to know more, the Sales Tax Institute offers resources on the sales tax rates in your area.
5. Too many choices:
Americans like choices, because we take pride in our individuality. We like having different options so we can differentiate ourselves from our neighbors, and this need to be different has spilled over into our consumer choices. You’ve probably felt overwhelmed entering American grocery stores. You will be amazed at how many different varieties of cookies, mustards, breads, and cereals are available to you. You name it, we’ve got it—and probably in at least five different flavor choices.
Be prepared: This debilitating pressure to make a choice is not limited to just grocery stores—many restaurants have also followed in this practice. Try to order a sandwich, and you could be overwhelmed by all the options, like the type of bread, cheese, condiments, and toppings. To avoid suffering from “choice overload,” just take a deep breath and keep in mind that no one is judging you for your decision.
6. The love of the American flag:
It’s not uncommon in the United States to see American flags waving everywhere. From car dealerships to fast-food restaurants, to churches, and inside school rooms, an American flag will be prominent. More than just displaying their flags, sometimes Americans go a little “flag crazy.” You’re bound to find a flag on hats, keychains, bumper stickers, coffee mugs—pretty much everywhere.
The American usage of the flag could be considered disrespectful in some countries. But in the United States, it represents national pride. In a country of such diversity, the symbolism of the American flag is that we are one united nation despite our differences; and that is something we wear with pride.
7. Free refills and too much ice:
It’s common for restaurants to offer free refills on most beverages. But, be warned—while you may get unlimited refills, you’ll most likely also get a lot of ice. Soda by itself is inexpensive to make and has a high-profit margin. To boost sales at restaurants, it has become common practice to incentivize customers with free refills on soda.
Cold beverages will almost always come with ice unless you specifically ask for no ice. In other countries, this is not standard because ice dilutes the drink. So what’s the deal in the US? In the early 19th century, ice was considered a luxury, but over time as it became easier to access due to refrigerators, it developed into the norm for Americans to have ice with their drinks. You can read more about the American history of ice cubes in this article, “The Bizarre But True Story of America’s Obsession With Ice Cubes.”
8. Personal space:
Americans tend to require more personal space than people from many other cultures. However, the amount of personal space people need can vary depending on factors such as familiarity with the other person and location (whether they’re in a public or private area).
It’s hard to say how much space an American will need when you first meet them, but err on the side of caution and leave about an arm’s length of space between you and them. If you get too close, your new friend may feel uncomfortable and take a few steps back. But that doesn’t mean all Americans are like this. The Washington Post has a great article about personal space in different cultures.
9. US customary unit system:
The US customary unit system is a system of measurement. The US is only one of three countries in the world that does not use the metric system, the other two being Burma and Liberia.
The customary unit system was initially used in the British Empire before the United States became independent. In 1824, the UK overhauled its measurement system, but the US kept the customary system and never looked back. Well, not exactly. Laws were passed in 1988 and 1992 to make the metric system the preferred but optional system of weights and measurements in the United States. Today, many American products are manufactured with dual-unit measurements.
Maybe this is one of those things that the United States keeps doing just because it’s always been this way. The more likely reason we’ve stuck with the customary system is the extensive amount of time and money that would be involved to convert the country over to the metric system. But never say never—maybe one day we’ll get on the same page as the rest of the world.
10. Americans are loud and proud:
The loud American is a typical stereotype in other countries, and there could be many reasons for this. Take, for example, the noise level at a bar or restaurant in the US. Depending on the music and atmosphere, you may have to raise your voice a few decibels to make yourself heard. That’s also the case in a busy store, or on the sidewalk of a busy street. The need to be loud might also be a result of Americans’ need for personal space. A wider personal bubble means a louder conversation.
Another theory for why Americans are so loud is the belief that the American culture values being different and unique. Americans have no fear of being overheard. While they’re striving to express different thoughts and opinions to each other, Americans often have to talk over each other to get their points across. The result is the cultural norm of being loud to express your thoughts. Sadly this is often viewed by other countries as abrasive and aggressive. This stereotype is more often noticed when Americans go abroad, so you may find it less noticeable the longer you are in the United States.
As you build your life in the United States, you’ll come across many cultural practices and societal norms outside of this list that might not make a lot of sense. But as we’ve pointed out, Americans love to be friendly, so feel free to ask your new American friends questions about their culture. Americans love to talk about America. In turn, tell your American friends a little bit about your country and culture. You may find a lot of similarities—and even discover that Americans don’t understand the large gaps in the bathroom stalls either!
While we’re on the subject of strange “Americanisms,” check out our other articles that will help you navigate American culture and give you tips on how to share your own culture.