Living in a new country will expose you to a wide variety of experiences. While many will be positive, some can prove to be confusing. To get ahead of any possible miscommunications or good intentions gone wrong, it’s important to learn about the taboos in your new country. What is considered rude, unacceptable, or socially taboo can vary depending on your location, religious or cultural backgrounds, age, or and other variations. Taboos are defined as socially unacceptable language or behaviors. For example, in some countries avoiding eye contact is a sign of respect. In the United States, it is considered rude or an indication that the other person is lying.
Socially acceptable behaviors can differ from culture to culture and change over time. Women wearing pants were once considered taboo in the United States, but now completely normal. Observing the people around you can help to provide the cues and unwritten rules to what is socially acceptable. These social cues provide order and predictability within a society. When someone’s actions fall outside of what’s socially acceptable, it can be considered rude or deviant.
Learning the behaviors that Americans consider rude or taboo can help make the transition into your new life a successful one. The following are a few examples of American taboos.
One of the best ways to learn about a new culture is through food. The food we eat is often a reflection of our culture and traditions and hold deep family memories and rituals. Taboos, in general, can change over time, vary depending on the social situation or differ from household to household. Food taboos can also be reflective of time or a long-standing religious tradition.
Because of the diversity of the American people, many foods considered strange are classified as exotic rather than taboo, but there are some exceptions:
Bugs – While more than a quarter of the world’s population consume bugs daily, Americans are slow to add insects to their list of delicacies. In western culture, bugs are often seen as something dirty, dangerous, and should be controlled. However, Americans consume trace amounts of insects in their food every day. They just don’t realize it.
Dogs and cats – In the United States, dogs and cats are part of the family. Americans would consider it inhumane to serve their furry best friends for dinner. In fact, many laws in the United States protect the welfare of animals. Eating dogs and cats can be considered a criminal offense.
Horse meat – Horse burgers in countries like China, Mexico, and Russia may be nothing out of the ordinary, but in the United States, it’s illegal. While not illegal to consume, it is illegal to kill a horse for human consumption. Similar to dogs and cats, Americans are particularly fond of horses and have created legislation to ensure the proper treatment of this beloved animal.
Eyes – You won’t find many eyes on any of the fresh meat products in an American grocery store or your plate at a restaurant. According to the Director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, James Serpell, “Eyes represent faces, and it’s through the face that we learn to represent and empathize with others.” Americans prefer their food to not look back at them before it gets eaten.
Aside from the food Americans find to be outside of the norm, there are some practices they follow when eating:
- Americans generally don’t eat from a shared dish. While the food may be presented in a large platter or bowl, each person will put a serving of the food on their own plate.
- Americans mostly use forks, knives, and spoons when eating, but some foods may not require the use of utensils, like sandwiches, burgers, french fries, and pizza. If you’re unsure how something should be eaten, take a look around and see what others are doing.
- It’s considered impolite to burp, slurp, eat with your mouth open, chew loudly, or blow your nose at the table.
Americans are known for starting conversations with strangers, and you’ll want to be prepared on acceptable topics of discussion. In some countries, asking what you do for a living may seem personal, but this is often a popular topic of conversation for many Americans,
Keep the conversation light and avoid any personal topics like finances, political or religious opinions, and any discussions that may appear racist or sexist. Common topics include the weather, the local sports teams, your weekend plans, or your profession, but never how much money you make. It’s considered in bad taste to talk to someone who isn’t a close friend or family member about their personal finances or how much they paid for something.
Most conversations start with a greeting such as “How are you?” or “How’s your day going?” It would be considered taboo if you answered the question literally. An expected response is “Fine” or “Good.” The closer you are to the person, the more honest you can be in your response. Otherwise, the question of “How are you?” is more like a friendly hello than an actual inquiry into your life.
Using profanity is considered rude and taboo in some social situations. To some, swearing or cursing is seen as a lower-class behavior, but in some circumstances, it’s acceptable when conversing with people you have a close relationship with. If you are unsure, err on the side of caution and refrain from cursing in conversation.
Gestures vary all over the world, and what might be acceptable in your home country, can be misinterpreted as rude in the United States. To avoid any uncomfortable miscommunications, below are some common American gestures.
It’s acceptable to use your finger to point to something, but it’s considered rude to point at a person. It’s also considered very rude to gesture with your middle finger raised as it is a symbol of disrespect. If you need to beckon someone to come closer, you can close your hand in a fist with your palm facing you. Stick out your index finger and open and close it.
Shaking your head right to left means no, and up and down means yes, and shrugging your shoulders in and up and down motion means “I don’t know.” Handshakes are acceptable for meeting someone for the first time in a business setting. Touching someone’s hand or face may be considered too intimate for casual acquaintances.
Smoking is a taboo that has evolved. Once a socially acceptable act seen as chic and cool, smoking is now primarily frowned upon, due to the evidence of adverse health effects. While it’s not illegal to smoke, it’s not permitted in many public spaces.
Americans favor more personal space than many other cultures. When talking with someone, if they step back to widen the area, it’s not meant to be an insult; instead, it’s an American social norm to keep a distance of at least an arm’s length. This distance is usually dependant on your relationship with the person. If you are a stranger or an acquaintance, arm’s length is the standard. If you have a more intimate relationship, the closeness may vary.
Eye contact is significant in the United States. In some countries, it is a sign of respect to avoid eye contact. However, in the US, maintaining eye contact signifies that you are interested in the conversation, sincere, and trustworthy. This is equally important regardless of your gender or the gender of the person you are speaking with.
One of the biggest taboos in the United States is not tipping. It is common practice to provide servers, hairdressers, rideshare and taxi drivers, bartenders, and anyone who provides you with a service, with a monetary tip. While tipping isn’t mandatory, the majority of Americans tip at least 20 percent of their bill.
While this article isn’t an exhaustive list of the social norms and taboos you should be aware of, take your cues from the people around you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and be open-minded to a new culture and new experiences.
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