What things should I never do when traveling to the US?

ESTA på dansk

For most tourists, especially Danish people, most US customs seem strange. As a different culture, the United States has a set of unwritten rules that may land you into serious trouble if you just forget them. Let’s look at them more closely.

Don’t infringe personal space

Americans don’t generally like to hug strangers or people they are not familiar with. While handshakes and greetings are acceptable, don’t hug or kiss people if it’s the first time you meet them. You can recognize that you are entering the space of another person if they take a step back. Avoid confrontations such as looking into others’ phones or wearing dark glasses. Be careful how you hold your limbs in crowded trains or buses.

Don’t discuss politics or religion with people you just met

Don’t get caught up in politically, racially or religiously charged discussions, especially with strangers or people you don’t know well. While it’s OK to have these conversations with friends and family, if you take a strong position on any of these hot-button issues, you could be seen as someone trying to force their more sophisticated opinions on others. Enjoy the conversation as it is.

Don’t stare

It’s OK to watch people, but staring at somebody, in particular, will most likely offend them. This is seen as creepy, especially if you are staring at women in the subway, in the park, or at a bar. If you are interested in the person, walk to them and try to spark some friendly conversation. But be sure to understand whether they are interested or not. Remember it’s a different culture, so they may be using different signs to communicate that they are not interested in knowing you.

Don’t compare your country to America

Americans believe their country is the best and most advanced in all areas, even though they may not say or imply it. Teachers who complain that the US ranks 27th for Mathematics will still be disgruntled if you seem to agree with their disbelief about the Common Core. Americans are particularly sensitive about this. Keep your opinions to yourselves. And don’t compare Denmark with America. People may start thinking you are trying to criticize them, which is seen as unpolite.

Don’t use black humor

Dry humor and black humor are generally not accepted by Americans in most situations. Your American friends may understand and start appreciating European jokes if they realize it’s just the way we make fun. But joking about terrorism, races, ethnicities, religions, and politics is a no-no in America.

Don’t try to explain football

As Europeans, we know what football is. In America, the same sport is called soccer – and don’t ever try to explain or convince them football is superior to American football. They are just not that interested in the topic. And they will likely look at you with contempt. Just accept that American football is the most famous sport in the country, that Super Bowl is a thing, and that soccer is just another sport for them.

Don’t be familiar with others’ children

Don’t get too familiar with children you don’t know. Don’t stare or talk to children if the child has not interacted with you first. And if they did, always ask where are their parents. Act nicely and make sure their parents are there. Parents in America can be very paranoid about pedophiles and kidnappers.

Don’t disregard tipping

Tipping is a big thing in America, as most servers are underpaid or don’t make minimum wage. 15% to 20% of the final check is the standard practice of tipping. You can overtip if the service was incredible, but understand that if you undertip, for example, if you give 7% to 10%, you are sending a message to the restaurant that your server and the overall quality of the service was subpar.

Don’t smoke in public

Smoking in America is considered a fault. Smoking is prohibited in most private spaces and even in public in some areas. Even when it’s not prohibited, smoking in public will be considered rude, particularly If you are in an area where people may inhale the smoke from your cigarette. You will get a lot of contempt and stares.

Don’t forget politeness

Be polite with strangers: saying “Thank you” to bus drivers and other servers is commonplace and is a habit we lack in Europe. Everybody acts as politely as they can, especially in the Southern United States and in the Midwest. Be respectful of others, and particularly of police officers. Follow rules and procedures. Also, don’t exit your car if you get pulled over for a check unless requested by the police: police officers in America are always alert compared to police in Nordic countries, so they will likely shout and may even draw their weapons if you get out of your car without them telling you to do so.

Don’t drink and drive

Seriously: don’t even think about it. Most people do get incarcerated, and even if you are a tourist and you drank just a tiny bit over the limit, the police will not tolerate it. It’s a situation you simply don’t want to find yourself in.


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