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Spending any amount of time in the United States can be an exercise in rapid-fire cultural immersion.

It may be getting used to using inches, pounds, and miles or dealing with the brisk pace of walking, talking, and working in New York, but negotiating the United States’ etiquette quirks and voluminous unwritten rules can be difficult. This is a one-stop guide to navigating America, from how much you should tip to the best ways to get around.

CULTURE
101

First things first: The world-famous American “How are you?” is not so much a question as it is a casual greeting. While “I’m fine, thanks” is a perfectly acceptable answer, going into a 5-minute monologue about how your day has been going so far is not.

That being said, Americans are, on the whole, very friendly people and happy to help when asked. (Southerners have a well-earned reputation as the most hospitable people in the country, and will often go out of their way to make a foreigner feel more at home.) They also tend to be very direct and open, which can come as a surprise to people coming from more reticent cultures.

Outside of a few big cities, most Americans will only speak English, which means it’ll be tough to communicate through a language barrier—although most Americans will gladly try to help as best they can even if they can’t understand you. Americans are also a bit louder and more chatty than the average person, which can make for some energetic interactions.

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Getting Around

Public transportation is pretty thin outside of major metro areas in the U.S.—and even then, the service, reliability, and ease of use can be frustrating. New York City, Chicago, and Boston have some of the country’s most robust public transportation systems, though even those pale in comparison to the options in many other countries. More than 88% of Americans own a car, and many regions are only navigable by private vehicle. That being said, having a car is also an excellent way to see some of the most beautiful places in the U.S., including its collection of stunning national parks like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. The American auto market is also dominated by automatic transmissions, so don’t worry if you get into a car and can’t find the clutch.

Cities on the east coast are easily accessible by train, but many Americans choose to fly because of convenience and price. Even small cities have airports in the United States, and regional carriers like Mesa Airlines (serving the Southwest) and Cape Air (serving Cape Cod in Massachusetts) are reliable.

Emergency Services

Dialing 911 will put you in contact with a general emergency service dispatcher who will be able to contact police and emergency medical vehicles on your behalf.

The 911 operator will ask you for your location, the phone number you’re calling from, and what sort of emergency is happening. After you move to an American city, it’s important to have the phone numbers for the local police department, local fire department, local hospital, and the poison control center posted somewhere in your home for easy access.

Holidays

There are officially 10 public holidays on the American calendar where the Federal government is closed for business:

  • New Year's Day (January 1)
  • Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Third Monday in January)
  • President’s Day (Third Monday in February)
  • Memorial Day (Last Monday in May)
  • Independence Day (July 4)
  • Labor Day (First Monday in September)
  • Columbus Day (Second Monday in October)
  • Veterans Day (November 11)
  • Thanksgiving Day (Fourth Thursday in November)
  • Christmas Day (December 25)

Thanksgiving Day and Independence Day (also called 4th of July) are two quintessential American holidays where friends and family traditionally gather to celebrate. Thanksgiving sees loved ones gather around a huge spread with turkey serving as the traditional centerpiece, while 4th of July is dominated by fireworks, barbecues, and baseball.

America’s multicultural history also means that holidays like Passover, Eid al-Fitr, St. Patrick’s Day, and May Day are all celebrated in different ways in different regions. There are also regional holidays like Patriot’s Day in New England, a holiday that commemorates the first battles of the Revolutionary War and sees many government offices and schools close.

sports

Americans love sports. Football, basketball, baseball, and hockey are the four biggest sports by audience in the U.S., with other activities like soccer, stock car racing, tennis, and golf each having a large and dedicated fanbase. You’ll hear the American national anthem played before most professional sporting events, and many Americans will stand, remove their hats, and face the flag for the duration of the song.

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TIPPING

Because of a loophole in labor laws, service employees like waiters and bartenders are legally allowed to be paid less than the mandated minimum wage. That means that they’re making as little as a few dollars an hour, and depend on tips from customers to make up the difference in pay. There is a growing movement in some U.S. cities like New York and San Francisco to do away with tipping by paying service employees a livable wage. “No tipping” restaurants will always have signage explaining that gratuities aren’t necessary. Typical guidelines for tipping are between 15% and 20% of the total cost of the bill. (A tipping tip: Move the decimal place in your bill over one place to the left and multiply the resulting amount by two to get 20%.)

It’s not just bartenders and waitstaff that depend on tips to survive, though. It’s customary to tip taxi drivers, barbers, hotel housekeepers, car valets, professional movers, food delivery drivers, and even tattoo artists! If someone in America is doing you a service that you wouldn’t do yourself, there’s a good chance you should throw them an extra few bucks as a thank you.

HSBC commissioned this article. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of HSBC.

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