How to be polite

We define politeness or etiquette as a code that governs the expectations of social behavior; in other words, what manners and actions people expect in social situations. Conforming to the accepted standards of behavior can communicate respect and appreciation. Likewise, when we fail to comply with accepted standards of behavior, we run the risk of hurting feelings, or causing embarrassment, disgrace and/or misunderstandings.

What one culture considers polite, another might deem rude because accepted standards of behavior develop differently in various cultures. Knowing the expectations can help you avoid awkwardness in your interactions with Americans.

Personal Space
We define personal space as the area surrounding a person that he/she considers personal territory or domain. Crossing or entering someone else's personal space creates discomfort because he/she feels the physical intimacy exceeds the relational intimacy. Keep in mind though, too much space can cause discomfort and indicate rudeness as well. The size of the personal space "bubble" varies by culture and situation.

While difficult to gauge, the best estimates for comfortable personal physical space for an average westerner place it at about 24.5 inches (60 centimeters) on either side, 27.5 inches (70 centimeters) in front and 15.75 inches (40 centimeters). Americans usually have larger personal space boundaries than people from other cultures. If you notice someone backing up a little while talking to you, don't step toward them as they most likely feel uncomfortable with the lack of distance between you.

Under certain circumstances people can accept having their personal space entered without experiencing discomfort. Examples might include romantic encounters and crowded subways or events. In business environments people typically maintain more personal space between them than in social situations. Also, personal space boundaries between a man and a woman usually remain larger than those between two women.

People who live in highly populated areas often have a smaller personal space bubble than those who live in less populated areas. People of higher status or wealth usually have larger personal space bubbles as well.

Punctuality (Being on time)
Americans place a high value on punctuality. While in many countries time commitments are viewed much more casually, in the U.S. people expect you to show up when you said you would. Common courtesy suggests arriving a few minutes before the agreed upon time or right on time, but more than 5-10 minutes late is considered rude.

If you receive a dinner invitation to someone's home, they will expect you to arrive very close to the time they gave you, either a few minutes early or a few minutes late. If you arrive too early, they will likely not feel prepared, but if you arrive too late, you communicate a disrespect for their time. If you find that you are running late, call your host and explain that you still plan to come and give them an estimate of when you will arrive.

However, if you receive an invitation for an "open house" type of event, the time frame becomes much more casual. Often the host will simply set at window of time for the event, and guests can come and go during that window without offending anyone. If the invitation specifies a party from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., and you aren't sure whether it's an open house type of event or not, ask the host specifically if you should plan to arrive at 3 p.m. and leave at 6 p.m. or if you should just come sometime after 3 p.m. and plan to leave by 6 p.m.

When you schedule a business or medical appointment, a conference with a professor or a dinner reservation, you should expect to arrive precisely when you schedule the appointment or just a few minutes early. Businesses tend to run on tight schedules and a late arrival throws off the whole agenda. Often you will be asked to reschedule your appointment if you arrive 15 minutes or more after the arranged time.

If businesses do not need you to make an appointment or reservation, they will likely market the fact that "walk-ins welcome." Whether you need an oil change or a haircut, a dental cleaning or meeting with your advisor, unless you have specifically been told to come anytime, you should make an appointment, and keep it.

Arriving late or missing an appointment will earn you a negative reputation in the U.S. Don't commit to something if you don't honestly feel you will follow through. You don't want people to begin to doubt your word, so make every effort to keep your appointments and arrive on time for them.

The most common form of greeting between acquaintances and colleagues in the U.S. is the hand shake. Men shake other men's hands, men shake women's hands and women shake other women's hands. It is a customary greeting for friendly and business greetings and leave takings. It generally calls for a firm hand shake while verbally addressing the other person.

If you get to know someone well enough, a hand shake can sometimes turn into a hug or brief pat on the back or shoulder. Women-to:women turn their greetings into warm embraces much more often and sooner than men-to-men, or men-to-women. While in many countries men kiss the cheek(s) of women when they meet, in the U.S. that action is reserved for very close friends.

If you feel unsure how to greet someone, a handshake is probably your best option. Observe the greetings of those around you for clues to what might be expected in each situation.

Thank you
American culture has lost many of the courtesies previously considered common, but saying thank you always has a positive impact on the recipient of your gratitude. Perhaps since fewer people exercise the courtesy of saying thank you, it has become even more appreciated when people do.

In generations past, people expected to receive thank you notes and verbal expressions of gratitude. Today, those who take the time to write a note of thanks or somehow express their gratitude, stand out. Don't wait too long to show your gratitude. Try to express it in one way or another within 48 hours of whatever you are saying thank you for.

If you have enjoyed someone's hospitality, been the recipient of a thoughtful act or deed, or received something from someone (whether of monetary value or not), you should take a moment to express your gratitude, either verbally, in written form or some other creative way. Even just a short note communicates to that person that you valued their time and/or consideration. You do not need to be elaborate or wordy, simply tell them how much it meant to you and why.

Waiting in Line
In the United States, waiting in line tends to follow the democratic principles this country was founded upon. Theoretically, every person, regardless of status or station, has the same right to the services offered at any establishment. People from other countries and cultures sometimes comment about how orderly lines in the U.S. progress. Whether waiting for your turn to order at a fast food restaurant, taking turns at a stop sign, waiting to purchase tickets or waiting to get into an establishment, Americans generally follow the "first-come-first-serve" rule.

It should not come as a surprise if you decide to eat at a popular restaurant one evening and find that the hostess estimates the wait for a table at 30-45 minutes. According to accepted procedure, you submit your name and wait for a summons to the table prepared for you within that time frame.

While considered a fast-paced and immediate-gratification culture, the sheer number of people in the U.S. guarantees that sometimes you will have to wait. Relax and make the most of the time by reading, studying or striking up a conversation with someone near you—the time will pass more quickly.

Elderly and handicapped
The American Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) defines requirements for accessibility to buildings and facilities by individuals with disabilities. All areas of newly designed or newly constructed buildings and facilities and altered portions of existing buildings and facilities must meet or exceed these guidelines.

The U.S. government has implemented these special accommodations to make maneuvering easier for older and/or handicapped people. You will notice blue signs with a white wheelchair designating anything from specific parking places to wheelchair accessible accommodations and facilities. Only vehicles with approved handicapped license plates can park in those convenient parking spaces, but facilities with handicap accessibility merely post the signs to let people know that they offer those accommodations.

Out of respect for age and/or disability, Americans generally hold open doors, give up seats and/or help those struggling to manage. Common courtesy assumes that people in the vicinity will do what they can to make the situation easier to handle.

Gentleman / Feminism
Many Americans still value gentlemanly behavior from men towards women. This simply means that when both a man and a woman approach a door, the man opens it and holds it for the woman to enter ahead of him. Or if there aren't enough seats for everyone, a man will stand and give his seat to a woman. However, in the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S., a feminist movement swept the nation. Many women to pushed for equal rights, equal pay and equal opportunity. They viewed acts of chivalry as demeaning and patronizing, implying that women did not have the strength to open doors or stand instead of sitting.

Women in the U.S. have come a long way in acquiring a status equal to men, and many hold positions of leadership in business, medicine, law, education and government, earning respect and admiration from others. Most women will not resent men who show chivalry (courtesy) toward them. However, remember that showing courtesy and acting patronizing (superior) or disrespectful toward women are two very different things. Treating any woman disrespectfully, let alone one in a position of authority or prominence, can lead to a great deal of trouble.

Noisy children
Whether you have children or not, you probably realize that children don't always comply with the rules or guidelines expected of the general public. Up until more recent generations, American parents required their children to be "seen but not heard." However, contemporary parenting has loosened up considerably and you will encounter the sounds of children almost everywhere you go in the U.S.

If you have children and they become loud or disruptive in a public place, do what you can to distract them or simply remove them to another area, if possible. While many Americans will demonstrate understanding and sympathy, children screaming or acting out can become irritating or distracting if allowed to continue.

On the other hand, the sounds of children at play will more likely generate smiles or initiate conversations from others in the area. If the children can't seem to keep their voices at the appropriate level for the surroundings, but aren't crying or misbehaving, use your own discretion as to whether you should remove them or simply allow them to occupy themselves even though it might not exactly fit in with the setting.

Dining Etiquette
Whether eating out at a restaurant or at someone else's home, exhibiting polite manners will make a good impression on everyone. Do not sit down until the host has taken their seat or indicated to you where to sit. Often all the guests will participate in a short prayer before the meal. Respectfully lower your head and close your eyes.

When eating at a restaurant, wait to begin eating until everyone has been served. In a home, you should not begin to eat until the host(ess) has raised their fork to begin.

If dining at a fine restaurant, you often have multiple forks, spoons and knives at each place setting. The general rule is to start with the one furthest from your plate. For example, if the first course served is salad, begin with the fork furthest from you plate. Once you have finished that course, the wait staff will remove that item of cutlery with the salad plate and the next course should be eaten with the fork now furthest from your plate. Generally that leaves the last one for dessert.

If you should need an item from across the table (salt/pepper, butter, etc.), do not reach across to get it, but ask for someone to pass it to you. Do not talk with food in your mouth. Do not slurp or burp at the table; Americans consider this impolite. Turn off your cell phone or do not bring it to the table. If you need to excuse yourself from the table momentarily, say "Excuse me for a moment." and slide your chair back from the table. Always at least try everything on your plate. You do not have to finish it. Do not ask for anything that has not been served.

Most American hold their fork in their dominant hand (most people are right-handed), and then transfer it to their other hand to cut meat while holding the knife in their dominant hand. They lay the knife down when done and transfer the fork back to their dominant hand.

Generally, a tip (a percentage of the total biil left as a gratuity for the server) is expected at any restaurant where a waiter or waitress serves you at a table. Servers receive low hourly wages because they are expected to earn tips from their customers based on their level of service. The acceptable standard is 15-20 percent of the total bill. Some expensive restaurants will automatically add an 18 percent charge, called a "gratuity charge," to your bill. Standard restaurants may also do this if you have a large number of people in your group. Generally, you should leave no less than a 10% tip even if you did not feel you received the level of service you expected. This will communicate your dissatisfaction without completely disregarding the service.


Approximately 18% of all Americans regularly smoke cigarettes according to a recent poll. This number continues to drop as health risks and education influence many potential or previous smokers of its inherent damages. Now that more than half of all states have banned smoking in enclosed public places, it has become much more difficult for smokers to maintain their habit without continually interrupting their schedule. If you smoke, be sure to check the laws in your area to avoid legal consequences.

While all 50 states comply with the federal law that prohibits anyone under the age of 21 from purchasing or publicly possessing alcohol, each state has its own laws regarding the consumption, distribution and service of alcohol. Make sure to check the laws in the state where you will live to know specifically what rules apply in that area.

An arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI) has severe consequences. All 50 states penalize drivers with a blood alcohol content of more than .08%. Not only do the legal aspects of the charges have a high cost, but so do the potential risks of accident and/or injury to yourself and others. In addition, most people convicted will lose their license, and possibly spend some time in jail.

While beer and alcohol distributors do a big business in the U.S., it is important to know how much you can handle without affecting your behavior or actions.

A small number of states have passed laws legalizing marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes. However, most employers, businesses and educational institutions have not loosened their standards on hiring or accepting individuals under the influence of the drug. Clinically proven to impair judgment and motor skills, it will incur similar (and more severe) penalties and consequences as those currently used for alcohol impairment.