If you feel nervous about your first visit to an American home, remember that your hosts might have hosted anyone from your culture before, either. Think of it as an opportunity to learn about each other together!
You both want to do the "right thing." Your host wants you to feel comfortable and enjoy your stay in their home, and you want to behave acceptably in an unfamiliar environment and enjoy your visit. Rest assured that your hosts will not expect you to know American customs or culture, and will not make an issue of any cultural or language blunders. Instead they will likely give you valuable and helpful information and recommendations about your new home away from home.
Americans place a high value on time. Unlike many other cultures, when Americans set a schedule of activities, they expect others to respect it with promptness. Arriving more than a few minutes after the time you agreed on is considered rude. Ideally, you should arrive either a few minutes early or right on time. If you have to rely on arranged transportation, it becomes the driver’s responsibility to collect you on time.
In the U.S., even when your hosts are much older than you, they probably will want you to address them by their first names, not their family name. Americans do not see this as disrespectful. It indicates a desire to put you on equal footing and relate to you as a friend. If you don’t know how to address your hosts, ask them what you should call them.
Your hosts will want to please you by pronouncing your name correctly. If they have difficulty, write it down for them, sound it out slowly and help them practice saying it.
Most Americans greet a new acquaintance with a handshake. After becoming friends, some hosts may hug their guests when they depart. In the U.S., hugs demonstrate warm feelings. The appropriate response would be a brief hug in return, if you feel comfortable with that.
Most Americans eat "family style." That means that food is passed around the table to each person, and you select what food to put on your plate as you pass it along. If you wish to have another serving of certain foods after everyone as had their first helping, and you see that more is available, it is acceptable to ask for more.
Americans usually talk casually with each other around the table as they eat. They might discuss the day's activities, or ask one another questions. You should feel welcome to join in the conversation.
During your visit, you might hear your host say "Make yourself at home." This phrase indicates that your host would like you to feel comfortable and relaxed as though you were in your own home. If your host says “Help yourself,” or asks if you would like more of anything in particular, feel free to say either “yes” or “no.”
If you receive an invitation to a potluck, it’s just an informal dinner to which everyone brings a dish to share. Sometimes the host will specify a food category for you to contribute, such as salad or dessert, but often you just bring whatever you choose.
A potluck picnic refers to a meal eaten outside, in a backyard or at a park. Sometimes when you receive an invitation to a barbecue, you might be asked to bring your own meat to cook outside on a grill. If you are invited to someone’s house for dinner, it is a courtesy to ask if you can bring anything for the meal.
You can politely offer to help in the kitchen as your host prepares the food, or cleans up after the meal. It offers a pleasant opportunity to talk while you work together and provides a casual and informal way to get to know each other better. Some hosts might simply say, “No, thank you,” to your offer. Expectations differ significantly between families.
Waiting for your host to tell you where to sit is considered polite. Do not sit down until your host has told you to. Many American families pray before they eat, to thank God for providing for their needs. Respectfully bow your head and close your eyes until the prayer has finished.
Before you bring your children to another person’s house, ask if the host would like them included in the invitation. If not, you may hire a babysitter or leave your children with friends. Babysitters charge by the hour to watch your children for you while you go out. Babysitters might be teenage children of nearby families, students at the local university or others in your neighborhood. Hourly rates vary across the country, so ask families around about the customary rates.
If you mentioned any dietary restrictions when you accepted your invitation, your host will already will know about foods you do not eat. If you are ever offered food you do not wish to eat, simply say, "No, thank you." You do not have to explain why you have declined, unless you want to.
Visiting or staying with an American host provides a great opportunity for you to exchange ideas and learn more about the culture around you. Your hosts will also want to learn about your home country, family and customs. They may ask questions to get to know you better. You may discuss topics such as music, food, games, roles of men and women, religion, history, and government.
You may want to compare similarities and differences between American culture and your culture. You might tell about your first impressions of America, difficulties you have experienced in the U.S., and what you hope to learn during your stay. You do not need to wait for your hosts to bring up a topic for discussion. Feel free to ask about their family life and other areas of interest to you.
If you would like to see the rest of their home, you can certainly ask for a tour. Do not feel shy about asking your host to repeat something you did not understand, or to explain something unfamiliar to you.
A few things to avoid might include asking an adult their age, or how much money they make, or why they don’t have children, if they do not. In the U.S. staring at someone intensely is considered rude. It would also be considered inappropriate to ask your hosts for financial or legal help.
Your host does not expect you to bring a gift, but if you should choose to, a small memento from your country, a plant/flower or an edible contribution towards the meal would all be considered appropriate. Usually, Americans open gifts at the time they receive them.
You may want to follow up your visit with a "thank you" card or note to express your appreciation for their hospitality.
Although not expected or necessary, you want to invite your hosts for a meal at your apartment or house to sample food and customs from your country. If you live in a residence hall, you might offer to cook food from your nation at your hosts’ home, or you could invite them to join you for a concert or other special event on campus.
Americans may seem very attached to their pets. Many families treat dogs and cats like family members, and allow them to roam freely throughout the house. Most pets are tame, clean, and not dangerous. If pets make you feel uncomfortable, let your host know. They will usually accommodate you by containing them to another room or area of the house during your visit. Likewise, if you have an allergy to dogs or cats, let your host know.
Do not ever assume you can smoke in or around your host’s home. Many Americans do not smoke and expect others to respect their right to ban it at their home.
You host will not intentionally offend you, so if they do or say something that you find rude; consider that their actions might have a different meaning in U.S. culture than they do in yours. In the same way, you might say or do something they consider odd. The key to good cross-cultural relationships is to withhold judgment until you know or understand intent. Ask your host about any actions, words or attitudes that seem unusual to you. Likewise, ask them to tell you when something you do or say seems inappropriate to them.