Take this from a tourist-turn-resident.
1. Don’t trust the Americans when it comes to the attractiveness of tourist traps
After being in New York for almost four years now, I have come to share my opinion with the locals on how boring and annoying Times Square is. However, anyone who has never been to New York loves being here – and you should never take the locals’ word on how boring or tourist-trap-y a place is. It might not be a daily excitement for the people who have been here for a long time, but it is iconic and you’d probably kick yourself later if you don’t go. Enjoy it, and enjoy it all – Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Empire State Building…do avoid Port Authority though. That place is a mess.
2. Don’t downplay the locals’ opinion when it comes to the potential dangers of said tourist traps
On the flip side, do trust the locals on what to be careful about at these places. The Times Square costumed-hagglers, the no-restroom-New-Years-Eve-Times-Square, the exorbitant price of New York Water Taxi, the fake taxi at JFK Airport, the long lines at Empire State Building and Rockefeller Tower… Locals have been here long enough for the disillusionment to set in, and while not being excited about tourist traps might be a downside, knowing the potential problems of these places is the upside. Trust locals on this, and ask them about it.
3. Don’t compare your country to the US. Ever.
USA, USA, USA – the Americans think their country is top-notch and the best in everything, even when they don’t say it or say otherwise. The teachers who complain about how the US ranks 27th in Mathematics will still feel disgruntled when you appear to share your disbelief at the wreck that is the Common Core. Americans are especially touchy about this, so keep your opinions to yourself. If this is a short trip, I think it would be natural – even with all the mess the USA is still an amazing place, and it will be easy to be awed by this wonderful country. Except if you’re Canadian, or from the Scandinavian countries. Don’t judge.
4. Don’t display opinion about sports – especially “American” sports
There is one thing that many Americans are even more passionate about than their patriotic pride and that’s their sports. Don’t be annoyed about how “football” seems more like handegg (goodness gracious, that over-sized olive pit is in no way a “ball”!), or how the real football is played with 11 players on each side and a real spherical ball. Don’t say things like “soccer is football actually”. Don’t show the weird face when Americans go overboard about hockey, baseball, basketball or the Super Bowl. Do not even mention that baseball, the favourite pastime of America, originated from a street game in Britain called the diamond.
5. Don’t feel annoyed about tips
I never tip in my country, waitresses and waiters where I’m from get paid enough and you should only tip when you’re being treated especially well! That’s what I thought fresh off the boat (the A380 probably floats if you force it to I suppose.) In the US, the issue is a bit muddled – servers are not paid comfortably to live without tips in most places, and yet people still hold to the notion that tips are gifts. At the same time, it is generally expected that you tip regardless as well. Trust me when I say Americans are slowly realising the conundrum and working on it, but for now as a tourist just tip 15% or more.
6. Don’t discuss race/gender issues or happenings
Americans are especially proud about how open-minded and diverse their society is, and for good reason, even when troubles persist. Just avoid talking too much about this issue if you can to avoid stepping on any toes. Don’t say anything with the word Trump, wall, Cruz, Muslims, Syrians.
7. Ditto on politics, especially policies about immigration, military spending, healthcare, gun control and race/gender.
Unless you know that your host/companions are open-minded, peaceful orators, do not discuss politics, especially the aforementioned issues. At all. With the exception of the beautiful people on Parks and Recreation, people with differing political opinions in America hate each others guts – and they might hate you too if you don’t agree with them on some opinions. On the flip side, if you do, they might take it that their opponents are even more wrong “because the world agrees with them”, and worst case scenario parade you around as an unwilling supporter. I’ve been through this. You don’t want this.
8. Don’t look at or show opinion about obese Americans
In your country, fat people might be shunned, and obesity is widely accepted as a health problem. In America, there’s an odd duality of “love your image” and “skinny is good”. Being vocal about folks in Wal-Mart will almost certainly earn you looks – you’re either a bigot or a superficial hater. Don’t say that “I’m not hating the person, I just think being fat is a serious health issue”. Just be mum about it.
9. Don’t assume the “stupid American” stereotype
Last but not least, don’t assume Americans are stupid. They might know more about your country than you think, and with all the troubles in number 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, you might be discouraged from even talking to them. Just talk to Americans, don’t assume anything about their intelligence, and avoid those touchy waters. The majority of Americans love to talk, and once they’ve decided that you act with respect and friendliness, you’ll oft be surprised. Once you’re comfortable enough, you may allow yourself to touch 5, 6, 7 and 8.
Still avoid sports though. Even the most open-minded professor I know turns into a hardcore Patriots fan when cornered.
Don’t touch stranger’s kids. Americans are extremely protective of their children. Pinching cheeks, stroking hair, and even snapping photos of children are considered odd at best and some might even consider it hostile.
Don’t stare. Staring is considered rude in most parts of the US. Try not to watch others at restaurants, bars, or most other public places. Men should especially avoid staring at women. Americas wear low cut shirts and short shorts in the hot months, but it is not acceptable to stare.
There is one way to ‘people watch’ in the U.S. If you want to observe Americas, go to a shopping mall and grab a bench. Try to watch without glaring (subtle difference but important). This is a well known loophole in the no staring rule, especially in the middle United States and South, but still try not to get caught. Finally, staring is more accepted in Latin neighborhoods in the U.S.
Don’t forget to tip. Tipping is pervasive in American culture. Bellhops, Valets, Bartenders, Waiters, Maids, and Drivers all expect and deserve a tip. By procuring their service you have only paid their company and not paid for their labor cost. Most service jobs do not pay a living wage in the U.S., so it is not only rude but almost as bad as stealing to skip the tip on good service.
Don’t go left. North Americans drive on the right side of the road, but the convention isn’t limited to driving. Pedestrian traffic also generally adopts the right side convention as well. Walk on the right when crossing paths with someone in a stairway, hallway, or sidewalk.
Don’t expect us to justify the actions of our political leaders. Approval ratings for politicians are rarely above 50% anywhere in the U.S. so the odds are that whomever you are talking to doesn’t agree with the actions of their elected officials. Approval ratings for ‘whole bodies’ (I.e. Congress, the courts, etc.) are even worse. So much so that you would likely find it difficult to find anyone who approves of the U.S. Congress. However, we do not want to hear how you do not agree with the international actions of our government. Believe me, we already know. It really makes us mad to be backed into a corner where we have to justify the actions of a government we do not approve of.
Don’t be afraid to try to communicate with us. With only a few, chances are we do not speak your native language. But that should not deter you from trying to talk to us. Most Americans are extremely patient with travelers struggling with broken English or Spanish and really appreciate the effort. Use your hands to point, draw a picture, or bring a dictionary all of these are acceptable and encouraged.
Don’t assume we are all the same. Partially because of the heavily exported entertainment industry and the large role America plays in international politics, people around the world have developed opinions of Americans. These opinions are often based on stereotypes that most Americas do not live up to. America is an incredibly diverse country and a country built of immigrants. We are black, brown, red, yellow, and white (Donald Trump is even orange!). We speak English, Spanish, Chinese, French and many other languages. We are conservative and liberal. We are fat and we are skinny. We live in some of the largestin the world and in some of the world’s most isolated places.
America was formed as a confederation of separate states, each with its own laws and customs. The only thing all Americans share is our love of freedom and individual choice. We welcome all freedom loving people of the world! E pluribus unum.