What You Should Never Do When Visiting the United States

Tourist selfie in Time Square New York City
Yulia Mayorova/Shutterstock
Yulia Mayorova/Shutterstock

Though we probably like to think we do, Americans don't know everything about every other country. We may have learned some blatant untruths about the French, and maybe picked up a few fun facts while studying abroad, but beyond that we are known worldwide for being pretty inept at adapting to local cultures.

Of course, that doesn't mean people from outside our country are exactly experts on how we do things in America, either. An interesting thread popped up recently on the question-and-discussion site Quora, with one of the users starting a conversation by asking, "What should I absolutely not do when visiting the USA?" Dozens of people, both from the States and from around the world, chimed in. Most (but not all) of the responses are actually pretty good advice for foreign visitors, but all of it is pretty good to eavesdrop on. We pulled out the most interesting answers and gathered them together below as a list of rules for people to keep in mind when they visit the US.

Personal Space
Jakub Zak/Shutterstock

Don't infringe on personal space, ever

“Americans get very uncomfortable when strangers enter their visual field, even peripheral. They have a curious set of rituals to avoid confrontation, like looking away, pretending they're checking their phones, never stopping beside another car on red lights, wearing dark glasses, etc.” -- Gonzalo, Chile

“Americans in general like a certain space around them, like a Hula Hoop buffer. Pushing into an American's personal space is very uncomfortable and will change the way your interaction goes. Same thing for any public spaces.” -- Rick, USA

“Don't crowd people, they are very cognizant of their personal space. Use the farthest urinal or stall from the next person. Don't speak in restrooms. Keep your eyes to yourself.” -- Jay, USA

Don't creep on women

“Don't stare at women. They don't get the foreign flirting codes and will get very uncomfortable, or freak out and call the police.  If you are interested, go and talk to her but don't look like a stalker.” -- Gonzalo, Chile

“A woman being cordial to you is NOT an invitation for ANYTHING. I gave you directions and maybe even a restaurant recommendation because I am a nice person who wants you to enjoy your trip, not because I am attracted to you. If you mistake my friendliness as an 'invitation' and corner me in the subway car trying to talk me into meeting you at your hotel later, well, refer to the advice that many Americans may be armed.” -- Joey, USA

Better not to compare your country to America

“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.” -- Nguyen, Vietnam

“Don't talk about how much better this thing or that thing is in your country. Someone might just tell you to go back there.” -- Jay, USA

New york pedestrians crowded street

Always, ALWAYS keep it moving

“The typical custom is to move to the side if you're not moving with the flow.  Americans don't feel they should move around you, rather the focus should be on the movement of all. There is no quicker way of pissing off an American that blocking their progress or pushing into their personal space.” -- Rick, USA

"Do not walk on the left side of the aisle way, hallway, sidewalk, through doorways, around corners, etc. Stay to the right, people approaching you will tend to try and pass you on your left, stick to that habit." --Ted, USA

"While on this topic, don't block the entire sidewalk by walking side by side with your family. Walk in a line instead, and on the right hand side.” -- Dean, USA


Don't even try to explain your "football"

“Please don't lecture us regarding the virtues of ‘football.’ Yeah, we get it. It's unfortunate that both sports share a name but that isn't going to make us enjoy watching the Dallas Cowboys get beat any less.” -- Ted, USA

“Don't talk about how superior soccer is to American football. You'll most likely just be looked at with contempt and pity.” -- Jay, USA

 “Don't show the weird face when Americans go overboard about hockey, baseball, basketball or the Super Bowl. Even the most open-minded professor I know turns into a hardcore Patriots fan when cornered.” -- Nguyen, Vietnam

Terrorism isn't funny

“Don't joke about terrorism. This is a rule for obvious reasons." -- Brigitte, Greenland

“Never make jokes about bombs, guns, or terrorist attacks in front of strangers. Americans are very literal about this.” -- Gonzalo, Chile

coffee shop tip
Patrick T. Power/Shutterstock

Tipping is really important

"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! In the US, the issue is a bit muddled - servers are not paid comfortably to live without tips in most places, and…it is generally expected that you tip regardless.” -- Nguyen, Vietnam

"20% is acceptable. Lower is fine for bad service, just keep in mind if you don't tip well, or don't tip at all, you are sending a message that you were highly dissatisfied with the service and/or restaurant. If that's the message you want to send, no problem. But if it's not, don't say it accidentally by under-tipping." -- Steve, USA

"Don't try to summon the waiter/waitress with a snap or clap or calling out or anything like that. If you are being served by a waiter or waitress at a restaurant stay at your table and attempt to make eye contact to get service." -- Heidi, Scotland

physical contact

Americans do not like to be touched

“Don't touch people you don't personally know. Hand shakes are just fine but don't hug or kiss, and be careful of your limbs when in a crowded bus or train.” -- Dean, USA

“Don't assume we like to hug all the time. Do so only if you know the person well, or you know the person is okay with it… If you see us take a lean back or step back, it's a hint that you're a bit too close. A distance of around .75-1 m is pretty decent if you're in a line or queue. And of course, if someone says something about your distance, I recommend you step back or you're going to get dinged as a creep.” -- Joan, USA

Do not talk about politics

"Don't talk about politics.
Do not mention political candidates.
I hope I've made this clear."
-- Kyle, USA

“Don't take a side politically, racially, religiously, or sexually. It's ok to discuss these issues with people you know well enough but if you take a strong stance on one of these hot button issues, you may be seen as an another outsider trying to force their 'more sophisticated' opinions on us. Just enjoy the conversation for what it is, conversation.”  -- Ted, USA

Also, don't discuss race, gender, or obesity

"Don't make jokes, comments of throw opinions on sex/race/religion/fats/gays/class groups/US wars/communism/their politics. Stick to 'smile & nod' mode on any of these topics." -- Gonzalo, Chile

"Talking about healthy eating and exercise habits with a mixed group is like talking about politics or religion, someone is bound to get offended. Save it for people you know well." -- Steve, USA

"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." --  Nguyen, Vietnam

woman kissing baby

Never interact with strange children

“Don't pull the cheeks/hug/peck a child which is not yours. Its a big no-no to shower affection on someone's child without their consent (quite common in Asian countries).” -- Rahul, India

“Don't stare or talk to children. If they talk to or want to play with you, ask them where are their parents. If you just want to be nice, make sure their parents are there and are fully aware you are just kidding with them and not a pedo.” -- Gonzalo, Chile

“Don't get too familiar with children you don't know. People here are paranoid of strangers and pedophiles and you could easily be looked at in a very, very bad light.” -- Jay, USA

Americans are uncomfortable with silence

“Avoid silences. Americans have a weird obsession with keeping a conversation flowing. Silences longer than 3 seconds are considered weird and tend to freak them out, so if you are struggling with English or sorting out your thoughts, use fillers like 'yea,' 'so..,' 'uh,' etc.” -- Gonzalo, Chile

long country road California, United States
Johnny Adolphson/Shutterstock

Don't underestimate how huge this country is

“I’ve seen a lot of visitors come here and think that America is *only* New York City and Los Angeles (and on a good day, Las Vegas and Texas) just to go into shock how big America is once they take a road trip. America is a gigantic country, spanning eight time zones (if you include Hawaii and Alaska) with people who live literally in cities all across it.” -- JJ, USA

”Don't try to see the whole country in one trip. This is often an issue for people from Europe who have trouble understanding how big and spread out the U.S. is -- the distance from New York to San Francisco is farther than Lisbon to Moscow. Pick a region of the U.S. and visit it, or perhaps two regions with an air trip between them. You can reasonably visit the northeast from Boston to Washington in a couple of weeks. Or Florida, Orlando to Miami and the Keys, or California, San Francisco to Los Angeles and San Diego." -- John, USA

“Do not rely on public transportation! The US is a beautiful country that is best seen while driving. Visit as many national parks as you can!” -- Tyler, USA

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Matt Meltzer is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram: @meltrez1.