While the United States is an open and welcoming country, there are still several cultural taboos to keep in mind. Taboos in America range from outright illegal behaviors to small social norms.
Minor taboos can often be overlooked, while more serious taboos might find you getting kicked out of someone’s house!
America is a diverse county, so these taboos may be more common in some areas than others, but the below taboos tend to hold true for most of the country most of the time.
Below, I’ll explore some common taboos in American culture.
American Taboos – A List
1. Not Tipping the Server
Tipping has been part of American culture since the great depression. Now, it’s widely expected to tip 20% at restaurants in the United States. You should also tip taxi drivers, baristas and hair dressers.
The tipping culture in the United States is non-negotiable. Everyone tips, and tips big. This can be a shock to people from non-tipping nations like Australia, and even Canadians who tip 15%. You’ve really got to step-up your tipping when you enter the States.
Related Article: 10 Stereotypical American Characteristics
2. Wolf Whistling
While you might find people whistling to girls on the street in parts of Latin American, it’s considered to be very bad taste in the United States. Women’s rights to get around without being harassed are highly prized in America.
And while you may find that women do get some harassment (like everywhere), it’s far less overt in most parts of the United States because it is a taboo thing to do.
3. Talking about Politics at the Dinner Table
Politics is a raw topic in the United States. The nation is very much divided between conservative (Republican) and liberal (Democrat) camps.
And this divide cuts through some households.
You’ll find a lot of families insist you don’t talk about politics at Thanksgiving or other family gatherings in order to preserve the family’s enjoyment. And as a guest, it’s considered to be poor taste to bring up your political affiliations.
Of course, there are many Americans very open about their political affiliations. But for foreigners, it will likely be frowned upon for you to have an opinion about domestic affairs.
4. Talking about Business at the Dinner Table
Similarly, business should not be discussed at dinner. Like many countries, business transactions and discussions should be kept to business hours.
The one exception to this is for dinners arranged as ‘business dinners’. And even for these, it’s usually good practice to engage in some small-talk before getting to business.
Overall, if you are asked about business issues, it’s polite to answer. But it’s usually best not to bring up business topics, especially during a nice dinner such as during Thanksgiving.
5. Using a Phone at Dinner
Mobile phones and tablets are another common cause of arguments within American families. Like in most countries, spending too much time on your phone has become a problem.
Many families explicitly ban the use of the phone at dinner time. Others also ban the use of technology after a certain time in the evening.
As a guest in someone else’s home, looking at your phone while you should be spending quality time with your host is a bad look. It gives the impression that you are bored, distracted or addicted to technology.
6. Drinking in Public Spaces
This is one Europeans need to be particularly careful about.
European public drinking laws are much more relaxed than the rules in America.
Many of my European friends find it quite absurd that, in some areas, you can’t have a quiet wine in the park but you can walk through the park with a gun in your pocket.
But keep in mind that walking down the street with a beer in your hand will attract some sideways glances. The drinking rules are significantly less liberal than in Europe, and that’s not only driven by bylaws but also widespread public opinion that drinking in public is inappropriate behavior.
7. Doing Drugs
Hard drugs are frowned upon throughout the United States.
However, many states (particularly California, Washington and Colorado) have led the way in normalizing Cannabis use and legalizing its purchase.
Whether it’s legal or not, you’ll find that it’s not appropriate to discuss drug use with strangers or in business environments. They continue to be considered degenerate and inappropriate to consume due to their potential negative harm on yourself and others.
8. Eating Before the Host gets to the Table
Depending on the environment, it may be inappropriate to eat before the chef or host gets to the table.
If you’re a guest in someone’s home, the host will likely serve the food to everyone else and then serve themselves last (see next point).
As a guest in someone else’s house, it’s considered rude to start eating before the host sits down.
This does vary from house to house. Some hosts will encourage you to dig into the food immediately. Furthermore, in a relaxed at-home situation, some houses will not adhere to this social norm.
Nevertheless, as a guest in someone else’s house, you may be seen as being rude if you start eating before everyone else.
9. Serving yourself First at the Table
The polite behavior is to serve yourself last when serving food at the table. This goes for food and drinks. Pour everyone else’s drinks first.
This rule also goes for dealing cards. The dealer always deals to themselves last.
I would consider this to be a lower-order faux pas, so as far as taboos go, this is not one to stress too much about!
10. Eating Before Everyone is Served
When eating out at a restaurant, it’s good manners to only start your meal once everyone else at the table has been served.
Most restaurants make sure to bring out all the meals at the same time. This prevents the awkwardness of some people eating before others.
If there is a long wait between getting served yourself and having your friends get served, ask them if it’s okay to eat without them. This is usually acceptable if there’s a good excuse – for example, if you’re having a warm meal that may get cold quickly.
Usually, if you are polite enough to ask if you can eat before your friends are served (and you have a good excuse), this faux pas can be overlooked. Just make sure you bring it up before chowing down on that steaming hot meal!
11. Avoiding Eye Contact
While in some cultures it’s considered rude and even defiant to hold eye contact, in American culture eye contact is encouraged.
Maintaining eye contact will show that you are actively listening, attentive, and not distracted by anything else.
There are some small exceptions. One time eye contact may cause problems is in a flirtatious situation. Eye contact (with smiles and flirty jokes) may get you into trouble if you’re flirting with someone who doesn’t reciprocate.
12. Standing too Close to Someone
Americans love their personal space. It’s a vast country and Americans are used to having plenty of space to stay apart, roam around, and keep their distance.
People coming from countries where personal space is less prized may be surprised. When standing in a line-up, leave some distance between you and the people in front (4 feet is usually a good amount) so people have enough room to themselves.
Even when in a conversation, don’t be shy to stand a good 4 feet apart so you can converse comfortably but also feel like you are giving each other room to breathe without spitting in each other’s face!
13. Smoking Cigarettes near Others
While many European countries (like Greece) still have high rates of smoking, it is becoming less and less common in the United States. This is largely because of increased education about the long-term health consequences of smoking.
According to the CDC, 14.0% of Americans smoke. This is down from 20.9% just 15 years ago.
As smoking has become less common, it’s become less and less socially acceptable. You’ll find that smoking in eating areas and public spaces is heavily restricted now compared to 50 years ago.
Similarly, pulling out a cigarette in a workplace may get you some sideways looks. If you smoke, make sure you go somewhere quiet so the smoke doesn’t annoy others.
14. Rude Finger Gestures
Raising the middle finger to someone is a very rude gesture. Pointing into someone else’s face or chest is also considered confronting.
However, pointing in a general direction remains perfectly fine. Often, it comes down to context: does your pointing gesture single someone out? Is it intended as a threatening gesture? If not, you’re usually fine to do it.
15. Racist and Sexist Jokes
As society evolves, jokes about race, sex and gender are becoming less and less acceptable. Even watching movies from the 1990s is starting to come across as a little outdated.
In recent years, America has undergone a cultural revolution in which equality is becoming more and more prized. Comments that could be considered offensive to people of color or women will be frowned upon most of the time.
Even some comedy clubs are cracking down on jokes that might be considered offensive to others. However, if you do like politically incorrect jokes, you’ll still find comedy clubs that suit your taste in most cities.
16. Burping in Public
Americans do not particularly like it when people can’t seem to control their bodily functions!
A burp (and of course flatulence) is likely going to be met with a sideways glance. Not only does it sound unpleasant, but the potential for a bad smell to follow will put most of us off.
It’s particularly bad if you do this at the dinner table, so take care to excuse yourself to the bathroom of you feel you really need to expel some air!
17. Spitting in Public
Spitting in public is considered unhygienic. It can spread germs and disease.
But, it’s also just unpleasant to step into and look at other people’s fluids!
It’s unlikely you’ll get in any trouble for spitting in public, but it may be frowned up. Others might give you a funny look or simply think in their heads that you’re a pretty disgusting person. If you need to spit, find a quiet corner and spit into the grass or dirt, not the sidewalk.
18. Eating Dog or Horse Meat
While dog and horse meat are consumed in other countries, in the United States, it’s a big taboo. In fact, it’s illegal to eat dog meat.
This is because American society feels uncomfortable about the idea of eating animals that can be considered pets. We develop affection to these animals and, as a result, have an emotional reaction to the idea that people eat these creatures.
19. Not Saying Hello
If you pass someone you know on the street, it’s expected that you say hello to one another. It builds a sense of community and lets others know that you value their friendship.
It doesn’t mean you say hello to everyone – just people whose names you know!
Saying hello is also expected hiker etiquette. When I cross paths with people on a hike and they don’t say hello (or thank you for stepping out of their way), I find it quite rude.
20. Not Cleaning up After your Dog
In the United States, people take pet taboos seriously.
It’s generally not acceptable to allow your dog or cat to roam the streets (although some still do). I remember traveling to Cuba and being very surprised at the sheer number of dogs just roaming the streets. That doesn’t fly in America.
Similarly, you are expected to clean up after your dog. If your dog does its business on a walk, carry a bag to collect their droppings and dispose of them appropriately. This will mean others can enjoy the parks and streets without bad smells or stepping in something unpleasant!
Bribery is, simply, illegal.
And while I’m sure it still happens in some circumstances, even bringing up the idea of paying a bribe to a police officer is more than likely going to get you landed in trouble with the law.
Thus, those traveling from countries like Mexico would be well advised that police by-and-large do not solicit bribes and you should not offer a bribe whilst in the United states.
22. Being Rude to Service Staff
Customer service in America is some of the best in the world. And this is largely thanks to the tipping culture that rewards servers who go above and beyond.
So, rudeness to service staff is generally considered unacceptable.
And while you will see instances of inappropriate behavior toward service staff, it’s generally considered to be very poor taste to be rude to servers, call center operators, and other people who are serving you.
This rule is also adhered to in Europe (and probably more so).
23. Discussing Gun Culture
Another hot political topic that should be avoided when you’re a guest at someone’s house is the gun rights sub-culture. While the sensationalist news talks about it regularly, there’s a good chance people at your dinner table will have a very different view on the topic than you do.
So, guests should avoid this topic at all times.
And visitors from outside the United States (who, usually, come from countries where gun ownership is much more restricted) would find imposition of their views from the outside would be very unwelcome.
24. Discussing Trump
Donald Trump is one of the most divisive figures in the United States. Some people absolutely love him while others absolutely despise him.
And even though he’s no longer in office, he had such a big impact on American political culture that he remains a controversial touch point.
You may see a lot of people in the states outwardly showing their support for Trump with MAGA hats and other paraphernalia. Nevertheless, the average American is likely going to avoid the topic unless they’re in a safe space with friends.
Other politicians that are considered more divisive than most include Ronald Regan and Barack Obama.
25. Talking about Sex
Sex can be discussed among close friends but talking about it to strangers or within more formal situations makes people uncomfortable. Asking others about their sex life or preferences is considered taboo.
It’s even a topic that you might want to avoid in the first few dates when you’re meeting someone new. This is a discussion you might want to start having once you have become more comfortable and familiar with someone you are dating.
26. Refusing a Gift
Refusing a gift will offend the person who gives it to you. Gifts are provided as an expression of affection or thankfulness, and these expressions should be received gratefully.
It may also be considered offensive to return a gift to the store. This may be interpreted as a sign of lack of appreciation. An exception is if you receive a gift from a family member who you are comfortable telling that you don’t like the gift.
27. Flirting while in a Relationship
The United States is a nation that values monogamy. Men are expected to remain faithful to their wives and girlfriends.
If you’re in a relationship, it’s generally not okay to go out to bars and flirt with single girls.
And the same goes for women. Remaining faithful is very important within the culture.
Adultery is a widely acceptable reason for divorce throughout the country. But well before that, if you’re seen flirting with someone who isn’t your partner, word might get around that you’re a philanderer who should not be trusted.
I’m sure there are countless taboos in America. This list is only a few among the many.
Furthermore, different families and communities have different standards to follow due to America’s wide cultural variation. Somethings may be more taboo among an upper-class family than other families. Similarly, a deeply religious family may have religious taboos that they also adhere to.
But, being an open and free nation, people in the USA are usually welcoming and aware that small social mistakes can be made when you’re from out of the country.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]