Guidelines for Practical Situations


  • The standard greeting is a smile, often accompanied by a nod, wave, and/or verbal greeting.
  • In business situations a handshake is used. It is very firm. Weak handshakes are taken as a sign of weakness. When shaking hands people look directly into each other’s eyes.
  • Good friends and family members usually embrace, sometimes finishing the embrace with a pat or two on the back.
  • In casual situations a smile and a verbal greeting is adequate.
  • If you see an acquaintance at a distance a wave is appropriate.
  • The greeting “How are you?” and “How are you doing?” are often used. A simple “Hello” or “Hi” are usually acceptable as well. “What’s up?” and “How’s it going?” are often used among younger people who use more informal greetings.
  • The American ritual parting remark, “See you later,” means “goodbye,” and does not mean that the person saying it has a specific intention to see you later.

Titles/Forms of Address

  • The order of most names is first (or given) name, middle name, and last (family) name.
  • When you meet someone for the first time, use a title and their last name until you are told to do otherwise (this may happen immediately). If the other person asks you to address him or her by first name, you can feel free to do so.
  • People are seldom addressed by their middle names, although some people might choose to be called by their middle name.
  • To show respect, use a title such as Dr., Ms. Miss, Mrs., or Mr. with the last name. If the other person has a title such as “Ambassador” or “Dean,” use that title and the last name.
  • Using nicknames is fairly common among Americans. A nickname can be their formal names in the shortened ways. Some names might shorten in surprising ways, e.g., Bob for Robert, Bill for William.
  •  If you are in doubt about what to call a person, ask the person, “What should I call you?” Conversely, if you have an English name, or a nickname that preferred to be called, you can tell others “You can call me …” or “I go by …”
  • Traditionally, a woman took her husband’s name upon marriage. Some women still do so, while others add their husband’s family name to their own, separating the two with a hyphen. There are other women do not change their names in any way upon marriage.

Social Gatherings

You will probably have opportunities to visit an American home for dinners, receptions, or parties. The following paragraphs give a general idea of the behavior that is appropriate in formal situations and the expectations that are common at informal social gatherings. In general, you will notice what may seem to be a lack of attention to the formalities of a traditional host-guest relationship. Americans usually want their guests to “feel at home,” which, to them, means to feel relaxed and able to “act naturally,” as they presumably would in their own homes.

Formal Occasions

Invitations to more formal engagements such as dinners or cocktail parties are usually written. A written invitation will include the date, time, place, and a description of the occasion. It will specify if children are included; if it does not include the children’s names or word “family,” then children are not included. If it says, “R.S.V.P.,” you should phone to say whether you plan to be present. If it says, “regrets only,” reply only if you do not plan to be present. Tell the host or hostess about any dietary restrictions you have. If you are unsure how to dress you can simply ask: What should I wear?” When replying to a formal invitation you should never say that you accept an invitation unless you truly intend to do so.

It is essential to arrive on time for a meal or a cocktail party. You may be thought inconsiderate and impolite if you do not arrive at or shortly after the appointed hour. It is a very good idea to notify your host or hostess if you cannot avoid being late. After the party a telephone call or a personal comment expressing appreciation for an invitation is appropriate.

More formal dinner parties usually begin with cocktails and hors-d’oeuvres (small appetizers). You may have an alcoholic or non-alcoholic cocktail. If you do not drink alcohol, it is perfectly appropriate for you to ask the host or hostess which drink contains no alcohol. Many dinners are served buffet-style, where the food is put on table and the guests serve themselves and eat while standing.

Informal Occasions

Invitations to less formal gatherings, such as student parties and other impromptu gatherings, will come informally, by telephone or in person. Guests can arrive or leave at any time, and dress however they wish.

People often take some food or drink to share with others at informal social gatherings. Beer, soft drinks, chips, dips, and “salsa” (spicy, tomato-based sauce common in Mexican cuisine) are common refreshments at informal gatherings. If you are invited to an informal gathering, you might ask the person who invited you if you should bring something to eat or drink.

“Potlucks” (meals where every guest brings a dish to share) are common for larger groups. Potlucks are considered convenient, because they reduce the burden on any one individual for making all arrangements and preparing all food.


Keeping Appointments and Dates

Punctuality is highly emphasized in the United States. Remember that it is considered impolite and extremely inconsiderate to fail to keep an appointment or “date” without giving prior notice to the other person.

In this society it is acceptable to decline an invitation by giving a vague excuse or avoiding commitment. If you do not want to accept an invitation, make an appointment, or have a date with a particular person, you should decline the initial invitation or request. You should not accept and then not appear at the appointed time.

Sometimes it happens, after an appointment or date has been agreed upon, that keeping the appointment becomes impossible. In such circumstances, notify the other person or people as soon as possible. If you fail to keep your appointment you should call to apologize. Changing plans for an appointment or date does not present the same problems as “breaking” a date by simply not appearing. If you have agreed to go to a movie and then decide that a party would be preferable, it is acceptable to call the other person and propose the change in plans. The other person can accept or decline the proposed change.

Business Hours

University business hours are (with some exceptions) 8:00 a.m. to noon and 1:00 to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Some offices are open over the noon hour. Most retail businesses open at 9:00 a.m. Closing hours vary. Many businesses always close at 5:00 or 5:30 p.m. Some downtown businesses stay open until 9:00 p.m. on Monday and Thursday evenings. Businesses in shopping centers are usually open until 9:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. Most retail businesses are open on Saturdays, with varying hours. Some are open on Sundays. People might not check emails, or do things related to work outside of business/working hours.

Daylight Savings Time

In order to have daylight further into the evening in spring and summer, most of the United States uses "daylight savings time" between March and October/November. You can search the daylight savings time on internet. You might want to set your clocks or watches one hour back on the night when it switches in October or November, and one hour ahead in March. Many people try to remember the direction in which to move their clocks in April (the spring) and October (the fall) by recalling the instruction: spring forward, fall back. Your phone will automatically switch to the correct time during daylight savings.


Tips, or service charges, are not added to the bill in U.S. hotels or restaurants. Nevertheless, tips are often expected and needed by employees, whose hourly rate of pay is usually quite low, based on the assumption that tips will provide a reasonable income. It is customary to tip the waiter or waitress in a restaurant 15 to 20 percent of the amount of the check, if the service is satisfactory. Tips are not expected in cafeterias or “fast food” establishments. In a hotel, the bellhop who assists you to your room expects $1.00 per suitcase. Tip taxi drivers 15 or 20 percent of the fare, and “red caps” (who help carry baggage at airports) 35-50 cents for each smaller bag, and $1.00 each for large bags.


In different societies there are different customs concerning the giving of gifts. Sometimes, in relationships between people from different societies, one person will give a gift when the other person did not expect to receive one. Or no gift will be offered when one was expected. Such situations can cause confusion and embarrassment. Here are some general (that is, subject to variation and exception) ideas about gift-giving customs in the U.S. Knowing them can help avoid awkward situations.

  • To whom are gifts given? As a rule, gifts are given to relatives and close friends. They are sometimes given to people with whom one has a casual but friendly type of relationship, such as a host or hostess, but it is not necessary or even common for gifts to be given to such people. In other parts of the U.S., the giving of gifts to hostesses is more common than it is in the Midwest. Gifts are not usually given to teachers or others who hold an official position. Offering gifts in these situations is sometimes interpreted as an effort, possibly improper, to gain favorable treatment from that person.
  • When are gifts given? Christmas is the only national gift-giving day, when most Americans, with the exception of some adherents of non-Christian religions, give gifts. Otherwise, gifts are given on occasions that are special to the recipient – birthdays, graduation from high school or college, weddings, and child-births. Gifts are sometimes given when someone has a new house or is moving away. If you have visited several times for dinner, you may wish to bring a small token of appreciation for the hostess. Always bring a small gift when you are invited as a house guest for a visit lasting a day or more.
  • Cards, rather than gifts, are given to acquaintances who are not close friends. This is especially true at Christmas, when it is common for people to send cards to their acquaintances and business or school colleagues.
  • What gifts are appropriate? Generally, an effort is made to select a gift that the giver knows or supposes is one the recipient needs, wants, or would enjoy. The amount spent on the gift is something the giver can afford; generally, it is not expected that people on limited budgets will spend large amounts on gifts. Expensive gifts are to be expected only when the people involved have a very close relationship with each other.
  • How are gifts acknowledged? If a gift is opened in the presence of the giver (as is often done), a verbal expression of thanks is appropriate. If a gift is opened in the absence of a giver, a thank-you note should be sent. The note should mention the particular gift.     

Relationships with Neighbors

In different societies and communities, people have different ideas about the proper behavior of neighbors. In Iowa City, you might have different interaction with your neighbors, depending on the type of housing you live in. People who live in a house usually know their neighbors. When first moving in, people who already live there will initiate the relationship. They will come and introduce themselves to you. Especially when you live with your family, and have kids, your kids are likely to play with other kids in the neighborhood. Therefore, it is good to know who your neighbors are. People living in apartment housing (a lot of them are students) may never meet their neighbors, since people are in short term living situations. Sometimes, you might never see your neighbors. However, it is still a good idea to at least recognize your neighbors in case any strange things happen. If you live in the residence halls there will be different expectations. Students who live in the resident halls are suggested to open their door when they are in the room. Students are advised to get to know their Resident Assistants (RAs) and other students on the floor.

Relationships in the Workplace

Cultural differences are reflected in the workplace as well. Whether you have a student job in a food service, a post-doctoral research position in a laboratory, or teaching responsibilities as a visiting professor, you will find that the basic American values discussed earlier are reflected in the behavior of the people around you. Individualism, equality, and efficiency are cultural values particularly noticeable in American workplaces.

Furthermore, each workplace has its own “culture,” with variations, for example, in the amount of attention paid to hierarchical differences. Even with these differences, there are guidelines international students and scholars will want to follow if they want to be accepted by the Americans around them, and if they want to get promoted:

  • Arrive at work punctually. If you must be late or miss work, notify your supervisor as soon as you can.
  • Ask how you are expected to dress (that is, how formally), or observe how others in the workplace dress, and then dress accordingly.
  • However you dress, be sure you are neat and clean.
  • Ask questions about any assignments or procedures you do not understand. Make sure you understand what you are expected to do before you start to do it. Don’t say you understand something you do not truly understand.
  • If you encounter difficulties in carrying out an assigned task, tell your supervisor immediately.
  • Carefully follow any safety and health rules that pertain to your workplace.
  • When appropriate, offer to help other employees with tasks.
  • Avoid treating your supervisor with what Americans would consider excessive deference or respect. For example, avoid saying “Yes, ma'am or yes, sir” repeatedly, and avoid bowing. Notice how other employees at your level address the supervisor and how they treat him or her, and try to follow their example.
  • Be friendly and sociable with fellow employees. Watch how they interact with each other, and try to follow their example. Learn something about the topics they discuss when they are socializing, so you can join their informal conversations. If you have opportunities to participate in outside-of-work social activities with co-workers, try to do so.
  • Treat subordinates, including secretaries, with respect. Greet them when you encounter them for the first time in the day. Say “please” and “thank you” if they do things for you.
  • Treat females with respect.
  • When you are talking to people, look directly at their eyes from time to time; do not keep your eyes turned away from theirs.
  • Periodically ask your supervisor, “How can I improve?”
  • Show a “positive attitude.” That is, avoid complaining and gossiping, and be cheerful and constructive in your dealings with people.
  • Consistently practice and improve your English.

Sometimes workers encounter problems associated with their jobs. For example, they might believe they are being treated unfairly or unreasonably, or that another employee’s behavior is making it difficult for them to carry out their responsibilities. When this happens among Americans, the general expectation is that the worker will first speak directly with the person with whom he or she has the problem. The next step is to talk to the supervisor, and then, if there is no resolution, the supervisor’s supervisor, then the head of the unit.

UI workers seeking outside help for resolving workplace problems can turn to the Office of the Ombudsperson or, if the complaint has to do with racial discrimination or sexual harassment, to the Equal Opportunity & Diversity Office. International students and scholars can talk with an International Student and Scholar advisor for suggestions and assistance with workplace problems.