Advice to Newcomers: Understand American Life and Enjoy the Experience

I recruited students from tropical countries to train as international interns at a botanical garden in Florida.  Below is the list of do’s and don’ts I gave them during orientation. 


it’s the country where you feel like a “visitor” only if you think of yourself as one. You only have to notice the multitude of languages, faces, sizes and shapes of the people to see that you are home. Soon as you appreciate being part of the mix, one with the many variations of humanity, you start enjoying the American experience. You will only be treated as a “foreigner” if you act like one – an “alien” is someone indifferent.

So, in order to “belong” and become part of this diverse cauldron of humans who enjoy the benefits of living in America, you need to know the American way of doing things. Below are some “do’s and don’ts” you need to remember in order to blend seamlessly into mainstream American life. Most of them may familiar to you, but some go beyond what you thought you knew just from watching American movies, TV shows (like sit-com reruns from generations past) or from what you have experienced as a tourist on a packaged tour.


1. ARRIVE ON TIME (NO EXCUSES) for appointments. Show up ten to five minutes before the scheduled time of appointment, but not earlier.  It means that you have to calculate the time it takes for you to commute (drive or get) to the appointed place, after considering the traffic situation that hour, events going on that day and the weather. Know exactly how long it takes you to get ready (e.g. time your grooming rituals) and plan to leave the house accordingly.

This scenario actually happened. When I scheduled a house meeting for interns I supervised, everyone waited in the meeting room at the exact time we were supposed to start, except for one international student from Africa. So I asked the interns present if she, this international student, knew the schedule. I was told that she did. In fact she reminded everybody of the start time. But then, I was told, she took a shower minutes before that time. This indicated to me that “start time” could mean the same as “get-ready time” in the old country.  This, however, is not practiced in the U.S.

2. TIP. Receiving a tip is not only expected by the server; tipping is required. When a wait staff, or server, takes your order and food is delivered to your table; or even when you pick-up the food yourself but eat at a table or a counter, you give anywhere between 15 – 18% of the cost of the food you ordered as tip (or gratuity) to the wait staff who in turn tips the hosts / hostess, those bussing the tables, and maybe also the kitchen staff. Tipping is NOT optional.

Places where you are NOT required to tip for food service would be fast food restaurants, drive through(s), and Chinese Take-out Counters. Food Trucks, Starbucks, or cafes where you get your own drink or food may have tip jars at the counter and tipping is optional.

In general, you include the tip when you pay with a credit card or you leave cash on the table. Tip your bartender for drinks you order. According to bartender friends (or those who are licensed to serve alcohol), a dollar tip for every drink, which would cost you from around $7 to $15, is common. But for all night drinkers, a dollar for every two drinks may be enough. If you leave your credit card with the bartender and “open a tab” you tip when you pay the bill, and tip according to how many drinks or the total cost of what you ordered (including bar food) at 15 to 18%.

3. SPEAK UP. Although this advice would benefit more those coming from cultural groups who tend to communicate in “indirect” or coded manner; still, the key to every newcomer’s success in the US is learning how to communicate as clearly and directly (but politely) as possible.   A good example of one cultural group that is less direct in speech would be Filipinos (and some say Pacific Islanders). The inability to give a straightforward “no” to an invitation for the fear of offending friends, even acquaintances, can be problematic in the U.S.

 For example, it is common for Filipinos to say,  “I’ll try to be there” instead of:

“No, I don’t want to go,”   “I don’t feel like going,”

“I’m not interested,”   “I can’t afford to go,”

“I’ll be busy that week and will be too tired (to make the effort),”

“I’ve made other plans,” or  “I prefer to go by myself.”

However,  not showing up when expected is rude behavior. Be straightforward and forthcoming because being vague causes confusion and miscommunication.

People in the U.S. come from many different cultural backgrounds and will therefore rely on the literal meaning of the English words used. Not giving a response, not returning a call or a text message, which in some cultures could mean a “no,” will only be interpreted as being disrespectful.

4. BRING AN ID WITH YOU AND SHOW YOUR ID. Your passport or international driver’s license (in English) would be the best ID to bring with you because it has your date of birth. Show your ID when “carded” or asked to prove that you are of legal age (adult at 21 years old) to buy and consume alcohol; and in some cases, to be allowed entry to adults-only bar.  Everyone who appear to be 30 years old or under (just about everyone) are carded. Asians will always be carded.

5. REMEMBER how long inches, feet, yards, and miles are.  To dress appropriately know how hot or cold temperatures are in Fahrenheit. Know where north, south, east and west directions point. Always google map-search your destination when planning trips or your driving route even if you rely on smart phones for voice guided driving directions.  Driving in the US is on the right hand side.

6. READ, and READ again the labels of food products for serving sizes, nutritional or other instructional information when shopping.  Watch what you buy and eat as the change in diet, food availability and eating habits can bring unwanted effects like weight gain. Note that the serving sizes at restaurants are big, so feel free to ask for a “to go” box  to take home any left-overs.

Read the return policy on non-food items you buy and keep the receipt.  It has the return policy information, so in case you are not happy with the product you can exchange or return for a refund almost anything you buy in the U.S.

7. EXTEND your hand for a handshake.  Or you may reciprocate a hug if initiated by people you know, friends and family.   The proper posture  when hugging is one that allows contact only in the upper third of the body. Otherwise, REFRAIN from touching anyone, including (or especially older) children and teens. Maintain two and a half feet distance of personal space to avoid being perceived as intrusive (“lacking boundaries”) or inappropriate.



1. SHOW UP TOO EARLY (an hour early or a day early) for an appointment. This actually happened to me.  A friend who was giving me a ride arrived an hour early, and we both decided to head to our date with an elderly woman who invited us out to dinner. She was visibly upset to see us at the door that early  (50 minutes early), and would not let us in.  Instead she asked us to come back an hour later. While she looked dressed and ready to go, she actually had another appointment, with her accountant, when we got there. She made sure we knew it was rude not to be on time, this time too early.

A new immigrant from Southeast Asia excited to see her sister who lived in another State decided, with the rest of her family, to surprise her. They drove to see her a day earlier than scheduled. The sister turned them away and asked them to come back the next day.

2. AND DO NOT SHOW UP UNANNOUNCED. Call if you want to visit and only if you have been told that you are welcome.  Allow a week’s notice to schedule any appointments with friends.

3. STARE but offer a nod or a greeting when your see anyone coming or when your eyes meet. A smile and  greeting of “Hi, how may I help you?” on seeing a client or a customer while in the workplace is “standard” or expected behavior. But, “How are you?” is a greeting. “How is it going?” may be more familiar in tone but is equivalent to a greeting.  A person who’ve seen more than once, say in your apartment complex, but have not formally met or an acquaintance is just being polite when he or she asks you those questions. It does not mean that he or she is interested to know how you are.

“Good, and you?” response should be more than enough. DO NOT engage in a conversation about what is going on in your life that day. That is reserved for family and friends who may really want to know. They will be asking, “how was you day?” or  “what up?”

“Have a good day,” “enjoy the rest of your day,” “have a good evening,” “have a good weekend,” are standard ‘goodbyes.’ You could wish the other person the same by repeating the phrase or by simply saying, “you too” or “thanks, you too.”

4. USE CERTAIN WORDS (AT ALL COST).  Learn the list of “do not say” words.  Instead use politically correct words.  Say “African American” instead of “Black.”  Never ever say the N-word even when you hear African Americans call themselves or each other that.  Americans of Asian descent prefer to be called “Asian-Americans” or “Asians” but not “oriental” which denotes rugs.   Refrain from referring to people or groups by their distinctive physical attributes (e.g. shape of eyes, weight), mannerism or stereotypical characteristics.

5.  DRINK AND DRIVE…(OR TEXT AND DRIVE). All of the streets are wide, even in residential areas, and free of obstructions.  A “block” even in cities could stretch for long distances. This means that driving is at the prescribed speed limit; which also means that driving is fast. To get from one place to another, you often have to use freeways or interstate highways (with speeds of 40 to 70 miles per hour). It would be difficult AND DANGEROUS for drivers to make a sudden stop to avoid hitting you, and / or avoid getting hit.  

As a driver, you could make mistakes by being distracted by texting or talking on the phone, which are illegal in most States. Driving under the influence (or driving drunk) can lead to impaired judgement,  risky driving behavior, or even WRONG-WAY driving after missing road signs. Plan how you will get back home from a party or an event that involves drinking (again, legally allowed if you are 21 years or older). Designate a driver who should stay dry (or not consume alcohol); plan on calling a cab or ride-share services like Uber.

6. ASK QUESTIONS REGARDING SOMEONE’S INCOME, AGE OR SEXUAL ORIENTATION because personal information (like income) is confidential, or may be used to discriminate (like age or sexual orientation). Wait until the other party volunteers the information, if at all.  Similarly, do not initiate a conversation about ‘relationships’ or ‘relationship status’ as this could mean only one thing – that you are interested in having a relationship with that person. Who anyone dates (or “going out with”) is “none of your business” unless you want to date that person.

7. JOKE or even comment on someone’s religion and politics. More importantly, DO NOT TALK about sex or engage in jokes on sex. These actions will only be interpreted as “leading the other person on” (or as an “invitation”) if you were a woman, and as a form of sexual harassment if you were a man. Any remarks outside academic discussions on sex, gender, or sexual orientation are inappropriate. Despite what is depicted in movies, or media, Americans are less tolerant of public nudity (you can get arrested) compared to Europeans; and in general, are less approving of public displays of affection. HAVING SEX in public is a misdemeanor crime in most States or a felony (crime) in some. Likewise, urinating in public is illegal in all States.


Remember, the more you understand the culture and act according to the norms of American daily life, you’re more likely to ENJOY everything else that the U.S. has to offer.