How Not to be a Jerk in the USA

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How Not To Be a Jerk in the USA

When you meet other backpackers, it’s natural to discuss future/potential trips to mystical lands. Sometimes I get mad at myself for babbling about other journeys when already in the midst of traveling, but those conversations make you bond with others on the road.

Inevitably, I meet people who want to visit my home country: the United States. Which … awesome! I LOVE hearing that travelers still have the US on their destinations list. It makes me feel so happy.

As an American, I’m consistently told what to do in order not to act like an Ugly American overseas. Goodness, it’s been drilled into my head. Don’t told too loudly. Don’t act ethnocentric. Don’t ask if people speak American. I mean, English. Pop a search into google, and I bet thousands of articles appear.

Sometimes I feel self-conscious about my nationality, although I must admit it’s a personal problem. Locals and travelers have been nothing except kind and thoughtful to me.

But, since we’re on the topic of behavior, I figured why not offer a post advising visitors on how not to be a jerk in the USA.

How Not To Be a Jerk In the US
Tip these people, and don’t whine about it. [By Usien (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons].

1. Tip, Tip, and Tip

Waiters live off their tips. I’m serious. The low pay is the reason why us diners tip 15%-20% on top of the meal’s total cost. Earning tips also explains why waiters here are usually super, duper friendly compared to service staff in other countries. Dine in Germany and Austria, and you’ll see what I mean. No one asks if you need a refill on drinks or more napkins.

I’ve come across a few travelers who want to visit the US yet lament and complain about tipping. Honestly, my only advice is to suck it up.

Don’t loudly complain about having to tip in restaurants, especially while you’re seated in said-restaurant. You won’t make any friends. Your waiter may even spit in your food along with the cooking staff and hostess, or at least they’ll think about it.

No one cares if you don’t tip in XYZ country. Here, you tip. Save the deep discussion about living wages for another time and place. Sure, I agree it’s a worthwhile conversation, but your waiter didn’t create the tipping culture in the United States and doesn’t need to hear your opinions about it.

Jerk USA
Guns, guns, and more guns!

2. We Don’t All Own Guns

I would love $10 for every time I was asked about the gun culture in the United States. I’d probably be able to fund my next adventure, haha. I’m not going to launch into a discourse about the right to bear arms. Nor am I going to give my opinion on gun control. And don’t even try to argue about it in the comments, either.

Instead I want you remember one fact: not every American owns a firearm.

I never owned a gun. I never touched a gun. Gun laws in the USA vary from state to state, from super strict to less strict. To assume every American is totting an assault rifle is incorrect.

I don’t get offended when travelers ask me about gun violence in my country. It’s a major issue. But, uh, don’t ask if I’ve ever “shot anything.” It comes off as a bit stereotypical? Naive? Annoying? You get the idea.

Also, most of us don’t think about gun violence every time we travel to the nearest city. If you’re a tourist, it’s unlikely you’ll come across any major problem at Times Square in New York City or the French Quarter in New Orleans. Exercise simple street smarts and you should be fine.

How Not to be a Jerk in the USA
Welcome to the White House! [By Nishkid64 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

3. Refrain from Political Discussion

Honestly, this advice is appropriate for every country, not only the United States. I try not to discuss politics about another country’s government unless I’ve been invited to give my opinion by locals. However, this piece of advice still bears mentioning in this post.

Don’t bring up politics if you’re unsure of your audience’s viewpoints. Preaching to the choir is a lot easier than dealing with a group of angry people. Personally, I don’t mind when others ask questions about US politics or even criticize my government. I’m not a politician, after all, and not super sensitive; the United States has done PLENTY to warrant criticism and like it or not, our policies affect the rest of the world.

Still, if you come across a militant and nationalist debater, it might be better for your trip if you save the politics for another day. Save yourself a headache. Political discussions rarely change minds, and only leave people hurt or angry or both.

How Not to be a Jerk in the USA
Sorry, folks, no smoking here. [By CDC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

4. Smoking is Socially Unacceptable

I’ve spent a great deal of time in Europe and know smoking laws are more relaxed on the continent. Way more relaxed. For example, when I vacationed in Italy back in 2012, I was shocked at how many people my age smoked on the streets. In other European countries, like Portugal and Czech Republic, I immediately noticed people smoked in bars and clubs with no issues.

Expect to experience the opposite atmosphere in the United States. Many establishments are entirely non-smoking. In non-smoking areas, you’ll receive dirty looks and a firm kick in the pants if you choose to light your cigarette indoors.

If you’re a smoker, make sure to double-check for smoking areas inside restaurants, casinos, and bars. In non-smoking buildings, go outside to have a cigarette, and make sure you’re standing away from the door. There are some local laws that may require you to remain a certain distance away before lighting your cigarette. You don’t want to pay a fine.

Also, many Americans view smoking as a dangerous and unhealthy habit, and may lecture you about cigarettes. Honestly, I consider unsolicited lectures rude and would probably roll my eyes at these people, but try not to take their words personally.

Look at that happy smile!
Look at that happy smile!

5. Americans Are Friendly; not Fake

It amazes me how different social norms are when it comes to the “friendly vs. fake” debate.

For instance, in many countries, you don’t smile at people in shops or make small talk standing in line, because such easy-going behaviors are reserved for close friends and family. Which is fair enough. I made sure to wear a “poker face” in Germany, Austria, and France, and didn’t wave at strangers on the street.

When you visit the United States, however, it’s part of the culture and considered good manners to casually smile and greet people in public. Especially if you go further south or to the midwest.

We don’t think this behavior makes us “fake;” we simply view overt friendliness as politeness. So, don’t feel surprised or offended if a complete stranger chats to you in McDonald’s or in line at Disney World.

Jerk USA
If you cut in front of these people, prepare for insane rage. [By David Shankbone (David Shankbone) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons].

6. Do NOT Cut in Line

Haha, I think this custom is leftover from the colonial days, because I know how serious the British are about proper queuing. They can form a line better than we can!


Don’t sneak or cut to the front of the line at any establishment. Fast food joint, movie theater, museum entrance. It doesn’t matter if the person in front of you leaves a small gap or not. That gap isn’t an invitation for you to swoop in front of ten other people. Queuing isn’t customary in some countries, but here? Proper lines are almost a religion.

So I’ll say it again:

Do. Not. Cut. In. Line.

Honestly, your attempts might not work even if the others in line don’t yell at you (highly unlikely). Service people have been known to tell line cutters to go to the back and wait their turns.

How Not to be a Jerk in the USA
The Grand Canyon! Which I still haven’t visited, whoops.

Any other tips for travelers coming to the United States? How about advice for travelers coming to your country? How can we not appear like jerks?

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