Miss Manners Says… : Dos and Don'ts in American Society


I.                    Introduction

a.       The following are considered the rules for being polite in America

b.      NOTE: just because it is a rule does not mean that everybody follows it. However, often foreigners are held to higher standards than locals.

c.       When it comes to being polite, it is always better to err on the side of being too polite!

d.      Note:  Just because it is a rule in the US does not mean it is necessarily true in other western countries.

e.       Note:  Just because it is a rule in the US does not mean that it is not a rule in China.

II.                 Personal Hygiene

a.       Americans generally don’t like body smells so, most Americans:

b.      Wear deodorant (and sometimes also perfume/cologne) every day

c.       Brush teeth (two-three times) daily, and/or chew gum

d.      Shower everyday, though every other day is also acceptable.

e.       Don’t pick their nose or teeth in public

f.        Don’t trim their nails in public

g.       Spitting and “snot rockets” are inappropriate in public.  Americans generally use a tissue!

III.               Bodily Noises

a.       Don’t burp or fart in public

b.      If it does happen, say “Excuse me.”

c.       When coughing or sneezing, cover their mouths/noses with their hand.

d.      Also should be followed with, “Excuse me.”

e.       When someone else sneezes (or coughs sometimes) somebody in the room should say one of the following:

                                                               i.      God bless you.

                                                             ii.      God bless.

                                                            iii.      Bless you.

                                                           iv.      Gesundheit (German for “身体健康”)

IV.              When Nature Calls

a.       Polite language is usually indirect, so, if one must “上厕所,” one should say:

                                                               i.      “I need to go wash my hands.”

                                                             ii.      “If you’ll excuse me for a moment, please.”

                                                            iii.      “I need to use the restroom/bathroom/washroom.”

                                                           iv.      “Where is the little boys/girls room?”

b.      The word ‘TOILET’ is not polite and should generally not be used in conversation.

c.       Toilet paper can generally be put in the toilet.  Feminine hygiene products, on the other hand, should usually be placed in the trash can.

d.      Always wash hands WITH SOAP after using the restroom!      

V.                 Garbage

a.       Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever litter (throw trash on the ground).  It is ILLEGAL in the US, and others will probably be confrontational about it.

b.      Recycle when possible:

                                                               i.      Generally plastic, glass, paper, and metal are put in a different bin from the trash, even within the home.

c.       Generally it is polite to take responsibility for the cleanliness of your own area (exception would be restaurants).  There is not usually somebody else who is going to come later and clean up after you.

d.      Trash should only be put out at appropriate times when it will be collected.

VI.              Time

a.       When one has an appointment, one has a 10-minute window to arrive: five minutes before to five minutes after.

                                                               i.      If s/he will arrive later than 5 minutes, s/he should call or text the person with whom s/he has an appointment to let him/her know.

                                                             ii.      Exception is going to dinner at someone’s house.  There is still a 10-minute window, but one should NEVER arrive early—the host/ess will likely still be preparing things.

b.      Appointments are usually made at least one day in advance.  For formal dinners or parties, invitations are usually given at least one week in advance.

c.       Do not accept an invitation unless s/he actually plans on going.

                                                               i.      Hedges such as “I don’t know,”  “Let me think about it,” or, “I’ll get back to you” are ok.

d.      It is considered rude to call before 8AM or after about 9PM, unless one is certain the person will be up and that it won’t disturb others.

VII.            Dining at a Restaurant

a.       Usually plates are ordered individually, though some restaurants, especially Chinese restaurants, are “family style.”

b.      Unless people are good friends, it is not usually okay to eat from each other’s plates.

c.       It is usually considered polite to wait for everybody to have his/her dish before starting to eat.

                                                               i.      Sometimes somebody might say:

1.      “Oh, please go ahead and start!”

2.      “Please, eat it while it’s hot!”

                                                             ii.      In this case, after having confirmed, it is okay to start eating.

d.      Tipping is expected.  15%-20% is normal.  The wait staff earns minimum wage or less.  They are paid mostly by tips!

VIII.         Dining at Somebody’s House

a.       When somebody invites somebody over for dinner, it is polite for the guest to ask if there is anything s/he can bring.

                                                               i.      Usually the host/ess will say no.  However, it is not considered rude to ask guests to bring something small like a salad or dessert.

b.      If the host/ess says not to bring anything, it is still best to bring some sort of small present, flowers or wine is typical.

c.       Some families say grace (a short prayer giving thanks to God for the food) before the meal.

                                                               i.      If one does not know the prayer, or does not wish to participate, it is polite to sit quietly until the prayer is finished.  “Amen,” is the clue that the prayer is over.

                                                             ii.      Sample prayer:

Bless us, oh Lord,

For these, thy gifts,

Which we are about to receive,

From thy bounty,

Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

d.      Food is usually placed in the center of the table.

e.       One should not start serving her/himself until the host/ess gives permission (aka, “Help yourself,” or “Tuck/dig in!”)

f.        To serve oneself, use the communal serving utensil (fork/spoon), and not one’s own.

g.       People only serve themselves food.  It is considered rude to serve others.

h.       Generally all the food one intends to eat is placed on one’s own plate at the beginning of a meal.

i.         One should not start eating until everybody has served her/himself.

j.        If one does not want something, s/he just passes it on; There is no need to say anything. If the host/ess asks, say, "It looks good, but I think I won't have any thank you."

k.      If somebody wants something but cannot reach it, s/he does not reach across others.  Simply ask “Please pass me the…”

l.         Serving oneself seconds is not rude.

m.     What about silverware?

                                                               i.      The typical meal will have four/five pieces of silverware: salad fork, fork, knife, spoon and maybe a dessert spoon/fork (depends on dessert).

                                                             ii.      When in doubt, start outside and work in.

                                                            iii.      Fork is generally held in the left hand with the knife in the right.

                                                           iv.      Spoon is usually held in the left hand.  Soup should be pushed away from the eater.

n.       Don’t put your elbows on the table.

o.      Hands should generally go below the table when not in use.

IX.              What to Talk About

Safe Topics

Unsafe Topics










Marital Status




Political Views

Prices of things


X.                 Smoking and Drinking

a.       Smoking in public is considered rude, and is illegal in many places

                                                               i.      At others’ houses, it is considered polite to ask first to smoke.  It is not considered rude for the host/ess to ask the smoker to go outside to smoke.

b.      Smoking and drinking are considered a personal decision, so one should not pressure others to drink or smoke.

c.       Drinking wine has its own ritual

d.      A toast may be given, but is not as common as in China.