Culture & Customs

This is a very exciting and perhaps anxious time for those who have never traveled or lived in the United States. Moving and leaving behind close friends and family can be very stressful, and immersing oneself in a new culture can be even more so. Many newcomers will be adjusting to a new language, culture and a distinctly different way of life.

Having an understanding of American culture will help in the transition to life in the United States. There are many resources available to assist with the transition. One important recommendation to all newcomers is to become involved in activities offered through Samford University. A wide variety of activities are available that provide opportunities to meet and develop friendships with other newcomers from around the world.

photo of international students eating food together

The following generalizations on American customs are offered as a guide for adjusting to life in the U.S. There are many regional, ethnic and individual differences within the U.S., so please keep an open mind and learn from each person you meet.


Americans often greet each other with a “hi” or “how are you.” This is not a question, but a statement. During introductions people will often shake hands. Embraces or hugs are generally reserved for greeting family members or very close friends.


Time is very important to Americans and people are expected to arrive at the precise time an appointment is scheduled.

Gestures and Nonverbal Communication

Many Americans move quite frequently while conversing. People generally like to maintain about one arm length of distance between themselves and the person with whom they are speaking. Eye contact is generally direct.


Americans, as a general rule, are very concerned about hygiene issues. Body odor in particular is a very sensitive issue. Most Americans bathe daily and use an antiperspirant/deodorant to reduce perspiration and odors. Covering odor with a perfume or cologne will tend to offend Americans. Strong musk and perfumes are just as overwhelming as heavy perspiration.

Work Schedules

The average workday is from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. Retail stores usually operate from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. Some retail stores and grocery stores are open 24 hours a day.


When eating in a restaurant it is customary to leave money (a “tip”) for the waiter or waitress who served you. The amount is generally about 15–20 percent of the total bill. It is paid separately and in addition to the amount for the meal. It is also customary to tip bellmen in hotels (about 50 cents per bag) and taxi drivers (10–15 percent of the bill). Do not tip government employees and school officials. These are considered bribes and are punishable by law.


Althen, G. (1988) American Cultural Ways: A Guide for Foreigners in the United States.
Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.
Kohls, L.R. (1988) The Values Americans Live By.
Hayward, Irva R. and David W. Coombs (1994) Welcome: A Foreigner’s Guide to Successful Living in the Southern United States.