Etiquette and Local Customs in New York
New York City
American manners are based on common sense, helpfulness and a sense of equality of all people rather than inherited social norms, hierarchy and formality. These traits are traced to our historical roots of having to rely on our neighbors for help and protection. (Of course, social hierarchy does exist, but it is not good manners to let it intrude into your public behavior with other people.)
Americans smile a lot and greet people around them in a friendly way. They shake each others right hands when introduced. Americans tend to be informal and are not easily offended by well-meaning people. Even New Yorkers are friendly and try to be helpful.
Multi-Cultural New York
New York is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world and we love it. Most of us tend at least to tolerate and respect - if not enjoy - this rich treasure of our multiple cultural traditions and religious beliefs.
Men And Women In The Workplace
In the work place there is little distinction between men and women and it is not unusual for co-workers of both genders to meet for lunch or a drink after work with each person paying their own share of the bill. This is called "going Dutch". Of course, if you invite someone to join you, you are expected to pay the "bill".
Sexist remarks (especially in the presence of the opposite sex), sexual innuendoes or sexual harassment are illegal in the work place and usually not tolerated in public (and not appreciated in private).
The American Practice Of Tipping
Tipping is an important social convention in the USA. For your waiter, busboy, bellboy, taxi driver, barkeep, doorman and other, tips are the biggest source of income (Indeed, the IRS - our tax authority - assumes they are being tipped and they assess a tax based on restaurant sales.) Thus, tips are expected and should be factored into the cost of dining out. An appropriate tip is between 15 & 20% for good service, perhaps more for exceptional service or less for poor service. Leaving no tip is a statement that the service was horrible. In judging "service" in a restaurant please be sure to recognize that there are factors out of the waiter's control. For example, if the chef is having a bad day, but the waiter is attentive, please don't blame the waiter. It is rude not to tip - unless they personally gave you bad service. See TIPPING for more information on tipping.
TYPNote on When NOT to tip: In the USA, the "mandatory" service charge, often found in many countries, is not usually included in the price. But check your bill to be sure. Note that for some big affairs in hotels or major restaurants, a "10% or 15% service charge" is included. Then no further tip is needed, except for exceptional personal service.
In recent years many establishments such as Pizzerias and delis have placed a "tip-cup" next to the cash register. In these places, it is up to your discretion whether to tip or not, many people don't.
It is not appropriate to give gifts when first meeting new business associates. Indeed, gifts are not expected in or necessary for business relationships and valuable gifts could be misinterpreted. The economics of the deal drives most transactions in American business - the exceptions are few and could be illegal.
However, around the December holidays, a card, a gift basket of fruit or wine, or a book or similar small gift is well appreciated by your business associates.
Gifts should reflect your knowledge of your colleague and could range from a nice book to a bottle of wine or liquor. (Note that alcoholic beverages cannot be sent in the mail). Gift baskets of fruit and gourmet food items such as coffee, cheese, and specialty items are quite common. These can often be ordered from distant places for local delivery. See GIFT BASKETS, MAIL ORDER, and FLORISTS.
Dress In New York
Although New Yorkers generally dress casually, they also love fashion and love to dress up for special occasions. There are certain places where a dress code exists. Here are some of them.
Business: In corporate New York and Wall Street, men are expected to wear dark business suits, conservative ties, and dress shoes with dark socks. Women wear business suits or conservative dresses and comfortable dress shoes with moderate heels and a bit of jewelry. The style is "attractive, not distracting". Some firms have designated Friday as "dress down" day. So don't be surprised to see some very casual clothing on Friday, especially in the summer.
In some smaller businesses, or creative arts and academic settings, men will feel comfortable in nice dark slacks and a tweed sports jacket, blazer or sweater. Ties are often optional, especially in hot weather. Women wear skirts or slacks. Professors and artists can dress more casually.
Blue jeans, T-shirts and sneakers are expected when working during "off hours" or when "working environment" such as dance rehearsal or setting up displays.
Formal: "Formal or Black Tie" means a tuxedo for men and a long dress or very chic designer cocktail dress for women.
Cocktail Party or Dinner: Depends where and with whom (personal invitation or business) and on the temperature. For personal invitations to a home it is advisable to ask your host what the "dress" will be.
In the autumn, winter and spring, men will usually feel comfortable with a suit, nice sports jacket or cashmere blazer with dark flannel slacks, and almost always a tie. Women will feel comfortable in something dressy; a stylish suit (a skirt bit shorter than for business or a mid-calf skirt) and as much jewelry as they feel comfortable in. Invitations to charitable events tend to be more dressy.
In the summer outside, most men will feel at home with a nice lightweight blazer and sporty slacks. Women can wear lighter colors and cooler materials.
Barbecue or Picnic: Shorts, slacks, casual, sports shirt, loafers, tennis sneakers (definitely no tie). Pack a swimming suit if called for.
Concert, Operas, and Theaters: The better the seat and the more special the occasion, the more dressy the clothing. For the opera, opening nights, awards and charity events, some men still wear a tuxedo and women often wear long gowns. It is not rude to call your host for some guidance with the question: "What is the dress for tonight?"
Up-scale Restaurants: Almost always a tie and jacket or a suit, never, never sneakers, shorts and T-shirts.
Churches, Synagogues, Mosques, etc.: Never, never shorts, halters, bare chests and T-shirts. Women (and men) should be prepared to cover their head. Ignore how some rude people dress.
Court: Depends if you are the lawyer or the defendant.
TYPFashion Note: White Socks. White socks are worn only with sneakers and are reserved for playing sports.
Americans are fairly punctual and exchange business cards when they first meet. It is not unusual to be offered something to drink such as coffee or a soft drink at a meeting. In a business setting, women may invite men for lunch.
In most American businesses, the phone is answered with "Hello + the name of the business or department".
Some phrases you might hear:
"Please let me pick up the tab."
In social settings women are still treated as the "fairer sex". Men will not offend them by holdings doors, hailing taxis, holding an umbrella, helping them with their coats, standing when entering a room, and helping them with their chair in restaurants. In fact, most people appreciate such behavior.
Many men in the American home have a broader set of responsibilities than men in many foreign countries. Do not be surprised if the man cleans up after supper, vacuums the house or takes the kids to the doctor. Tasks are less likely to be viewed as "a woman's job or a man's job". But, women still take on the major share of housework and childcare in many households, especially if only the husband works.
Gifts When Visiting
When invited to a person's home, a small gift is appropriate such as a bouquet of flowers, bottle of wine, box of chocolates, a book or something special from your home town or country. A thank-you note is also well-appreciated but if time is short a phone call can take its place.
What Does Offend Americans
Depending on what circles you travel in, the following behavior is likely to offend and make you a social pariah.
Superstitions and folk beliefs:
These depend on cultural background and education. Well-educated upscale Americans entertain very few superstitions (although they joke about black cats, salt, broken mirrors and ladders) and have little use for astrology and psychics.
Astrology and psychics are more popular among the middle-class and lower income groups. Gamblers are usually more superstitious. Some cultures retain many of their superstitions and folk beliefs.