Greetings in the U.S. – American Culture Series Part 1

Image courtesy of stockimages/

Image courtesy of stockimages/

Most of us like to make good first impressions. Greetings can be awkward or even scary if you are new to a culture and are unsure of what is acceptable or not. In most instances, the United States is easy going and forgiving when it comes to introductions. However, here are a few ideas in helping to get acquainted in the American culture.

In general, you should stand no closer than two feet away from the person you are talking to. Any closer than that might make your conversation partner uncomfortable.

American greetings often begin with a friendly smile and “Hello” or “Hi.” Some informal greetings might include, “How’s it going?” or “What’s up?” In only a few areas such as in the American South is it started with “Howdy” (which originated from “How do you do?”). There are many other ways to say hello and good-bye in American culture that you may hear that are not listed here.

In casual situations, a verbal greeting is enough. A handshake can be offered, but make sure that it is firm, not squeezing but not limp either. In the United States, it is perfectly acceptable to look someone directly in the eye when shaking hands, regardless of the social position, gender, or authority. Embracing or hugging someone that you are unfamiliar with may make another ill at ease.

If a handshake is not preferred, the greeting can be accompanied by a nod or a wave instead. In business settings, a handshake is almost always used. Men usually wait for women to offer their hand before shaking.

You can say, “it’s a pleasure to meet you”, “pleased to meet you”, or a short “my pleasure.” Some people may ask, “how are you?” although this usually doesn’t refer to your health. You can respond with, “Fine, thanks” or “Fine, thank you.” Other variations might include, “I’m well, thanks,” and casual replies such as “Can’t complain,” or “It’s going.”

Introductions are often informal, so don’t be surprised if someone you meet might tell you to use their first name or nickname immediately. However, if they don’t make this offer, address them by their last name with a title (Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Miss). It’s safest to address women with the title Ms. (pronounced “Miz”), unless you know she prefers Mrs. or Miss instead. Be sure to ask the other person’s name and let your U.S. acquaintance know what you prefer to be called.

Both men and women enjoy being addressed. However, when it comes to personal questions, for example, women should not be asked if they are married. If the woman mentions she is married, you can follow up with a few polite questions about husband or children. (ex. “What does your husband do?” Or, “How long have you been married?”) For questions on children, you may ask, “How many kids do you have?” “Boy(s) or girl(s)?” Or “how old are your kids?”

‘Small talk’ (polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial subjects) usually acts as a conversation starter. Small talk may include:

  • A comment about the weather (“It sure is rainy/sunny,” etc).
  • “What do you do?” (meaning what kind of work do you do and/or for whom)
  • A compliment on something the other person has (e.g. car, pet, a belonging). Be careful to make sure clothing compliments are not too personal for women as this may be regarded as sexist or harassment. Compliments on something someone has done such as a job well done, skill, or sports related topic, often work well.

Some common topics for starting a conversation include job, movies, food, weather, sports, travel, dieting, exercise, music, pets, and books. U.S. executives may begin talking about business after a very brief exchange of small talk.

For more tips on greetings and etiquette, try eDiplomat and Emily Post Etipedia.


Written by Marlene Martzke for English Classes by Skype