The US is an incredibly diverse and interesting place to visit. With its range of habitats, towns, cities, small abandoned settlements, casinos, beaches, forest and mountains, there is something for everyone. The people there are friendly and make you more than welcome, whether you are a tourist or on business. I have had the pleasure of being there in both roles and have come up with some guidelines and facts which every traveller should find useful.
1) Don’t be afraid to ask. If you are lost ask an American to direct you. On a couple of occasions, I had people lead me exactly where I wanted to go, they even missed their own buses so they could show me where my stop was and they were always incredibly polite. Before I went, people said, Never get a map out, never look lost or you will get mugged. I found this untrue. Most Americans are only too willing to help a visitor.
2) Some cities have a lot of street people – don’t dismiss them. The welfare system in the US is basic in many states and does not provide much for those who find themselves homeless. San Francisco is home to a large population of street people and I chatted to some and found out they were Vietnam vets. When they were drafted, the US supported you if you stayed in the army for 2 years but many found themselves out after 22 months- just before the state would offer support. Then, finding it hard to adapt and often traumatised by the battles they had endured these men found themselves homeless and unable to hold down a job. However, far from simply begging, they found in San Francisco, they could earn money by collecting cans and bottles and getting the 5 cents returns. You see gangs of men roaming the streets after sun down searching through bins and tippers seeking out these finds and putting them in huge plastic sacks which they carry around. As an outsider, it is hard to fathom what their lives must be like but they rarely beg, are polite and usually keep themselves clean and their community spirit is strong.
3) Know the no-go areas. In every city in the US, there are areas which are controlled by criminals and most locals will let you know where they are. They often border on areas frequented by tourists and it is easy to find yourself turning down a wrong street and ending up in say Tenderloin in San Francisco. If you feel something is wrong, leave the area because unless you understand the ins and outs of the social culture there or have a good guide, it can turn dangerous. I found myself on the wrong side of town only twice and both times I was glad to leave.
4) Be polite – Americans are fastidious about manners. If you ask directions, you get addressed as, ‘sir’ or, M’aam’. Be polite back. The Americans, as a rule, love us Brits and it is surprising how, wherever you are from in the UK, you will always meet people who know the area or know someone whose friend has visited and they will want to know more. They feel it is their original home still and love the history and hearing of the towns so be prepared to chat.
5) Understand different areas and people. In the US, different cultures and nationalities dominate different areas, whether it is the Mexican influence in Palm Springs, the Dutch in Pennsylvania or the Native Americans in Nevada. Understand they have different ways of doing things and may be laid back, stoic or loud according to their origins. New Yorkers can seem brash and loud but actually are wonderful, Texans can seem domineering and Californians horizontal about time keeping but this is because of the influence of their culture – don’t knock it. Some areas have strong religious beliefs – I made the mistake of lighting up in Salt Lake City and was immediately berated by several people for defiling my temple (body) as there is a large Mormon population and I had unwittingly offended.
6) Don’t speed- speed cameras are hidden even in the desert and you can easily get caught.
7) Be careful about tipping. Waiters, porters and other service personnel take a huge pride in their jobs. They will often introduce themselves as your ’waiter for the evening’ and ,unlike in the UK, tipping is not always seen as necessary. They are paid well in most places and offering them a small bit of money can be offensive. On the other hand, in some places, tipping is expected and the staff soon let you know if this is the case.
I hope these few ideas will give you a small insight into the many peoples and ways of the US based on my experience. Americans are far and away the warmest, kindest and most hospitable people I have had the pleasure of doing business with and travelling with and I hope that we, as Brits know how to return the favour. Even in business, you are just as likely to be invited to a home barbecue as a business meeting – it is all part of their hospitality. Be prepared to talk, be prepared to telltales of the UK and , most of all, be prepared to be educated in how to make visitors feel welcome.