Etiquette Series: Social Interactions


How are you?

It might have taken you aback when the stranger in the elevator said that to you. You wonder if you met that person before and somehow can’t recollect where. We have all been there. Americans say “How are you?”often. There are no hard and fast rules about replying to this casual inquiry, but, err on the side of caution.  It is common to return the pleasantry, especiallyif you happen to make eye contact and are in close proximity (say, in an elevator) with the other person.

What you must remember though is that they don’t expect a lengthy response to that question. “Fine, thank you”or “Good, how about you?”is more than enough.

Some situations when you must say it:

  • Cashier: Usually, they say it first. They are trained to do so. Always respond with “Fine, how about you?”
  • Stranger in an elevator: At the very least smile or say “Hello”. I know, I know. Mom told us not to talk to strangers. A “hello”won’t kill us.
  • Neighbors: Attempt a greeting even if you are seeing them for the first time or not sure if they live there. Americans take pride in home ownership,and even for renters a friendly neighborhood is a priority. Just smile or wave when you see that mom with a stroller or the teenager walking his dog.
  • Office: Again, it is a familiar atmosphere. It’s a place people go back to every day, so make an effort to greet people you pass by even if you don’t know them. At a minimum, acknowledge their presence with a smile and a nod.


Americans smile a lot. In public.At strangers. It boggles the Indian mind. We grew up being told not to smile at strangers. Following your mommy’s rule here in the US will make you stand out. And, not in a good way.

When in doubt, smile. If you make eye contact, you HAVE to smile. No, you don’t look silly doing that here. No, that guy is not going to think you are hitting on him. It is considered pleasant social behavior. Europe is a whole different ball game. Try this in Paris and…well, let’s save this story for another day.

Hold that door open

Always look behind before you let that door go. If you see a person behind you, it’s nice to hold that door open for him or her. This gesture is mostly initiated by the person walking up faster to the door, followed by a “Thank you”. Now, you know what to do when someone holds that door open for you.

If you see kids in a stroller or older people behind you, it is nice to let them go before you. This is not expected, but, always well appreciated.

Thank You

We do say “Thank you”in India.  Americans, however, take it to a whole different level. It’s almost like a full-stop. Say it when you think it’s needed. Say it when you think it’s not. For example: In India, you don’t thank the driver of the bus you just hopped out of. It may not even reach him amidst the crowd. Here it’s good manners to do so.

You cannot say“thanks”enough, here. Soon, it will be a part of your daily vocabulary and you won’t even realize that by 9 PM, it’s probably been your most used word.

Please and sorry

These follow closely behind “thanks”. Almost always ask for a favor with a “please”,even if you are paying for the service. For example, a store employee is helping you load your stuff into your trunk. Say “could you please do it?”, even if it’s store policy to do so.

Say “sorry”or “excuse me”if you come in the way of someone or bump your cart into another’s at the grocery store. I am not saying we don’t apologize for those things back in India; here, it’s considered offensive if you “forget”to do so. So, make it a habit and with time it will be a breeze.

Be on time

I cannot say this enough. Being a stickler for time since childhood, America has made me even more punctual.Arriving five minutes late is okay (if you have a valid reason), ten minutes late  is  excessive (especially, in a business scenario), fifteen minutes late and you had better have a solid reason (not an excuse). Americans value their time. Their calendars are planned well ahead of time and when they make a plan to meet you, it’s because they value your friendship or the relationship. Don’t destroy it by disregarding their time.


Waiting lines are there for a reason: to serve people in order of their arrival. Don’t try to be the smart cookie and jump the line. It could have serious repercussions. Always stand in line and wait your turn while maintaining a reasonable distance from the person ahead of you.

On a flight to India through Frankfurt, I noticed that almost the entire plane full of passengers rushed to board on the announcement for priority boarding. Why? It is clearly meant for parents with young children, older people and the disabled. The airline personnel were, not surprisingly, exasperated. Would you blame them for stereotyping Indians as rule breakers when they see this behavior every day in their job?

Personal space

Americans are used to a lot more personal space than Indians. Respect that. Don’t drag yourself within inches of the person in front of you in a line. No one will squeeze in between those two feet.

Back home though, glue yourself to the person in front of you. Please. When I was working in Bombay, it took me months to hop on the first local train that showed up on the platform. Then, I learned the trick. Pick one person in front of you, snap yourself close to them and trail them. Voila!


We get away with this in India. Make eye contact with a stranger and then casually walk past him or her. Especially, if it is a creepy looking guy, walk past him fast! Don’t do that here. If you happen to make eye contact, smile. Move on. Alternatively, don’t make eye contact. We can be a curious lot and a new country exposes us to a lot of amusing situations. Control yourself from ogling in those situations. Quickly scan it with your eyes and move on.

First names

Americans like to be referred to by their first name. They also tend to have nicknames and prefer to be called by that name. Don’t say “Robert”if he introduced himself as “Rob”. In a business setting, you may start with “Mr/Ms.”and almost always the person will prompt you to drop the “Mr./Ms.”Business interactions are more causal here.

Getting used to this takes a while. We are tuned to respect elders by attaching honorary prefixes to their names. However, you don’t want to make the locals here feel uncomfortable with the unnecessary Sir or Madam.

Bless you

When someone sneezes, it is good etiquette to say this. Wait no longer than a second or two and if no one else around you says it, please do the honors. It feels strange initially, but, with time you will notice that strangers do it for you and why wouldn’t you want to pass the blessings?

* This article or any of the Etiquette series articles do not mean to offend or ridicule one’s culture or habits. These tips are a result of my personal experiences, social faux pas and boo boos. I hope these tips ease your assimilation into a new culture.


Ramya Malisetty loves French food, Japanese culture, Merlot and King Charles Cavaliers. She obsesses over making a perfect bed, labeling everything in sight, Shabby Chic décor and preparing elaborate meals. She lives in sunny Phoenix, Arizona with her husband. Read about her foodie jaunts and fashion tips on her blog Wardrobe Menu.

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