Some cities Are Better Than OthersGuidebook authors clearly have their favorite cities, subtly categorizing each of America’s urban metropolises as good, bad or “hidden gems.” Good cities: Austin, Savannah, San Francisco, New Orleans, New York, Chicago, Miami Hidden Gems: Charleston, South Carolina; Portland, Oregon; Denver, Colorado Bad Cities: Phoenix, Los Angeles and anything in Texas other than Austin And then there’s Las Vegas. The love-hate relationship many have for the city leaves it straddling the line of good and bad cities. Rough Guides calls it an “unmissable destination,” but says, “it’s one that palls for most visitors after a couple of (hectic) days.” Frommer’s, meanwhile, jokes “Las Vegas has its own idea of what constitutes culture.”
The South Can Be … InterestingGuidebook writers do a lot of tiptoeing when they talk about the American South. They all laud its cultural offerings for foreign travelers, but some make it out to be a backwards land full of hoodlum-types. "Texas is the country's capital for oil-drilling, BBQ-eating and right-wing politicking, with huge expanses of land and equally domineering attitudes," says Rough Guides, while Lonely Planet notes: “Big hair, big egos and big guns. Flashy TV-show millionaires and heroic/criminal football players are what outsiders see of Dallas. The reality is not unrelated.” But don’t let the guns and “criminal football players” scare you away. “The South is celebrated for its hospitality, down-home cooking and its blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll, and country music traditions,” Wikitravel notes. “Regional differences, such as they are, are most notable in the South,” says Culture Shock! “Family counts for more there, and money less. Time is a little slower, hospitality a bit fuller, the work ethic slightly less full-blown.” Yet, it’s not southern hospitality for all. Gays may want to stay away, according to Lonely Planet: "In the rural heartland … life can look more like the Fifties -- homosexuals are still oppressed and commonly reviled. Gay travelers need to watch their step to avoid hassles and possible aggression."
Americans Have Complicated Dining RitualsWikitravel has you covered where food is concerned. The Web guide’s writers have uncovered a surprising number of rituals that many Americans probably never realized: “When invited to a meal in a private home it is considered polite for a guest to ask if they can bring anything for the meal, such a dessert, a side dish, or for an outdoor barbecue, something useful like ice or plastic cups or plates. The host will usually refuse except among very close friends, but it is nonetheless considered good manners to bring along a small gift for the host. A bottle of wine, box of candies or fresh cut flowers are most common. Gifts of cash, prepared ready-to-serve foods, or very personal items (e.g. toiletries) are not appropriate.” And don’t forget the good ol’ American potluck meal: “Ideal dishes for a potluck should be served from a large pot, dish, or bowl, and would be spooned or forked on to diners' plates -- hence the emphasis on salads, casseroles, and spoonable side dishes.” But how should you eat food in America and how do you know what’s for forks and what’s for fingers? “Eating finger food with a fork and knife probably won't offend anyone; eating fork-and-knife food by hand might, as it's considered ‘uncivilized’ and rude.” And if you don’t finish your meal? “Offense isn't taken if you don't finish your meal, and most restaurants will package the remainder to take with you, or provide a box for you to do this yourself (sometimes euphemistically called a ‘doggy bag’, implying that the leftovers are for your pet). If you want to do this, ask the server to get the remainder ‘to go’; this term will be almost universally understood, and will not cause any embarrassment. Some restaurants offer an ‘all-you-can-eat’ buffet or other service; taking home portions from such a meal is either not allowed, or carries an additional fee.”
Learn How to TipTipping, that most contentious of issues, can be a nerve-racking affair -- and no one wants to be accused of the most heinous of etiquette crimes. Luckily, the guidebooks offer some advice. Lonely Planet notes: “Tipping is standard practice across America. In city restaurants, tipping 15% of the bill is expected; less is OK in an informal diner, while top-end restaurants expect 20%. Bartenders expect $1 per drink. Taxi drivers and hairdressers expect 10% to 15%. Skycaps at airports and porters at nice hotels expect $1 a bag or so. It’s polite to leave a few dollars for the hotel maid, especially if you spend several nights.” But what if the service was bad? Wikitravel (rather boldly) recommends: “If you receive exceptionally poor or rude service and the manager does not correct the problem when you bring it to their attention, a deliberately small tip (one or two coins) will express your displeasure more clearly than leaving no tip at all.”
Americans Need Their SpaceIf you plan on greeting your new American friend with a kiss on the cheek outside of New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, forget about it. "Don't be overly physical if you meet someone," says Lonely Planet. The guidebook’s authors also recommend maintaining an arms-length distance from others and following the American’s lead. If you are going to shake hands, Culture Shock! recommends that you “grip the other person’s hand firmly (but not so firmly as to crush the bones) and give a couple of springy pumps up and down. The passive extending of a hand, leaving someone else to do the work of shaking, leaves a bad impression. People will think you’re either conceited or lazy.” Things get even trickier for two men, as Culture Shock! explains: “Back-slapping is acceptable among men. So is a touch or a squeeze of the shoulder. But only ball players in their moments of triumph are certifiably masculine enough to throw their arms around each other.”
Be on time, don't talk politics, don't be overly physical with strangers, tip generously and bring a casserole if you're invited to a potluck. These are some of the nuggets of wisdom guidebook writers offer foreign visitors to the U.S.
Going farther ... Truck stops offer America's greatest culinary adventure. Men should hug only on the sports field. And the South can be, well, confusing.
As Max Fisher also noted in an enlightening article for the Atlantic, this is America -- or at least it's the version reiterated in the guides foreign travelers use like Bibles. Each sells America as an idea: a place for baseball, apple pie and a day at the mall.
What in this massive country deserves to be seen and why, the authors wonder? And what makes Americans American?
The answers may seem comically oversimplistic to some. After all, Americans already know what a garage sale or a doggie bag is, why barbecue is better in the South, and when to talk about guns and with whom.
But by looking at what makes the U.S. different from everyone and everywhere else, these guidebooks tell us as much about the U.S. as they do the inquisitive world.
From Fodor's to Frommer's, Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Wikitravel and more, here's a look at 10 things guides tell foreign visitors about America.
Press Start to be enlightened.