A person who is not an American needs to be careful about making sweeping critical comments — “You Americans…” Think how you would react if someone, even a friend, criticized a member of your family. Americans often rally together when they feel attacked. Let an American offer the criticism.
Do not expect that you know Americans from movie or television stereotypes. Most Americans do not hunt, own guns, attend fundamentalist churches, or go to NASCAR races, for example. There are many variations in accent, political inclination, and opinions. Being open to surprises rather than “knowing” everything already is usually a good approach when traveling.
Do not assume that ethnic minorities do not see themselves as “Americans” — you will risk appearing patronizing and insulting.
Many words that might be acceptable in other languages are considered improper — a sign of either ignorance or a lack of cultivation — in general company. Do not use obscenities to service personnel, police officers, teachers, or strangers.
Most Americans will respond to a person who is lost and needs directions. Tourists are often pleasantly surprised by the conversations that they have with Americans.
Do not ask personal questions of others — money is not (however it may have been in the past) an easy topic to discuss; never ask someone how much he or she makes or if they are “rich.” Sex, health, weight, and other personal topics should not be brought up except among close friends — and even then there are limitations. Avoid religion and politics, except as an abstract or academic discussion.
Never use a racial or religious epithet or make jokes about a group of which you are not a member. Do not point out people who look “different” or stare at them.
There is an acceptable physical distance to keep. If you are forced (e.g., in a crowded elevator) to be closer, do not make eye contact. Keep your hands to yourself.
Smoking is not allowed indoors in many places, or outdoors (NYC parks, for example). It is not considered sophisticated or “liberated,” anymore.
Do not ask too many questions about a person’s family.
Do not assume, as one foreign visitor once told me, that all Americans had ancestors who were criminals that were shipped here (!).
Do not harp about how the Chinese are taking over America and will rule the world — just like the former Soviet Union, or Japan, or a United Europe was supposed to do, not that long ago. Furthermore, most Americans do not want to rule the world — just talk to some real people and you can find that out. American nationalism can sound childish, like sporting chants, but it is not as serious as Nuremberg rallies or North Korean propaganda.