Despite the divides, there is one thing that Americans agree on,
according to the guides: punctuality is a big deal. Lonely Planet, in the same
paragraph, notes that "Americans are notoriously informal in their dining
manners" but that "it's polite to be prompt ... arrive within 15 minutes of the
designated time." They repeat, later, "Do be on time. Many folks in the U.S.
consider it rude to be kept waiting." Rough
Guide hammers home, in asides in many sections, that things happen on time
here, and lateness doesn't get forgiven easily.
Another common tip has to do with personal space: Americans like
it a lot. "Don't be overly physical
if you meet someone," says Lonely Planet.
Rough Guide suggests keeping
arms-length distance except in the most crowded urban circumstances. Books
gently deter cheek-kissing - especially outside of coastal cities - and, when
it comes to the intricacies of when to hug or not hug, suggest simply following
the Americans' lead.
For travel, there are long sections on visas and how to navigate
airport security, along with warnings that Amtrak service can be, as the Rough Guide puts it, "skeletal."
WikiTravel features a yellow-highlighted section warning against overstaying
your visa - the country takes it quite seriously. There are three paragraphs
reiterating the importance of carrying travel documents on your person when
near the border.
In many ways, the tour books say as much about the world as they
do about the U.S., by highlighting the ways in which American practices and
standards deviate. Anyone who's traveled widely, particularly in the developing
world, will understand why these books are so emphatic about, for example,
punctuality, personal space, and the unreliability of our trains.
Still, these are
guides for people who want to spend their time and money seeing America, and
this excitement shines through even the sourest sections.
"Many of the stereotypes do hold true - this is a place where you'll find real life cowboys, gangsters, and other Hollywood standbys," Rough Guide says. "The palpable
sense of newness here creates an odd sort of optimism, where anything seems possible and fortune can strike at
Update, June 3: A number of commenters ask about tipping. As I note in the comments, the books tend to include long sections on the nuances of American tipping. They also strongly encourage visitors to adhere to the unusually high tipping rates, explaining both that service jobs tend to pay very poorly and that the tipping system is partially responsible for the exceptional quality and consistency of service here. A commenter on Reddit posts this excerpt, from a guide book for the U.S. that the commenter says was translated from Japanese, explaining tipping in unusually blunt terms.
Americans have a social institution called a "gratuity". Basically, the price on the menu at any place which serves food is not the real price. The real price is 20% higher. You have to calculate 20%, write it under the subtotal, and sum to arrive at the real price. Taxis work the same way. It is considered very rude not to pay the "gratuity."