Somali Culture

Etiquette

Basic Etiquette

  • If someone offers to pay for your meal, it is polite to initially refuse (e.g. “I couldn’t possibly let you do that”) before they insist and you accept graciously.
  • Lateness is common among friends and does not imply rudeness or disrespect. Somalis tend to be extremely patient and have a more relaxed approach to timekeeping. However, punctuality is expected in professional settings.
  • Wear clothes that cover your shoulders and knees to respect the modesty of your Somali counterpart. Women especially are expected to be modest in their behaviour and dress when in public. It can be inappropriate for females to show their hair in public.
  • Unmarried people should keep their distance from other unmarried members of the opposite sex.
  • It is very inappropriate to openly flirt with a Somali girl or woman if you are a man.
  • Avoid eating, drinking or smoking in front of a Muslim during the daylight hours in the fasting month of Ramadan.
  • It is rude to show, point or expose the soles of your feet to another person whilst sitting.
  • Respect people’s privacy and ask permission before taking anyone’s photo, especially if they are a woman.
  • Always offer your seat to someone who is older than yourself.
  • Stand up when someone older than yourself enters a room.
  • It is very disrespectful to tell an elder what to do or openly disagree with them.


Offering and Complimenting Items

  • In Somalia, people generally extend an offer multiple times. It is expected that you politely decline the gesture initially before accepting on the third offer. This exchange is polite as the insistence to extend the invitation shows hospitality and the initial refusal to accept shows humbleness and that one is not greedy.
  • Be sure to offer everything multiple times in return. If you only offer something once, a Somali may respond, “No, it’s okay”, out of modesty and even though they intend to accept on the second offer.
  • Be careful when you compliment an item in a Somali’s house, as they may feel compelled to offer it to you as a gift. If they try to give it to you, insist that you appreciate their gesture but do not want to take it. A Somali is likely to offer the object out of , and if you accept, they may end up giving you something they wished to keep.
  • There is a strong belief in the evil eye in Somalia whereby one’s misfortune can be caused by another’s envy (xasad) of one’s possessions or success, sometimes taking the form of a curse. Do not compliment something more than once or continue to praise it once you have acknowledged it. This may cause a Somali person to be wary that the evil eye will be jealous of it.
  • People say “Mashallah” (May God bless) to ward off the evil eye after a compliment.
  • Show gratitude and humility when offered a compliment. This is done by responding with an equally respectful compliment on the same subject. If they are Muslim, you may wish them Allah’s (God’s) blessings.


Visiting

  • Hospitality is central to Somali culture. It is considered shameful to be a bad host or give a poor welcome. Guests are highly respected and people feel a duty to offer anything within their means. Even if a family has no food to provide a guest, they are expected to at least offer water.
  • Guests are always offered a refreshment (typically tea). It is very important to accept any drink offered as a mark of friendship. Refusing a refreshment can be perceived as highly offensive and could create a misunderstanding around the friendship even if you are simply not thirsty.
  • Close friends, family and neighbours may visit one another frequently unannounced. A Somali may face some adjustment in having to arrange a time to meet.
  • Social visiting and hosting holds great importance in building and mending relations among friends and family members. Not visiting someone for a long period of time is considered a sign of the relationship’s insignificance. People may also choose not to visit someone on purpose to indirectly reveal that they are angry/offended at something the person has done.
  • Be mindful that a Somali person’s home is also their private place for prayer. Therefore, it is important to be clean and respectful.
  • Remove your shoes when entering someone’s home unless advised otherwise.
  • Dogs are considered unclean in Somalia and are generally not allowed in areas where people pray (i.e. homes). Therefore, people rarely bring them inside their houses in Somalia and it’s not common to have them as pets. Let your Somali counterpart know in advance if you have a pet dog. Do not ask them to sit in a place where your dog has just been resting. For example, it would be seen as rude for you to tell your dog to get off the couch and then offer someone to sit in its place.
  • Often an entire family will come to a household and visit at once. Men and women will usually converse separately whilst children play in an area that does not disturb adults.
  • Sometimes women will visit one another at home alone. If men want to socialise together, they often go to tea shops.
  • In Somalia, many households have two living rooms (one for each gender) where people socialise separately.
  • Visits can go on for hours. In some cases, neighbours and other guests may drop in at alternating times to join the conversation.
  • Expect goodbyes to be prolonged as people farewell everyone individually and the host walks you outside. Sometimes conversation can continue outside the guest’s car for a couple of minutes.


Eating

  • Lunch is generally the main meal of the day in Somalia, traditionally eaten together as a family.
  • Cooking and food preparation is the cultural responsibility of women. Usually the women will prepare the food in the kitchen while men socialise elsewhere. It may be inappropriate for a man to show that he has knowledge about the kitchen or cooking among peers (although Somalis living overseas tend to be more relaxed about this).
  • Men and women usually eat separately when dining at home. This may also occur when eating out at restaurants.
  • It is important to wash your hands before a meal is served. Sometimes a bowl or jug of water will be brought to guests so they can wash their hands at the table before and after a meal.
  • Everyone gathers around a large common platter that may be placed on a table or the ground.
  • Somali food generally does not require utensils to eat. Everyone normally uses their right hand to serve themselves from a dish, scooping with the fingers.
  • The left hand shouldn’t make contact with food.
  • People often use injera as a scoop. This is a sponge-like pancake that is often used to soak up the remains of food. It is eaten with almost everything.
  • Serve yourself from the section of the platter that is directly in front of you. It is impolite to reach over and eat the food facing other people or on the other side of the platter.
  • Do not put food you have picked up with your hands back onto the platter.
  • Overeating is considered bad etiquette. Do not ask for more servings unless at a celebration.
  • It is polite to leave some food on your plate at the end of the meal to indicate to the host that they have provided adequately.
  • It is impolite to lick your fingers after eating.
  • Alcohol and pork are prohibited in Islam and rarely consumed in Somalia. Do not offer alcohol or pork by-products (e.g. gelatine) to your Somali counterpart if you know that they are Muslim.
  • Meat should be prepared to standards.
  • Do not eat in public during Ramadan.


Gift Giving

  • People are not obliged to bring gifts when visiting others. However, if you do, it is best to bring a gift that is for a child.
  • Gifts are given and received with both hands together, or the right hand only.
  • The gift is usually refused at least once or twice by the recipient out of modesty and before being accepted. Therefore, be sure to persist in offering your gift multiple times if you get a refusal on first offer.
  • Do not gift anything that contains alcohol, pork or pig-leather-based items.
  • Be aware that there is an expectation of reciprocity surrounding gift giving – unless the gift is given as charity.
  • You may not receive much verbal thanks for giving a gift. Gratitude may be shown through generous behaviour in return instead.
  • Gift giving is most common in times of need. If a Somali person is struggling, it is common for their community to crowd-fund money for gifts to assist them. For example, someone in hospital may find that all their medical bills have been paid as a gesture from the community.

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