CUSTOMS AND ETIQUETTE IN CENTRAL ASIA

CUSTOMS IN CENTRAL ASIA

There are over 140 nationalities throughout the Central Asian region. Custom differ from country to country, and even from village to village, and thus sorting out proper etiquette and the "right" cultural tenets and customs can be difficult. For foreign visitors: as a guest in a region proud of its tradition of hospitality, locals will readily forgive any transgressions or missteps within reason. As is the case almost everywhere in the world, a smile and a laugh can go a long way. [Source: safaritheglobe.com]

One of the most beautiful features of Central Asian culture is found within one simple little gesture, this "silent bow". Often accompanying the handshake, men will place their left hand over their hearts and offer a slight, almost indiscernible, bow to their counterpart in a gesture of deep respect. This subtle bow or slight inclination of the head is also displayed in a variety of other exchanges among people. However, when not shaking hands, it is the right hand that is placed on the chest. You will most definitely encounter this when someone is offering thanks, saying goodbye or parting ways, or even when a younger man passes an elder in the street and wants to show his respect. [Source:orexca.com]

Greetings in Central Asia

Men greet each other with a big smile and a handshake. Some Central Asian men also place their right hand on their heart and bow or drop their head slightly. Good friends often greet each other by reaching out and shaking hand with both hands, often for some duration of time with the right hand placed on top, gently massaging his friends hand.

Women generally don's shake hands. They lightly touch each other's shoulders with their right hand. Young women sometimes kiss older women as a sign of respect. If you are unsure what to do when you meet a women let her make the first move.

At parties it is customary for guests who just arrived to walk around the room and shake hands with every one. Some people offer their wrists. This dates back to a time when this gesture was used show that one was unarmed.

Russian Greetings

Russian usually shake hands when greeting one another. The famous bear hugs and kisses are usually reserved for good friends and family members after a long time without seeing one another. Russian men usually shake hands with a firm grip. When men and women shakes hands men adopt a gentle grip. During the winter, make sure to remove your gloves before shaking hands. [Source: The Traveler's Guide to European Customs & Manners by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy L. Braganti.

Russians often greet and refer to one another using their first and middle names. Yeltsin was often called Boris Nikolayevich. Lenin was referred to as Vladimir Ilyich and Gorbachev is greeted as Mikhail Sergeyevich. Using the first and middle names is a sign of respect. You should avoid addressing a Russian person by their first name until you are on fairly friendly terms.

A gift of bread and salt, sometimes accompanied by a bear hug and a kiss, is the traditional Russian gesture of welcome. Russian farewells are often time-consuming. In addition to various kinds of goodbyes and pleasantries Russians make elaborate plans on when and where to meet next since Russians have Buddhist not liked using the phone.

Public Customs in Central Asia

Strangers do not usually acknowledge each other while passing on the street. Any close contact, however, such as sitting near each other on public transportation or making a transaction at the bazaar, will open the way to introductions. It is common to invite new acquaintances into the home. [Source: everyculture.com <>]

There is less personal space than in the United States, and strangers brush against each other in public without apologizing. People tend to sit shoulder-to-shoulder, and physical affection is common between members of the same sex. People usually don't form lines. Pushing to the front of a group for service is normal and inoffensive. <>

Don't blow your nose in public or in a social gathering. Excuse yourself and go some place private to do it. Never point your shoes or the soles of your feet at someone or touch someone with your shoe. Feet are regarded as the lowest part and one of the dirtiest parts of the body. To point your foot at someone’s is a great insult.

Try not to accept or give anything with your left hand. The right hand is for eating; the left is for cleaning one’s butt. The tradition has its roots in Bedouin customs in an environment without much water. The Koran states the right hand is more honorable. Mohammed said: "the best of alms is that which the right hand giveth, and the left hand knoweth not of."

Never walk in front of someone who is praying towards Mecca. In general, try to avoid walking in front of someone, especially with your back and buttocks facing them. When you take a seat in movie theater or concert hall face the people in your row when you take your seat. Don't have your back facing them. It is sometimes regarded as rude to cross your legs in front of someone.

Men and Women Customs in Central Asia

In the cities and most places men and women walk together on the streets and mix freely. In some conservative areas this kind of behavior may be frowned upon. Men and men as well as women and women sometimes walk down the street holding hand or walking arm and arm. It doesn’t mean they are gay, it just means they are good friends.

Central Asia remains male dominated. If a man and a woman are together questions are usually addressed to the man. Males often shake hands with each other and ignore the women that are present. It is frowned upon for women to smoke in public. Some women smoke in their homes.

Men should not touch women, stare at them or even look them directly in the eye. Women are not supposed to look or smile at men who are not their husbands. men and women, even husbands and wives, should refrain from public displays of affection—kissing, hugging, holding hands—wherever they are in the Arab and Muslim world.

In social situations, in the presence of men, women are expected to behave demurely and not speak unless they are spoken to. Sometimes a woman will stand behind her husband. If the husband is talking with another man, they will completely ignore her.

The customs involving women are often based on local traditions rather than the tenants of Islam. A lot customs that apply to local women are not necessarily applied to foreign women. The kind of strict segregation of the sexes — men and women occupying different parts of a bus, things like that — is generally not found in Central Asia.

Mosque Customs

Mosques and shrines are sometimes not open to women or non-Muslims. One should ask for permission before entering. Those that do welcome women or non-Muslims expect them to be appropriately dressed: no shorts, short skirts, revealing halter tops or exposed shoulders. Mosques that allow women often require them to at least wear a head scarf. Some require them to cover their entire bodies, except the face, hands and feet, and not wear trousers. Sometimes mosques provide women who don’t have one with a head scarf. Sometimes they have robes for men wearing shorts.

The Muslim faithful are expected to remove their shoes and wash their feet in a sacred basin before they enter the mosque. If no water is available Muslims are supposed to wash themselves with sand. Foreign visitors can usually get away with just removing their shoes and are not required to wash their feet. In any case, make sure you feet or socks are clean. Dirty feet in a mosques are regarded as an insult to Islam. In large mosques you remove your shoes and place them on a shelf in a place with a number under it.

Inside a mosque don't walk in front of someone who is praying, don't touch the Koran, never sit or stand on a prayer rug and never place a Koran on the floor or put anything on top of it. Also, don't cross your legs in front of an older people and don't step over someone who is sitting down. Show respect, remain quiet and stay out of the way. Taking photographs is frowned upon.

Some historical mosques require visitors to pay an admission fee. Some also require them to pay an attendant a small fee for taking care of their shoes. It is best for foreigner to avoid visiting mosques at prayer time on Friday. Women and men are segregated in many mosques.

Ramadan is the Muslim month of fasting. Non-Muslims are expected to show their respect to the custom by refraining from eating in pubic during daylight hours. It is considered respectful to refer to the prophet as the Prophet Mohammed rather than his name alone. After completing a meal, and sometimes when passing a gravestone, people cup their hands together and pass them over their faces as if washing. This is a Muslim gesture of thanks.

Social Customs in Central Asia

Hospitality is expressed with warm welcomes and giving guests the place of honor at the table. An invitation for tea can result in a feast. Some people complain that Russian and Central Asian hospitality is too much. They end up drinking more than they would like, eating things they don’t want to and spend more time with their hosts than they would like.

Show respect towards older people by shaking their hands and offering them your seat. Old men, called aksakals ("white beards") are treated with great respect. Eye contact is important among some groups.

Sometimes when walking down the street Central Asians, particularly Uzbeks, place a hand under the elbow of the person they are walking with. Westerners have speculated that maybe one reason they do is to offer support of the person is drunk or as a sign of respect.

It is common for people of different status and ranks to sit around and eat with each—office workers with their bosses, guides with their drivers and factory workers with their supervisors—more than in the West where people of the same rank and status tend to separate into groups and eat and social with people of the same rank and status. Among Central Asians lower ranking people often are quiet and do not speak until spoken to first by high ranking people.

Russian Social Customs

Russians often keep their coats and hats on in a theater even when the heat is turned on. Sometimes there is steamy wet-wool smell. To keep thing warm in the freezing weather they stuff the things in their pants.

A thumb between the index finger and middle finger is an obscene gesture. Women spurn unwanted advances or express nervousness by narrowing their eyes. Hitchhiking in Russia is done with an outstretched hand facing the road. A flick to the throat signifies that someone is drunk.

Russians in social situations are generally warm, hospitable open, frank and opinionated. They are pretty much open to talking about anything: soccer, hockey, other sports, culture, literature, music, family, life stories, politics, food and drinking. Be prepared for some strong opinions about foreigners and members of certain ethnic groups. Even so, avoid saying anything that Russians might regard as insulting.

Russians tend to fairly punctual and sometimes ask a lot of personal questions when meeting someone for the first time. Russians stand or sit very close together when they converse or socialize. Women friends often sit side by side and touch each other a lot while talking.

Hospitality in Central Asia

Muslims have a "powerful hospitality instinct." They consider hospitality to be their sacred duty and guests are honored and held in the highest regard. Any traveler or stranger, even a non-Muslim or an enemy, is considered to be a "the guest of Allah," and should treated accordingly. A man who has eaten his host's bread and eaten his salt may claim sanctuary for three days.

Hospitality is expressed with warm welcomes and giving guests the place of honor at the table. Host are expected to be totally selfless and offer everything they have. Sometimes foreigners are welcomed into homes of even the poorest families and treated to a feast with the head of the household while other members of the family just look and watch. Sometimes a family will stretch their resources and slaughter a sheep.

The tradition of Muslim hospitality originated with Bedouins in the deserts of Arabia. Presumably, the same traditions were practiced among nomadic people of the Central Asian steppe. Visitors were rare and they are always welcomed and offered food and drink Travelers in the desert depended on others for food and protection. The reasoning went that if someone helped them they should help someone else. In villages there are special guest houses for visitors. In the cities, displays of hospitality are often a sign of status.

The Koran also says: "Whoever believeth in God and the Hereafter [i.e Muslims] must respect his guest: and whoever believeth in God and the Hereafter not incommode his neighbors; and a Muslim must speak only good words otherwise remain silent." To get hospitality you can say Ana dheef Allah ("I am a guest of God"). To refuse an offer is regarded as an insult. If you do it try to do it as diplomatically as possible and provide the hospitality offerers with away to save face.

Hospitality obligations often have priority over time concerns. This means that an Arab man may spend hours drinking tea and coffee and eating food with a stranger and show up late or miss and appointment with friends.

Silk Road Hospitality

According to orexca.com: Through the cities along the Great Silk Road, such as Naryn, Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva, passed hundreds and thousands of tradesmen and the many helpers who accompanied the caravans of ancient times. They were of the most diverse origins and backgrounds. They whole caravan would settle down for a number of days in commercial capitals, since dismounting their camels, storing the wares, trading and re-loading all took time. Those who had a profound interest in making the caravan's stay a comfortable one were the local tradesmen. For good business relationships, and also to secure the best deals, it was vital for these local business entrepreneurs and their families to entertain their guests sumptuously. This meant a table covered, on every inch, with a dizzying variety of delicacies, which would all be pressed upon the guest, with second and third helpings being de rigeur, and plates never being anywhere near empty. [Source: orexca.com ==]

“Subsequently, foreign tradespeople, belts loosened, regally propped up on large, soft, beautiful pillows, their bellies stuffed with the most delectable cooking, served on beautiful china, were most likely in a feeble position to close a deal. The concept of the business lunch or business dinner is therefore not recent. Food, drink, and a banquet enjoyed together set the stage for negotiations. By creating a hospitable ambience, by making their guests feel at ease inside the own private home, a relationship would turn from strictly business to one of lasting friendship. ==

“ The days of the caravans are history but the Central Asian art of hospitality and the ancient custom surrounding the table are very much alive. Yes, in the last 100 years, more European menu items have been added to the menu, however the traditions formed during the bustling days of The Great Silk Road still apply and creating bonds and forging friendships through culinary occasions is still the essence of Central Asian hospitality, and its friendly and peaceful people. The ancient custom around the table are still very much alive!” ==

Home Customs in Central Asia

People generally remove their shoes when entering their homes. As a rule wherever there is a carpet you should remove your shoes. Some people slip into flip flops or slippers when they enter a home and wear them in the house. Nomads traditionally wore overboots and underboots and took off their overboots and kept on their underboots when entering a house. Uzbeks and some other Central Asian enter a house with their right foot first.

A home is regarded as a kind of private sanctuary. It is considered an honor to be invited to someone’s house. People often sit on the floor, on carpets, surrounded by pillows. Men often sit cross legged or with their legs to the side. Women are often expected to kneel Japanese-style with their legs under them, or their legs to the side or in another position, makin sure that a long skirt or another covering covers their legs and feet. Make sure you don’t point the soles of your feet at anyone.

Guests are given the best place to sit, which is often next to the stove. If you are invited to someone's house for a meal, bring a gift. Fruit, certain kinds flowers, a dessert, something small from your home country is fine. Don't bring alcohol if your hosts are observant Muslims. Remember to give or receive a gift with two hands.

Russian Home Customs

Russians often visit one another by showing unexpectedly at a friend’s house rather than calling ahead. This is done because many Russians traditionally have not had phones and those that did often had trouble getting a call through.

Russians generally remove their shoes before entering a home and slip into slippers once inside. Some guests bring their own slippers. Make sure to take off your coat. In Russia it is considered rude to wear a coat inside. It implies the house isn't warm enough.

Homes are often cramped and there is little privacy. The sofa often doubles as someone's bed.

It is customary for hosts to meet their guests at the elevator or even the entrance to their apartment building. This is partly because halls are so poorly lit. Appreciated gifts from guests include cigarettes, foreign alcohol, designer clothes, foreign cosmetics, toys for the children and CDs or cassettes by popular Western pop stars.

Hanging Around the Kitchen

Meals in Russia are typically eaten in the kitchen. During the Soviet era people did not go out to restaurants much. It was customary to visit people at their homes and eat and drink there. Since space was at a premiums people often sat packed close together around the kitchen or dinning room table.

Many people have said that Russians are happiest when they are sitting around their kitchen table gulping down vodka, eating dark Russian bread and drinking tea. During the Communist era it was the only place they could be free and speak their minds without having to worry about up ending up in Siberia for insulting a communist official.♦

"In Soviet times," Alessandra Stanley wrote in the New York Times, "the real living room was in the kitchen, a cramped, dingy space where friends laughed, drank, smoked, sang, quarreled and talked intensely into the night...Back in the days, when nothing was permitted, only relationships could really flourish. Russians cultivated those friendships with fierce attention, focusing their ample free time and creative energy on the never-ending conservation in the kitchen." One Russian told Stanley, "The kitchen was a hiding place, our only permitted pleasure...so many years did we waste in that kitchen."

Now Russians are so busy trying to get ahead or making ends meet they have less time to socialize. One successful Russian office manager told Stanley, "So often I used to have dozens of people squeezed around the table in a kitchen the size of a closet. And now I have a big modern kitchen but I don't have the time or energy to invite friends to dinner."

Domovoi and Shaking Hands at Thresholds

A common Russian superstition is that one must never shake hands, kiss, sleep or sit near a threshold such as a door. Thresholds are where brownie-like creatures known as domovoi dwell and kissing or shaking hands is regarded as an offensive invasion of their space.

Non-Russians visiting the home of Russian friends often violate this superstition by greeting their hosts with handshakes or embrace at the doorway. Some Russian believe that the misfortunes on the MIR space station began after arriving American astronauts shook hands with Russian cosmonauts when they entered the station.

Domovoi are believed to follow the head of the household when a family moves. There are elaborate rituals to attract domovoi when a new household is established after marriage. A newlywed groom, for example, does not carry his bride over the threshold, but rather lets loose a cat call which is supposed to summon a domovoi. Cats are the only creatures that can communicate with domovoi.

Eating Customs in Central Asia

When eating people often sit on the floor around a table surrounded by pillows. In accordance with nomadic traditions dinner guests are sometimes given the seat farthest from the door or nearest the fire. This dates to back to the custom of giving the guest the warmest place in a yurt.

Sometimes a prayer or some polite phrases are said before everyone starts eating. Some tea is sipped and some bread is broken and bread, nuts and sweets are consumed at the beginning of a meal to stimulate the appetite. The eldest man often begins serving the meal. He or the guest is expected to take the first bite.

The meal itself is often comprised of many dishes. People often serve themselves with their hands or servings spoons and eat with their hands or forks and spoons. Dinners are often long events, so pace yourself, eat slowly and praise your host and cooks. Often great mounds of food are heaped on the plates of guest and the moment some space opens up more food is heaped on The meals usually ends with tea.

Many Muslims eat with their hands. The Prophet used to eat with his hands, use his fingers to wipe his plate clean, and lick of his fingers when he was done. Many also grab food from collective bowls or dishes and don’t have individual plates.

Don't eat with your left hand. Eat with you right hand. Also try not to accept or give the plates, or anything for that matter, with your left hand. The right hand is for eating; the left is for cleaning one’s butt. The tradition has its roots in Bedouin customs in an environment without much water. The Koran states the right hand is more honorable. Mohammed said: "the best of alms is that which the right hand giveth, and the left hand knoweth not of." Left handers have to learn to use their right hands. Some people keep their left hand behind their back when they eat.

Sometimes honored guests are recognized with a slaughtered sheep, and given a choice piece—sometimes an eyeball, a piece of brain or meat from the right cheek. Sometimes pieces have symbolic meaning. The ears, for example, are given to children to make them better listeners. Tongues are given to people to make the more eloquent.

For many Central Asians, bread is an important part of a meal. Traditional Central Asian bread is round and golden brown. Often, no meal us complete without it. Bread is considered sacred. It should never be cut, rather its should be broken apart with the hands. It should never be placed on the ground, thrown away or turned upside down. If you have a big piece of bread break it into pieces and give everyone around you some pieces. After breaking a piece of bread, people cup their hands together and pass them over their faces as if washing. Thus is a Muslim gesture of thanks. Uzbeks swear on a lepyoshka — their traditional bread — the way Americans do on a Bible.

Russian Eating Customs

A typical place setting at a Russian home has a large plate for the main course, a small plate for hor' d'oeuvres, a shot glass for vodka, a glass for wine and a glass for water or juice. People generally help themselves from plates that are passed around. If your plate is empty your host will encourage you to eat more.

Meals are typically eaten in the kitchen. Meals at people's houses often begin soon after guests arrive. It is considered rude to eat and run. Guests are expected to remain for several hours after the meal is finished and drink and party.

Russians often smoke during their meals. Sometimes they spit bones onto their plates and go into long-winded description of their illnesses or technical skills at the dinner table. It is a custom to have a picnic with the car door open and the car radio or stereo on blasting out music.

At formal state dinners in the Place of Congresses the guests eat standing up. Chairs are considered a nuisance and Russians like the system because it allows them to move around and socialize.

Drinking Customs in Central Asia

Tea is the most common drink in Central Asia. It is drunk with appreciation and reverence and there are a lot of customs surrounding it. Uzbeks, Afghans and Tajiks tend to drink green tea while Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are more likely to drink black tea.

Tea is often consumed from a porcelain bowl, or cup without a handle ( piala). Often the first cup is poured away to clean the cup. People often fill each other's bowls and fill them half full so they stay hot. When you pass or receive a cup use your right hand. At the end of a social occasion, a full cup of tea, often means it is time to go.

Tea is often the first gesture of hospitality. Guests are often given the first cup of tea. According to a prescribed ritual the tea is poured twice into the cup and returned to the pot before being offered. This is a sign of respect. It is very rude not to accept tea that is offered to you.

Central Asia is filled with teahouses patronized almost exclusively by men. People sometimes remove their shoes when entering a tea house. Local women never enter teahouses.

Russian Drinking Customs

Meals are often repeatedly interrupted by toasts, speeches and shots of vodka. Russians like to make lots of toasts. They make toast to your health, to your mother, to the moon, to Russia, to America, to world peace, to beautiful women, anything. They toast a birth in a ritual called "washing a baby" in which a military medal or something else of value is placed into a glass of vodka and passed around the table.

Russians typically begin a meal with a toast and shot of vodka downed in one gulp. To take a drink before the first toast is the height of uncouthness, Toasts are then repeated through the meal and afterwards. The word droog ("friend") comes up often. Foreigners are often asked to make a toast. It is a good idea to have one ready.

Russians often drink communally from the same cup or glass which is passed around. They often eat bread, snacks and other food when they drink, reportedly to keep them from getting too drunk. They don’t take kindly to people who don't join them for a drink. Refusing a drink can be quite difficult. To avoid getting completely wasted, some Westerners take a shot and then spit it into the chaser cup.

Vodka Drinking Customs

Vodka is often consumed straight and cold. It is swallowed in one gulp. No sipping allowed. Three glasses in a row---for starters. The night is not considered over until all the bottles of vodka are empty. Vodka is often consumed with a chaser, often juice. Many beer drinkers add a shot of vodka to their pints. During banquets, guests sometimes pour their vodka into their water glasses.

Traditionally the difference between a vodka and alcohol drinker was that the later waits until 5:00pm. Two-hour vodka lunches are popular with some people. Others drink vodka for breakfast. Sometimes it seems like the smell of stale vodka is on everyone's breath. Shops that sell vodka don't open until 2:00pm to keep workers from drinking it on the job and some people from drinking it all day.

A common superstition among vodka drinkers is not to eat after the first glass. But most Russians seems to ignore the custom and consume things like jellied meats, fish, salted gerkins and sauerkraut. A popular evening dish is vodka and water poured over a bowl of red berries. Many Russians become excited just by the thought of eating pelmeni (dumplings) with their vodka.

Balancing a glass of vodka on one's chin is a popular party trick. The Vodka Open, the first ever sport-drinking championship, was held in Moscow in 1997. The so called cultural event featured athletic exercises, workshops and tests as well as drinking contests.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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