MONGOLIAN CUSTOMS AND CHARACTER

MONGOLIAN CHARACTER

Mongolians have a reputation for being frank, honest, hospitable, fun-loving, hardworking, self-reliant, gracious, curious, independent-minded and having a good sense of humor. A Mongolian lawyer told National Geographic, "Mongolia is unique among Asian cultures. What they lack in power, they make up for in wit."

Mongolians are not the most punctual people in the late. They can be notoriously late. The Mongolian equivalent of “ manana” is “ margash.” They also avoid forming lines and can be quite pushy and aggressive when thrown into a situation in which they are supposed to make a line.

Many foreigners who have come in contact with Mongolian see something of themselves in them. A Hungarian women married to a Mongolian man told the Washington Post that Hungarians and Mongolians have a lot in common. They both revere horses and have strong traditions of shamanism. "We're both melancholy. Also, even thought Hungarians are starting to become time-oriented like you Americans, it's not our nature. We tend to be late, forget about dates. That is normal, too, in Mongolia."

See Society.

Mongolian Wildness, Attentiveness and Surliness

The Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano, who payed Genghis Khan in the film “Mongol”, told the Los Angeles Times, “Even now they ride, they hunt. They have an instinct to fight. Mongolians have much more of a wild sense than Japanese people. We are used to easy living in big cities.”

The Mongolian ambassador to Japan said, "In my opinion, there are not many differences between Mongolia and Japan, except that the Mongolians are nomadic and the Japanese have a culture based on fixed dwellings."

Mongolians are excellent listeners and have an extraordinary ability to retain what they hear. At political town meeting they will listen attentively for three or four hours at a stretch. They can also listen to shortwave radio programming and repeat almost exactly what the hear. One aid worker told the New Yorker, “But Mongolians are also not particularly experienced in analyzing information. They’re a little vulnerable.”

Mongolians had a reputation for sometimes being surly and rude. They generally don’t like being photographed. Some have even tried to beat up foreigners who took their picture. They also picked have a taste for vodka and have reputation for being nasty when they get drunk.

Hospitality and the Mongolian Nomadic Character

The nomadic way of life encourages people to be self-reliant, and adaptable to outside forces, namely the weather and engenders a spirit of working together, helping out one’s neighbor in times of needs and offering hospitality. According to one Mongol proverb, "Posts support a ger, friends support a man in difficulties." The nomadic lifestyle also engendered a laid back, take-thing-s the come attitude. One Mongolian proverb goes: “If you are afraid don’t do it, If you do it don’t be afraid.”

There is a tradition of hospitality in the steppe. Visitors are rare and they are always welcomed with food and drink. This usually translated into being invited into a ger for some milk tea. If your vehicle breaks down or you need help in some way, people often materialize out of nowhere. One traveler in western Mongolia wrote in National Geographic, “I believe I could have made my journey without tent or supplies and never been stuck for a tent (or ger) to rest in or a plate of mutton to keep me upright in the saddle. It never fails to impress me how a genuine welcome can almost always be found even in the most wretched hovel.”

On his travels to Darhad and Lake Hovsgol, Richard Siberry wrote in a letter to National Geographic: “In Mongolia, the nomad’s creed of never turning away a vistor is still entrenched in the culture. I believe I could have made my journey without tent or supples and never been stuck for a tent (or ger) to rest in or a plate of mutton to keep me upright in the saddle. It never fails to impress how a genuine welcome can almost always be found even in the most wretched hovel, and yet a penthouse door on Park Avenue is seldom likely to swing open when you need it most.”

Nomadic Patience and Flexibility

Patience, tolerance, helping others and keeping a game face even under harsh conditions, not displaying their emotions easily are traits that can be linked with survival on the steppes. Mongolians have a saying, "Keep your hardness on the outside and your love within."

Ariunaa Tserenpil, the director of the Arts Council of Mongolia, “There is this idea that as Mongols we have to be masculine and tough — that history is made by people who ride horses into battle. But we have to enhance our other qualities now.” Ulaanbaatar “is still a nomadic city,” she says, gently laughing at me. “Many people here drive as they ride horses — if they come upon each other, they’ll square off to see who goes first. There is no sense of the collective. In my apartment building, you can tell when a nomadic family moves in. They just leave their garbage out in the corridor. At first, they don’t even take it out to the bin. But then they adjust. They learn to live with their neighbors. They stop and negotiate out in traffic, saying, ‘You can go first.’ [Source: Bill Donahue, Washington Post, September 20, 2013 |::|]

“Mongolians can be flexible. It’s in our genes. If this pasture’s no good, we can just move to the next one. We need to bring such suppleness to the global context. We can’t just say, ‘We’re going to close our border and shut down all the mines.’ That’s not going to work. We need to learn how to be neighbors, and can do that. We’ve done it before.” In the 13th century, Ariunaa stresses, Mongolia was not a brutish power. “We developed the Silk Road,” she says. “We were one of the first nations to have international trade and passports. We weren’t afraid of the Chinese then. We were a strong nation with a diverse economy, and we can get there again, in time.” |::|

Mongolian Customs

The Mongolians are warm-hearted and straightforward. They welcome strangers travelling on the grasslands to stay for the night in their yurts and treat them to tea with milk, mutton and milk wine. Upon leaving, the guests will invariably be given a warm send-off by the hosts. Many codes of behaviors revolve around young people showing respect to older people. Visitors have traditionally been greeted warmly because they were the main sources of news from the outside world. [Source: The Traveler's Guide to Asian Customs & Manners by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy L. Braganti]

Shamanism remains alive in Mongolia in common daily rituals such as rubbing holy stones together and the traditional blessing of dipping a finger in milk and flicking it towards the sky in honor of local spirits. After a statue of Stalin was removed, peasant sprinkled milk on it to "prevent his angry evil spirit from returning to haunt them. "

Mongolians and Tibetans have many similar customs. Like Tibetans, Mongolian often exchange scarves (hada or hadag) as a formal greeting. They are presented as welcoming gift, sort of like Hawaiian leis. The receiver of a hadag should take it with outstretched arms. Cups of tea are also given as welcoming gestures.

Mongolian Greetings

The traditional Mongolian greeting, especially in the countryside, is for a young person to hold out his arms, palms up, and grasp the older person just in front of the elbows. The older person does the same thing except with his palms down. This style of greeting is associated mostly with the New Year or when people meet for the first time in the new year. It usually is performed only by close relatives. Sometimes it looks as if the older person is sniffing the younger person’s head.

As is the case with Tibetans “Presenting the Hada” is the most important welcoming gesture. According to Chinatravel.com: Hada, a Tibetan word, is a strip of silk used as a greeting gift among both Tibetans and Mongols. It is presented under very specific circumstances only: when welcoming unfamiliar guests in one's home or when encountering a stranger on the steppe with whom a cordial relationship has developed. Hada is usually made from either silk or cotton. Mongolian hada is generally white in color, but shades like light blue and light yellow occur as well. When one is lucky enough to be presented a hada, one should grasp it gently in both hands while bowing slightly, as this is what is expected of one by one's host, who will himself bow. The giving/ receiving of hada, including the act of bowing to each other, is an outward sign of mutual respect, something that is very important in Mongolian culture.[Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com ]

Some Mongolians give Russian-style bear hugs. Other are comfortable shaking hands with Westerners. Common greetings include Sain bainu? ("How are you?") and saixan namrijija? ("Are you having a good autumn?"). In response to the first inquiry you are expected to always answer in the positive: “ Sai an bainau” (“I’m well”).

Pipe Smoking and Passing the Snuffbox

Mongolians, particularly old men, enjoy xoorg (snuff), sniffed from a small bottle or box. When doing xoorg it is is regarded as respectful to use you right only when taking and giving it. To take snuff the Mongolian way place a small bit on the back of your hand between your thumb and index finger and raise you hand to your nostril and snort and smile.

Men traditionally offer each other snuff from their snuffboxes. It is considered rude to decline such an offer. Passing the snuffbox is an old tradition in Mongolian culture, and is the most common exchange of amenities when people meet. When one is a guest in a Mongolian home, the host will take out his snuffbox, open it - its contents generally being very aromatic and consisting of a blend of tobacco and/ or herbs - and pass it on to the guest. One is expected to pass the snuffbox under one's nose in order to better appreciate the tobacco's aroma. To be polite, one should nod one's head or give another sign of approbation. This shows respect and can serve as the basis for future amicable relations. The snuffbox itself may be in any of a number of shapes, from the rectangular/ square to the oval to the cylindrical, or in still other shapes, and with engravings whose workmanship reveal the quality of the snuffbox. The snuffbox contains a small spoon made either of gold, silver, copper, ivory, or camel bone. See Smoking. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

“Pipes for a Smoke: When welcomed into a Mongolian home, a guest is expected to invite the host to smoke, and to offer the host his pipe. The host, anticipating this, accepts the pipe of the guest and fills it with his own tobacco. The host then passes his own empty pipe to the guest, who accepts it and fills it with his own tobacco. Then the two of them each enjoys his own tobacco, but smoked in the other's pipe. The pipe itself is commonly adorned with silver, with intricate flower motifs engraved into it. The bowl of the pipe is generally made of briar, while the bit, or mouthpiece, may be made of agate or jade. The tobacco pouch is generally made of brightly colored silk, which develops a fine patina over time. A Mongolian's tobacco paraphenalia is truly a thing of beauty, combining artistic expression with functionality.” \=/

Mongolia Customs of Respect

To show respect when accepting something hold your right elbow with your left hand or use both hands together. Even if you are offered something you don’t want you are expected to accepted it and at the very least pretend to try it. Refusal or pushing something away is a serious breach of etiquette.

Hats are given special attention. Never wear one indoors, especially in a temple or ger. Never touch another person hat, even if you are just sliding it out of the way. It is also considered bad manners if you don’t take off your gloves or coat when inside, especially when eating or drinking, even if it is really cold. To do so is to imply you host is not being hospitable by providing adequate warmth.

It is impolite to come out directly and ask for something like directions. Don’t write anything with a red pen; don’t point a knife at anyone; don’s spill any milk; don’t point your feet at anyone or at the hearth. If a toy or some other possession accidently touches some part of your foot apologize profusely and shake their hand.

In many Asian cultures, the head is considered the most sacred party of the body; the bottom of the feet are the least sacred and dirtiest part of the body. One should not touch a person's head, point his or her foot at a person or sacred object, place a hand on the back of chair in which someone is sitting, put feet on tables or chairs or touch anyone with his or her feet. If you accidently touch someone with your foot or touch their head, apologize profusely. Because the feet are the dirtiest part of the body a great effort is made to avoid stepping over someone, food, utensils and sacred books. It is much more polite to ask someone to move than to step over them.

Social Customs in Mongolia

The Mongolians don’t have many hand gestures. An upright little finger signifies something is bad. They also use the Russian gesture of a flick to the throat to signify that someone is drunk. See Drinking Customs Below. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Conservation usually revolves around three topics: weather, animals and family. Typical questions asked on meeting someone are the conditions of his animals, the health of his family and how they spent the last season. If a Mongolian person wishes you well an appropriate response is to wish them that their horses grow up strong and their sheep get fat.

Some small talk is expected before getting to the nitty gritty of a conversation. Asking for directions straight out, for example, without offering some pleasantries first is considered very rude. It is regarded as very bad taste to talk about death, divorce or accidents as they are regarded as bad omens that such things will occur in the future.

Guest are expected to explain where they have come from, where they are going and why. Not to offer an answer is considered rude. Ballpoint pens and boxes of raisins make fine gifts for children. Foreign visitors often offer present postcards from thearea they come from.

Ger Etiquette

A customary greeting when approaching a ger (traditional tent) is Nokhoi Khor (“ Hold the dog”) because fierce dogs are often the first to appear when one approaches a ger. Knocking on the door is considered rude. There is a taboo about stepping on the threshold of the ger, which is viewed as the equivalent of stepping on its owners neck. When entering a ger Mongolians open the door flap with their right hand, from the right side. Doing otherwise invites bad luck. Tall people should watch their head; the door opening is usually very low. Some of the customs and taboos associated with gers also apply to houses.

When entering a ger, visitors are supposed to go to the left and sit on the ground, a stool, or a bed. The host family sits on the right. The back wall is reserved for the Buddhist altar. Inside the ger you are expected to relax and make yourself at home. It is fine to take a nap if you want. That is preferable to acting nervous and bringing in bad vibes. If you spend the night sleep with your feet pointing towards the door.

Don’t touch the central pole, whistle, take food with your left hand, throw any trash in a fire, walk in front of an older person, turn your back to the altar or touch anyone’s hat. These things are considered disrespectful and are thought to bring bad luck. Don’t roll up your sleeves in a ger. It implies you want to fight. If you have short sleeves try not to expose your wrists.

Len Charney wrote: “The customary manner of sitting is to kneel on the right knee with the other knee up. Many a Western visitor has found that it takes time before he is comfortable in this position. A sign of congeniality, both inside and outside the home, is for two people to exchange snuffboxes upon meeting. Neither party is expected to test the quality of the contents, it is purely a process of mutual admiration. In other gers it is customary for the guest to inquire of the host about his health, the well-being of his family, the state of his livestock, and the quality of the grass for his herds. To each of these questions, the host is expected to answer yes, despite any maladies that might be plaguing him...In many remote areas of Mongolia, a traveler can come upon an empty yurt, unattended by its occupants and still find that food and drink have been left for him to enjoy on the yurt, of course!” [Source: Len Charney, eng.surag.net |+|]

Mongolian Eating Customs

Mongolians don’t eat with chopsticks. They generally use a spoon, fork or knife or just their hands. Boiled meat is passed around in a large communal bowl with a knife. People slice off a piece of meat. The choices pieces are the ones with the most fat.

After entering a ger guests are offered tea with milk and salt in a bowl, and a plate with various cheeses and/or bread or cookies. Guests accept what is offered to them with their right hand, with the left hand offering support at the elbow; pick up things with an open hand and a palm facing upwards; and hold their tea bowl at the bottom rather than the top. Visitors are expect to take at least one small piece or a sip of what is offered to them. To do otherwise is considered very rude. At the same time don’t gobble down everything in sight. An empty bowl or an empty plate is an invitation for more. If you don’t want more simple leave a little in your bowl or plate. Kazakhs indicate they don’t want more by placing a hand over their bowl or plate.

"Stewed meat taken by hands" is a traditional way for Mongolian people to take meat. The name is derived from the fact that Mongolians eat it with their hands rather than using chopsticks. Everyone takes the meat with a Mongolian knife to cut into smaller pieces. The traditional way for nomads to show respect and love and esteem to guests is to propose a toast and offer stewed meat taken by hands. Honored guests entering a yurt are often given a silver bowl or golden cup filled with koumiss or tea and presented with a (a long piece of silk used as greeting gift among Tibetans and Mongolians), sometimes accompanied by a greeting song for the guests that come from afar. If a guest does not want drink, he should propose a toast taste a little of what is offered to him and return the bowl or cup to the host. If a guest declines wothout doing this it is considered a great insult to the host. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]

Mongolian Drinking Customs

Tea is offered as a welcomed gesture and a form of hospitality. It is given to both close relatives and strangers. Rural Mongolians are shocked the by idea the that some vendors in Ulaanbaatar actually sell tea.

Mongolians are big tea drinkers. They like suutetsia (tea mixed with milk, sugar and/ or salt). The milk can come from a cow, sheep, goat, mare, camel or yak. The tea usually comes from a brick. Salted tea can taste nasty but it is impolite to refuse it if it is offered to you. Sometimes it is made with hot water, milk, butter, salt and rice and doesn’t even have tea in it. In Ulaanbaatar suutetsia often refers to simple milk tea with sugar ▪ Tea is served in little bowls. When drinking tea in a social situation your Mongolian host will present it to you with a bow and two hands. You are expected to take it with your right hand or two hands. Your host will also constantly refill your bowl until you turn it upside down, which means you have had enough.

When offered a glass of vodka dip you finger into it and flick it once towards the sky and once towards to the ground and some on your forshead in honor of local spirits. If you don’t want any vodka go through the same ritual, but put you finger to you forehead, say thanks and return the glass to the table.

On sharing some vodka with a northern Mongolia shaman, David Stern wrote in National Geographic: “After Nergui had recovered from his trance, he opened the bottle of vodka I’d brought as a gift and poured us each a shot into a shallow teacup. I accepted the cup with my right hand—to receive anything with your left can be a grievous insult—and before drinking, I made an offering to the spirits in three directions. I lightly dipped my fingers in the liquid, flicked a few drops into the air and then toward the ground, and finally dabbed my forehead.” [Source: David Stern, National Geographic, December 2012 <>]

Koumiss is usually ladled out of a large container and served in pint-size bowls. It is often handed around in a communal bowl. One must drink a lot of it to get high. It is sometimes poured from glass to glass several times to make it thick like whipped cream. Before drinking it Mongolians dip their ring finger in it and smear some of their forehead and flick it in the four compass directions as a sign of respect to airag itself. Some Mongolians drink ten liters of the stuff a day. Describing a herder drinking koumiss, Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “He lifts a bowl to his mouth, drinks deeply and practically belches an emphatic, ‘Ahhhh!’ He licks his lips...Then he does it all over again.”

Tibetan Buddhist Customs

Followers of Tibetan Buddhism walk around stupas, temples, sacred mountains or other objects of devotion in a clockwise direction one or an odd number times often while chanting sacred words—usually “Om Mani Padme Hum." Some finger their beads, counting off prayers in auspicious denominations of nine. Some walk around several times, always in odd numbers, and some place offerings or burn juniper at different places. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

People who enter a monastery take off their shoes first and sometimes wash their feet. They then enter the building, bow to the altar and sprinkle water, a symbol of life, on the ground. Pilgrims tap their forehead to faded silk scarves hanging inside chapels. Always circumambulate clockwise around temples, stupas and other landmarks of religious significance, thus keeping the religious landmarks to your right.

White scarves (hada, khatang or hadag) are presented to holy images and important people. Exchanging them is a form of greeting. Visitors arriving in Mongolia are sometimes given these scarves by their guides sort of like the way tourists arriving in Hawaii are given leis.

Don't take prayer flags or Mani stones. Don't remove any objects from an altar. Don't take photos during prayers and meditation. As a rule don't take photos without permission and don't use a flash. Don't wear shorts or short skirts or hats in temples or monasteries. The killing of animals, especially dogs, is considered a sin in Tibetan Buddhism. Many cities and villages are filled with stray dogs.

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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