Sri Lanka's Cultural Do's and Don'ts
The diverse landscape of Sri Lanka is home to a multitude of ethnicities, languages, religions and traditions. Taking into consideration the array of cultural practices and beliefs, there is some general etiquette to follow when traveling to this dynamic country.
Here are some guidelines to follow during your stay in Sri Lanka:
- Greet people with a warm ayubowan meaning “long life,” with the palms joined together.
- People don’t say “goodbye,” as it is considered too final. Using language along the lines of “see you later” is preferred.
- Elders should be treated with marked respect.
- Show patience and friendliness, and refrain from displays of anger.
- Public displays of affection between men and women are discouraged.
- Men and women do not typically touch, so avoid shaking hands unless the person you greet offers first.
- Dress modestly. Women, in particular, should avoid revealing clothing. This means no sleeveless or low-cut shirts or tank tops, and no shorts. Make sure your knees are covered.
- Men openly stare at female tourists, especially if they are dressed in revealing clothing. To minimize this occurrence, take the normal precautions, such as looking after yourself in crowded, public places and, again, avoid exposing too much flesh.
- Take photographs of people or objects only after receiving permission. Always ask first, and if they say “no,” respect it.
- In many Buddhist and Hindu temples, tourists are not allowed to walk inside certain parts of the temple complex.
- Leather articles such as wallets, belts and bags are prohibited inside many Hindu temples. Be cognizant that these are sacred places where people come to pay their respects and recognize that photography may be inappropriate.
- Never point with your index finger, particularly at sacred items or paintings. Instead, motion with your chin or extend your hand, palm flat and skyward, at the object you’re referencing.
- Never pose for photographs in front of a temple with your backside to the Buddha, and always back away while facing a sacred statue. Never touch or sit in the lap of a Buddha statue. Yes, this actually happens!
- Greet the Buddha statue with a small bow and make sure your head stays below the level of the Buddha, as well as monks and nuns, as a mark of respect.
- Do not wear clothes or T-shirts with images of the Buddha or Hindu gods printed on them. Visitors have also been denied entry to the country with a tattoo of the Buddha visible on a shoulder or an arm.
- When visiting temples or entering a home, remove footwear and hats. Dress conservatively in a way that expresses respect for the place of worship or household.
- Wash your hands before and after eating.
- Avoid touching people with the left hand, as it is considered unclean and will cause insult. Keep this in mind and use your right hand when giving or accepting any object. To use both hands is even more respectful.
- Food should only be touched with the right hand. However, the left hand may be used for holding utensils, glasses and bowls.
- Feet and shoes are considered dirty. Never touch anything with your feet, and don’t point the bottom of your feet at religious altars or toward people. This is regarded as an offense among many people in South Asia. To avoid this, sit cross-legged or kneel on the floor while in a temple or holy place. If you must extend your legs, point them away from sacred icons.
- If you accidentally bump someone’s feet with your foot or shoe, quickly apologize.
- Do not step over a person sitting or lying on the floor, as it is offensive.
- If you are invited to someone’s home, it is customary to bring a small gift such as a box of sweets.
- Note that when you are a guest in someone’s home, your hosts may sit and watch you eat. Accept food when it is offered, though you are not required to finish your plate.
- Never give money to begging children and women. If you give even a small coin, many more people will instantly materialize and can aggressively follow you. Avoid holy men with promises of spiritual healing for compensation.
- Giving out candy and other sweets is particularly damaging, as these can contribute to dental problems, especially in remote villages. Handing out gifts also creates unrealistic expectations. More positive ways to communicate with children include blowing bubbles, drawing funny pictures, tossing a Frisbee or ball, or taking photos on a digital camera and showing them their images.