Cultural Etiquette in Ethiopia

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One of my greatest anxieties while traveling abroad is that I’ll accidentally offend someone… or a lot of people.

Eye contact is polite in America, but what about in Thailand? South Africa? Costa Rica? By looking at someone directly in the eye in these places, am I accidentally sending messages of hatred or animosity? What about handshaking? Wardrobe? Body language?

There are so many cultural “do’s and don’ts” to worry about during a trip, and usually, there is so little time to figure it all out.

If you’re traveling to Africa, here’s everything you need to know about cultural etiquette in Ethiopia. 

  • Say goodbye to food and drink on the go! Unless you’re at a restaurant or cafe, it is extremely rude to eat in front of Ethiopians without inviting them to join you. Hungry during a crowded bus ride? Want to snack while walking down the street? Well, unless you plan on sharing your snack with every single person on that bus or with every person you pass on the street, it’s best to hold back. “Inn-billa” means, “Let’s eat!” in Amharic and is probably the single most widely used phrase in the country.
  • It is extremely inappropriate—outside of Addis Ababa, which is another world compared to the rest of Ethiopia—for women to show their knees or shoulders. So girls, pack a lot of maxi dresses and scarves!
  • Ninety percent of Ethiopian food is served with injera, a pancake-like dough, and the other ten percent is served with bread, so get used to eating without silverware! However, since everyone eats off of the same plate, it is extremely rude to lick your fingers during the meal and, unfortunately, napkins are pretty much nonexistent in most of the country. If you’re like me and hate having dirty fingers… Izosh (“Be strong” in Amharic). Having dirty fingers is better than offending your entire dinner party. And on the bright side, someone will always come around with a water bucket to help you clean up after the meal.
  • If you’re invited to someone’s house for coffee—which you undoubtedly will be—it is rude to leave before finishing three cups.
  • If you invite someone to meet for food or drinks, you are expected to pay. If they invite you, they are expected to pay.
  • When meeting someone, whether for the first time or for the hundredth time, you will be expected to: shake their hand with your right hand while holding onto your right elbow with your left hand; shake their right hand while bumping your right shoulder against their right shoulder; or, if the person is an older woman whom you know well, shake her right hand while kissing her right shoulder.
  • If you see anyone you know in passing, even if you are late or in a hurry, you will be expected to stop and have a short five-minute conversation. Most of the time, this conversation will go something like this: “Person: Do you have peace? You: I have peace. Do you have peace? Person: I have peace. Are you fine? You: I am fine, thanks be to God. Are you fine? Person: I am fine, thanks be to God. Is your family fine? You: My family is fine, thanks be to God. Is your family fine? Person: My family is fine. Is your work fine? You: My work is fine. Is your work fine? Person: My work is fine, thanks be to God. Are you fine? You: I am fine. Are you fine? Person: Thanks be to God. I am fine. Do you have peace? You: I have peace. Do you have peace? Person: I have peace. Are you fine?” To foreign onlookers, this exchange probably just looks like a bunch of shoulder bumps mixed with a string of “Fine?” “Fine. Fine?” “Fine. Fine?” Not being fine is not an option.
  • Don’t be surprised to find males of all ages holding hands, feeding each other and/or cuddling. In Ethiopia, that’s just how bros act like bros.
  • Do not discuss homosexuality with Ethiopians, as it is outlawed and extremely taboo. If you are a homosexual couple visiting Ethiopia, you will unfortunately have to go “back in the closet” during your stay.
  • If you need a waiter’s attention, it is culturally appropriate to clap your hands, unless you are in Addis Ababa where it is considered rude.

No matter how expensive your restaurant meal is, you will not be expected to tip more than five birr. Usually, anywhere from two to five birr is an acceptable tip.

  • If you have a heavy bag or other object that is difficult to carry, it should take you a maximum of 30 seconds to find someone to help you. If they carry the object for ten minutes or less, you should tip them between five and ten birr per item. If they carry the item between ten and twenty minutes, you should tip them ten birr per item.
  • Most Ethiopians assume that sickness is caused by cold air or “bad smells,” so if you open a window during a hot, crowded bus ride, don’t be surprised if several people ask you to keep it closed.
  • It is best to avoid using your left hand while eating injera, hand shaking or shopping. Using your left hand is often considered rude.

Ethiopians are generally extremely welcoming, accommodating people who are excited to see foreigners visiting their country. So if you have a cultural “do or don’t” question during your trip, don’t be afraid to ask the locals!

Have you been to Ethiopia? What would you add to the list?

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About Author

Erin graduated from American University in 2011 with a degree in Public Relations and Spanish Language, and she is currently serving as an Education Peace Corps Volunteer in Adet, Ethiopia until August 2014. You can find her personal Peace Corps blog at eesullie.wordpress.com.

3 Comments

  1. I have recently discovered Ethopian food and LOVE it. So, I have put Ethopia on my list of places to visit. These are all great tips; however, I would struggle with the handshaking full process. I have no problem shaking with my right hand since that’s my dominate hand, but I would forget the rest.

    Now, what if you don’t drink coffee? Is it okay to ask for something else besides coffee, like tea?

    Is it okay to bring wipes with you? I know that I bring those now wherever I go and I was just wondering if that would be rude. I understand not doing it until the end of the meal.

  2. I agree–Ethiopian food is wonderful! And it’s perfectly acceptable to drink tea instead of coffee; just tell whoever is preparing the coffee your preferences before the first “round” is served. It’s also fine to bring and use wipes, as long as you share them with whoever is at your dining table!

  3. Most things in the article are quite fascinating. However, a couple of points need some clarification. The inn-billa although used widely, it is not older than 15 years in the sense pronouncing it to anybody else. Earlier a person who is eating could say it to another whom they knew. So that the other person could eat with the host. That was a sincere invitation. But today it means nothing. When a person says that to you, be certain that they do not really invite you. It is said simply for the sake of saying. Or if you eat with a person whom you do not know, you are expected to buy your own and eat together. If you watch the locals in a restaurant, one will say inn-billa to anybody who is nearby and the other responds “bill, biyi or billu” according to age mate, and seniority respectively, meaning eat. And then will add “yetebareke yihun”, meaning may the food be blessed. In the Tigrinya speaking society that was an age -old phrase for a stranger. The current use of the phrase is used without any practicality.
    Shaking people holding onto the right elbow with the left hand is used for a superior, not for an equal. Superiority in age or status. A person may shake an old woman or man with the right hand and kiss them on the cheek or shake them with both hands.
    The problem in this country is that everybody is proud of their culture and liked to be considered a unique nation, so that they mislead foreigners, especially white people to take everything for these two.

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