Culture Sri Lanka

The cultural differences between Europeans and Sri Lankans are so vast that one could write a large book about them. Below you will find some points to take into account when mixing with the locals.

"Yes and no": Maybe the most confusing cultural difference between Sri Lankans and Europeans is use of the words; yes and no. To begin with, ‘yes’ is not indicated by nodding but by quickly moving the chin to and fro, which causes the head to ‘wobble’ (you should try it!). Secondly, whether spoken or ‘wobbled’, ‘yes’ has a much broader meaning. Besides ‘yes’, it can indicate ‘eh’, or ‘understood’, or even something like ‘that’s probably right’, or ‘I have heard you, but I’m not interested in what you are saying’. ‘Yes’ when uttered by a Sri Lankan hence doesn’t give you much of a clue. ‘No’ is a word Sri Lankans do not like to say too often, for example when asked if the bus to Colombo stops here. Offered a piece of liquorice, nine out of ten Sri Lankans will find the taste foul but the chance of them saying ‘no’ when offered would be very slim.

Etiquette: Visits to holy places, even ruins, have to be taken bareheaded and barefoot. To take pictures of a westerner in front of a Buddha statue is not done. Adult men wearing shorts are seen as ridiculous by Sri Lankans, and women wearing pants as outrageous. Sri Lankans will dress formally for important events. Should you be invited to a wedding, ask about the dress code. Swimming naked or topless is prohibited. A monk should never be touched. If you wish, you can perform the Sri Lankan greeting, hand palms pressed together and held upright in front of the face. The higher you hold your hands, the more respect you express. Monks are not allowed to accept money – only food or something to drink. Not all monks are orthodox!

Left and right: The right hand is used to eat, while the left hand is reserved for washing the backside. Should you be eating a meal with Sri Lankans using your hands, remember to only use your right hand. Changing hands is considered foul by Sri Lankans. Do not touch anyone with your left hand.

Appointments: We are from a highly hectic culture where time is money and appointments tend to be met punctually. Sri Lankans do not share this problem. Not that they will always be late: it is equally possible that they didn’t have anything else to do so they turn up an hour early.

In general
Remember that you are visiting a country where people have different ways and customs. They are not behaving deviantly, it is you!

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