Culture and Etiquette in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a strongly traditional country and most people, both Christian and Muslim, dress very modestly and conservatively by modern Western standards, though this is changing in parts of the country, especially Addis Ababa. Travellers are advised to dress in keeping with local sensibilities. For women, the ideal dress would be a long flowing shirt and dress that covers the shoulders and knees. Trousers are also fine (though few local women wear them except in Addis Ababa) but shorts or sleeveless tops are not really acceptable, especially in Islamic areas and rural settings. Men should generally wear long trousers and a shirt or T-shirt covering the shoulders. Going shirtless is totally unacceptable and shorts are widely considered to be undignified attire for adult men.

Another important point of social etiquette is the high premium Ethiopians place on greetings. Many would consider it to be rude or offhand to launch into any conversation or request – whether in a shop, at a business meeting, or just asking directions in the street – without first exchanging greetings and enquiring after each other’s health. Shaking hands is still customary between men, an elaborate move that involves both parties bowing their torso and touching shoulders immediately after their hands make contact. It is a more ambiguous area between men and women, and generally the best way for male travellers to handle it is to wait to see whether the woman extends her hand first. Women tend to greet loudly but without physical demonstrativeness, though close friends or relations might kiss each others’ cheeks three times.

As is the case in many Islamic countries, Ethiopians (of all religions) customarily reserve the left hand for ablutions, so it is considered both rude and unhygienic to use that potentially unclean hand to shake hands, to eat, or to pass money or any other object. When eating communally (which is the norm in Ethiopia) it is customary for the eldest person present to take the first handful of food. Be prepared to be the recipient of the custom know as gursa, which entails the host or another guest using their hand to place a tasty morsel of food in the mouth of a respected visitor – disconcerting as this might be, it would be very rude to refuse the offering.

Ethiopian churches retain several ancient Judaic rituals that we now tend to associate with Islamic rather than Christian cultures. Shoes must be removed before entering any church (socks are fine), and where there are separate entrances for men and women travellers will be expected to follow this custom. It is forbidden for a woman to enter any church while menstruating, and there are also taboos on entering certain churches on certain days if you have had sex the night before or already eaten that day. Traditionally, women are required to cover their body and hair with a long dress and a scarf before entering a church, and while this custom is no longer imposed quite so rigidly as it would have been twenty years ago, it would still be respectful to adhere to it, particularly when visiting rural churches or ones that are unused to tourists.

Tipping is, as ever, an area of ambiguity. Genuine guides should be tipped if they provided a good service, with 200 birr per party per day being a fair benchmark. There are also occasionally aspirant guides who latch on to tourists without bringing much to the party except their own tiresomeness, and tipping them is definitely to be discouraged. Tipping waiters is not customary in local eateries, but it has become so in restaurants used to tourists – 10 percent of the bill would be fair to generous.

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