We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.
In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:
A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Eritrea
Eritreans are polite, hospitable and soft-spoken but, due to the language barrier, may keep their distance from foreigners. If approached by an English speaker, try to maintain an innocent topic of conversation and use universal common sense. Avoid displaying disdain, arrogance or harsh criticism towards the country, culture, religion or politics of the country, although most will be tolerant of your “mistakes” as you are a passing foreigner.
You are in a police state, don’t forget it! Do not fall prey to those willing to offer you a better exchange rate for your hard currency or some other “shady economic deal”. A) They could be undercover government agents, who can land you in severe trouble with the zero-tolerance Eritrean justice system, or B) Even if they are not, you run the risk of not receiving a fair trade or getting caught by the law, which is something you must avoid at all costs in Eritrea. It is rude to take pictures of people or their property without asking for permission.
When taking pictures of public buildings beware of government buildings, especially police and military buildings. Taking pictures of these is not always illegal, but, done without permission or supervision, it can be viewed as highly suspect and can result in an uncomfortable arrest and interrogation. Ask the closest official (receptionist or police) for permission. Prostitution is legal but only in licensed establishments discretely placed out of the public eye (certain bars, nightclubs, hotels). Public display of romantic affection is considered immodest and overt flirting with an Eritrean is viewed by the general public as akin to prostitution or soliciting thereof and can be taken as extremely offensive if the person in question or their kin is not involved in such business.
Like in many East African and Middle Eastern countries, use of the left hand to greet, eat or hand something to someone is considered very dirty. When handing something over, using both hands is accepted and even seen as respectful, but not using the left hand alone. Dress code is generally Western, women are not required to “cover up” or wear veils, but showing too much skin, both for men and women will earn them very little respect and women who show too much cleavage or/and wear too short a skirt/pair of shorts will be viewed as prostitutes. Eritrean or Eritrean-looking women would also be judged badly for smoking. Do not however, conflate standards of female modesty with a lack of status or official capacity for women in Eritrea. Women do drive in Eritrea – all vehicles, even military tanks, ships, planes. They also command troops and serve in all the ranks of the army and government in the same capacity as men. It is a country undergoing a post-liberation accelerated (and sometimes paradoxical) cultural evolution.
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Eritrea, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Eritrea food and drinks:
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Eritrea? Please comment below.