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

Malawi culture photo

Photo by US Army Africa

Malawi’s people are its greatest asset – friendly, welcoming, colourful and vibrant. It’s impossible to visit and not become engaged with the people, but there are now opportunities to spend time in real villages (including staying overnight) for a first-hand experience of the cultures, traditions and daily life. This is an option pretty much everywhere in Malawi, and one well worth taking.

There’s also much to see of Malawi’s history, beginning with the pre-history remains of the Karonga district and the Stone Age rock paintings near Dedza. The Cultural & Museum Centre at Karonga is well worth a visit. Elsewhere, the colonial period is preserved in buildings dating from the David Livingstone era and the defeat of the Arab slave trade is well documented in the museums of Blantyre. Among other museums around the country are a Lake Museum at Mangochi, a mission museum at Livingstonia and a postal services museum near Zomba

Malawi has both patriarchal and matriarchal ethnicities and cultures. In the cities, men tend to be more respected than women, but the reverse might be true in the rural villages depending on ethnicity. Whites tend to be well-respected, a holdover from colonial times, but this is largely a Malawian’s way of being courteous. Accept their hospitality.

They are an exceptionally friendly people. Malawians, especially those from very rural areas where they don’t see many whites, can be quite curious when they do come upon a white traveler. To a Western mindset, this might be interpreted as unnecessarily staring at you or talking about you in front of you. Be prepared to be greeted by kids yelling mzungu, mzungu! and to answer lots of questions about yourself. Even relatively mundane items like mechanical pencils can draw a crowd of onlookers.

Malawians are in general extremely courteous, and a part of that courtesy is shaking hands, speaking softly, and referring to travelers and others with respect. Malawians avoid rudeness. It is common for Malawi men to hold hands when they’ve gathered together to chat, and this shouldn’t be given a sexual interpretation when it is encountered. Culturally, women should not wear shorts or mini-skirts, especially when traveling outside the lodge/camp. A woman in shorts or a short skirt is considered to be provocative, as well as rude. Many female visitors wear wraps that are available in the stores and markets of major cities.

These are generally made of bright, colored patterns and can be extremely attractive. Low-cut tops on women, while discouraged, are not nearly as provocative. Men in the cities tend to wear slacks and not shorts, as shorts are generally worn only by school-age children, so when a man wears shorts it can be viewed by Malawians as rather silly. Finally, when meeting a Malawian — even to ask a question — you should always say hello and ask how they are. Properly greeting a Malawian is very important. They are uncomfortable with the Western notion of simply “getting to the point.” Courtesy is a must, at all times, because not to be courteous is to show disrespect

With this, you had the primer on key facts about Malawi, 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 Malawi food and drinks:

Local food you should try in Malawi and No miss drinks in Malawi.

Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Malawi? Please comment below.