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 Vanuatu
Throughout Vanuatu, and especially outside of Port Vila in the villages, life is strongly influenced by “kastom” — a set of traditional customs and taboos that apply to all kinds of matters. Be aware of this, and respect locals’ requests with regard to “kastom”. When visiting villages, women should dress modestly, wearing clothes that cover the shoulders and knees. Christian religion is very strong. It seems common to invite and welcome visitors to attend local church services on a Sunday Revealing and sexy clothing (especially wearing beach wear in the capital) is not advisable, as over 100 years of missionary work has had its effect on the perception of what is considered as respectable attire in the islands.
Regardless, it’s considered disrespectful to the local people and can be interpreted by some indigenous inhabitants as an invitation for sex. As Vanuatu is not a fashion conscious’ place no-one will notice or care if you were wearing the latest from ‘the Paris Collection’ or not. You are best off bringing a practical tropical wardrobe such as light cotton summer clothes that are easy to hand wash, a sloppy joe’ pullover and a lightweight waterproof wind jacket. If planning to go to the outer islands, bring a good flashlight (with spare batteries, you will use them!), lightweight, walking shoes, sandals or good thongs (flip flops/croks) for wet weather and old clothes. Tip: When exploring the outer islands take all the older clothes you can carry, wear them and give them away to the islanders when you are finished wearing them.
You and your children will be aptly rewarded in other ways. Instead of dumping your worn clothes in a charity collection bin at your local shopping centre and never knowing who really receives these (if they ever do…), your children will interact with the very people who would be the recipients of those clothes (most NiVanuatu people buy these second hand clothes from shops in Port Vila). Sharing and giving is a natural course of daily life in Vanuatu. The T-shirt you give to one person will be worn by all his friends as well. Three T-shirts on top of each other will be their winter outfit…. You will provide them things that are hard for them to obtain, save them the expense of buying clothes (basic wages are quite low in Vanuatu) and you will depart with priceless memories, plus have more room in your luggage for purchased local arts and crafts Communicating With NiVanuatu people: In Vanuatu, the display of anger, displeasure or irritability at a person or situation will reduce the recipient to a stony silence with a lack of co-operation or empathy to your point of view. Please be patient as it is a waste of time complaining.
It will have no bearing on the outcome. And if you are verbally abusive, you will generate one of three responses: Smiling, subdued laughter, or a fist in your face. Don’t ask a question with the answer built into it. Locals will always agree in order not to contradict you. “Is this the road to X?” will generate a Yes. Try: “Where is the road to X..?”, and you might get a different answer. Be aware that in the islands, direct eye contact or raised voice level contact may be interpreted as intimidation. A local person’s voice level combined with body language may be directly opposite to Europeans.
He or she may nod agreement with everything you say in order not to offend you but may not have understood a word you have said! If you’re in a bus and people on the footpath are turning their backs to you, don’t be offended: They’re simply letting the driver know that they don’t require him to stop. There are few bus stops in Vanuatu, and those that exist don’t get much use. If you see men or women holding hands, it’s not what you think. Men hold hands with other men, or women with women, because there is no sexual connotation attached to it. However, you will very rarely see a man holding a woman’s hand in public because this would be considered as a public exhibition of sexual relations.
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Vanuatu, 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 Vanuatu food and drinks:
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Vanuatu? Please comment below.