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 Haiti
One thing a missionary or other visitor to Haiti learns very quickly is that Haitians are a very dignified people; they have their pride, despite all they have had to endure. There are some beggars and peddlars in the cities, but they are the exception, not the rule. Expect no kow-towing. Impoverished Haitians will always accept gifts, but they will almost always stand straight, look you in the eye, and repay you with a sincere “Mesi” (thanks). Haiti is a nation of fairly conservative norms.
Modest dress when exploring Haiti’s cities is advised, especially for women. The smart visitor should look people in the eye, wave hello, and treat them with friendship and respect, as equals, no matter how poor or desperate their living conditions may seem. Try to learn some basic words of Haitian Creole. Ask permission before taking pictures of locals (they often ask you for money). Never walk about sticking your camera in people’s faces or taking pictures randomly. Do not solely take pictures of the piles of trash you may see in some of the bigger cities (such as Cap-Haïtien or Port-au-Prince) or anything else that Haitians are not proud of as it is offensive. However, people have no problem with foreigners taking pictures of beautiful scenery, cultural events or historical sites.
Carry a few gourdes in your pockets for the kids who carry your luggage/shine your shoes/hail your tap-tap at the airport (but be alert for pickpockets). Sometimes visitors to Haiti walk about handing out candy or dollar bills. While many people, especially children, will accept your offering, this is offensive to most people as it compromises the dignity of Haitians. Carry an extra water bottle and food to share with your driver, guide, or interpreter. Be patient as nothing moves fast in Haiti. Most people will find your whining amusing at best and severely insulting at worst. Carry a few photos of the area where you live, your workplace, or your family to share with friends you make. These are the things that transform you from just another tourist into a real person.
More often than not, the people will return the favor, and you might just find a friend. Your emotions are real. It is okay to feel overwhelmed if you have not experienced this type of culture difference before. If you are easily affected by signs of poverty, Haiti is not for you. Be polite but not intrusive. It is normal to ask questions of the locals. Remember that you are a guest in their country. Do not expect to be treated as a king or a queen (though you might get some extra privileges) because you are foreign. Haitians are warm and helpful people. The people on the Gonâve Island have quite possibly less contact with Westerners than say those Haitians in Port-au-Prince. The children shout “blan, blan, blan” as you walk by. The children on the saline flats will readily walk with you, show you how to skip stones off the water and try very hard to communicate with you. They may try to charge you for picking up a shell from the flats and up to $6 to take a picture of their donkey. You do not have to pay, but out of respect, do not take the picture. They appreciate being asked if you may take their picture.
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Haiti, 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 Haiti food and drinks:
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Haiti? Please comment below.