Sri Lankan culture, like any other, has little quirks that can take you by surprise and make you wonder if you’ve made a blunder. T&T has rounded up some of the more memorable customs we’ve come across below so you can avoid any discomfort (and look super in touch with how things happen in Colombo).
Giving and receiving things
This one is hard to explain and is one of those traditions that has stuck around. The basics for this are for the person giving to use both hands (e.g. if you are paying for domestic help for the day, hold the cash with both hands and present it to them), and for the person receiving to take what is given with both hands or with the right hand, while the left hand holds the right forearm. It sounds strange, but this is a traditional custom that is surprisingly prevalent. By only using the dominant or both hands, people confer respect towards the recipient of money or gifts and the act itself, people hardly ever hand over money with their left hand. Even in supermarkets, shops etc.
In social and informal settings, punctuality is not generally given much importance. People will invariably run about 30 minutes late. There are exceptions, but generally being late is no big deal. Honestly, we still find this extraordinary! Go with the flow otherwise you will become so uptight!
again do not be on time, if you are super hungry before you leave, eat something because often you won’t sit down for 2 hours from arriving! This is especially the case at big dinners. FYI book babysitters later.
A lot of Sri Lankans will not greet someone, bid farewell, or conduct transactions in a doorway or archway, particularly one that connects two rooms. It is considered inauspicious. If greeting someone at a doorway or archway, it is considered good manners to pass through the doorway before greeting the person.
It is common practice, particularly among the more traditional people, to prostrate before someone and kiss their feet. This can be surprising the first time it happens, and you can always ask them not to, but in their way they are showing you honour and gratitude. This often happens when paying salaries to staff for the first time (mostly domestic staff). It is a common occurrence by Sri Lankans toward their parents, older family members, or other people they respect like teachers and monks.
Birthdays in Sri Lanka are a big deal. It is customary to wish someone a happy birthday, particularly if they are a colleague or friend. This is not to be underestimated as some can be quite put out that you didn’t remember their birthday. It is also more or less expected if you are working in an office to bring in a cake or other treat for your colleagues on your birthday. Quite often even your bank will send you cake!
Generally, when visiting someone in their house for the first time socially, it is expected for you to bring a gift of some kind. This is mostly a food item, like a cake. A gift for the home is also acceptable, though this is only if you know the person well. NB only take alcohol if you know they drink, think about religion ie pork is a no-no in Muslim households, and beef can be for certain Buddhist homes and absolutely in an Hindu home.
DO’S AND DONT'S
Below is a little crash-course on how to acclimatize with minimal fuss. These rules should keep you from accidentally causing offence.
The Key Do’s:
- Ask for help-You will always find someone happy to help you if you don’t understand.
- Be clear-The people around you will have varying understanding of English. Use simple language, common phrases and idioms back home may not mean the same thing here.
- Dress modestly- remember Sri Lanka can be quite conservative. Particularly if visiting temples. Street-harassment can also sometimes be an issue, so dressing modestly will help avoid any unpleasantness.
- Use your right hand when giving something to someone- The left hand is considered unclean, and as such, inferior for transactions, particularly financial.
- Carry around identification-It’s always a good thing to have.
- Watch your belongings-while infrequent, bad things can happen. Constant vigilance is a virtue.
- Check for a meter when travelling by Tuk-Tuk: 90% of tuk-tuks have them. If they don’t have one, it is perfectly acceptable to refuse their service.
- Cover up any religiously provocative tattoos- Particularly of the Buddha. Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country. More on this in the Religion [link] section of this page.
The Key Don’ts:
- Be rude or lose your temper- Things work differently here sometimes and systems won’t always make sense. Always stay polite though. You don’t want to embarrass people, keeping FACE is a big thing here.
- Travel around alone late at night-You are in a foreign country where you don’t know the language. Better safe than sorry.
- Be cavalier at cultural sites-Particularly when posing for pictures. You never know if you’re being irreverent around a sacred object, and you don’t want to be disrespectful.
- Jump into political conversations-You don’t want to get caught up in a heated debate
- Pass money through a doorway
- Don’t give or receive a gift with your left hand, ALWAYS WITH THE RIGHT HAND OR BOTH.