So you’ve purchased your plane ticket and/or tour guide to Azerbaijan, and have all the checkboxes marked— maybe even your bags packed. What’s next?
Well, you probably have some questions about social situations you may be in—what should you expect if you are a guest in someone’s home? Is there a certain way you should dress? Forms of politeness you hadn’t thought of?
Rest assured— we’ve got you covered.
Our Azerbaijani writer, Onar, has written up 11 social norms to know before you visit Azerbaijan:
Azerbaijan has its own culture, but has also been strongly influenced by other cultures nearby. Ethnically Azerbaijanis are Turkic, however historically we have been part of the Persian empire as well as the USSR. This makes for a unique mix of customs, traditions, and mindsets. Historically Azerbaijan has been a progressive leader in the Muslim world— they allowed women to vote in 1918 (2 years before the USA) for example, and present day we are warm people that love to host. However having a depth of history can also harbor some conservatism as well- which we’ll discuss below.
In this post, I would like to share how some behavior could be confusing—even offensive— from a western standpoint, and how to best navigate the social norms in this special country of Azerbaijan.
1. Being served food in someone’s home.
If you have the pleasure of being a guest in an Azerbaijani’s home- there’s no doubt much preparation has been made for this occasion. You are certainly their dear guest, so expect to be offered lots of food. This goes beyond what you might physically feel comfortable fitting in your stomach, and they probably will put food on your plate without even asking you. Or, offer you more food a few times before accepting your, “No.” Sounds weird? Well, we usually assume that guests tend to be shy.
“The Art of Rejecting Food”
Put your hand over your plate and smile while saying, “No, thank you!” (even better if you explain you are full) or you can instead tell them you’d like a ‘different food over there’… (if you do). Even after this, you may get asked a few times more. Keep repeating. Trust me, they will stop 🙂 (at some point)
P.S You can truly eat as much as you want.
2. Taking your shoes off + wearing slippers.
This one is common in some Western and many Eastern cultures. You are always expected to take your shoes off when walking into a home- it is seen as cleaner and more comfortable. Often guests will be given a pair of spare slippers for walking around a home to ensure they don’t get cold. This is why I always make sure to wear clean, hole-less socks. You never know when you’ll be invited in someone’s home and expected to take off your shoes.
3. Tea culture: Drinking hot tea more often than water.
Yes, even in the hottest months of summer- it is not uncommon to drink more hot tea than plain water. (It ironically can cool you down actually.) Throughout the day and absolutely after each meal- we drink tea.
This might not sounds like a ‘social’ norm, but in Azerbaijan the ritual of drinking tea often isn’t just about the drink- it’s about the socializing. Tea is about relaxing- taking breaks- slowing down for a few minutes to connect and converse with others. Serving tea to someone is a gesture of love.
If you’re not a fan of tea- refraining from the ritual is fine and not considered rude. But be aware you may just miss some very delicious special tea! Your average black tea may contain dried herbs to add aroma and depth of taste. Not only is tea served often- it is never served without a sweet to go along such as homemade jam, local candy, pastry, dried fruit or plain sugar. Almost no one drinks tea plain. I recommend trying it with jam by the spoonful (which might be cherry, black walnut, apricot, etc)- it’s quite Azerbaijani.
On that note- you will see a lot of cafe’s called things like “Cay Evi” (means tea house), these are places men go to sit and socialize- be aware that no women go here.
Actually, to create a push-back of these noninclusive spaces, there are now ‘family’ restaurants men are only allowed in if accompanied with at least one woman- so the environment is more balanced and welcoming to all. These are usually marked with a special family icon. Here’s an example of one of these family cafes in Sumgayit where you can order food and delicious desserts:
4. Tattoos may turn some heads.
This is part is little frustrating but here we go. Tattoos are still something new for us. People may stare at your tattoos, to the point where they actually turn their heads (particularly outside of the capital, Baku). It’s not something people are used to seeing yet, so it kind of surprises people in the best case, or causes a reason to judge and even go beyond this and take a photo in the worst case. This unfortunately more true if you are a woman- men having tattoos doesn’t cause as much judgement. But things are getting better. The young generations are more open about it (as it is with most things).
5. How people dress.
In general, people wear whatever they want- especially in Baku. You’ll see some mini skirts, guys with long hair, zany hair colors, etc. Once you get out of cities though the environment will most likely be more conservative— for example men would have short haircuts, be clean shaven and wear long pants- while women might dress more conservative too, but generally for women there is not a huge difference than compared to the city (provided there wasn’t a hugely obvious tattoo showing as previously mentioned!). It is a Muslim-majority country so some women wear head scarves, though is completely their choice- the majority do not and you won’t stick out as a tourist if you do not either. No matter what gender you are, if you want to ‘blend in’ so to speak, you could wear pants rather than shorts, and try to not show off any large tattoos. 🙂
6. If you are invited as a guest it is considered a good gesture to gift something.
The price and size of the gift doesn’t matter at all. This can be a locally-purchased candy box (they are cheap) picked up on the way, or something from your country— a little souvenir, bar of soap, pretty much anything. (Though if bringing alcohol, we’d suggest making sure your host drinks! Not everyone does here.) But do not feel obligated to arrive with a gift- it is not expected or a huge deal, just a nice gesture. I mentioned this one ahead of time because you may wish you brought something to say thanks after being served so much food.
7. People are curious about foreigners and they love to talk- and your salary is a casual topic.
Within Azerbaijan the next biggest ethnic group is Russians and many people from Dubai like to go on vacation there, but outside of that there aren’t a ton of people from other countries that pass through (yet). Many Azerbaijanis (in the villages) have never interacted with a foreigner.
If you sit down for tea, some may ask you what you might consider personal questions- such as what is your religion or even commonly your salary- these topics are perfectly acceptable to talk about here and not considered ‘inappropriate’ as they might be in some cultures (often topics avoided around the table in the States for example).
On that note- salary does not pertain to the amount made in year- it actually means the amount made in one month. (But if you don’t wish to answer on this topic, that is perfectly fine.)
In Azerbaijan, a handshake and smile is always a safe bet. But if you are a close guest, don’t be surprised to be greeted by kisses- once on your left cheek (so turn your head to the right). Kisses are more common between close friends, and not typically between genders. If you are visiting Azerbaijan as a tourist, just stick to the handshakes and you’ll be good!
9. Wandering kids- it’s okay.
In residential neighborhoods, kids have a lot of freedom. Communities are tight knit enough where everyone looks out for each other and there’s a sense of trust. So during summer and after school, often kids will leave their parents’ house to go play with other kids— and it is completely normal for them to roam free all day except for popping back in to grab something to eat or to help their family run an errand. So don’t be concerned, it’s totally okay!
Again, this one might not seem like it would be a social norm, but it ends up being one because you should be aware of the lack of concern for them.
There’s a general lack of concern about allergies in Azerbaijan because almost no one has them. We’re not scientists with concrete evidence about why this is- maybe because monoculture farming practices don’t exist, or it’s the way foods are prepared, or something completely entirely in left field. Whatever it is, there aren’t largely noticeable numbers of people with dangerous allergies to foods like peanuts, gluten, nuts, dairy, etc. Because of this, it may be challenging to eat with confidence if you have a detrimental allergy.
Our advice for those traveling here with these allergies– if you need to be 100% certain your foods are safe, you’ll have to stick with whole foods (such as fruits, veggies), and bring along anything else you might need for more substance. If you don’t have a life threatening allergy and are hoping for more custom advice (such as which specific dishes don’t use the food of your particular allergy, or if you are vegetarian) feel free to reach out to us, we’ll try to help!
11. Showing affection
In Azerbaijan, people don’t hold back showing platonic affection. It’s wonderful! Friends of the same gender* will link arms, hold hands, kiss each other to greet. (*we make this connection between same gender and platonic affection because this is most commonly how it is currently viewed in Azerbaijan- queerness is generally not very visible/accepted because of conservatism…yet!) What isn’t currently the ‘norm’ is showing romantic affection. Unlike say walking along the Seine at sunset, couples don’t kiss in public more than a simple cheek greeting. So if you are your partner are used to expressing your love for each other with PDA, you should be aware you may turn some heads and maybe get a tap on the shoulder about it. 😉
We hope these social norms help you to have a comfortable time in Azerbaijan.
Is there anything you think we left out? Anything we should add? let us know!
Thanks for reading.
—Go Travel Azerbaijan (your indie guide to the Land of Fire)