Sri Lankan Customs and Etiquette
With such a vibrant culture and rich history, it is no surprise that Sri Lanka is a country that has developed it own distinct customs and traditions over the years. While leniency will often be granted to tourists who are not expected to be familiar with Sri Lankan etiquette, it can be beneficial to brush up on what is and is not appropriate behaviour to show your respect and appreciation for the country. We’ve put together some tips to help you out so you can truly embrace the experience and fit in with the locals, making for an overall more enjoyable trip.
Greetings in Sri Lanka can vary from person to person, you’ll find that the older generations tend to greet with their hands clasped together and a slight bow of the head, while younger generations will go with a handshake. In Sri Lanka it is custom to use your right hand when shaking, as well as when handling money and other small objects. Some women will refrain from direct contact with men from outside their family, so if you are a man it is advisable for you to wait for them to offer you their hand first in case they are uncomfortable with the gesture. When it comes to addressing a person you should use their title and surname initially until they give you permission to call them by their first name.
Meal times in Sri Lanka are important and considered a social occasion, so be prepared to wait a little while for your food as time is usually spent socialising before it is served. Before and after your food is served you may also be offered the chance to wash your hands, which it is polite to accept. As is the case in many South Asian countries, Sri Lankans traditionally eat with their fingers rather than cutlery. As a tourist you may be offered some, however if not you should use the fingertips of your right hand to eat, or scoop up food with bread or small balls of rice. If you finish all the food on your plate you may be served a second helping as this is considered a sign that you are still hungry, leaving some food on your plate is not rude but a sign that you are full.
You'll be glad to hear that Sri Lanka is a nation that values hospitality, so you will find that as guests you will be treated very well, do not be surprised to be asked often how you are enjoying your stay and if there is anything that you need. Politeness in general is important in Sri Lanka, with Sri Lankans being a fan of saving face, this means you should avoid openly criticizing someone or something and putting others in an awkward position as far as possible.
As a highly religious country, it is important to be respectful of Sri Lankan beliefs, this is particularly important if you should choose to visit a temple during your stay. It is important that your dress is appropriate, that is your legs and shoulders covered, and any headwear and footwear should be removed. Although it can sometimes be rather ambiguous as to what point you should remove your shoes and hats, if you look at what the locals are doing that should offer some guidance. Once in the temple be careful not to turn your back to or stand alongside any representations of Buddha when within a reasonable distance, this includes posing for photos, as it is considered disrespectful and will offend others around you, this should be observed not only in temples but anywhere you come across a depiction of Buddha. Otherwise it is generally ok to take photos, just keep an eye out for any ‘No Photography’ signs. Bear in mind that the temples are not merely tourist attractions, but actual places of worship, so try to keep your presence minimal so as not to disturb those there for worship. At some temples men may be asked to remove their shirts, and women may be refused admittance entirely, although this is not common practice.
Public displays of affection are generally frowned upon in Sri Lanka. Leniency is usually shown to tourists and holding hands and affection towards children is ok, but anything more overt is likely to cause offence. You’ll notice that Sri Lankan couples are more modest, and will likely hide away under a parasol in a secluded space if they wish to be affectionate. However, if you are in a more adult establishment such as a nightclub or at a beach party then public displays of affection are acceptable.
If this all seems a little too much to remember don't fear, as has been mentioned throughout, much leniency is shown to tourists who are not expected to be familiar with the customs and traditions. If in doubt over something you can watch the locals and learn from them, or simply ask someone for advice.
If you’re interested in planning a trip to Sri Lanka be sure to visit our Sri Lanka page, or contact one of our experts on 020 7843 5313.