Here's something I wrote up as handout for the new Tulane/ICES batch, who arrived yesterday and got subjected to a long orientation seminar today. I was asked to speak on "cultural issues" and "practical dos and don'ts" of life here. Not bad for being written at 4am.
Make Your Life Easier* As a Foreigner in Sri Lanka
The Golden Rule: Wait, Watch, and Do
if you’re in a situation where you feel unsure or uncomfortable, e.g. visiting a temple or eating in a small restaurant, wait and see what Sri Lankans do, and copy them as far as you’re comfortable.
Clothing: More is better
I am sticking this out front because it’s really important. Dressing in short-shorts, t-shirts, and lugsoled sandals is the quickest way to get pegged as a tourist. Dressing up a bit is a cheap (but useful) way to give yourself an air of professionalism and propriety. For women, this means long (mid-calf or ankle-length) skirts/dresses or long trousers and a blouse with sleeves (the longer the better) and a collar or nice cut. For men, this means long pants and a collared shirt. Go ahead and roll up the sleeves, it’s hot, but for pete’s sake don’t wear short-shorts and a t-shirt, or a tank top, or a fanny pack, or a sarong.
Making friends: Save trouble and stick to your gender
There is in Lankan culture a separation of gender groups generally, in work, social life, family life, education, etc. Making friends across genders is possible but often can be misconstrued. Keep things polite, brief, and public; if someone makes you uncomfortable don’t hesitate to tell them bluntly. Same-gender friends are much safer; saves embarrassment and frustration. If you have a phone number or a place of residence, DON’T give it out. Asking personal questions (“are you married?”) is here a normal part of a friendly conversation but lie if you feel uncomfortable. If anyone is really bothering you (i.e., touching on a bus) make a big indignant fuss and the person will be embarrassed—plus someone else will likely come help you.
Shopping and Bargaining: Not idle pursuits
This is a hard one to understand, coming from America where we shop for fun. If you are shopping in a Market you’ll be extensively touted—asked what you want, shown stuff, etc. This is not particularly aggressive so much as motivated by the desire to help you. However if you’re “just looking” (a phrase many shopkeepers know) say it upfront. Once you start really looking through stuff, pawing the merch, people will be disappointed and maybe a bit annoyed if you don’t buy anything. Once you bargain (extensively discuss the price), you’re sort of promising to buy it. Don’t bargain hard and then not-buy. Remember, it’s a lot more money to the shopkeeper than to you. It’s a little tricky—use your judgment.
Patience, patience, patience: You can’t always get what you want
Especially when visiting government ministries or trying to shop for something specific, you’re going to have to wait, and chances are someone will tell you that what you want is ‘not there’ or ‘over.’ You want to leave extra time and room in your mind for other possibilities—a different way of getting where you need to go, a different menu option for lunch. In an official/bureaucratic situation, be sweetly persuasive and slightly firm; getting mad won’t help. Don’t pursue things that aren’t important, because you’ll go crazy waiting for someone to make it happen. “No problem” doesn’t mean what it sounds like—it means there’s a problem and they’ll fix it but you’ll have to wait.
Visiting homes: Prepare to be stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey
If you have the chance to visit someone at home, take it. It’s the best/only way to really enjoy the laid-back culture of Sri Lanka. It won’t feel laid-back at first—they’ll be slinging tea and biscuits and food at you. It’s polite to protest a little and then accept. If it really is too much, go ahead and keep refusing, and stick to your guns. People will stuff you if you let them. Be prepared for a lot of chilling-and-waiting; some people ‘visit’ all day, through two teas and lunch, and just hang around. Bring a small gift (box of chocolate, cake, fruit) and just put it somewhere obvious when you come in; people don’t open gifts in front of the giver here.
Beggars: Please, not with the camera
I won’t yammer on about it; just be polite to beggars. You don’t have to give them anything, but don’t be mean! (This is more my personal feeling than a cultural norm, honestly.) Don’t stick cameras in their faces and take photos, especially without giving them any money. I know this awful exchange student who thought they were so picturesque. Please. Giving them some small change is a nice thing to do. I try not to give kids money because I don’t want them to be used as bait or to learn to beg from a young age—if a kid asks me for money I’ll buy him a rice packet or some short eats.
*and mine too. An important reason to observe politeness is that people’s impressions of Americans/foreigners are quickly and easily shaped by the actions of us, the representative examples. What you do affects the way others are treated later on. There are good and bad stereotypes of foreigners. If you think you’re above the social norms, and you don’t mind getting harassed or disparaged, fine for you, but the rest of us can suffer under the extension of your bad image. You don’t have to remake yourself to be happy here, just be wise to the broad points as above.