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Social Customs & Etiquettes in Senegal


Greetings are crucial in Senegal and their important should never be underestimated. Exchanging greetings each time you meet someone, even if it is later in the same day, is pivotal to maintaining good relationships. You are expected to exchange lengthy inquiries into the health and well being of the other person and their family before asking any other question or beginning a discussion. If you ask to speak to someone without going through the ritualised greeting process, you may be told “They went to learn how to greet”, which is basically a polite way of pointing out that you were rude.

To the Western mind the amount of time spent in greetings may appear unnecessary or even wasteful (especially in business); they are used by the Senegalese to feel one with each other and achieve a sense of group harmony.

Being punctual in Senegal is not highly valued. There is the mentality that things will happen when they are supposed to happen.

Using your right hand to shake, touch, eat food with, or handle money (or anything else) is a must. Using the left hand for these things is considered rude and dirty. In most areas, it considered rude to let the bottom of one’s foot or shoe point at someone. Feet should also not be propped up on chairs or tables.

As far as dressing goes, be aware that anything shorter than knee length is inappropriate. Tank tops are generally accepted in larger towns, but should be avoided as much as possible.

Meeting & Greeting

Greetings may vary among the various ethnic groups. A common thread of courtesy is where people take time to inquire about the health and welfare of family members. It is customary for these questions to be asked over a prolonged handshake.

Close friends may hug each other rather than shake hands. They may also kiss three times beginning with the left cheek and alternating cheeks. Although most Senegalese are Muslims, cross-gender touch does occur unlike many other Muslim or Arab countries. Very religious men/women though may not shake hands with the other sex.

People should be addressed by their academic, professional, or honorific title in French and their surname or first name, depending upon the personal preference of the person. Nicknames are also common in Senegal and many people are addressed by their title and their nickname.

In general, direct eye contact is expected when meeting and greeting. During conversations though, direct eye contact can be seen as a sign of arrogance and one should often times look down when conversing. When speaking to peers of the same sex, direct eye contact is acceptable. When speaking to elders or people of authority, indirect eye contact is the most appropriate.

In more rural, tribal settings, one must not look at the chief in the eyes. Lowering your eyes is a sign of respect. Not making eye contact is a sign of respect when talking to elders or a sign of deference when speaking to strangers.

Communication Style

In general, communication is indirect in Senegal, especially when speaking critically with someone older or someone you do not know.

People will often times use metaphors or an analogy to speak about delicate issues, as this is considered more polite than being direct. Personal relationships are highly valued, so it's best to not rush through greetings and maintain a positive and harmonious relationship with those you meet.

People don’t usually make direct requests, they state their needs. However, some Senegalese speaking to Westerners will make very direct requests; even if they don’t actually expect anything to result from it.

A little less than an arm’s length of personal space is acceptable during conversations. This space tends to be greater between members of the opposite sex and less for friends and family. It is common to see men holding hands with other men while walking and talking. This is a sign of friendship.

Touching while talking is accepted for men with men and women with women, but between genders there is usually less touching and more personal space given. It is taboo for religiously observant Muslim men to touch women and vice-versa. Members of the same sex will touch each other frequently while talking, but it is usually inappropriate for men and women to touch each other while talking; though less so in cities.

Spinning the index finger at the temple is a way of saying someone is crazy. Thumbs up means good job. Sometimes people, kids especially, will point with their tongues. Hissing is a common way of trying to get someone’s attention.

Gift Giving Etiquette

Gifts are not really a big part of Senegalese culture. It is customary to give a small gift when invited to someone’s home for a meal. If invited to someone’s home, take a box of chocolates, French pastries or a nicely packaged fresh fruit.

Gifts should be given with both hands; never use the left hand. Gifts should be wrapped, although there are no cultural taboos concerning paper colour. Gifts are not always opened when received.

Dining Etiquette & Table Mannerism

Senegalese table manners can be somewhat formal. Wait to be shown to your seat. Seating is often a matter of hierarchy. A washing basin will be brought out before the meal is served for people to wash their hands.

Women and men may eat at separate tables in the same room or they may eat in separate rooms. If the meal is served on the floor or a low table, sit cross-legged. Try not let your feet touch the food mat.

Do not begin eating until the eldest male does. Food is often served from a communal bowl. Eat from the section of the bowl in front of you. Never reach across the bowl to get something from the other side and eat only with the right hand. Expect to be urged to take second helpings. Sample each dish. Leaving a little bit of food on your plate or your section of the communal bowl indicates that you have been looked after.

People generally stay for half an hour or more after dining to continue building the personal relationship.





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