Culture & Etiquette

Language

Ethiopia has about 84 indigenous languages, most of them Afro Asiatic (Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic), plus some that are Nilo-Saharan. English is the most widely spoken foreign language and is the medium of instruction in secondary schools and universities. Amharic was the language of primary school instruction, but has been replaced in many areas by local languages such as Oromifa and Tigrinya.

After the fall of the Derg regime in 1991, the new constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia granted all ethnic groups the right to develop their languages and to establish mother tongue primary education systems. This is a marked change to the language policies of previous governments in Ethiopia.

Society and Culture

The People

Ethiopia is a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic country. Religion is a major influence in Ethiopian life. Nearly half the population belongs to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church but there is a also large Muslim population. Others adhere to an ancient form of Judaism.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is proud of its origins. The country embraced Christianity in the 4th century, long before Europe. The feast of the Epiphany ("Timkat") is the largest festival of the year. The Orthodox Church dominates the political, cultural, and social life of the population. It was the official religion of the imperial court and of the establishment until Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974. Muslims are important in the business community. They tend to live in the eastern, southern, and western lowlands, although there are considerable numbers in Addis Ababa.

The Family

The extended family remains the focus of the social system. It includes relatives on both sides of the family as well as close friends. Quite often the husband’s parents will live with the nuclear family when they get older and can no longer care for themselves. When people marry, they join their families, thus ensuring that there will always be a group to turn to in times of need.

Individuals achieve recognition or social standing through their extended family. A family's honor is influenced by the actions of its members. Family needs are put before all other obligations, including business.

Etiquette and Customs

Meeting Etiquette

  • Ethiopian greetings are courteous and somewhat formal.
  • The most common form of greeting is a handshake with direct eye contact.
  • The handshake is generally much lighter than in Western cultures.
  • After a close personal relationship has been established people of the same sex may kiss three times on the cheeks.
  • Across genders, men should wait to see if a woman extends her hand.
  • Greetings should never be rushed. Take time to inquire about the person’s family, health, job, etc.
  • People are addressed with their honorific title and their first name. 'Ato', 'Woizero', and 'Woizrity' are used to address a man, married woman, and unmarried woman respectively.
  • Elders should be greeted first. It is customary to bow when introduced to someone who is obviously older or has a more senior position. Children will often be seen doing so.

Gifts

Gifts may be given to celebrate events of significance or religious occasions. Since Ethiopia is an extremely poor country, expensive gifts are not the norm. In fact, giving a gift that is too expensive may be viewed negatively. It may be seen as an attempt to garner influence or it may embarrass the recipient as they will not be able to match it in kind.

If you are invited to an Ethiopian’s home, bring pastries, fruit, or flowers to the host. A small gift for the children is always appreciated. Do not bring alcohol unless you know that your host drinks. Most Muslims and Amharic people do not. Gifts are not opened when received. Gifts are given with two hands or the right hand only; never the left hand.
 
Dining Etiquette

  • Ethiopians are hospitable and like to entertain friends in their homes.
  • An invitation to a private home should be considered an honour.
  • Punctuality is not strictly adhered to although considerable lateness is also unacceptable.
  • You may have to remove your shoes at the door.
  • Dress well.
  • Shake hands with each guest individually.
  • A woman should offer to help the hostess with the preparation or clearing up after a meal is served.
  • You will always be offered a cup of coffee. It is considered impolite to refuse.
  • Ethiopians are relatively formal and believe table manners are a sign of respect.
  • Do not presume that because food is eaten with the hands, there is a lack of decorum.
  • Expect a small earthenware or metal jug to be brought to the table before the meal is served. Extend your hands over the basin while water is poured over them.
  • Only use the right hand for eating.
  • Hierarchy dictates that the eldest person is the first to take food from the communal plate.
  • Guests are often served tasty morsels by another guest in a process called 'gursa'. Using his hands, the person places the morsel in the other person’s mouth. Since this is done out of respect, it is a good idea to smile and accept the offering.
  • Expect to be urged to take more food. Providing an abundance of food is a sign of hospitality.
  • The meal ends with ritual hand-washing and coffee.

Coffee Drinking

  • The Kaffa province in Ethiopia is renowned for its coffee.
  • Coffee is a national drink and its drinking is a ritualized process that generally takes at least an hour.
  • If invited for a formal coffee you may be seated on pillows or grass and flower-strewn floor with frankincense burning in the background.
  • A woman or young boy enters the room to wash and roast the beans over charcoal.
  • The roasted beans are then hand-ground and added to boiling water.
  • Sugar is put into small cups without handles and the water/coffee mixture is added.
  • Inhale the aroma of the coffee before sipping.
  • The first round (called 'abol') is served, starting with the eldest.
  • When the first cup is finished, the 'jebena' (coffee pot) is refilled with water.
  • The second round (called 'tona') is then served. It is weaker than the first since the same ground beans are used.
  • The third round (called 'baraka') is served after boiling water is again added to the jebena.
  • Always sip the coffee slowly.