Refugee Guidelines & Etiquette

General Guidelines for Interacting with Refugees

  • Women should avoid making direct, prolonged eye contact with the men of the family, as it can be considered flirtatious.
  • Avoid beckoning with palm facing upward. If you must beckon, use whole hand with palm facing downward (as in scratching motion).
  • Avoid pointing at someone with your index finger, as it is offensive in many cultures. If you must point at someone, use whole hand as a gesture.
  • Do not point at people with your toe or move something with your foot.
  • An arm's length of space is a good rule for personal space.
  • Avoid accepting objects or performing everyday tasks with left hand. In many cultures, the left hand is reserved for personal hygiene and should not be used for everyday tasks.
  • Avoid touching people on their head (as in patting the head of a child), as some cultures consider it the most sacred part of the body.
  • Avoiding giving the “thumbs up” or “OK” signals.

Cultural Etiquette: Greetings, Taboos, Gestures, etc.

  • Afghanistan: Avoid raising voice in public. Do not point to foot or use foot to move objects. Women extend hand first to shake hands with a man. Winking is considered suggestive.
  • Bhutan: Greet with a head nod; handshakes are not common. Bhutanese do not display much physical contact; but holding hands is a sign of friendship. Bhutanese tend to accept objects with both hands. Do not point your feet at someone.
  • Burma: Handshake and smile are appropriate greetings, little to no contact between members of opposite sex. It is normal to bow before an older person as a sign of respect.
  • Burundi: Avoid asking questions on ethnic origins – to foreigners they are all Burundians. A common greeting is a low hand slap.
  • Cuba: Avoid spitting and blowing your nose in public. Do not take pictures of people without asking their permission. Handshakes are an acceptable greeting. Cubans tend to have less personal space than other cultures, especially when talking to friends.
  • Egypt: Do not point your toe at someone or show the bottom of foot. Right hand is used for greetings, eating, and passing objects; left is used for hygiene.
  • El Salvador: Yawning without covering your mouth is rude; pointing with one finger is considered rude; gesture with nod of head or palm facing down.
  • Eritrea: Avoid showing the sole of the foot or touching objects with feet. If you raise your eyebrows in conversation it means “yes.” Ethiopia: Making the “OK” sign is used to signify homosexuality.
  • Iran: A “thumbs-up” is considered a rude gesture. Physical contact between opposite sex is not appropriate in public. Do not point with single index finger. When beckoning someone, point your hand downward rather than upward.
  • Iraq: Pointing a single finger at someone is considered rude; point with whole hand instead. Sitting crosslegged with your toe pointed in the direction of someone is considered rude.
  • Nepal: Initial greeting is called "Namaste," in which palms are pressed together at chest level (handshake is also acceptable). Do not receive items with left hand, always with right. Do not point your finger at someone. Physical touching between opposite sexes in public is considered taboo. Shaking your head back and forth means “yes” while up and down means “no.”
  • Pakistan: Showing the palm of your hand to someone is considered offensive. Flicking your thumb nail against your front teeth literally means “screw you.” Avoid talking about politics or religion with someone until you have developed a close friendship. Handshakes are acceptable, but a woman should extend her hand first.
  • Somalia: Avoid using left hand for everyday tasks. Beckon someone with palm facing down and using scratching motion. Pointing with index finger is common. Shaking hands is not common between members of opposite sex.
  • Vietnam: Do not touch anyone’s head or pass an object overtop of someone’s head – it is viewed as the most sacred body part. Avoid standing with hands on hips or arms crossed – can be interpreted as a threatening gesture. Crossing the index and middle finger is considered rude and offensive. A simple nod is considered an acceptable greeting, although handshakes are permitted.
  • Zambia: (Democratic Republic of Congo site of refugee camps) Do not touch someone on the head. Greetings are important and can last for long periods of time. Do not beckon someone with one finger or hand pointed up. Use whole hand with palm facing down.