5 Cultural Customs to Know Before Traveling to South Africa
South Africa is a dizzying bonanza of ecosystems, wildlife (everything from zebras and lions to dolphins and penguins) and cultural attractions. Yet to get the most joy from your travels, you’ll also want to feel comfortable with the local customs. Known for being friendly and welcoming, South Africans also have a distinct culture that might take you by surprise if you’re not prepared. (When’s the last time someone made a hissing noise to get your attention, after all?) Here are a few customs that might remind you that you’re not in your own background.
Men will typically shake hands as a hello in South Africa, while smiling and maintaining eye contact. It’s common for women to kiss one another on the cheek, though in some demographics it’s more common for women to neither shake nor kiss but merely nod their head in greeting. It’s easy to let the person you’re greeting initiate contact and simply follow his or her lead.
Pointing with your index finger to someone or at an object is generally considered rude or offensive. It’s more common to find people lifting their chin to indicate the person or thing they’re referring to. While you might hear “hey!” or “excuse me!” when someone’s trying to get your attention in the United States, in South Africa you’re more likely to hear a hissing sound or the person making a smacking noise with their mouth. As surprising as it might seem at first, this is a fairly common, and considered more polite, way to grab your focus.
Watching the Clock
While appointments are certainly made and kept across South Africa, it’s important to note that many South Africans have a more relaxed view of time. It’s not uncommon to find a restaurant opening 10 minutes after the posted time or to find a group congregating 15 minutes after they said they would get together. You’ll feel less impatient if you accept this as a local custom and adopt to this relaxed sense of time.
Just like in the United States and much of Europe, tipping is commonplace. Expect to tip about 10 percent of the total bill to waiters in restaurants and taxi drivers. But you should also expect to tip hotel porters, tour guides and parking attendants. In South Africa, fueling up a car also requires a tip to the gas station attendant. If someone goes out of his or her way to offer assistance, you can offer a small gift. It’s commonplace for the gift to be declined at first, but if you persist it will accepted with appreciation.
A meal at a table in South Africa doesn’t differ much from the West in many ways, except two. If you find yourself the guest of honor at a meal, you shouldn’t feel pressured to make any kind of toast or speech. Though that’s somewhat common elsewhere, it’s not common in South Africa. And when diners serve themselves at the dinner table, they use their right hands to hold any bowls or platters. Keep your left hand on your utensils rather than the communal bowls, to show respect.
Feeling at ease with the locals can make traveling so much richer – and let you fully enjoy the sites and festivities around you.
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