How should you act in South Africa? It's no secret that this country is diverse. You can't exactly pinpoint its culture in one word, or one paragraph. But there are social customs in South Africa that practically everyone follows. When you get here, you have to respect your elders, no matter what. In certain situations, it's better to nod your head as a greeting. And when you’re offered food & drink, social rules dictate that you shouldn’t flat-out refuse it. Knowing these and more will make sure you'll face little to no social problems here. It even helps you feel closer to the country's culture and societal norms.
Always Respect Your Elders
Just like other countries such as Mexico
, South Africa is a family-centric country. For the people here, their loved ones are the most important to them. And because of this, elders are given the utmost respect. In every family gathering, for instance, social customs dictate that you greet the eldest member first then the second-eldest, and so on and so forth. During meals, the eldest one at the table is the one served first. There are even situations where everyone can't start eating until the eldest family member has had their first bite.
Women Nod their Heads Instead of Shaking Hands
You'd think that the most common way to greet people is to shake their hands, right? Well, that's not always the case here in South Africa. The women here don't always shake hands with people they meet for the first time. Instead, they nod their head politely. So if you're a man greeting a woman here in South Africa, it's better to wait until they extend their hand for you to shake. If not, then simply nod your head politely and give them a big smile. And don't under any circumstance, touch them without their consent!
Two Birthdays—21st and 40th—are Important
South Africans consider two birthdays in their lives to be monumental milestones. The first is their 21st and the second is their 40th. Similar to how people in the US celebrate “Sweet Sixteen” (especially teenage girls) with big parties, South Africans do the same on these two birthdays. The first one, their 21st, marks their first foray into adulthood. The second one, their 40th, marks the middle of their life. When someone is turning 21 or 40, you can bet that they're gonna throw a big bash. Or that their loved ones will plan a surprise party for them instead.
Punctuality is Important in South Africa
The concept of “African time,” which is simply a relaxed attitude towards time, is virtually non-existent here in South Africa. Whether you have to attend a meeting or go meet with a friend out on the town, social etiquette dictates that you should arrive on time. Perhaps you can be a few minutes late but it should go beyond ten minutes after the set time. And in the same vein, don't arrive too early too. This will make things awkward no matter your situation. Ultimately, the best way to go about it is to simply arrive on time. Preferably on the dot!
Avoid Gestures with Your Left Hand
In some South African tribes, using your left hand is considered impolite. Of course, in this day and age, if you're born left-handed, you have no choice but to use it as your dominant hand. But if you're not, try to avoid making gestures with your left hand. Be it as simple as pointing at something (which can also be rather rude regardless of which hand you use) or waving to someone, using your left hand is considered rude for many people in South Africa. If you can, use your right hand as much as possible. Or perhaps even your head too!
Cover Your Mouth When You Yawn
Although it's a normal thing to do, yawning is considered rude in South Africa. Or rather, yawning with your mouth wide open. When you feel the need to yawn, cover your mouth when you do it. No matter how big or small your yawn is, you should always cover your mouth. After all, yawning means you're tired and sleepy, right? How do you think it would look to the people around you when you yawn in ther company? They'd think you find them boring or uninteresting. And you wouldn't want them to think that, would you?
Don't Flat Out Refuse Food & Drink
And finally, when you're invited to a meal in South Africa, don't refuse food and drinks outright. At the very least, thank the one offering first. If you simply can't have anymore, or the food they're offering is bad for you, just let them know about it. They'll understand, don't worry! South Africans aren't insensitive to people's conditions, after all. But to outright refuse them when they're visibly handing food and drinks to you—that's a definite no-no! Not only is it rude, but you also embarrassed the other person too.
Knowing about the social customs in South Africa matters when you want to go on a trip or even relocate here. South Africans have their social rules and etiquette, some of which are rather unique and would take you a while to understand.