Azerbaijanis are a quiet yet courteous and well-mannered people.
Things to do
- Women in Azerbaijan have historically been treated with the greatest respect, as is the case across the CIS/former USSR region. Female travelers should not be surprised or indignant when their Azerbaijani male friends pay their bills at restaurants, open every door in front of them, offer their hand to help them climb down that small step, or assist them in carrying anything heavier than a handbag – this is not sexual harassment or condescension toward women. Male visitors should be aware that this is the kind of conduct that most Azerbaijani girls and women would anticipate from them as well.
- If you are welcomed into an Azerbaijani house, remember to bring a present. Flowers (be sure to buy an odd number of flowers, since an even number is linked with funerals) to chocolate (but not wine or other alcoholic drinks) and even anything characteristic of your nation are acceptable. The idea behind the present, rather than the money, is important in Azerbaijani culture. If you really desire their respect, thank them for the invitation and praise them. Don’t take advantage of the host’s hospitality.
- When you arrive at the home, remove your shoes either outside or directly inside the door, unless the owner expressly permits you to do so. Even so, it may be more courteous to take off your shoes. You may be given slippers to wear. Do not be concerned about your feet becoming filthy; the floors are as clean as the walls; Azerbaijanis are extremely tidy and clean people.
- Azerbaijanis respect elderly people, therefore if you are an old(er) person, a disabled person, a pregnant woman, or have children with you, young(er) people will always give you a seat on a bus, tram, metro, or other forms of public transportation.
- When meeting someone older or in a position of power, it is polite to bend somewhat (but not completely). Younger individuals usually greet older persons or those in positions of power first.
- As previously said, it is considered courteous to allow women to board and exit the bus, tram, metro, and other types of public transit first, as well as to enter and exit a room.
- If you are unfamiliar with the individual, use their first name followed by an appropriate honorific. Use “Xanm” – pronounced “hanm” – for ladies (“Mrs.”). Use “Cnab” – pronounced “jenab” – for males (“Mr”). If they can communicate in English, use their last name followed by the appropriate English honorific “Mr.” or “Mrs.” The English honorific “Ms.” does not exist in Azerbaijani since women are not differentiated (or discriminated against) based on married or unmarried status, therefore calling a young lady as “Ms.” would be regarded improper and insulting.
Things to avoid
- At all costs, avoid insulting or disparaging President Ilham Aliyev, as well as his immediate predecessor, late President Haydar Aliyev, and the Aliyev family in general, who govern Azerbaijan. This entails a jail term, as well as the distant potential of expulsion from the nation if you are a foreign citizen. In late 2009, two young men were convicted to four years in jail for portraying President Ilham Aliyev as a donkey holding a press conference in a YouTube video.
- At all costs, avoid mentioning Armenia and the Armenians, as well as the long-running Nagorno-Karabakh war with neighboring Armenia, which holds the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region. As a consequence of the war, Azerbaijan lost 14% of its land and has 800,000 refugees and internally displaced people. There is a lot of animosity and hate against Armenians.
- Avoid photographing railroads, metro stations, and other things that the government may consider to be “strategic.” Authorities are said to have arrested foreign train enthusiasts on suspicion of spying.
Despite the fact that 95 percent of the population is nominally Shiite Muslim, Azerbaijan is a completely secular state that is mostly agnostic and non-religious. This is true not just in big cities, but also in small towns and rural regions. Don’t assume that anybody you don’t know believes in God or has a strong interest in Islam or other religions. Investigations into people’s religion are generally unwanted, and demonstrations of faith should be kept private outside of places of worship. Saying grace, for example, is likely to elicit confusion and quiet. While Muslim headscarves, Kippahs, and even T-shirts with religious inscriptions are allowed, they make many Azerbaijanis uneasy. Long beards may raise the suspicions of the authorities. Respect it, and you will be respected in return.
Social custom and etiquette breaches
- Even if you do it quietly, don’t blow your nose during meals. This is seen as very impolite.
- Even if you do it quietly, don’t pick your teeth during meals. This is seen as very impolite.
- Avoid putting your feet up when sitting and avoid showing the bottoms of your feet to anybody. This is regarded very impolite.
- Do not, even subtly, point your finger at someone. This is considered impolite.
- Don’t chew gum during a discussion or in public places. This is seen as very impolite.
- Don’t touch someone without their consent. This is seen as very impolite.
- Don’t bear hug or back slap someone, particularly in formal settings or with someone you’ve just met or don’t know well enough. This is regarded very impolite.
- Don’t yell or raise your voice in public, particularly on public transit. This is seen as very impolite.
- In public or among friends, do not use curse words during conversation or while talking to oneself. This is seen as very impolite.
Other things to watch for
- Don’t smile at an Azerbaijani on the street since they will most likely not react in kind, and they will consider you as strange or mentally impaired. Smiling in public is frowned upon in Azerbaijan and is considered impolite. Smiling is usually reserved for family and friends; smiling at a stranger is deemed insulting since they would believe you are mocking them and that something is wrong with their clothing or hair. Furthermore, a “Western grin” is generally viewed as fake, as in “You don’t really mean it.” Smiling is still uncommon in customer service since salespeople, public officials, and others are expected to seem serious and businesslike. On television, news anchors, weather forecasters, and even entertainment hosts seldom grin. As a result, a frequent misunderstanding about Azerbaijanis is that they are a frigid people who never smile; they do, however, once they get to know you, and become extremely friendly and courteous.
- Open expressions of love are allowed in major towns and tourist destinations, although they may attract unwanted attention from the general public. It is frowned upon and should be avoided in more remote places. Outward displays of love should be avoided by gay and lesbian travelers, since they will undoubtedly draw unwanted attention from the general population. Overt shows of affection, regardless of sexual orientation, are considered improper.
- You’ll note that Azerbaijanis prefer to keep their voices low in public. In a discussion, do not raise your voice. A good quiet discussion is the Azerbaijani style of conducting business, and it will be much appreciated. Talking on a cell phone while on public transit or in restaurants is deemed acceptable, unless the discussion is excessively loud and too “private.”
- Littering is deemed impolite and may result in a fine. On the sidewalks and around most shops, there are many waste bins and garbage cans.
Gay and lesbian travelers
Although homosexuality is no longer illegal in Azerbaijan, the negative stigma associated with it persists. The government does not recognize same-sex partnerships, and revealing your sexual orientation in public is likely to attract glances and murmurs. The few gay-friendly places are virtually primarily (if not entirely) in Baku and are largely subterranean. Azerbaijan is not the most welcoming country in the world for GLBT travelers; be careful if you are a GLBT traveler.