Winter 2000 (8.4)

International Relationships: Some Dos and Don'ts
Sociolinguistically Speaking - Part 8

by Jala Garibova and Betty Blair

Artist Vugar Muradov believes eyes alone can reflect the soul of the character - at least here, they reflect a deep, psychological inner world. Vugar's work is on exhibit along with 1,700 other artworks by Azerbaijanis at, a Web site created by Azerbaijan International magazine. Vugar can be reached at his studio at (99-412) 32-55-96 or 93-92-23 or at

Here are some rules about cultural expectations that can help foreigners develop stronger relationships with Azerbaijanis.

1. Don't forget your hellos and goodbyes.
Azerbaijanis are very conscious of their hellos and goodbyes. It's considered a breach of etiquette to forget them. Though Westerners don't place as much significance on these greetings, Azerbaijanis often interpret negligence as intentional and can easily take offense.

Young children are taught at an early age not to forget their hellos. Their parents are quick to remind them:

Where's your "hello"?

A young Azerbaijani girl recently complained about feeling psychologically pressured the first few days that she worked as an intern in the U.S. Her boss never said "Hello" to her in the morning. It took quite some time for her to realize that his laxness was not directed to her as a foreigner or as someone in a lower position. Obviously, it was considered normal for him. In Azerbaijan, it would have been interpreted as rude.

An Azerbaijani enrolled in a university class in Washington, D.C. commented on how fortunate he was to have arrived early on the first day of class. Otherwise, he would have gone around the room, greeting every student who had arrived prior to him. He was shocked to see students arriving and sitting down beside others without greeting them.

Saying "goodbye" to the hosts of a party is equally important, even if they might be busy with others or not available at the moment you wish to leave. Azerbaijanis themselves prefer to linger awhile in such situations rather than rushing out, just to guarantee closure with the hosts. Also keep in mind that it's important to say "goodbye" not only to the host, but to other guests as well. If there aren't too many, it's normal to shake hands or kiss all of them goodnight.

Another place where greeting patterns differ is on the telephone. When calling an office, Azerbaijanis are likely to extend their greetings to the receptionist before asking to speak to a specific person.
When calling a friend at home, they may carry on a five-minute conversation with another member of the family before asking if the person they intended to call can come to the phone.

Don't be surprised when hellos and goodbyes are exchanged with cab drivers, bus drivers and shop assistants. Some people, especially the elderly, may even wish a "safe drive" to the driver when leaving:

Good road!

Even policemen who have pulled cars over to the side of the road greet the drivers with a hello. Don't be surprised by the hello from the road police officer approaching your car before he formally introduces himself.

Hello. Lieutenant Ibrahimov (self-introduction).

In most cases the policeman even shakes hands with the driver if it happens to be a man. Still these days, only a few women drive and they are rarely pulled over unless they have committed a serious offense.

Don't misinterpret the limp handshake of Azerbaijani women. Women don't shake hands as much as men do, and they usually wait for men to take the initiative. A limp handshake is associated with feminine deferment and politeness, though young women working in foreign firms are now differentiating and extending a firm handshake to foreigners, reserving the limp grasp for Azerbaijanis.

2. Don't be surprised when Azerbaijanis shower you with gifts.
Gifts are very much appreciated in Azerbaijan. It's considered inconsiderate to go empty-handed to someone's home, especially if it's the first occasion.

Don't go empty-handed.

We shouldn't go empty-handed.

Especially kids are delighted to receive some little token like one of the new kinds of chocolate bars (Mars, Snickers, Milky Way, Bounty) or some chewing gum. For adults, it's typical to offer a box of chocolates, a cake or a bouquet of flowers (always in combinations of odd numbers such as 3-5-7, etc.). Never offer an even number, like a dozen roses. An even number of flowers is associated with death and presented at funerals or laid on the graves. Azerbaijanis have the expression:

Let my name be remembered by a rotten walnut.
(Meaning, bring a token gift, even if it's a rotten walnut.)

However, another expression urges them to pay attention to the gift's value and let it reflect their own status. Many Azerbaijanis are guided by this principle.

Take a gift that's deserving of your name.

So it's not unusual for Azerbaijanis to bring very expensive gifts. One foreign couple recently remarked on how surprised they were when an Azerbaijani friend presented them with a very expensive gift at a housewarming party.

Gift-giving is a very important tradition in Azerbaijani society. When Azerbaijanis return from a trip, it's not unusual for their suitcases to be half-stuffed with presents for the many people they know and love and with whom they want to maintain relationships.

3. Don't be offended by personal questions.
Azerbaijanis, especially those of the older generation, don't consider it rude to bombard you with personal questions, even if they've just met you. They're just curious and trying to get to know you. They don't mean to offend. It's very normal for them to pry you with questions related to your marital status.

Are you married?

And if you aren't, they may go a step further to express their concern (and sympathy), especially if you're a woman.

Why aren't you married?

Or they might say:

It is early.
(Meaning that you're still young enough to get married.)

Or they might jokingly quote a proverb:

Bachelorhood is like being a Sultan.

If you're married, they're likely to express curiosity about your children.

Do you have a family?

Do you have children?

And again, it's quite unthinkable for a couple not to have children. So they'll continue to ask:

Why don't you have children?

If you are young, they will try to console you with the possibility that you will have children in the future.

Don't worry, you are still young.

Everything is ahead of you.

In many societies, talking about the salary you earn is considered off-limits, even among family members. In the U.S., parents don't necessarily know how much their own children make. Even brothers and sisters don't always disclose such information.

Azerbaijanis are becoming more sensitive about discussing their wages with one another publicly. During the Soviet period, salaries were fairly equal, with little range between minimum and maximum, so it was quite typical to ask someone about his salary. However, because today there is quite a disparity - sometimes as much as 10-20 percent or more - between salaries at foreign companies and salaries in government positions, the topic of one's salary is becoming more confidential. Some foreign companies expressly warn their employees not to disclose their salaries to other employees. Naturally, "keeping mum" only stimulates more speculation and curiosity.

Is your salary good?

Do you earn anything?

Typically, answers are fairly generic if the person in question is trying to avoid disclosing specific details.

Thank God, I have no complaints.

In comparison with my previous job, it's very good.

4. Don't expect Azerbaijanis to "toot their own horns."
It's typical for Azerbaijanis to be reluctant or shy about emphasizing their successes or capabilities. To do so would be viewed as immodest. This sometimes puts them in an uncomfortable situation. At job interviews, highly qualified candidates may very well underestimate their strengths, not because they don't know them but because they've been conditioned not to brag about them. For example, when an Azerbaijani is asked about his language or computer skills, he may reply:

Not bad.

In fact, his skills may be very good or even excellent. He's just modest about talking about them. An Azeri expression says:

A tree bearing much fruit bends low.

Azerbaijanis are gradually learning that in a market economy, they have to show initiative and present themselves well or they will be overlooked.

5. Don't expect direct criticism.
Azerbaijanis don't want to risk offending anyone, so you're likely to find them very discrete and indirect when it comes to offering criticism. It's not that they aren't critical, but rather that they prefer to avoid confrontation. If they have to mention your shortcomings or mistakes, they're likely to refrain from criticizing you directly. Instead, they may use an example of someone else, even to the extent of creating a fictitious character to do so. This is especially true when older people want to criticize youth. For example, a mother-in-law who does not like the way her daughter-in-law cooks is likely to couch her criticism by talking in negative terms about someone else's cooking. A common expression says:

Daughter, I am telling you; daughter-in-law, you listen.

6. Don't ignore toasts.
At parties and dinners, Azerbaijanis have a tradition of toast-making. The speeches tend to be long, idealistic and exaggerated in nature. But don't ignore them. You'll find excellent clues to understand "who's who" at a party or dinner. Also, it's a good way to learn what characteristics are valued in society. Pay special attention to the hierarchical relationships that are expressed in the chronology of toasts. The first toast is always given to the honoree, or in Azeri, which literally means "the reason person". The key phrase in the toast may be:

Let's raise our glasses / cups to the reason person.

Or a more colloquial form would be:

Let's drink to the reason person.

However, if a foreign guest is present, the first toast is likely to be raised to him (or her), superseding the true honoree. Azerbaijanis always go out of their way to welcome foreigners and make them feel at home. Very often they refer to the foreign guest as:

Very respected guest

The toasts that follow commemorate family members and relatives, with preference given to the elderly, and then to women. Men and children are usually toasted towards the end.

Don't sip your drink while a toast is being made, and don't drink until a toast has been offered. Don't worry, there will be plenty of chances for that. And don't chat while the toast is going on, regardless of its length, even if you're bored.

If you prefer not to drink, don't make a big scene by turning your glass upside down. Be discrete, raise your glass even if you don't take a sip. Your preferences will be respected. Women don't usually drink much. Men do.

7. Don't expect azeris to talk about reproductive sex.
Azerbaijanis generally use euphemisms when discussing reproductive health, sex, pregnancy or childbirth.

Often the fact that a relative is pregnant is not discussed openly, especially among male relatives. One Azerbaijani young man living in the U.S. didn't even know if his sister, who had recently married, was pregnant. "I haven't seen her and we don't talk about those things on the phone," he admitted. When they do talk about pregnancy, Azerbaijanis usually don't use the medical term for "pregnant" () but are more likely to say:

She is expecting a baby.

She is carrying two bodies.
(This expression is more colloquial and lower-class.)

Azerbaijanis rarely discuss sex with their children. At home, a child's curiosity about sexual matters is likely to be discouraged. For example, when children ask, "Where do babies come from?" parents may reply:

They take them from the hospital.

Or parents may respond by "kicking the child away" from the topic - in other words, discouraging talk about it.

It doesn't concern you.
(Literally, it's not for you to think about.)

However, again, there is evidence that trends are changing and that some of the more progressive families are concerned that their children, especially girls, are exposed to correct and scientifically based explanations about sexual issues starting at an early age. They encourage discussions about sex and childbirth to help their daughters know how to build healthy relationships with their future partners.

8. Don't be surprised when Azerbaijanis don't name deadly diseases.
Don't be surprised when people are reluctant to talk about serious illness and death. When it comes to cancer, there's a tendency to avoid saying that dreaded word - , which means "crab" - because it is so closely associated with death. They don't usually name this disease but refer to it by saying:

bad illness

damned thing

A person who is diagnosed with a chronic disease like cancer is not usually told directly by his physician that he is critically ill. There's a strong belief that one's mental state strongly affects his physical state and ability to get better. However, close relatives will be informed of the true situation by the doctor - not in an abrupt manner, but gradually and gently.

When Azerbaijanis visit people who are ill, they tend not to spend much time talking about the illness itself. Rather, they'll speak privately to the close relatives about the prognosis. When they're with the patient, they'll spend their time trying to offer advice and encouragement instead:

Everything will be OK.

Inshallah, you'll get well very soon.
(Literally, if God wills, you'll recover and get on your feet soon.)

Azerbaijanis like to encourage elderly people who are ill with expressions such as:

You'll see the wedding of your grandchildren.

What age is this for you?
(Meaning, you're not so old, this is not an age for you).
You have to live 100 more years.

9. Don't expect tragic news to be announced abruptly.
Azerbaijanis are very sensitive about breaking the news of someone's death, especially to close relatives or close friends. There is a tendency to introduce the topic gently and enable the person to prepare psychologically for the bad news. It is thought to be very dangerous if a person hears of someone's death all of a sudden. They especially guard against giving shocking news to women who are pregnant, those suffering with heart disease, the elderly or children. They may even concoct a scenario that enables the person time to absorb the situation, for example, by telling them that their loved one has had an accident and is in the hospital.

If they call a person to inform him that someone close to him has died, they won't disclose his death - at least at first. Rather they're more likely to say:

His/her condition is very bad.

There is no hope.

Very young children are rarely told about the death of their relatives, especially of parents or grandparents. It's believed that as children grow older, they will forget about the person who has died. When young children ask where that person might be, they are told:

He's/she's in the hospital.

He's/she's on a long trip.

When loved ones are far away from home and the social and psychological support of friends and family, they usually are spared the bad news. They are likely to return home before they learn of the true situation.

Azerbaijanis are also cautious about describing the cause of a gruesome death. Again, they want to spare the loved one additional grief. For example, some years ago, a young man in his early 20s was brutally killed in the army. To spare his mother further agony, relatives told her that he had been killed in a car accident.

10. Don't be shocked to discover that chivalry is not dead.
Men still have a tendency to watch out and take care of women. Not so long ago, an Azerbaijani woman and her brother were visiting a young woman in Berlin who had just visited them in Baku the previous year. She took them to lunch but when she stepped away for a few minutes, the bill came and the Azerbaijani man promptly paid it. When the woman returned, she became very upset, offended that her guests had paid the bill.

Despite their status as guests, the guiding principle that the Azerbaijani man followed was simply the tradition of not allowing a woman to initiate payment. In general, Azerbaijani men in the presence of women always initiate payment, and on many occasions will absolutely insist on doing so. This goes for restaurants, movies, the theater, concerts and public transportation.

In fact, when it comes to transportation such as taxis, the person who gets off first often pays for the person who will disembark later, despite protests from the latter that the driver might forget that he's already been paid in advance. However, in the case of a man and a woman, the man will rarely let the woman pay for her own fare, even if she gets off first.

You get off, I will pay.
(Literally, I will give.)

The woman is likely to reply:

Don't trouble (yourself).

However, attitudes are beginning to change, especially in situations where women are employed by foreign companies and make more money than men do. Some of these women expect to pay their own way and are beginning to take the initiative to do so. Some may even attempt to pay the bill for a man, especially if he is a guest. It's even easier to do this when the guest is a foreigner where the rule of hospitality can take precedence.

Be my guest.

And don't be surprised when Azerbaijani men fall all over themselves to open doors and carry packages for women. Azerbaijani men still believe in chivalry and consider it their duty to assist women. As for foreign men, Azerbaijani women will be ever so appreciative if you would do likewise.

Jala Garibova has a doctorate in linguistics and teaches at Western University in Baku. Betty Blair is the Founding Editor of Azerbaijan International and also of the Web sites:, and, where the entire archives of the "Sociolinguistically Speaking" series may be accessed.

Azerbaijan International (8.4) Winter 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.