It’s always a little disconcerting to visit another country, but if you’re unfamiliar with the customs, culture, and etiquette, you might feel even more out of place. When compared with American culture, Egypt is quite different. Taking a guided tour is the best way to learn about cultural customs and how to act when among the locals, but you can also do research on your own.
It’s always easier to travel to a new place when you know what to expect. The locals will be more receptive to you, you can haggle better prices, and you’ll feel more comfortable. If you want to have the best experience, you’ll understand some of the predominant cultural expectations, like the following:
In touristy regions, most Egyptians will speak enough English to communicate with tourists for commercial transactions. If not, there’s probably someone around who can help translate.
Still, it might be wise to learn a few phrases in Arabic, the predominant language in Egypt for the last 13 centuries. There’s no need to become fluent. Phrases like “Where’s the bathroom?” and “How much?” will likely suffice.
Tipping seems to be a way of life for Egyptian commerce. Tips are always welcome and are often expected.
Tips are usually given for small services. A small service might be someone unlocking a tomb door for you in a museum, someone watching over your shoes at a mosque, or someone carrying your bags at the hotel. These should be small tips, to match the level of service, but try to avoid coins and very small bills. Also, tip in the local currency if possible.
It’s common to tour exquisite churches in Europe, but wandering into a place of worship in Egypt might be considered insulting. Many Egyptians are zealously religious. Avoid offending those who take their faith seriously and show respect for their values and places of worship. Only enter a place of worship if you’re on a guided tour, or if it’s posted as open to the public.
You might also research Ramadan, a holy month in the spring for Egyptians to celebrate with family and friends. They’ll often stay up all hours of the night praying and participating in spiritual activities.
It’s perfectly fine to visit Egypt during this spiritual time but be respectful of those participating in worship. Also, know that there may be more disturbances on the streets at night.
Accepting an Invitation
It’s not common for Egyptians to invite tourists into their home. But if you make a new friend on your travels or are there on business, you may get an invitation to dine at their home.
Don’t accept on the first invitation. It’s customary for Egyptians to offer multiple times and for the guest to decline before accepting. Decline the first invitation, and if they ask a second time, it means they’re earnest about you coming, and you can accept.
When arriving at an Egyptian’s home, remove your shoes and compliment your host on their house. Don’t come empty-handed. It’s customary to bring a sweet treat, like pastries or high-quality chocolates. Don’t bring flowers but do bring small toys for the children.
Egyptians also have specific table manners, although some are less formal than others. To be on the safe side, don’t sit without an invitation. Eat only with your right hand and don’t salt your food. If you finish your plate, they’ll probably refill it immediately, so leave some food on the plate to indicate that you’re full and ready to be done.
Egypt is hot for much of the year, so it may be tempting to wear the bare minimum. Egyptian locals might not take kindly to this, however. They hold modesty in the highest regard, particularly for women. The belief that women should save themselves for marriage is a key part of traditional culture, and modesty accompanies it.
Female tourists are not expected to dress the same way Egyptian women dress. However, consider taking a more modest approach, perhaps wearing Bermuda shorts or capris and a short-sleeve shirt rather than short shorts and a tank top. Wearing your hair up and in a hat can also help you maintain a more conservative appearance while combatting the heat.
Men typically have less to worry about in this male-dominated culture, but it’s still wise to wear more clothing. Shorts and a t-shirt are fine, but a linen shirt and pants are better.
In traditional Egyptian culture, women are highly respected and treated as precious jewels. It’s not uncommon to see local women walking alone down the street, feeling completely safe in their element.
But it’s probably not a good idea for foreign women to travel alone. Not everyone there buys into the cultural stigma, and you may find yourself experiencing sexual harassment or worse. Many Egyptians believe that foreign women are “easy” because of their “immodest” dress, and you may experience some unwanted attention.
Knowledge is power when traveling to a foreign country. With these cultural implications in mind, you can enjoy your trip to Egypt that much more.