Traditions & Customs
Azerbaijanis are a very reserved but very polite and well mannered people.
Things to do
- Women in Azerbaijan are traditionally treated with utmost respect, as it is also the case in the entire CIS/former USSR area. Female travellers should not act 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 little step or help them carry anything heavier than a handbag - this is not sexual harassment or being condescending to females. Male travellers should understand that this is exactly the sort of behavior that most Azerbaijani girls and women will expect from them, too.
- When you are invited into an Azerbaijani home, make sure to bring them a gift. Anything is fine from flowers (be sure to get an odd number of flowers, as an even number is associated with funerals) to chocolate (but not wine and other alcoholic beverages), and indeed something representative from your country. In Azerbaijani culture it is the thought behind the gift, rather than the price, that matters. And if you really want their respect, thank your host for the invitation and compliment them. The host will make sure to make you feel at home, so don't take advantage of their kindness.
- When you arrive at the house take off your shoes just outside or immediately inside the door, unless the owner explicitly allows you to keep them on. Even then, it might be more polite to remove your shoes. You may be offered slippers to wear. Do not worry that your feet will get dirty - the floors are just as clean as the walls - Azerbaijanis are very neat and clean people.
- Azerbaijanis respect elderly people, so in a bus, tram, subway and in other forms public transportation, young(er) people will always offer you a place to sit if you are an old(er) person as well as a handicapped person or a pregnant woman or have children with you.
- It is respectful to bend slightly (not a complete bow) when greeting someone older or in a position of authority. Younger people always initiate greetings with older people or those in a position of authority.
- As mentioned above, it is considered polite to let women first to board and leave the bus, tram, subway and in other forms public transportation or to enter and leave a room.
- If you do not know the person well, use their first name followed by an appropriate honorific. For women, use "Xanım" - pronounced "hanm" ("Mrs."). For men, use "Cənab" - pronounced "jenab" ("Mr"). If they do speak English use their last name preceded by the appropriate English honorific "Mr." or "Mrs.". The English honorific "Ms." does not exist in the Azerbaijani language, as women are not distinguished (or discriminated) according to married and unmarried status and addressing a young woman "Ms" would be considered inappropriate and offensive.
Things to avoid
- At all costs, do not insult or speak badly of President Ilham Aliyev, as well as his direct predecessor his father, the late President Haydar Aliyev and the Aliyev family in general, who rule Azerbaijan. This carries a prison sentence, or if you are a foreign citizen, the remote possibility of deportation from the country. In late 2009, two young men were sentenced to 4 years imprisonment for depicting President Ilham Aliyev as a donkey giving a news conference in a video that was put on YouTube.
- At all costs, do not mention Armenia and the Armenians and the very bitter Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that has been ongoing with neighboring Armenia which controls the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Azerbaijan lost 14% of its territory and has some 800,000 refugees and internally displaced persons as a result of the conflict. Bitterness and hatred against Armenians run very high.
- Avoid photographing railways, subway stations, and other objects which the authorities may think to be of "strategic" importance. Foreign railway buffs have been reportedly detained by the authorities on suspicion of espionage.
- Even though 95% of the population is officially Shiite Muslim, Azerbaijan is officially a strictly secular state is by and large an agnostic and non-religious nation. This is true not only in large cities but even in villages and rural areas as well. Don't assume that anyone you do not know believes in God or has a passion for Islam or in other faiths. Investigations into people's faith is largely unwelcome, and outside places of worship, displays of your faith should be kept private. Saying grace for example, is likely to be met with bewilderment and silence. Religious attire such as Muslim headscarves, Kippahs or even T-shirts with religious slogans, will - while tolerated - also make many Azerbaijanis feel uncomfortable. Those with long beards may arouse the suspicion of the authorities. Respect that and you will also be respected.
Social custom and etiquette breaches
- Don't blow your nose during meals, even discreetly. This is considered extremely rude.
- Don't pick your teeth during meals, even discreetly. This is considered extremely rude.
- Don't put your feet up while sitting and try not to show the bottom of your feet to someone. This is considered very rude.
- Don't point with your finger at someone, even discreetly. This is considered rude.
- Don't chew gum while having a conversation and during public occasions. This is considered extremely rude.
- Don't touch someone without permission. This is considered extremely rude.
- Don't bear hug or back slap someone, especially in formal situations and occasions and with someone you just met and/or you do not know well enough. This is considered very rude.
- Don't raise your voice or shout in public, especially on public transportation. This is considered extremely rude.
- Don't use swear words during conversation or while talking to oneself in public and also among friends. This is considered extremely rude.
Other things to watch for
- Don't smile at an Azerbaijani in the street, because if you do they most likely will not respond in kind and they will regard you either as odd or think that you are mentally handicapped. Smiling in Azerbaijan in public is not done and will be considered inappropriate. Smiling is traditionally reserved for family and friends; smiling at a stranger will be considered offensive, as they will either think that you are making fun of them and there is something wrong with their clothes or hair. Furthermore, an automatic "Western smile" is widely regarded as insincere, as in "You don't really mean it". Smiling is still very rare in customer service as sales assistants, public servants and the like are expected to look serious and businesslike. On television, news presenters, weather presenters and even show hosts very rarely smile. Hence the very common misconception about Azerbaijanis is that they are a cold people and never smile - they do, once they get to know you, and become very welcoming and kind.
- Public displays of affection in larger cities and tourist resorts is tolerated but might invite unnecessary stares from the public. In more rural areas it is frowned upon and is to be avoided. Gay and lesbian travellers should avoid any outward signs of affection, as this will definitely invite unnecessary stares from the public. However overt displays of affection regardless of sexual orientation is regarded as inappropriate.
- You will notice how Azerbaijanis tend to keep their voices down in public places. Do not raise your voice in a conversation. A decent silent conversation is the Azerbaijani way of doing business and will be much appreciated. Talking on a mobile phone on public transportation and in restaurants is considered normal, unless the conversation is loud and too "private".
- Littering is considered a very bad manner and you may be fined. There are many waste containers and trash cans on the sidewalks and near most stores.
Gay and lesbian travelers
Homosexuality is no longer criminalized in Azerbaijan, but the negative stigma still is strong throughout Azerbaijan. Same-sex relationships are not recognized by the government and showing your orientation openly is very likely to draw stares and whispers. The few establishments geared towards homosexuals are almost (if not exclusively) in Baku and are mostly underground. Azerbaijan is not the happiest place in the world for GLBT travellers; be quite cautious when travelling as a GLBT traveller.