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Cultural Competency Guide

What is Cultural Competency?

Cultural competency is the ability to effectively understand and communicate with people from across cultures. It requires being aware of your own personal cultural values, practices, and principles as well as those of the host culture. It is important to not just be aware of the differences, but also to actively analyze how you engage with the host culture.
Make sure that your attitude reflects an open-minded spirit, willingness to learn, and adaptability to new places and beliefs.
Complete thorough research about your host culture before traveling to develop competency (we’ve already done research on Sri Lanka for you below).
Try to integrate this understanding into daily behaviors. Cultural competency is a process of learning!
Aspects of culture include language, religion, food, eating habits, greetings, social norms regarding respect, family values, holidays and festivals, and other cultural traditions.

Why is Cultural Competency Important?

Cultural competency is crucial because if you travel without these skills, you risk offending the people around you and miscommunicating key information. Remember that you are a guest to this place.

Sri Lankan Cultural Norms

Use your right hand when shaking hands, handing money and small objects, etc. Of course you can use both hands for something big and/or heavy.
One should not touch another person’s head, as it is considered the most sacred part of the body. The bottom of the feet are considered the least sacred part of the body, so one should not use their foot to point at a person or an object.
Pointing with the index finger is impolite. Beckoning is done by waving all fingers with the palm facing down.
Many Sri Lankan women will refrain from physical contact with a man outside their family so always wait to see if a woman extends her hand or not.
Do not turn your back to (or be next to) a Buddha statue when within a reasonable distance. DO NOT take a selfie with a Buddha.

The traditional greeting is placing one’s palms together under the chin and bowing the head slightly. The younger people generally also shake hands.
Men may shake hands with other men, and women may shake hands with other women. Many Sri Lankan women may not want to shake hands with men. Wait for a woman to extend her hand.
When addressing people you should always use the appropriate title followed by the surname. Always wait for the other party to move to a first name basis. If someone does not have a professional title, use the honorific title “Sir” or “Madam”.
Greetings are given upon meeting and leaving. Seldom does direct self-introduction occur.
Be mindful of your surroundings, as unusual behavior will draw attention.


Public Customs:
In homes, expect to remove your shoes before entering. At temples, shoes are always removed.
In public, people tend to speak in hushed tones.
Emotional outbursts and physical displays of affection, especially between lovers, are completely inappropriate in public.
Sri Lanka is a conservative country that expects traditional gender norms to be followed. As of 2018, same-sex behavior is criminalized.
No photography of sensitive locations (inside and outside), inside of shopping malls, inside tea factories, and inside Hindu temples. If local soldiers are standing guard, DO NOT photograph them or take selfies. Do not rely on signs alone, as sometimes they are old or missing. Use of video and/or photography is prohibited near military bases and government buildings.
Security checkpoints are common. You must carry a form of official photographic identification on you at all times.
Cash is safer to use than credit cards (credit card fraud is common and easy).
There are many feral animals in public and around homes. They are not vaccinated or treated as pets. DO NOT pet any animals.

Appropriate Attire:
Sri Lanka is a very conservative country. Make sure that your shoulders, back, chest, and stomach are covered. Clothing should not be tight or revealing. These rules apply to both men and women. Trousers, dresses, or skirts should at least cover your knees. While men may wear shorts, it is more respectable to wear long trousers.
When visiting temples, it is even more important to make sure you are appropriately covered. You might be turned away if your clothing is inappropriate. In some temples, there may be areas where men are requested to remove their shirt. Make sure to follow your guide’s instructions on what the particular customs for that temple are.
In tourist areas, your home country’s swim attire will be appropriate. Make sure to bring an additional covering to wear down to the swim area. In non-tourist areas, make sure to wear conservative swimwear.

Public Honor:
Face, which can be described as honor or personal dignity, is extremely important to Sri Lankans. Face can be given or lost in social situations and it is important to avoid the latter.
Publicly reprimanding or criticizing someone would lead to a loss of face for both parties. As a result, Sri Lankans are very conscious of protecting face at all times. Sri Lankans will not feel comfortable making decisions since this may lead to failure, which then leads to loss of face. Similarly, if asked a question to which the answer is “no” many Sri Lankans would prefer not to be so blunt and may give rather vague or uncommitted answers in order to avoid losing face.
Sri Lankans are very non-confrontational in their communication style and it is important to try and read between the lines.
Watch for long pauses, avoidance of eye contact or blatant tactics of evasion as this could indicate that someone is trying to save face.

Tea with refreshments is served at each home that you visit. Also, tea is often served prior to a meal. If tea and refreshments are offered by the hosts, it is impolite to refuse them.
If you are invited somewhere at 7pm to eat, it is likely you may wait a few hours before the food arrives, so don’t go with an empty belly. Expect to leave within half an hour after the meal ends. Most socializing occurs before the meal. Wait to be shown your seat.
You may be asked if you would like to wash your hands before and after sitting down to a meal. You should take up the offer.
While dining, your host will probably sit by you, but not eat until you have finished.
Keep elbows off the table. Use your right hand to eat. Use bread or small balls of rice to scoop food off your plate.
Leaving a small amount of food on your plate indicates that you have eaten enough and you are full. Finishing all indicates that you want more.

Giving Gifts:
Give and receive gifts with two hands. To demonstrate graciousness, some Sri Lankans will touch their right forearm with their left hand while offering the gift with their right hand.
When staying in someone’s home for an extended time, small gifts such as sweets or fruit are expected.
Gifts are generally not opened when received.

Numbers to have:
Embassy in Sri Lanka: *make sure to look up the phone number of your country’s Embassy or Consulate in Sri Lanka
General Hospital-Colombo: 011 94 269 1111
Sarvodaya: 011 94 11 264 7159
Police Emergency Hotline Sri Lanka: 118 / 119
Tourist Police: 011 94 242 1052