Updated: Oct 22, 2021
Do not call Afghans “Arabs” or “Middle Eastern”. Afghanistan is not located in the Middle East. It is a South Central Asian country composed of many different ethnicities, none of which are Arab.
Avoid asking questions that assume Afghan people are uneducated or uncivilized, such as “Do you have phones in Afghanistan?”. Many Afghan migrants living in English-speaking countries are skilled, educated, urbanized, and familiar with the technologies of the developed world.
Use your right hand or both hands together to gesture or offer anything.
Should not touch people of the opposite gender unless they are very close family or friends.
Leave the door open if talking one-to-one with an Afghan of the opposite gender.
It is extremely inappropriate and disrespectful for men to enquire about an Afghan man’s female family members unless you know the family or person well.
If you wish to smoke, it is polite to offer a cigarette to everyone in your company.
Ask an Afghan’s permission before taking their photograph especially if they are a woman.
It is rude to walk away from someone while they are still talking to you.
It is very difficult to be punctual during one’s daily activities in Afghanistan as various incidents often occur (whether it be a pressing family matter, terrible traffic in cities, roadblocks, a power outage, or an insurgent-related threat).
Be sure to offer everything multiple times in return. If you only offer something once, an Afghan person may respond, “No, it’s okay”, out of modesty and politeness even though they meant to accept the second offer.
Be careful when you compliment an item in an Afghan’s house, as they may feel forced to offer it to you as a gift. If they try to give it to you, insist that you appreciate their gesture but do not want to take it.
Avoid telling dirty jokes or making fun of someone in a humiliating way. Such humor is unlikely to be appreciated.
Do not push an Afghan to tell you about their family. Some people have been separated from relatives or had family members killed. Others may be hesitant to talk about the family they have left in Afghanistan out of fear that it could endanger them.
The family is the most important unit in the Afghan culture.
Women are generally responsible for household duties, whereas men typically take the role of the breadwinners. In the cities, professional women do exist.
Families commonly arrange marriages for their children.
Families traditionally live together in the same place, known as the Kala. When a son gets married he and his wife begin their married lives in a room in his family house.
Afghan names consist of a first name/personal name alone without a middle name or surname.
It also often includes an Islamic or Arabic component, such as names drawn from the Qur’an, e.g. Ahmad, Mohammad, and Ali (males) or Khadija and Aaisha (females).
If someone has a compounded first name, it is common for one name to be an Arabic word and the other to be a Persian word. A personal name may be a combined name, such as Ahmad Khan.
In combined names, people generally use the less universally known name to refer to the person. For example, a man named Mohammad Nabi would likely be referred to as Nabi to differentiate him from his peers. It does not matter whether this is the first or second word of the name.
Many Afghans give their children traditional names that have a religious, tribal, and/or historical affiliation.
Afghan female first names usually only have one word/component, it also may be derived from male Arabic names by adding an ‘a’ to the end. For example, Jamil becomes Jamila or Najib becomes Najiba. It is also very common for women to be given Persian or Pashto names.
It is also very common for women to be given Persian or Pashto names. If someone has a compounded first name, it is common for one name to be an Arabic word and the other to be a Persian word.
The use of middle names and surnames (i.e. family names) is not customary in Afghanistan. However, many who have contact with the Western world may adopt a surname. This is more common among educated or wealthy families living in urban areas.
In the instances when surnames are used, they are usually selected to represent one’s tribal affiliation, place of origin, or ethnicity.
When surnames are used, children adopt the surname of their father.
Afghan women do not traditionally adopt their husband’s surnames when they marry. Some may do so in English-speaking societies to fit with western naming standards, but it is not typical.
It is also very common for women to be given Persian or Pashto names.
Female names often refer to beauty and natural phenomena, e.g. Sitara (star).
Meeting & Greeting:
The most common greeting is a handshake, you will also see people place their hands over their hearts and nod slightly.
A common verbal greeting is “Salam” or “Salam Alaikum”, meaning “Peace be upon you”.
Greetings are usually increased as each person asks about the other. Afghans usually ask about how a person’s health, business, or family is going.
Close friends and family may hug, backslap and kiss one another on the cheeks.
Men may greet women by placing their hands over their hearts and nodding. This greeting may also be used to greet other people who you perceive are unaccustomed to being touched.
Women and men will never shake hands, men may greet women by placing their hands over their hearts and nodding.
Eye contact should be kept to a minimum during greetings out of modesty, especially between men and women.
People may kiss a person’s forehead or right hand to show deep respect. However, it is not acceptable for a male to kiss a female in this manner if they are not related.
Visiting a home
Afghans take great pride in their hospitality. It is considered an honor to host guests. Therefore, one may find that an Afghan seeks to host you quite early on in your friendship.
An invitation is not always needed to visit one’s house in Afghanistan. Neighbors and friends may pay each other visits without planning first.
Remove your shoes at the door when visiting a home.
Wait to be led through the house and shown where to sit.
Men and women are separated in most social visits. Men socialize in one room, and women in another.
You may be seated on the floor with rugs and cushions. Sit crossed-legged if you can or otherwise in a position that is comfortable for you. Avoid sitting with your legs outstretched or with the soles of your feet facing another person.
It is customary to be offered tea and sweets as refreshments. It is very important to accept any refreshment (typically coffee/tea) as a mark of friendship.
Non-acceptance would be perceived as highly offensive and could create misunderstanding even if you are simply not thirsty. Your cup of tea will be constantly filled until you indicate you’ve had enough by covering it with your hand and thanking them.
As a guest, expect to be offered the best of everything (the best cut of meat, best silverware, etc.).
In Afghanistan never give alcohol as a gift. It is also inappropriate to give pig/pork-based items, such as leather.
The first time you go to someone's house for tea, it is appropriate to bring a small gift.
If you are invited to lunch or dinner, bring fruit, sweets or pastries. Make sure the box is wrapped nicely.
When bringing a gift be humble in how it is given. try and place it near the door as you enter or on the table as you sit down so that the receiver sees it, but can open it in their own time.
When it comes to wrapping gifts there is no special protocol. Green is good for weddings.
If you are visiting an Afghani home as a single male, then it's advisable to present any gift to the hostess as a gift from your wife, mother, or sister.
Dining & Food:
Dining in Afghanistan is a different experience and there are many differences in etiquette.
Wait to be shown where to sit.
It is important to wash your hands before a meal is served.
If eating at someone's home, you will be seated on the floor, usually on cushions.
Food is served on plastic or vinyl tablecloths spread on the floor.
Food is generally served communally and everyone will share from the same dish.
Do not eat with the left hand.
Always pass and receive things using your right hand too. Food is eaten with the hands.
Food is usually scooped up into a ball at the tip of the fingers, then eaten.
Leave food on your plate otherwise, it will keep getting filled up again.
Dining etiquette differs between Afghan homes, but cooking and food preparation is generally the women's cultural responsibilities. Usually, the women will prepare the food in the kitchen while men socialize elsewhere. It may be inappropriate for a man to show that he knows the kitchen or cooking among peers.
Men and women usually eat separately when dining at home. The female hosts generally bring food and refreshments to the men.
Do not offer food to a fasting Afghan before sundown during the month of Ramadan. It is polite to avoid eating or drinking in front of them during fasting hours as well.
Afghans tend to speak both directly and indirectly depending on whom they are interacting with. When the person is older than them or of the opposite gender, communication tends to be quite indirect, and respectful. However, for people their own age or younger, the conversation can become more direct and open.
Raising one’s voice at someone in public is very disrespectful and likely to make everyone around feel very uncomfortable.
Blesses and curses are said daily in Afghanistan.
Afghans lower their gaze and avoid maintained eye contact with members of the opposite gender. Younger people may also lower their gaze from elders.
It is inappropriate to be physically affectionate with any person of the opposite gender outside the house or in the company of those one does not know well.
Afghans usually give people of the opposite gender a respectful amount of personal space around an arm’s length. However, people often sit/stand very close to those who are of the same gender.
Hooking the index fingers together signifies agreement. The thumbs-up gesture is considered rude and has the same connotation as raising one’s middle finger for traditional Afghans. The “OK” sign with the hand can symbolize the evil eye or something lewder. Stroking one’s beard or pounding a fist into one’s hand may signify revenge.
Winking at a member of the opposite gender is considered extremely inappropriate. A man would likely be highly offended and angry if he saw his female relative being winked at.
Consider that nodding may not necessarily indicate that an individual understands or agrees with what you are saying. An Afghan may nod out of politeness. Follow up crucial information with questions so they can show they know and understand what you said.
Afghani” refers to the currency of money in Afghanistan and should not be used to describe the Afghan people.
Friday is a holy day for Muslims. In Afghanistan, most businesses close on this day and Thursday in respect of that. This means the ‘weekend’ falls on Thursday and Friday instead of Saturday and Sunday.
Most Afghan women are not taught how to drive in Afghanistan and many do not have a valid driver’s license living in other countries. They may be reliant on male family members for transport.
Afghans generally consider dogs to be unclean and will generally want to wash their hands after coming in contact with one. Some people may be quite afraid of dogs. Do not ask Afghans to sit in a place where your dog has just been resting. For example, it would be seen as rude for you to tell your dog to get off the couch and then offer someone to sit in its place.
There is a strong belief in the evil eye in Afghanistan whereby one’s misfortune is caused by another’s envy, sometimes taking the form of a curse. Do not compliment something more than once or continue to praise it once you have acknowledged it. This may cause an Afghan to be wary that the evil eye will be jealous of it.
People say “Mashallah” (May God bless) to ward off the evil eye after a compliment to show you don’t have bad intentions.