Just like many other countries, Sri Lanka has its own unwritten rules. Although tourists are given much latitude, following these rules will make your life much easier while travelling around the country. Not only that: local people certainly appreciate your attempts to blend in. Everybody’s happy!
Visiting a temple
Religion is no laughing matter in Sri Lanka. Jokes or insults about religion or Buddhism - which in fact is not a religion but a philosophy - are not taken lightly.
Temples are hospitable places. Everyone is welcome, but you are expected to dress appropriately. Hats off, shoulders should be covered, and skirts and pants should cover the knees. Posing with a Buddha statue for a picture is also a big no-no. It is considered highly disrespectful to purposely turn your back on a Buddha statue. In some places it simply can’t be avoided, but actively doing so to get a picture is offensive. No selfies with the Buddha please.
Laughing, screaming, running around or other outgoing behaviour is not acceptable, since this is a place of worship. Giving a donations is appreciated. About 100 rupees per person will be enough and donate slightly more when you get a tour of the complex.
Tourist are welcomed to this island arms wide open. However, Sri Lanka is still a rather conservative country. Dressing appropriately is always advisable, also when out on the streets. Males should wear a shirt and for women it’s better not to show too much skin when in a public place. Skirts or pants that are too short are also frowned upon. These rules are particularly true when visiting more rural areas of the country. While on the beach one can dress more leisurely.
In general people really don’t mind when you take their picture - in fact most of them are honoured - but please ask permission first. When you show the picture afterwards, no doubt you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful smile. Better ignore snake charmers, or any other people abusing animals for photography. Also, while we’re at it: it’s not recommended to take pictures of policemen or military personal, especially without asking.
Public displays of affection such as touching, hugging and kissing embarrass Sri Lankans. They are considered to be very private. Talking about privacy: always use your right hand. The left hand is dirty since it’s used for certain sanitary activities. The head on the other hand is almost sacred in Buddhist culture. It is not a good idea to touch, not even by patting a child in a loving way.
Sri Lankans are simply incapable of queuing. Don’t get angry, it is completely useless. Just stand your ground and keep smiling. A phrase like ‘where are you from’ or ‘what’s your name’ should be seen as a conversation opener rather that a sign of a stalker. Most people are genuinely interested in you or just want to practice some English.
Last but not least: tipping badly when service was good, shows lack of consideration. Most people literally survive on these small extras.
Visiting someone’s house
Sri Lankans are very hospitable people, so it’s not unusual to be invited to their home. If so, it is customary to bring something. Don’t take flowers - they are associated with funerals - or alcohol - it might be considered inappropriate - but do take cake, biscuits, chocolates or any other sweets. A small souvenir from your home country always goes over well. Just don’t expect your host to open the present in your presence, since its considered impolite.
When one enters the house, leave your shoes outside, or at least make an attempt to do so. Sri Lankans never wear shoes inside the house. When sitting on the floor, it’s impolite to show the soles of your feet. So cross your legs or put the feet flat on the floor.
Serving a cup of tea or a snack seems mandatory for any Sri Lankan host. It is best to accept. Not doing so will make him uncomfortable, and repeat the offer over and over. If you really don’t want something, be firm in refusing. But if you do happen to like what’s in front of you, make sure to have seconds. This will certainly make your host proud.
When in Rome….
The best advice for any trip is to watch, listen and learn. Locals are always the best teachers when it comes to making sure that you don’t embarrass yourself or offend someone else. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.