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Cultural Etiquette

Armenians are extremely hospitable and, especially in rural areas, visitors will often be invited into people's houses for coffee. Accept with good grace, however poor the family; the invitation is sincere and the family will be genuinely pleased to see you. If dining with a family, including on a homestay, expect to be plied with far more food than it is humanly possible to eat. It is polite to at least try every dish.

If invited to someone's home for a meal a small gift for the hostess, who will have spent very many hours preparing the meal, is appropriate - a box of chocolates or flowers (but always an odd number of flowers, an even number is for the cemetery).

When visiting churches it is customary to buy candles and then light them before sticking them in the trays of sand. Matches are provided. There is no particular need to dress more conservatively than elsewhere in Armenia, but women should wear a headscarf if intending to take communion. It is correct to leave a church walking backwards (so as not to turn one's back on God) but some people don't.

Armenians do tend to dress more smartly than Westerners and also more formally. In particular going to someone's house for dinner, or to the theatre, is an occasion for formality (suit or dress) rather than for dressing down. Shorts are worn by both sexes in summer but are not particularly common.

It is normal to greet people any time you meet them outside a town. Just say 'Barev dzez' - 'Hello'. Expect people in rural areas to be very curious about where you come from, what you are doing, and what you think about Armenia. It is very hard not to interact with local people, although the language barrier is considerable unless you speak either Armenian or Russian. Very few people speak English and even those who do, including English-language teachers, may not understand what is said to them since they are unaccustomed to hearing English spoken by native speakers of the language.

With very few exceptions, Armenians of all ages love having their photograph taken, although it is of course polite to ask before taking a portrait shot. In general, people will happily pose and, if your language is up to it, you can even, for example, persuade a shepherd to move his sheep to a more photogenic position. You may well be remonstrated with by old ladies if you fail to take their photograph while photographing the monument by which they are sitting, and children will quite often pester you to take their picture.

In the West, although we are not necessarily conscious of it, we often smile at someone we are speaking to, even if we do not know them and are encountering them in a superficial business situation, as in a bank or enquiry office. However, this is not always the case in Armenia and it can be surprisingly disconcerting for a foreigner. It is not that the person is surly or doesn't want to see you, it is just that Armenians tend not to smile unless they know you or there is something to smile at, such as a joke.

Again, in the West, we are accustomed to think that if a door is firmly shut it probably means that the place is either closed or one is not meant to enter. This is not the case in Armenia. If the place looks shut it is worth trying the door: the premises may well be fully open for business. For example, the ticket office for the Matenadaran can look very shut when it is in fact open. Even in the National Gallery the large forbidding doors to some of the rooms may be firmly shut (sometimes for so prosaic a reason as to keep the cold out) but one is meant to open them to continue the tour of the art gallery.

Some large hotels have an entry hall devoid of furnishing or people. Go up to the next floor and you will find a fully functioning hotel. There may be a couple of burly men sitting in the entrance hall: they will direct you to where you need to go. If a hotel looks deserted when you arrive, don't panic, someone will soon appear.

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