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Cultural Etiquette

Hospitality towards guests is an important part of Kazakh culture. If you are invited to a Kazakh home, you should take a small gift for your hosts. A souvenir item, like a picture book, from your home country is ideal, but if you have brought nothing suitable with you a gift such as a bouquet of flowers (get an odd number) is fine. Note that an invitation to go to someone's house for a cup of tea' invariably means something more substantial: often a full meal. If you are invited out for a restaurant meal, your host will be expecting to pay, and may take offence if you offer to contribute to the costs. On entering a home in Kazakhstan (true for an ethnic Russian family as well as a Kazakh one, and for a yurt as well as a flat) you should remove your shoes at the door. There is usually a mixture of assorted slippers and flip-flops available to wear around the house. You should not shake hands across a doorway or step on the threshold of a yurt. You should also be wary of admiring too fulsomely a belonging of your hosts such as an attractive ornament: they may feel bound to present it to you.

Let your host tell you where he would like you to sit around the table or dastarkhan. This will often be at the head of the table or, if you are being treated to a Kazakh meal in a traditional yurt, at the back of the yurt, furthest away from the 2 door, since these are the places usually assigned to 'honoured guests'. Don't try to challenge this decision. There will be far more food than you could possibly eat, and you are not expected to finish everything. If you have a clean plate your host will simply pile more food onto it. On the other hand, you should try to eat as heartily as you feel able. However much you tuck in, your host will probably express the view that you are only picking at your meal, and urge you to eat more.

One other area steeped in conventions is the practice of toasts. Not all Kazakhs drink alcohol, and it is not served at every function, but the legacy of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union has implanted in Kazakhstan the tradition of toasts, most frequently with vodka, though sometimes brandy, whisky or wine. There is a strong risk that you will come under pressure to drink more than you are comfortable with. The key rules of surviving a lengthy series of toasts include ensuring that yon drink plenty of water and fruit juice, and keep eating between toasts; that you try to get whoever is filling your glass between toasts to add just a little each time by horizontal hand signals or the Russian phrase chyt chyt ('just a little'); and above all to recognise that you don't have to drain your glass at every toast, however much some of the people around the table will be encouraging you to. As a rule, the first toast, your own toast, a toast made 'to the ladies' (during which the men around the table all stand), and the last toast should be downed in one (though beware of fake 'final toasts' which prove to be anything but); for all the others a small sip is fine. Your host or a designated toastmaster, if appointed, will usually make clear when you are expected to give your toast. This needn't be anything elaborate (though it can be, if you are feeling inspired): the main thing is to remember to offer warm thanks to your hosts for their hospitality.

At the end of the meal, thanks are given by the act of bringing the hands together in front of the face, then moving them down in an action symbolising a washing gesture. This is the signal for everyone to get up from the table. You shouldn't continue to pick at food after this point.
In general, a positive attitude to Kazakhstan and an interest in its culture and traditions will be much appreciated.