Jamaican Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette
Welcome to our guide to Jamaica. This is useful for anyone researching Jamaican culture, customs, manners, etiquette, values and wanting to understand the people better. You may be going to Jamaica on business, for a visit or even hosting Jamaican colleagues or clients in your own country. Remember this is only a very basic level introduction and is not meant to stereotype all Jamaicans you may meet!
Facts and Statistics
Location: Caribbean, island in the Caribbean Sea, south of Cuba
Population: 2,930,050 (2014 est.)
Ethnic Make-up: black 90.9%, East Indian 1.3%, white 0.2%, Chinese 0.2%, mixed 7.3%, other 0.1%
Religions: Protestant 61.3% (Church of God 21.2%, Baptist 8.8%, Anglican 5.5%, Seventh-Day Adventist 9%, Pentecostal 7.6%, Methodist 2.7%, United Church 2.7%, Brethren 1.1%, Jehovah's Witness 1.6%, Moravian 1.1%), Roman Catholic 4%, other including some spiritual cults 34.7%.
English (official), Creole. English is the official language of Jamaica. However, Patois (Creole), a combination of English and some African languages, is spoken in rural areas and is used increasingly in urban areas. Most Jamaicans can speak or understand Patois, but it is not a written language. Jamaican speech, even in English, has a distinctive rhythmic and melodic quality.
Jamaican Society & Culture
- The Jamaican family includes a close-knit web of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents.
- Families are close and provide both emotional and economic support to its members.
- The family is the most important group a person belongs to, and as such, it the group with whom a person spends most of his/her time developing and maintaining cordial relations.
- Jamaicans have a healthy distrust of those in authority and prefer to put their faith in those they know well, such as their extended family and close friends who are treated as if they were family.
- This can be seen in the fact that many still prefer to form a "partner" with friends and family rather than go to a bank to secure a loan. A partner is a financial arrangement between friends and neighbours. Each person in the group agrees to contribute a set amount into the partner for a specific number of weeks. Accumulated funds are used to make down payments for large purchases such as buying a house or a business.
- The basic requirement of the partner is trust. To become a member of the elite group, a person must be recommended by a friend or relative.
- Religion is fundamental to Jamaican life, which can be seen in the references to Biblical events in everyday speech.
- The island has the highest number of churches per capita in the world and more than 100 different Christian denominations. Most Jamaicans are Christians; the largest denominations are the Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Brethren and Roman Catholics.
- Christmas is typically observed by various denominations with Communion services, candlelight ceremonies, concerts, all-night prayer meetings and the singing of Christmas carols.
Rastafarians believe they are one of the lost tribes of Israel who were sold into slavery and taken to Babylon (Jamaica) and that they must return to Zion, which they hold to be Ethiopia.
The movement does not have organized congregations, it does not have a paid clergy, and it doesn't have a written doctrine.
There are three types of Rastafarians in Jamaica:
1. Members of the Bobo Shanti order wear long robes and tightly wrapped turbans. They function like an independent nation within Jamaica with their own constitution. Their lifestyle closely emulates those of the Old Testament Jewish Mosaic Law, which includes the observation of the Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, hygiene laws, and special greetings among themselves.
2. Members of the Nyahbinghi sect focus mainly on Emperor Haile Selassie and they proclaim that he is the incarnation of the Supreme deity. They push for their repatriation to Ethiopia, from where they believe all black people came. Ethiopia plays a major role in this sect.
3. The Twelve Tribes was founded in 1968 by Dr. Vernon 'Prophet Gad ' Carrington and is the most liberal of the Rastafarian orders. Members are allowed to worship in a church of their choosing or within the privacy of their house. They consider themselves the direct descendants of the 12 Sons of David.
Etiquette and Customs in Jamaica
Meeting and Greeting
- The most common greeting is the handshake with direct eye contact, and a warm smile.
- Use the appropriate salutation for the time of day: "good morning", "good afternoon", or "good evening".
- Once a friendship has been established, women may hug and kiss on each cheek, starting with the right.
- Men often pat each other's shoulder or arm during the greeting process or while conversing.
- Address people by their honorific title (Mr., Mrs., or Miss) and their surname until a personal relationship has developed.
- Always wait until invited before using someone's first name.
- As your friendship deepens, you may be asked to call the person by their nickname.
- Table manners are relatively informal.
- The more formal the occasion, the more strict the protocol.
- When in doubt, watch what others are doing and emulate their behaviour.
- Do not sit down until you are invited to and told where to sit.
- Table manners are Continental -- the fork is held in the left hand and the knife in the right while eating.
- Meals are often served buffet-style.
- Do not begin eating until the host invites you to start.
- When not eating, it is acceptable to keep your hands in your lap.
- Try everything since it demonstrates graciousness.
- Always use utensils to eat.
- It is considered polite to finish everything on your plate.
Business Etiquette and Protocol
Building Relationships & Communication
- Although it is not imperative that you be introduced by a third-party, such introductions can speed up the time it takes to develop the personal relationship so necessary to conducting business successfully.
- Networking and relationship building can be crucial to long-term business success.
- While Jamaicans are outwardly warm and friendly, they often appear standoffish at the initial introduction because they are reserved until they get to know someone.
- Do not appear overly familiar at the initial greeting.
- Socializing is an important part of developing a relationship.
- Status is respected in Jamaica. It is quite common to hear someone referred to as "bossman" or "bosswoman" when the person addressing them is not an employee.
- Jamaicans can be direct communicators and are not afraid to say what they think.
- They expect others to be equally direct.
- At the same time, they value tact and sensitivity and dislike overt aggression.
- They will politely tell you what they think, even if they disagree with what you have said.
- They value logic and linear thinking.
- It is imperative to show deference and respect to those in positions of authority.
- When dealing with people at the same level, communication can be more informal.
- Jamaicans stand very close when conversing.
- A man may touch the arm or shoulder of another man, or even finger his lapel while speaking.
Business Meeting Etiquette
- Appointments are necessary and easy to schedule.
- They should be about 2 weeks in advance if travelling from abroad.
- Confirm the meeting, by telephone, a few days in advance.
- Jamaicans expect punctuality although they are not always successful at arriving on time themselves.
- Meetings will have a friendly tone even though they can be somewhat formal.
- Expect some small talk before business is discussed. Let your Jamaican colleagues decide when it is time to speak about business.
- Presentations should be complete and not conceal potential problems.
- Avoid high-pressure sales tactics. They are seen as confrontational.
- Relationships are viewed as more important than rules.
- Business is hierarchical. The person with the most authority makes decisions.
- Hierarchy is important, although not always apparent. Defer to the person with the most authority, as they are most likely the decision maker.
- Jamaicans are direct and say what they mean. They appreciate brevity and are not impressed by too much detail.
- Bargaining is customary and expected. Do not give your best offer at the beginning of negotiations.
- Don't put all your cards on the table at one time, your Jamaican colleagues won't.
- Expect to spend a great deal of time reviewing details before a contract is drawn up.