The Bahamas - Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette
Facts and Statistics
Location: Caribbean, chain of islands in the North Atlantic Ocean, southeast of Florida, northeast of Cuba
Climate: tropical marine; moderated by warm waters of Gulf Stream
Population: 321,834 (est. 2014)
Ethnic Make-up: black 85%, white 12%, Asian and Hispanic 3% Religions: Baptist 35.4%, Anglican 15.1%, Roman Catholic 13.5%, Pentecostal 8.1%, Church of God 4.8%, Methodist 4.2%, other Christian 15.2%, none or unspecified 2.9%, other 0.8% (2000 census)
Government: constitutional parliamentary democracy
Language in the Bahamas
English is the official language and is widely spoken. Creole is used among Haitian immigrants.
Bahamian Society and Culture
The Role of Hospitality
Bahamas are known for being friendly, outgoing and informal. However they also maintain a sense of decorum and are very polite. Hospitality is an extension of this and they like to get to know people, say hello to strangers and invite people into their homes. Sharing a meal is the most common way to build a relationship.
Bahamians have a good sense of humour and use it often in all manner of situations. One facet of this with a certain cultural element to it is the use of self-deprecating remarks or jokes. In essence this emanates from the people’s lack of toleration for condescension and superiority. They respect people who are modest and humble. Being self-deprecating, especially if it is done in a humorous manner, displays their down to earth sensibilities.
As well as making fun of themselves they excellent at teasing others. Poking fun at each other is seen as harmless, good-natures banter.
Relatively speaking Bahamians take religion seriously. Most are devout Christians. It is not uncommon for everyday speech to the peppered with verses from the Bible and government programs or events and opened with short prayers. Sunday is a day for church going and prayer. People dress up in their best clothes to attend religious services.
The week after Christmas is one long party in the Bahamas. Starting with the goombay music on Boxing Day through the Junkanoo Parade on New Year’s Day, Bahamians dress in masquerade costumes and dance to goombay music. Goombay, the indigenous form of music, is derived from the African slaves who used songs as a form of social commentary and way to hand down traditions. To the beat of goatskin drums, people sway to the music and loose themselves in the haunting melodies.
Etiquette and Customs in the Bahamas
- The most common greeting is the handshake, accompanied by direct eye contact and a welcoming smile.
- For the most part Bahamians are warm and hospitable, although they initially may appear a bit more standoffish than people from other Caribbean islands.
- They are a little slower to move to a first name basis, and sometimes even close friends may refer to one another by their surname.
Gift Giving Etiquette
- Good friends and family give gifts for birthdays, Christmas, and other significant events in a person’s life.
- Gifts need not be expensive.
- If invited to a Bahamian’s home, bring fruit, flowers, or wine for the hosts.
- Gift giving is a relaxed affair and has little protocol.
- There are no restrictions on what kind of wrapping paper to use/not use.
- Gifts are generally opened when received.
If you are invited to a Bahamian’s house:
- Arrive on time if invited to dinner; no more than 15 minutes late if invited to a barbecue or a large party.
- Dress well, in clothes you would wear to the office. Dressing too informally may be misconstrued as a lack of respect towards your hosts.
Watch your Table Manners!
- Do not sit down until you are invited to and told where to sit.
- Do not begin eating until the hostess starts.
- 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 or family-style.
- Keep your elbows off the table and your hands above the table when eating.
- It is considered polite to finish everything on your plate so you do not appear wasteful. If you cannot, you may leave a small bit of food on your plate.
Business Etiquette and Protocol
Meeting and Greeting
- Handshakes are the norm. They should be firm and friendly.
- It is good manners to wait for a woman to offer her hand first.
- Maintain eye contact during the greeting process.
- Professional or academic titles with the surname are used in business. Professional or academic titles may also be used with the honorific title (Mr., Mrs., or Miss), with or without the surname.
- If someone does not have a title, use their honorific title and their surname.
- Wait until invited before moving to a first-name basis, which may occur more slowly than on other Caribbean islands.
- Business cards are exchanged without formal ritual.
- Treat business cards with respect. When you receive a card, place it in a business card case. The manner you treat business cards is taken as a sign of how you will treat the relationship.
- Writing on someone’s business card in front of them is considered rude.
Bahamian Communication Style
Bahamians have a lyrical, musical quality to their language which probably descends from their West African roots. Although they are direct communicators they are also quite adept at modifying their language to make it come across as friendly and insensitive. Humour is also very much part of their communication style.
Arrive at meetings on time. Although promptness is important you may find differences in the approach to meeting times and deadlines depending upon the age of your Bahamian business associate and the industry they are in. Older businesspeople or those who work in smaller companies may not be on time, especially if they are speaking with someone else, since it would be rude to hurry other person. They will treat you with the same respect when they are meeting with you.
Bahamian business culture is strongly influenced by the USA and the UK, so meetings will reflect a combination of these cultures. However, Bahamians are more hierarchical and as a result meetings are more about communicating information and decisions that have already been made rather than having discussions.
Meeting schedules are not rigid, and while there may be an agenda, it serves as a guideline and acts as a springboard to other related business ideas.
Since relationships are highly valued, plan to spend time during the meeting to talking about non-business related topics. Likewise, time is quite fluid and will be spent on more personal discussions as well as business-related.