Learn more about Nigerian etiquette

  • 27 April 2015 | Christine Marot
Adopting the correct etiquette is important in business dealings. Image courtesy of the International Monetary Fund

Taking the trouble to understand and respect the etiquette of foreign visitors to South Africa epitomises what the Welcome campaign is all about. Your actions immediately demonstrate a genuine interest and desire to make guests feel at home when they're not.

Here are some basic insights into Nigerian etiquette:

Don't do this

  • One of the most important things to remember when hosting Nigerian guests is never to use your left hand – not for giving, not for eating, not for receiving, and not for giving or receiving business cards – as Nigerians believe the left hand to be unclean
  • The second is never to use the "thumbs-up" gesture, which is considered highly offensive in Nigeria!
  • Unlike Western society’s belief in direct eye contact, Nigerians consider this a sign of arrogance, so rather default to more of a wandering gaze during verbal interaction
  • Transvestism and homosexuality are prosecutable offences in Nigeria, and topics probably best avoided
  • Never use slang or profanity

Meeting and greeting

  • Be warm and welcoming when meeting new Nigerian visitors. Shake hands and greet them with a smile. Bear in mind, however, that Muslims will not generally shake hands with members of the opposite sex
  • When meeting someone, remember that greetings are lengthy interactions in which one is expected to enquire about the other person’s health and that of his or her family. Failure to do so is considered extremely rude
  • During a conversation or meeting, use facial expressions to indicate your happiness, empathy and interest. Keeping a neutral or expressionless demeanour is considered obnoxious
  • Nigeria is a hierarchical society, in which respect is shown to elders and superiors by lowering of the eyes or bowing. When you are doing the greeting, make an effort to greet each person in a group individually, in order of seniority, as this denotes great respect
  • Personal space among Nigerians is virtually non-existent, so people stand very close when conversing or standing in line. Westerners have a much larger personal space, so this can take a lot of getting used to. Make an effort to be tolerant, and avoid pushing people away or asking for more space

Traditional Nigerian outfits. Image courtesy of Zachary Hunt

​In the boardroom

  • To do business effectively, it is vital to develop a personal relationship with Nigerian colleagues and superiors. Establishing such relationships takes many hours and should never be rushed. The worst approach would be to attempt to impose your own agenda during initial meetings
  • Unlike many hallowed South African boardrooms, formal meetings involving Nigerians are constantly interrupted by phone calls, emails, knocks at the door and other distractions, so go in with a flexible and relaxed attitude
  • Using first-name terms in business dealings is not acceptable until you are formally invited to do so. Prior to this, Nigerians stick strictly to formalities, and will address individuals by their academic, professional or honorific title and surname

Mealtimes 

  • Encourage visitors to eat with their hands, as this is a traditional mealtime tradition in Nigeria. Make an effort to follow suit, but only use your right hand (never the left). Provide finger bowls and small towels for washing hands, and indicate that you are open to eating without using utensils
  • If you're invited to a meal hosted by Nigerians, you are expected to take a gift such as chocolates, fruit or nuts for the host
  • In Muslim homes male visitors and hosts often don't eat with the women, so you might anticipate this

Respect Nigeria

  • Should you overhear Nigerians running down their country or their fellow Nigerians, never fall into the trap of doing so yourself. Always err on the side of polite, conservative behaviour
  • Another highly sensitive issue is religion. Nigeria is a religiously diverse country, so making religious generalisations is most unwelcome
  • Don’t be tempted to wear Nigerian clothing. Nigerians are proud of their traditional garb and look down on people of other nationalities trying to wear it
  • Always bear in mind that there is a diversity of ethnicities, cultures, and religions in Nigeria. Learn about guests' backgrounds so you don't inadvertently offend anybody
  • Tipping is optional in Nigeria, but when done, the amount is usually 5%, so you need to ensure that Nigerian visitors are aware of expectations in South African restaurants