Cultural Dos and Don’ts
Your trip to Pakistan will be much more rewarding and safer too if you understand some basic etiquette and try not to offend local sensitivities.
Clothing and Conversations
To begin with, plan to dress conservatively – men shouldn’t wear shorts, and avoid short sleeves in conservative areas. Women should try to have no more than their hands, feet (if wearing sandals) and face visible, and should always carry a scarf to cover their heads if required – take your cues from your surroundings.
Being a conservative place, certain conversation topics are best avoided, and heated conversations are definitely not a good idea. Topics to avoid include the military, local politics, debates about religion and ethnicity, the so-called ‘war on terrorism’ and sex. Visitors should to treat the inevitable discussion of Islam with the deference it deserves.
Don’t flaunt your wealth (relative or actual) – it’s insensitive at best, and at worst it’s downright dangerous. In conversations try to give a balanced perspective of life in the west – some Pakistanis only see the positives of life in developed countries, which can make for uncomfortable comparisons between yours and their lifestyles. Point out the positives of life in Pakistan – there are many. There’s no need to highlight the negative aspects of Pakistan – Pakistanis already hear enough about it in the media, and are understandably sensitive about it.
Take off your shoes when you walk into someone’s house, and wash your hands before and after eating. It’s a nice idea to take a gift if you are invited to someone’s house, but not expected like it is in some western societies. A small gift from your country is a nice idea, but don’t patronise your hosts by giving them a cheap-looking pen!
Take food to your mouth with your right hand – even if you are using cutlery. An invitation to join someone for dinner at their home is a serious matter and quite an honour – if you can’t go, then you really ought to have a good reason. Women are best advised to not offer their hand to shake with a man – unless he extends his first.
In business it is considered somewhat rude if you dive straight into work without several minutes of niceties. Expect lots of chai and biscuits before anything gets done. People’s concept of time isn’t the same as in the west, so don’t be surprised if people or things run late.
Visiting a Mosque
Mosques and other sacred places are the one place where cultural sensitivity is non-negotiable; no shorts, no bare arms, women must cover their heads, and no eating, smoking, joking or inappropriate discussions. Take off your shoes when entering a mosque, and be aware that some sections are designated men- or women-only. Don’t walk in front of someone who is praying; you will be standing between them and the sacred ka’aba in Makkah (Mecca).
Before travelling to Pakistan, it is essential that you make yourself aware of current events, preferably from as many sources as possible. For safety advice, it is recommended that you read the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller Travel Advisory for Pakistan, the British Foreign Office’s Pakistan Travel Advice, or your government’s relevant department.