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Customs and Traditions



Customs and Superstitions


Mongolians are generally very superstitious and believe in good and bad omens. They believe that misfortune might be brought on by talking about negative things. 


The most vulnerable are children. In order to protect them, they are sometimes given non-names called Nergui (Mongolian: without a name) or Enebish (Mongolian:not this one). It is also not uncommon for boys are also dressed up as girls to confuse the spirits. Before going out at night, young children's foreheads are sometimes painted with charcoal or soot to deceive evil spirits that this is not a child but a rabbit with black hair on the forehead.

The name selected for a child has much symbolism, it carries the child's character, fate and destiny. Children inherit their father's first name as their last name.


For a child, the first haircut is reason for a big celebration. It usually occurs between the ages of three and five, odd years for boys and even for girls, calculated from conception. Birthdays were typically not celebrated in the old times, but nowadays birthday parties are in trend. 

Wedding ceremonies traditionally include the hand-over of a new yurt (ger) to the marrying couple. 

Deceased relatives were usually put to rest in the open, with the bodies left to be eaten by animals and birds. Nowadays, the deceased are usually buried.


Traditions



Mongolians are very tolerant people and most will not be offended by foreigners who are unfamiliar with local customs. You will not be expected to know all the customs of the Mongols. However, Mongolians will be very appreciative to anyone trying to acknowledge local traditions, especially by foreigners.




Greetings


When children speak to adults; or when someone younger speaks to someone older, it is the custom to refer to the more senior person as аh or “older brother”, and egch or “older sister” out of respect.

Mongols tend to be very direct. If they like you, you’ll know it right away; and the opposite is true as well.

Most greetings with strangers are informal, so a nod and a smile, with the greeting , "Sain bain uu?" (Are you well?') usually suffices. The expected response is “sain” (well), even if you are not feeling your best that day.

It is oddly redundant to say, "Sain bain uu?" to the same person more than once in the same day.

In a formal greeting (during Tsagaan Sar) you roll down your sleeves and extend both arms. The younger person should support the elder person’s arms below the elbow. The older person will ask “a-mar bain noo?” (how have you been?) and the younger responds “a-mar bain aa” (well). 

If a khatag is being offered, fold it lengthwise and hold each end in your extended hands as you give the greeting, then place the khatag into the person’s hands afterwards. 

Mongolians greeting one another rarely kiss each other on the cheek. An older person will often grasp the head of a one younger during the greeting and smell their hair or face.



Man greeting Man – A handshake or a nodding of the head one time tends to be the most common greeting. Sometimes a shoulder-hug is common between good friends. Usually the person arriving will shake hands accompanied with a warm smile to the other person.

Woman greeting Woman - A handshake is acceptable but just verbal greetings is more common.

Man greeting Woman - For meetings between men and women it really depends on age as older folks are more casual with one another but younger people – especially teenagers – often stay in their separate gender groups, as casual meeting or conversation would cause others to assume they’re in a relationship. There’s usually no physical contact made, smiling and saying, “Hello”, is about it.

Note: Friends and family don’t generally hug one another when they meet, except if it’s after not having seen one another for a significant amount of time.

A conversation should begin with an inquiry about the wellness of the family, the livestock, the condition of pasture or grazing, etc. Then you may discuss other matters.






That being said, there are still a few rules to follow. 

  • During formal celebrations or occasions, food, tea or vodka should be given and received with the right hand extended and the left hand supporting the right elbow.
  • Roll down your sleeves before taking or giving something, or before being introduced to an older person.
  • If offering a cigarette, you should also offer to light it. Cigarettes as gifts must be accompanied by matches. Two people may light their cigarette from one match, but three is not permitted. Lighting a cigarette from a candle is considered bad luck.
  • It is not polite to say no when the host offers tea, food or dairy products. You should accept it and taste (or pretend to) before placing it on the table.
  • It is rude not to offer a guest a cup of tea or coffee, some candy, etc.
  • When offering a drink, consider that it is better to present a cup without cracks or a damaged rim.
  • When offered vodka or airag (fermented mares’ milk), accept it. Drinking it is not necessary, you can dip the tip of your ring finger (using your right hand) into the drink, raise your hand above your head, and flick your finger to the four winds. This is offering a taste to the gods. You can also just touch the rim of the cup to your lips. Once you have sipped from the cup or bowl, or made an offering of it to the gods, you should then return the cup or bowl to the person who handed it to you. Mongolians will be impressed if you down the drink, but beware that you may be offered more!
  • It is normal for Mongolians to not introduce friends they are with to the friends they meet. It is also normal for Mongolians to ask strangers where they come from and who their father is.
  • Mongolians touch each other more than Anglo-Saxons do. It is normal to see men or women holding hands or putting their arms around each other's shoulders. Mongolians tend to touch one another, even those whom they do not know.
  • Mongolian friends sometimes visit each other's house without calling; it is not considered rude.
  • It is impolite to put your feet or shoes on chairs or tables. To show the bottoms of your feet when sitting in close proximity to another is offensive.
  • If you step on, kick or touch someone else's foot, offer them a quick handshake.


The snuff bottle is one of the essential object carried by Mongolians, usually in the front pocket of their traditional outfit, wrapped in a fine silk bag. 
Mongolians have a custom of sharing their snuff bottles as part of their greeting ritual which is called “Khoorog”. Passing a snuff bottle is a formal occasion. When a visitor arrives, the head of the household will take out their snuff bottle and pass it around to each of the guests, holding it in their right hand and extending it out to the guest as if to shake hands, left hand holding up the right elbow. The guest receives the bottle in the same manner, partially opens the top to take a pleasurable whiff of the snuff inside, removes the cap with a spoon attached, scooping out a small amount of snuff, sprinkles it on the side of their hand then snuffing it into the nose. The cap is then partially replaced, and returned to the host.
This custom can occur anywhere, and with anyone. Whatever the occasion may be, sharing snuff follows a certain protocol:

  • The owner of the snuff bottle takes the bottle out of its case (usually made of cloth or sometimes leather), unscrews the top, uses either the built-in spoon or takes a pinch from the spoon, and then places the top back on the bottle (keeping it unscrewed).
  • The owner then uses their right hand to hold the snuff bottle (hand should be open, the bottom of the bottle rested on the pinky and ring fingers, and the thumb used to secure it) and, while their left hand touches their right elbow, passes the bottle to another person (the person receives the bottle in the same manner: right hand, open, left hand touching the right elbow).
  • The person who receives the bottle lifts the top, uses either the built-in spoon or takes a pinch from the spoon, places the top back on the bottle (keeping it unscrewed), and passes the bottle back to its owner in the same way outlined above.
  • The process is then repeated with other people until everyone has had a turn, the owner then takes one last pinch (the bottle is never screwed shut during sharing until this last pinch), screws the bottle shut, and puts the bottle back in its case.
  • The process kind of gets complicated when there are two or more snuff bottles circulating, as there is a possibility you pass and receive a bottle with the same hand at the same time (so for a short moment you have two bottles in your hand while the other person has the same two bottles in their hand).

Snuff bottles are made of semi precious materials, and their price can vary greatly depending on the material used and the method used for their construction.
  • “Khoorog”constructed with jewels such as agate, chalcedony, carol and jade. It is used greeting on Mongolian national holidays when Tsagaan sar and Naadam.
  • "Khash khooro" (snuff-bottle made from jade) Was traditionally used by the rich, the jewel is very expensive because of its rarity, and is harder and stronger than most kinds of snuff bottles.
  • "Shuren Khoorog" (Snuff-bottle made from coral). The khoorog is also very expensive. Mongolians will usually carve many different designs on a Snuff-bottle made from coral. A great gift for women as it is said coral brings health and welfare if you are pregnant.
  • "Mana Khoorog"(snuff-bottle made from chalcedony). The jewel is neither rare nor expensive which is why it’s used widely amongst the general population. It is thought a person using chalcedony will never fall ill with palsy. 
  • "Chunchignorov" (snuff-bottle made from Box-form). Mongolians call it Dorjplam and is thought to recover any wound.



The sign for ‘let’s drink some vodka’ is made by holding the palm of one’s hand up to the side of one’s neck in a kind-of curved circle with thumb and middle finger together at the tips, and making a clicking sound with the tongue as one flicks his/her middle finger away towards her Adam’s Apple with the neck slightly up and out.

In Mongolia there is also the finger-rating system: a thumbs-up is “the best,” turning your hand outward with only the forefinger extended (nail-side) and the others folded down (like in a fist) means “second best,” just the middle finger outward (as you might see someone in the West doing to be intentionally offensive) means “so-so/fair-to-middlin,” the fourth finger similarly extended means “bad,” and the pinky finger up alone with the rest of the of the fingers folded down means “the worst” or “this stinks.”

People will call out one another’s name, or just loudly say (or shout) “Hoi!” or “Hoosh!”





Do's and don'ts

The following do's and don'ts will also help minimize cultural differences, please try to keep them in mind:

 Do  Don't
  • Say hello (sain bainuu) when you arrive (but repeating it again when you see the same person is considered strange to Mongolians)
  • Take at least a sip, or a nibble, of the delicacies offered
  • Pick up everything with an open hand, with your palm facing upwards
  • Hold a cup by the bottom, and not by the top rim
  • If by accident you tap someones foot with yours, immediately shake hands with them (failing to do so will be seen as an insult).
  • If you step on someone's foot, you immediately have to shake their hand. 
  • When you receive a gift, you accept it with both hands, sleeves rolled down.
  • Always mount and dismount a horse from the left side.
  • Use both hands, or the right hand, to offer or to take something.
  • Hold a cup by the bottom, not by the top rim.
  • When giving knives or scissors, offer the handle, never the blade.
  • Stamp out a fire, or put water or any rubbish on it (fire is sacred to Mongolians)
  • Walk in front of an older person; or turn your back to the altar, or religious objects (except when leaving)
  • Take food from a communal plate with your left hand
  • Touch other people's hats
  • Have a long conversation in your own language in front of your hosts
  • Avoid pointing at a person. It’s always considered to be a repudiating or deprecatory gesture.  One should use the whole hand instead. You should never point anyone with your index finger since it implies disrespect.
  • It is very rude to refuse a gift. If offered a plate of hospitality munchies, take at least a small nibble from something.



Other Customs

  • Do not step over the long wooden pole used by herders as a lasso, if it is lying on the ground.
  • If you see a lasso or wooden pole planted in the ground, avoid the area, going back or far around. This signal is a request for privacy by whoever placed it upright.
  • Usually, you must not give things to others by holding the item between the lateral edges of your fingers. Hold them in your palm.
  • If Mongolians spill airag, milk or other dairy products on the ground, they will dip their fingers into it and touch it lightly to their forehead.
  • If Mongolians see a shooting star, they think someone is dying, and so spit over their shoulder and say, "It's not my star!"
  • Some Mongolians have names like "Not This", "No Name", "Vicious Dog", etc. These names are given to protect a child, especially if parents have lost a child or misfortune has been predicted. The names confuse evil or jealous spirits, and thus misfortune is avoided. Other examples include "Don't Know", "Not A Human Being", "Nobody", "Not At All", "Not This One", and "Not That One".
  • Do not step over the long wooden pole used by herders as a lasso, if it is lying on the ground.

  • If you see a lasso or wooden pole planted in the ground, avoid the area, going back or far around. This signal is a request for privacy by whoever placed it upright.
  • Usually, you must not give things to others by holding the item between the lateral edges of your fingers. Hold them in your palm.
  • If Mongolians spill airag, milk or other dairy products on the ground, they will dip their fingers into it and touch it lightly to their forehead.
  • If Mongolians see a shooting star, they think someone is dying, and so spit over their shoulder and say, "It's not my star!"
  • Some Mongolians have names like "Not This", "No Name", "Vicious Dog", etc. These names are given to protect a child, especially if parents have lost a child or misfortune has been predicted. The names confuse evil or jealous spirits, and thus misfortune is avoided. Other examples include "Don't Know", "Not A Human Being", "Nobody", "Not At All", "Not This One", and "Not That One".