Senegal People, Customs And Courtesies

Senegalese place great emphasis on their appearance and personal hygiene. Most bathe more than once a day, and perfumes or colognes are popular. Dressing well is important.

senegalpeoplecustoms_mediumThe People

General Attitudes

Senegal has many diverse ethnic groups within its borders, each with its own history, language, and cul- ture. Interactions between these groups and with non-African cultures have produced a multicultural people proud of their origins. Typically, a person’s allegiances extend toward the family first, and then, in descending order, to an ethnic group, a religion, the home village, Senegal, the region of French West Africa, and finally, Africa. Personal relations, including doing favors and returning them, are extremely important in daily life. According to the Senegalese concept of hospitality, or teranga, one freely shares with family and friends; this is considered integral to good relations.

Concepts of time and distance are defined by a person’s background. For example, a Senegalese farmer, whose way of life may not include motor vehicles, will consider a five-hour walk to another village a short trip. But that would be a long trip for an urban professional, who might drive rather than walk a short distance. Most other aspects of life are widely dif- ferent between urban and rural classes. For instance, while wealthy and educated women may hold public office and be employed in important business positions in urban areas, rural women rarely have such opportunities. Throughout the coun- try, women are responsible for the daily functions of the house- hold. The Senegalese, urban and rural, are interested in domes- tic and world politics and appreciate exchanging ideas with foreign visitors.

Personal Appearance

Senegalese place great emphasis on their appearance and personal hygiene. Most bathe more than once a day, and perfumes or colognes are popular. Dressing well is important. Clothing is usually ironed. Men do not go out in public without a shirt, and few women, with the excep- tion of young, urban women, wear pants or shorts. Revealing clothing is not appropriate in public. People wear beachwear only on the beach; shorts are for athletics.

Villagers and most adult urbanites wear traditional clothing. Young urban dwellers wear Western fashions until they get older. Traditional clothing for men includes loose-fitting cot- ton robes (boubous) worn over bouffant pants and a loose shirt. The amount or quality of embroidery can indicate one’s level of wealth. Women wear a long robe over a long wraparound skirt (pagne); some skirts have multiple layers. A matching head wrap completes the outfit. Some ethnic groups have facial tattoos or ritual facial scarring. Muslim women do not wear veils. Muslim women who have made a pilgrimage to Makkah, Saudi Arabia, wear a white scarf, while men wear a white headdress; these people are treated with great respect.

Customs And Courtesies


Senegalese greetings vary depending on the circumstances and how well people know each other. Shaking hands and kissing alternate cheeks three times (a French tradition) is common in urban areas. Rural Senegalese only shake hands, and social rules determine who may shake with whom. A minority of Muslim men do not shake hands with women. In traditional families, children and women respectfully curtsy to their elders when greeting. When joining or leaving a small group, one must greet each individual separately. Whatever greeting was used between two people is also used when parting. Upon parting, most Senegalese ask each other to extend best wishes to their families and mutual friends.


Senegalese receive and give objects with their right hand or with both hands. Use of the left hand alone is consid- ered unclean and disrespectful. Senegalese tell street vendors they are not interested in their goods by motioning with a push- ing back gesture and avoiding eye contact. They hail taxis by raising one arm. To get another person’s attention, one might snap the fingers if close or hiss (“tsss”) if farther away. Men and women keep their distance in public and are expected to be dignified and reserved around members of the opposite sex. More relaxed behavior is acceptable with members of the same gender, age, or status. Public displays of affection are impolite, although some urban couples hold hands. People of the same sex may hold hands in public as a sign of friendship. Senegalese avoid eye contact with a person who is of the opposite sex or considered a superior (in age or status).


Senegalese enjoy visiting one another often. Because most people do not own telephones, dropping in uninvited is acceptable and appreciated. Still, uninvited guests try to visit before mealtimes, either in the late morning or early evening. Work, health, family matters, and mutual friends are briefly discussed before a visitor addresses the purpose of the visit. People remove their shoes when visiting a Muslim religious leader (or entering a mosque); women cover their heads.

Senegalese are hospitable and can make a guest feel comfortable without expecting anything in return. However, friends will often bring gifts such as fruit or some cookies for the children. Hosts will offer a drink (usually nonalcoholic). Guests are often treated to three rounds of tea, with more sugar added in each round. To decline a drink, it is polite to say one has just finished drinking. It is impolite to refuse other refreshments. Hosts and visitors often share a kola nut (which con- tains a mild caffeine stimulant). Although smoking is wide- spread among males, visitors to traditional Muslim homes avoid cigarette smoking until they leave. It is considered bad manners for women to smoke. It is considered bad luck to ask specific questions about children, such as when a baby is due, how many children one has, or what their ages are.


Generally, breakfast is between 6 and 9 a.m., lunch is between 1 and 3 p.m., and dinner is after 8 p.m. In traditional homes, the sexes and different age groups eat separately. The main dish usually is served in large bowls placed on mats on the floor or ground, or on coffee tables. Several people eat from the same bowl using the fingers or a spoon, depending on personal habit, the occasion, and the dish. Proper eating etiquette is stressed to children at an early age. It is important for diners to have clean hands, eat only from the portion of the communal dish directly in front of them, and avoid eye contact with persons still eating. One uses only the right hand to eat. The left can assist the right when one eats difficult foods, such as fruit or meat with bones, but the left hand should never be put in the communal bowl. Some urban Senegalese occasion- ally follow French customs, eating at tables from individual plates with utensils.

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