Azerbaijan cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
I would start by talking about work, and then slowly bring up the family. Azeris are very warm-hearted people; including family helps them get to know you better and bridges the gap. Establishing a personal connection is very essential, since in many decisions, business or otherwise, individual relations precede other aspects involved in making decisions. You could talk about your children, what they are studying, and what kinds of sports they participate in. If you know how to play either Chess or Backgammon ask for an opportunity to play with them. Please do not discuss local politics since most people were brought up during the Soviet era and they feel uncomfortable talking about the “forbidden” subject of politics. These people were forbidden from discussing or involving themselves in politics, always told to leave the subject to others, therefore they still feel that politics is a subject to be avoided. The current government in Azerbaijan Republic is not as democratic as western countries, although it has a constitution. Many people do not like to discuss or possibly criticize the present government, afraid that it might affect their jobs. However, younger people are less afraid of the regime than those raised under the former Soviet Union.
Humour is okay in starting a relationship in the West, but using it for the first meeting in Azerbaijan may not be ideal. However, after the ice is broken and you have established an understanding with your co-workers there, then suitable jokes could come handy. Avoid coarse language as part of humour or otherwise. Conversation that includes such words or subjects is usually avoided even among close friends. For your first meeting, make sure you dress sharply looking like a successful Westerner since after all, their image of a Canadian or someone from the West is based on what they see in the movies, the news or papers and magazines. In the future, when you have met everyone and are on a first name basis - which takes time - you could relax your dress to work and social events. However dressing well is always preferred to dressing down.
Family, work, and where you are from are all good discussion topics when you’re meeting someone for the first time. Another good topic might be places you have visited in Azerbaijan or are planning to visit. You can also talk about traditional Azerbaijani food and the wide variety of fruits and vegetables that grow in Azerbaijan. Although football (soccer) is popular in Azerbaijan, none of the Azerbaijan teams are very good. Martial arts are also popular – especially wrestling and Tae Kwon Do. At the 2004 Olympics, Azerbaijan won a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling.
You should not bring up the subject of politics yourself, because you never know whether a person is for or against the current government establishment. Let the Azerbaijanis bring up the topic and set the tone of the discussion. Similarly, you should try to avoid mentioning the conflict with Armenia over Mountainous Karabagh - and also avoid mentioning Armenia in general - although the subject is almost guaranteed to be brought up, and it is also almost guaranteed to be a negative and bitter statement. In my experience, a sympathetic nod and a change of subject is the best way to deal with those kinds of comments.
Azerbaijani humour, for the most part, is not of the sarcastic or ironic kind. Instead there is a lot of telling of jokes, especially longer jokes known as ‘anecdotes’.
People in Azerbaijan are not generally comfortable with someone who is closing in on them. Being too familiar might make them feel that you are rushing in and invading their space. They are unfamiliar with Westerners and their behaviour, although they are all trying to adopt to Western ways one way or another, but when someone implies that they are intent on dominating them, then it has a negative effect on the whole relationship. Never impart an impression that you know everything and that you are there to save them. These people are mostly quite highly educated, around 99% of the population have high school or more education, thus you are dealing with well-read people, although their reading subjects on social sciences were limited. You could stand close to the people you are talking to, since Azeris are very social people, unless it is the opposite sex. When talking to the opposite sex, make sure you are as formal as possible, leaving no impression that there are other reasons beyond work for this show of interest. Eye contact is not as essential as it is North America. Smiling beyond a moderate smile could also have a negative effect, since when a smile expands to look like laughter, it has quite a different meaning. Azeris laugh only if there is a real reason to laugh, smiling too widely for no apparent reason could create a "gap" between Azeris and Canadians. Azeris are serious people, likely due to their history. Tone of voice should be mild and non-threatening, leaving no impression that they are being lectured. Gestures, such as directly pointing at someone, would be interpreted as threatening and should be avoided. Basically Azeris do not like a direct approach, physical or otherwise and it should be avoided.
In Azerbaijan an acceptable distance when speaking to someone is probably less than it is in Canada. Eye contact is not especially important. However, touching someone while you’re speaking to them should be avoided if you are of different genders. Azerbaijanis can get a little dramatic when speaking, and use a lot of hand gestures, facial expressions and tones of voice. Azerbaijani is not a direct language, and it can take significantly longer to say something in Azerbaijani than it would in English, for example.
Display of emotion
Public display of affection is quite common and welcome. You will notice men or women holding hands, men with men and women with women, as they walk and talk. Men easily touch each other in public, as do women, and it does not imply homosexuality. Cross-gender affections are also displayed quite often as you can see young men and women holding hands and kissing, hugging each other as they walk the streets. A majority of people - close to 90% - are Muslims, but since they have lived under Communism, an atheistic society for close to 70 years, the influence of Islam is less pronounced than in other Islamic countries. Azeris are quite emotional people, they might hug and kiss you and develop strong emotional feelings towards you; crying and laughing during your social occasions is not uncommon.
Public displays of affection between members of the same gender are acceptable. It is not uncommon to see two female friends or two male friends holding hands as they walk down the street. Public displays of affection between males and females are less acceptable. Walking down the street arm-in-arm is common, walking down the street hand-in-hand is less so. However, because most people live with their families before they get married, it is not uncommon to see couples on park benches (especially in the evening) cuddling and kissing.
Public displays of anger, sadness or other emotions are not especially unacceptable, but I wouldn’t say they’re very common either.
Dress, punctuality & formality
At work, dress formally, unless those around are very casual. Azeris expect Westerners to dress nicely and it is important to fit the image. The nicer you dress, at least initially, the better chance you have making a good impression. As time goes on and you become quite familiar with those around you, you could relax and dress casually, but initially at least dress formally. Use the prefix Mr. or Miss or Mrs. when addressing anyone at the office, including your boss, co-workers and staff. After you get to know them better, you could call them by their first names when the occasion presents itself. However, do use the formal title and Mr. or Mrs. when addressing them in public. You could call them in such manners until he or she asks you to call them by their first names.
Punctuality is not that important in Azerbaijan and people don’t show up to work until 10 am or later. They sleep quite late also; sometimes they are awake until 2 in the morning and they might even call you at home at that time. So be prepared to answer the phone late at night if someone wants to talk to you about a trivial matter. Azeris also take a long time to eat lunch and their lunches are usually quite heavy by Canadian standards. They usually take a couple of hours off in the afternoon, as a form of resting period, from 1 to 3 pm and work until 6 pm or more making up for the off time during mid day. People there - especially men - like to drink a lot. Their favourite drinks are wines and vodka, which they consume with a passion. You could offer toasts for the women present, as you would repeatedly do the same for men, who would be showering you with all kinds of nice toasts. One has to be careful how you word your toasts when addressing the women in the group.
Like most countries in the former Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has a reputation for being more formally dressed in the workplace than in many so-called Western countries. However, I did not find this to be the case. I did not find that people were more formally dressed than they would be in an office setting in Canada, and in fact quite often people were dressed more casually than I expected.
The formal way of addressing someone is their first name followed by ‘muallim’ (for men) or ‘khanum’ (for women). However, in an office setting your co-workers will probably ask you to call them by their fist names only, and reserve the muallim/khanum titles for more formal occasions (making presentations, etc.) Azerbaijan is a hierarchical society so you should err on the side of the more formal when speaking to those in positions higher than yours.
Azerbaijani society takes what is known as an ‘event’ approach to time meaning that, for example, instead of thinking ‘these things need to happen before this date because that’s when the meeting is’, they think ‘these things need to happen before the meeting can take place so the meeting will take place when these things have happened’. There is also a very different approach to punctuality. The working day is usually from 10 to 6, although don’t be surprised if you show up at 10 to find the office deserted. Similarly, when attending a meeting, depending on the participants and the occasion, people will arrive from 15 to 90 minutes late, often without explanation.
Preferred managerial qualities
I would rank it as: experience, leadership, education, personable, hard working, open to new ideas. Generally people from Western countries are looked upon as being familiar with the structure modern societies and people in these newly independent republics are anxious to learn from them. They look up to Canadians knowing that they do have solutions to many of the problems that plague their society and that Canadians are democratic in their dealings with others willing to listen and learn. In order to find out how you are doing with your co-workers and staff, select someone within your staff and develop a close rapport with that person and ask him or her about the views of other workers. However make sure the person you choose is as impartial as possible and that he/she does not have her own axe to grind, so to speak. You may try asking many people in private, without putting them under the spotlight or under suspicion by others, about how things are going and how you could improve things. One has to be careful in divulging such information making sure that such conversations do not imply impotence in your part. Azeris like their leaders looking strong and any sign of weakness would have negative impact on the whole effort.
I suppose the most highly regarded qualities in a local manager would be education and exposure to foreigners – has the manager studied abroad, worked abroad or worked with many foreigners locally? Obviously if the manager/superior is a foreigner this issue becomes moot. In this case employees would consider how the manager/superior treats them – how generous he/she is, how open, etc. I suppose the best way to know how your staff views you is by their punctuality and dedication to completing tasks in the manner and by the deadline you have assigned.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Depending on the organization, views could be generated by asking people around to make suggestions, but Azeris like a strong leader and weakness should not be shown. You could ask your immediate supervisor for ideas and suggestions; just make sure that it does not imply weakness on your part. You could hold a meeting with all the staff and run it quite democratically - itself a lesson in democracy in that part of the world - perhaps having one of your trusted employees run it and allowing all employees to fully and openly participate. You may be surprised at some of the suggestions you hear. Also, it would be quite helpful to include women in all these discussions and decision making processes since traditionally, men make all the important decisions. Azeri women are anxious and eager to participate in the decision-making, and when given the opportunity, they will often offer better solutions than their males counterparts. Given this, they may be of more help in intiating foreign workers to their new workplace.
This really depends on the workplace. I would assume that in an Azerbaijani workplace with an Azerbaijani manager, decision-making and idea-generating would be more hierarchical (coming from the top and being carried out by those below), while in an international organization with a foreign manager, there would be a balance between decisions and ideas coming from the head office overseas and decisions and ideas being generated by the staff of the Azerbaijani office. In either case it would be acceptable to go to an immediate supervisor for answers or feedback.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Society in general is geared for men and it is a macho world, even though women generally work harder than men and get paid less. I have met many Azeri women who get up early and go to work while men folk are sleeping late in the morning.
People are generally non-religious. They lived under Communism for 70 years and never learned about religion, therefore they are quite secular in their beliefs. However if you ask them what religion they believe in, they would identify themselves as Muslims, without fully knowing what it all means.
There are no distinct classes in society except for the recently wealthy people who flaunt their wealth and power anywhere they can. Conspicuous consumption has found itself a new home and it is in the former Communist states.
There are no overt ethnic problems. There are bad feelings towards the Armenians over an Azeri territory that is occupied by the Armenians, commonly known as the Garabagh conflict. There are a small number of Kurds - Taats, Jews, etc, but there is no overt discrimination against any ethnicities in the country.
Azerbaijani culture is very conservative when it comes to gender. Girls can work until they get married and have children, and then for the most part they are expected to stay home and take care of the house and children.
The vast majority of Azerbaijanis are Muslim but they are not very observant. There is a very old Jewish community in Azerbaijan and also a large Russian (and therefore Christian) minority. Religion is more or less a non-issue.
There is a very extreme class cleavage in Azerbaijan between a tiny minority of very rich people, and everyone else. There is also a kind of class division between people from the capital city of Baku and people from the rest of Azerbaijan. People from Baku consider themselves to be better educated and more sophisticated than those from rural Azerbaijan, and tend to look down on those from rural Azerbaijan who have come to Baku to look for work. Baku ‘natives’ tend to blame people from ‘the regions’ for the things they consider to be ‘wrong’ with Baku.
Although there are some small ethnic-linguistic groups that live in the mountainous regions of Azerbaijan, these tend to be a non-issue in the wider Azerbaijani culture. There is a significant ethnic Russian minority in Azerbaijan, although it is found almost exclusively in Baku. The most obvious impact of this is found in gender relations. Men in Azerbaijan tend to think of Russian girls as ‘easier’ (if you know what I mean) than Azerbaijani girls. So if you are a foreign female and a man tells you that he thought you were a Russian girl, or that you remind him of a Russian girl, this should be taken as a giant red flag.
Personal relationships are very important, in the workplace and outside the workplace. It seems that everything in the country is based on personal relationships of one sort or another, thus try to establish your own relationships with people you work with. One of the effective means of establishing a close relationship with your co-workers is to take them for dinner one night and offer many effusive toasts, as they will certainly do so towards you. Azeris like to drink and offer lengthy toasts, sometimes lasting for several minutes, while everyone else is holding their drinks in a raised state. Be patient and be prepared to make suitable toasts, offering your thanks for the friendship, the delicious food and the visit to their beautiful country and so on.
In general, there is quite a bit of chatting that takes place before a meeting or presentation begins. As mentioned earlier, topics such as family or work are appropriate, and allowing your colleague or client to tell you all about himself will be greatly appreciated. However, if you are the only foreigner present, don’t be surprised if the Azerbaijanis talk amongst themselves in Azerbaijani (or sometimes Russian) and don’t pay any attention to you at all until it’s time to get down to business.
Privileges and favouritism
If you become close to someone, yes they would expect better treatment from you, which is natural in the work environment. However, you could try to separate the work relationship from social one, but this is difficult. You could repeatedly remind them in Canada we have rules about favouritism.
It is not unlikely that a colleague or employee would expect special privileges or considerations given a personal relationship or friendship. Preferred treatment and/or pay increases can and should be avoided with explanations about their unfairness, and possibly constraints on such considerations from higher up. Hiring of friends or family is harder to avoid, and is sometimes the only way to find someone to fill a position or fulfill a task. However, any hiring should be done with the mutual understanding that the friend or family member has the appropriate qualifications, and if their performance does not live up to expectations they will be let go, regardless of their relationship to your colleague or employee.
Conflicts in the workplace
Never confront an individual directly; it is never a good to be direct with any one when dealing with the delicate situation of discussing problems. Always use an emissary to convey your message and achieve your goal without facing an angry co-worker. As mentioned before, ask someone close to you in the office to provide you with information on the impression of others. I would choose and older women co-worker and ask her to study people’s impressions and reactions and inform you. This way you would know what is going on without risking undesirable confrontation.
If a work-related problem with a colleague does arise, I would not recommend confronting them with it, but rather approaching your immediate supervisor with the problem and letting them mediate the situation. It is very likely that if a colleague is having problems with you, they will employ the same strategy (of approaching an immediate supervisor). You should be able to tell from their body language and tone of voice that you have offended them.
Motivating local colleagues
Loyalty, money, job satisfaction and fear of failure.
In Azerbaijan I suppose that a lot of ‘local colleagues’ are motivated by money and a fear of losing their jobs. However, if they are closely supervised by a manager/superior who treats them well, is generous and open with them, then I think they will be motivated by their loyalty to him and their commitment to the mission of the organization.
Recommended books, films & foods
Unfortunately there are few books or movies available in North America that I could recommend for you to read. However we have periodical concerts in Toronto, which includes artists brought in from Baku.
Books to read
Azerbaijan Diary by Thomas Goltz (non-fiction); Azerbaijan with excursions to Georgia by Mark Elliott (guidebook); Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan (Lonely Planet guidebook); Ali and Nino by Kurban Said (novel)
Websites to visit
- http://www.azer.com/ (‘Azerbaijan International’ magazine)
- http://www.bakusun.az/ (‘Baku Sun’ English-language newspaper)
- http://www.bakutoday.net/ (‘Baku Today’ online English-language newspaper)
- http://www.azerweb.com/en/index.php (about regional NGOs, relief & development projects)
There are magnificent operas, ballets, symphony orchestra concerts in Baku that your contact in that city would help you with. There are also fantastic restaurants there that you should see, particularly an old silk era Caravansara that is now a restaurant called Mogham Restaurant.
In Baku there is an Opera & Ballet theatre, Philharmonic, Azerbaijani Drama theatre and Russian Drama theatre. Check in front of each theatre for the posters announcing upcoming performances. Also keep your eyes open for announcements of any art shows. The Qiz Qalasi Gallery (‘Q Gallery’) is popular with foreigners. Jazz music is popular in Azerbaijan. There’s a jazz club downtown (‘Caravan Jazz Club’ down the street from the Azerbaijan movie theatre) and one located in the same building as the music conservatory.
Finding a ‘cultural informant’ shouldn’t be too difficult. Ask around your workplace, and any foreigners you meet that have been in Azerbaijan for a while. People are usually happy to recommend things.
Koroglu is Azerbaijan’s national hero, arising from South Azerbaijan, now under Islamic Rep. of Iran, to save the nation.
Some Azerbaijani national heroes include the 13th century Persian poet Nizami, who is remembered with street names and statues in almost every city and town in Azerbaijan; Uzeyir Hajibayov, a composer who lived at the turn of the last century – he composed the national anthem and is credited with composing the ‘first opera in the East’ (‘first Muslim opera’); and probably the biggest national hero in Azerbaijan is Heydar Aliyev, ruler of Azerbaijan during the Soviet Union and then again as President from 1993 until his death in 2003. He stopped the war in Karabagh and signed the ‘deal of the century’ with a variety of Western oil companies. His presence is still felt with billboard-sized photos and quotations visible throughout the country.
Shared historical events with Canada
Unfortunately, there are no shared histories between the two countries that I am aware of, except the love and admiration the people of Azerbaijan have for Canada and Canadians for their peaceful, civilized and compassionate behaviour on the world stage.
As far as I know there are no shared historical events between Canada and Azerbaijan.
However, Azerbaijanis are often interested to learn about the ‘separatist movement’ in Quebec, since they themselves have experienced a separatist movement, that of the Armenians in Karabagh, although that was an extremely violent one and with extremely negative consequences for Azerbaijan.
Ordinary people think that Canadians live among ice and snow and are loaded with money and spending thousands of dollars for them is no big deal. They need to be made aware that not all of Canada is that cold and that they have poor people there too, perhaps not as poor as in Azerbaijan, neverless poor compared to others.
Canadians should not jump to conclusions because Azerbaijan is a predominantly Muslim country. As mentioned earlier the people are not very observant. You will not see many women wearing headscarves nor will you hear the call to prayer very often. Alcohol is readily available, as is pork – although less so than the alcohol.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Tabriz, Province of Azerbaijan. He was raised in this southern-Azerbaijani town until the age of 20. He moved to the United States to continue his studies. He graduated with a B. Sc. in Agriculture, M. Sc. in Plant Genetics and a Ph.D. degree in Biological Sciences (Genetics, Biochemistry & Physiology). Afterwards, your cultural interpreter immigrated to Canada to work in business.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. She’s the only child of a public servant and a school librarian. She is of Ukrainian descent, both sets of her grandparents having immigrated to Canada following the Second World War. She was raised in Ottawa and studied Political Science at McGill University in Montreal. She went abroad for the first time in August of 2004 when she participated in a Foreign Affairs Canada internship in Baku,Azerbaijan. While living in Azerbaijan she also visited Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia, London and Paris.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
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The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.