Tajikistan 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.
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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
Showing some familiarities with the country, language, history, geography and literature always makes a good impression and will open up a window for trust and good relations. In general, Tajiks like to speak about their life and country to others; they usually do not hide issues and are honest in their relationships. Subjects that may offend Tajiks are arrogance, flirting with the women at the first meeting, rejecting the offered food (one could take the food, but eat a little of it and say that he/she did it as a sign of respect, otherwise the person is either full of not able to eat the food due to health reasons). Tajiks like humour but they would not start a conversation with it. Humour is particularly used at the table during meals only when relationships are well developed.
Common sense should guide your comments and questions. The hospitality of Tajiks is legendary, and you should always respect your role as a guest in the host-guest dynamic. Appearance is crucial: formality is never frowned upon. When in doubt dress conservatively. Family is a good topic for discussion as it is central to the Tajik way of life. Bear in mind that some Tajiks may know little of Western culture, in spite of the indelible influence of the Soviet era.
Obviously, sensitivity to Islamic mores is also crucial, although the brand of Islam found in Tajikistan is quite 'secular' - perhaps due to Tajikistan's status as a former Soviet republic (due also to the fact that Tajikistan is officially a secular republic). However, Tajikistan is very much a country in transition, and Islam may yet come to play a larger role in daily life.
Politically speaking, there is a very delicate balance in Tajikistan, which went through a bloody civil war from 1992-1997 that destroyed much of its infrastructure. It would of course be very ill-advised to make a joke about the present Tajik government in public, although Tajiks would be the first to appreciate it.
Tajiks are conscious about space, and they generally pay attention when they sit or stand close to each other. Tajiks prefer to keep a distance when talking. In the Soviet times, touching each other was not a serious issue, people used to hug and kiss each other on the cheeks. This has changed, with the rise of religiosity, people are now more conscious about touching and hugging each other. Also, this sense of distance and physical communication varies between rural and urban places, between rich and poor, between those who studied in Russia and in the West, and those who have studied locally.
Eye contact is used in judging whether a person is trustworthy. Tajiks will not maintain constant eye contact, but it is considered a sign of a problem and issue that needs to be resolved if a person refuses to or is reluctant to make eye contact.
It used to be customary to shake hands with both men and women when greeting the person, but now this has changed. While talking, men generally do not touch other men unless they have reached a fairly high level of comfort. The rule is similar for contact between women. Indeed the case of men hugging and kissing each other on the cheeks or holding each other's hand is normal and does not illustrate any sexual disposition.
Friends are more likely to touch each other and although they will often maintain a similar distance when speaking, there sphere of personal space around each person is not considered as private and inviolable.
There are some gestures that are considered rude (putting the big finger between the index and middle finger, putting the index finger to the forehead or the side of it). Tajiks use a lot of gestures in their communication. Putting one's hand to the chest, for example is seen as a sign of respect and welcome and even agreement. The use of hands and body is accompanied with special facial expressions, so one can glean from the face as to what the particular body gesture may mean. Tajiks generally speak without much consideration for how the tone and volume of their voices affect those surrounded. But soft speaking is seen as a sign of Adab ( good behaviour).
When speaking to a Tajik of the same gender, physical closeness and touching is acceptable. When talking to a Tajik of the opposite gender, physical closeness and touching will almost certainly have connotations of flirtation. Depending on the situation, this could be disastrous or interesting. Always remember that gender roles are very clearly defined in the traditional Tajik family, and less so in more progressive (usually urban) families. Eye contact may be considered a challenge by some Tajik males, but this is by no means universal. Directness is perfectly acceptable, so long as the unspoken rules of hospitality are respected.
Superiors, bosses and men often illustrate their positive and negative emotions in public. For the subordinates, display of anger is not acceptable. In public and at home, displays of anger and emotions are common.
Public displays of affection (e.g. holding hands) are much more common now than before, although they may provoke limited outrage with very traditional Tajiks. They are more common among younger Tajiks. Public displays of other emotions are legion.
Work styles and pace differ between workplaces but it is important to be clean and punctual. At work, Tajiks are very formal. Both men and women tend to dress conservatively. Men generally dress in Western clothing (for example - suit and tie for winter and white shirt with tie in the summer.) Women usually dress in a local/traditional dress. (For example: long colourful dress with colourful head cover and traditional pants). In an urban setting however, there is more of a mixture of local/ traditional and modern /western dress. Increasingly, the young generation dresses more and more like Westerners. (pants and shirts).
Colleagues are addressed by their first names but supervisors are often addressed by titles such as Muallim (teacher), khujain (boss), Ustod (master), or even rais (chief, boss). In many cases people still use the Soviet approach whereby people are addressed by using their first and middle names such as Rahim Karimovich. The use of Janob (Mr) or Khomun (Ms.) is quite rare and is used mostly in official meetings or in very formal occasions. In a traditional setting, people may use titles such as Pir, Domulloh, Eshon and Kahlifa which are all religious titles or Okhon (teacher). In an informal environment people address each other by using words such as aka (elder brother) if the person you are talking to is older than you or you can use dodar (younger brother). Similarly to women is apa (elder sister), khohar (younger sister) and khola (for a woman that you may feel is your mother's age) and amak (men that you may feel your mother's age).
At work, employees are not only evaluated on their productivity, knowledge and skills, but also on the loyalty they have towards their superior. Subordinates are expected to work hard, acknowledge their superior's input and appreciation. Superiors often do not do the hard work, they instead, attend meetings. Punctuality and reliability are both highly valued, both by colleagues and bosses. Deadlines are usually respected, overtime work is expected in order to meet a deadline and failing to do so may be viewed badly.
Business attire is almost universal across all professional sectors. Western women may want to consider the fact that clothing considered merely revealing in Canada may be considered provocative in Tajikistan, although there is no hard and fast rule about this. In the workplace, hierarchy is the guiding principle, and if speaking Tajik, the formal 'shumo' (the equivalent of the French 'vous') should be used at all times. When in doubt about how to address your Tajik colleagues, ask them.
In Tajikistan, limited importance is attached to punctuality; ten-minute delays are usually perfectly normal. You should remember that Tajikistan is still in the process of nation-rebuilding, and a certain tolerance for delay will prove extremely useful to you.
Most of the time, people are promoted due to age, experience and nepotism. A superior is usually respected for his position, power and authority more than for his experience in the industry or work quality. For Tajiks, personal relationships and obedience are very important in their workplace. Tajiks, in general do not take a lot of initiatives and they tend to include their bosses' names in their new ideas and achievements. Workplaces are often filled with relatives, friends and loyalists of the boss. Bosses like to be praised as good, intelligent, strict, caring and tough human beings. They keep a distance with the employees, and are usually unapproachable and show little patience to listen to their subordinates' complaints. Only few people have access to the boss. Favouritism is a common cultural trait at the local public and private organizations.
The most important gesture you can make as a non-local supervisor of Tajiks is to learn to speak some Tajik; you might be able to get by with just speaking Russian, but Tajiks will appreciate the extra linguistic effort enormously. You may never know how your staff view you otherwise.
Hierarchy is the defining quality of business relationships; leadership is therefore the most highly regarded quality in a supervisor. How this quality of leadership manifests itself may vary , however (e.g personal charm/physical presence/ability to influence people). Weakness is seen as a deficiency, particularly in males. There is a culture of 'machismo' which must be taken into consideration.
Decisions are all made at the highest level. Decisions are often replications of what has been done on particular issues in a different country or region, often Russia and in the West. Research, inquiries and consultations with local employees are extremely rare.
In a Tajik setting, decisions are taken by the supervisor/leader, rather than by consensus. It is acceptable to go to your immediate supervisor for answers/feedback.
Tajikistan is a patriarchal society which male domination is supported by economy, religion, and culture
Islam is dominant: Sunnis 90 % , Ismaili Shia 5 %, and others ( Bahais, Christians)
Increasingly socially very polarized society with few less than 5 % rich and 80 % living below the poverty line.
Tajik themselves belong to Indo-European race and Iranian ethnic groups. It has some unique linguistic minorities living in Badakhshan and Zarafshan. In addition 24 % of population consists of Uzbeks and other Turkic tribes, 5 % Russians, and around 3% Kyrgyz.
The impact of all these in the workplace is important. Bosses are largely male, those who belong to the ruling clan and ethnicity are Sunni Muslims often with secular outlook. Their deputies could be of Ismaili Tajiks, Sunni Tajiks, Uzbeks or Russians who often do the hard work and rarely expect any promotion. Despite this, no discussion of ethnic, gender, religions are allowed to disturb peace and harmony or challenge the status-quo. The ruling strata however, realized the pressures of competition and merit, as well as claims for democracy, secularism and unity and tries to be fair within the existing status-quo.
Gender roles are highly formalised among traditional (usually rural) families. This is counter-balanced by the influence of the Soviet policy of gender equality, particularly among progressive (usually urban) Tajiks. Because Tajik society is presently in a perpetual state of transition, you never really know what to expect.
Islam is the dominant religion and culture. Sensitivity to this is absolutely essential if you are going to enjoy the experience of living in Tajikistan. Other religions are tolerated and do have followings in Tajikistan. Officially, Tajikistan is a secular republic.
As a Westerner, you will almost always belong to the 'Western' class; that's to say that traditional Tajik class parameters (poor vs. rich, rural vs. urban, traditional vs. progressive, uneducated vs. educated, etc.) will by and large not apply to you.
It is said that Tajiks are generous, to a fault, with guests of all ethnicities except their own.
As in any country, respect for the unwritten rules and mores is as important as respect for the written rules. A failure of sensitivity to this fact may result in the breakdown of any professional process, but this propensity is of course not limited to Tajikistan.
Personal relationships in Tajikistan are more important than professional ones. Professionalism is a new concept in Tajikistan. You should try to build a relationship outside of the workplace with your boss. Often the ones who are more successful are those who gossip to the boss about their colleagues.
This is not vital, but it may help. Relationships of this kind are typically built around meals. It will certainly be to your advantage to demonstrate that you can be an exemplary guest. This may take the form of eating copious amounts of food and consuming vast amounts of tea, or vodka. Never refuse an invitation; this is considered the height of bad manners.
Yes very much; pay increase, promotion, nepotism, are expected from the boss, whether local or expat. In granting any of this, one must be very careful and see the circumstance so that one's integrity is not undermined. For example, a relative should be hired only if he/she is capable to do the job. But given the general distrust about job obtainment and the spread of corruption, one must be really careful in doing any favours.
Yes and yes. The perspective in Tajikistan is that you should grant privileges and responsibilities to those you trust - your friends and family.
Direct confrontation is encouraged, but not in public. Tajiks appreciate directness and feedback. The best way to know if someone has a problem with you is to ask your colleagues that you are you close to. Private meetings with the colleagues who you have trouble with can be helpful. Asking for an apology is not common on the part of the bosses, but can be appreciated.
By all means, confront your colleague, privately. Public humiliation is a no-no just about anywhere. Body language in Tajiks is pretty much the same as Canadian body language, which means that if a Tajik is offended by something you've done, you'll know.
Good working conditions and good pay are the main motivations. Too much praise can create jealousy and gossip, particularly when the employee is a woman. Given the lack of jobs, people are generally highly committed.
This depends on the sector in which you are working. In general, however, motivations for good performance are as diverse as they are in Canada.
- Keshavjee, S. (1998). Medicines and transitions. A political economy of health and social change in Post-Soviet Badakhshan, Tajikistan. Unpublished Ph. D Thesis. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University.
- Colette Harris (2004). Control and subversion: Gender relations in Tajikistan PlutoPress, London
- Niyozov, S. ( 2001). Understanding teaching in post-Soviet Rural, Mountainous Tajikistan. Unpublished Ph D thesis. University of Toronto.
- Buri Karim ( 2004). Tojikiston: Durnamoi Rushd. ( Guide to development) In Tajik. Moscow: ITDN
- Papers by Iraj Bashiri, Shirin Akiner, Falkinham, Russian scholar Buhskov, Tajik scholar Lola Dodkhudooeva could be some of the works to read.
Movies produced by Bakhtiyor Khudonazarov such as Loona Papa
Books on contemporary Tajik culture are few. However, for an exploration of the backbone of the culture, you could try reading the poetry of Rudaki, Rumi, Firdausi, and Omar Khayyam. As far as the political situation is concerned, the French journalist Olivier Roy has made a career out of writing about Central Asia and Tajikistan.
See the wonderful movie 'Luna Papa', which takes place in Tajikistan. This movie is usually available in stores with a good foreign section.
Incidentally, Boulder, Colorado, is sister city to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. There are apparently some interesting Tajik cultural resources there, including a restaurant that serves Tajik food
www.shahidifoundation.org, to visit a Tajik organisation devoted to promoting cross-cultural understanding.
Concerts, personal/trusted friends, comedy shows, papers that are not official, cafes, and visits to the villages.
Go to any and all cultural events you can find. The ex-pat community in Tajikistan is fairly-well organised, and usually publishes a newsletter of current events of all kinds.
- Rustam, a mythical hero from Shahnama who fought the Turanians and Arabs.
- Ismail Samani, who is believed to have established Tajik statehood.
- Shotemur, who debated with Uzbeks about Tajik statehood in 20th century.
- Sangak Safarov, who is believed to have saved the country from Islamic menace in 1992.
- Aini Sadruddin, who proved the ancientness of Tajiks.
Given that today the talk is about nationalism, it is these people who are believed to have created Tajikistan.
In the finest Soviet tradition, dead poets and writers are revered. Tajikistan does have an extraordinarily rich cultural legacy of poetry and music, and just about every Tajik can recite some lines by poets such as Rudaki or Rumi, among others. Avicenna, the great Tajik philosopher-scientist, is to the East what Aristotle is to the West. The central monument in Dushanbe is an enormous statue of King Somoni (849-907), who built a Central Asian empire, and who is considered to be the father of the nation.
Not that I am aware of.
No, not to my knowledge.
None - Canada is seen a great country.
Stereotypes are almost non-existent thanks to very limited mutual cultural exposure.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Badakhshan Province of Tajikistan. He did his B.A. in Middle Eastern Studies at the Tajik State University (Tajikistan), his Master in Education from the Aga Khan University in Pakistan and his PhD in Education from OISE/ University of Toronto in 2001. He teaches at the University of Toronto in both pre-service and graduate programs.
Your cultural interpreter was born and raised in St. John's, Newfoundland. He studied Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal. His subsequent work as a Production Manager for an orchestra in Montreal sent him abroad to Australia, Singapore, and Mexico, where he coordinated various cultural events. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter went to Tajikistan, where he lived for one year. He is currently living in Canada, in Longueuil. He is working on a novel and has one son.
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.
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