Azerbaijani culture is a blend of East and West, with influences predominantly from Middle Eastern, Russian and Turkish cultures. Most of the population are Azerbaijani, also known as Azeri, with minority groups including Russians, Turks, Kurds, Lezgians and Talysh. These cultures have all contributed to Azerbaijan’s rich history and its unique traditions, language and cuisine.
Few expats experience severe culture shock in Azerbaijan, but there are a few challenges that new arrivals may face.
Language barrier in Azerbaijan
The language barrier in Azerbaijan is likely to be one of the biggest obstacles expats will face. Azerbaijani (also known as Azeri) is the official language. It is a Turkic language and, as with the culture, closely related to Turkish. Many residents also speak Russian as a second language, while Turkish is also spoken.
While English is increasingly used in business circles, particularly in the energy sector, the majority of the population can't speak or understand it. In general dealings with the local population, if expats are unable to speak one of the local languages, communication will likely be challenging. Azerbaijani can be a complex language to learn, but attempting at least a few key phrases will go a long way to interacting positively with the local population.
Expats can also navigate the language barrier with the help of a friend or colleague who speaks Azeri and, when house hunting, to hire a real-estate agent who has experience working with expats.
Food and drink in Azerbaijan
As with Azerbaijani culture, food in Azerbaijan is largely influenced by Turkish, Russian and Asian flavours. Meat and rice are popular, and spices are commonly used to create rich and intense flavours. Azerbaijani cuisine is hearty and portions are generous. The country’s favourable climate also means that fresh produce is readily available throughout most of the year.
A popular dish in Azerbaijan is plov, a rice dish flavoured with saffron and enriched with meat or vegetable stuffing. Kebabs and shashlik (skewered meat) are also popular dishes.
Black tea flavoured with spices is a traditional drink offered as a welcome before a meal and usually served afterwards too. Although the majority of the population is Muslim, alcohol is widely available and readily consumed in Azerbaijan.
Meeting and greeting in Azerbaijan
Men typically greet each other with a handshake. Women will also greet each other with a handshake, or if they’re very familiar with each other, a kiss on the cheek. If greeting a woman, it’s best to wait for her to make initial contact. The usual greeting in Azerbaijan is 'salaam', meaning 'hello'.
While Azerbaijanis are generally friendly and hospitable to newcomers, they are often misinterpreted as unfriendly, as they seldom smile at strangers. Smiling is usually reserved for relatives and close friends.
When arriving at an Azeri’s home, it’s customary to remove one’s shoes. It’s also polite to bring a gift; though one should avoid gifting alcohol.
Religion in Azerbaijan
Although the majority of Azerbaijan’s population is classified as Muslim, very few Azeris would describe themselves as religious. Azerbaijan is a secular state and religion is viewed as a very private matter. The country observes freedom of religion and besides Muslims, there are Christian, Orthodox and Jewish minorities.
Nevertheless, it's best to be respectful of religion and around religious sites. This includes avoiding taking photos of mosques and churches, unless the photographer has explicitly asked permission.
Women in Azerbaijan
While the country ascribes to gender equality, Azerbaijan is still a traditional society with traditional gender roles. Family is at the centre of Azerbaijani society, with men viewed as the main breadwinners and women traditionally looking after the home and children. Nevertheless, women are not prevented from succeeding in any way, with some women achieving success in high-level positions within both the political and corporate arenas. Men are also highly respectful towards women and still give up their seats on buses and open doors for them.
Both women and men living in Azerbaijan's capital city dress in Western-style clothing. Outside of Baku, it's generally more acceptable to dress conservatively.
Tips to overcome culture shock in Azerbaijan
Although Azeri is a difficult language to learn, expats should try learning at least a few key phrases to communicate with the local population.
Never insult the president, Ilham Aliyev, or the ruling Aliyev family as this is an offence. In fact, it’s best to avoid discussions about politics altogether. This includes discussing the sensitive issue of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Azerbaijan’s relations with Armenia.
It’s best to avoid discussing religion. Although most people are Muslim, religion is viewed as a very private matter.
Don’t take it personally if Azeris do not smile at first. It doesn’t mean they are not welcoming, it’s just not customary to smile at strangers. Apart from this, Azeris are known for their hospitality and, if an expat is in trouble, they will likely be happy to help.