Nonverbal Communication


The people of South Africa generally do not seem as concerned about clothing and brands compared to Western cultures, although they do typically wear casual western dress.  South African women wear saris. 


South African people are very friendly.  In small towns and villages, you always greet everyone that you pass and “try to use the proper honorific like Mr., Mrs., or Doctor.”  If you do not know a person’s name, but do know their occupation, still refer to them by their occupation.  For example “Mr. Fish-seller.”   Using a person’s nickname is also acceptable as long as the proper title is used in front.  For example, “Mr. Big Man.” 

Never introduce yourself to someone; wait until you are introduced.  Upon this first introduction, take the time to talk with them asking lots of questions.  Ask about their health, the health of family and friends, and even like livestock.  Make sure recognize their role in society, position, or occupation and use a title accordingly.  If you are being introduced to a large group, greet seniors first.  Out in public, men and women do not express any type of affection for each other.  It is a sign of friendship and trust, however for a man to hold a man’s hand and a woman to hold a woman’s hand. 


South Africans are very expressive people by nature and the use of hand gestures during conversation is common.  The following are several hand gestures used:

  • Raising the right hand in a first is regarded as a symbol for black power.
  • Holding both hands out in a cupped position is a gesture meaning what “the gift you may give me, will mean so much that I must hold it in two hands.
  • Placing your right hand over your mouth when yawning is considered polite.
  • Extending your hand with your palm facing outward and closing it so that your finger tips touch repeatedly so it looks like a “flapping is used to tell someone that their car blinker is on. 
  • Beating upon your breasts with your hands is viewed as a form of prayer among members of the Bantu tribe.
  • Spitting in the direction of a deity is regarded as a adoration.

    Additional gestures and pictures can be viewed by clicking here.

    In contrast, the following three actions are viewed as being impolite:
  • Pointing a finger at someone
  • Standing close with speaking with someone
  • Speaking to someone while your hands are in your pockets.

Visiting & Gifts

When invited to someone’s home, it is generally expected that the guest will bring a gift.  If invited over for dinner, bringing a dessert is acceptable.  Other gifts that are acceptable to bring include flowers, good chocolates, or a bottle of good South African wine. If invited over for some other type of occasion, bringing something over for the hosts’ children is acceptable.  No matter what the gift is, if it is wrapped, it shows that the guest put in extra effort.  When giving these gifts in traditional South African homes, it is important to note that only people of the same sex give gifts; a man only gives gifts to a man, while a woman only gives gifts to a woman.  Make sure to never present a gift with the left hand and receive it with two.  It is polite to open to the gift in front of the receiver upon exchange.
If a guest asks for an invitation to someone’s house, they will never be refused.  Guests are welcome to come into people’s homes unannounced.  It is proper to avoid dropping by during mealtime.  The best times to drop by unannounced are in the late morning or early evening.

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Verbal Communication

South Africa is a very diverse country filled with many sub-cultures. Due to these sub-cultures, there are 11 different official languages that can be heard spoken throughout the country. The chart below lists the name of the language, a rough estimate of how many people speak it, and where it is spoken if it is geographically specific.


# of Speakers

Where it can be found



Republic of Nambia



Throughout South Africa



Ndebele communities



Southern South Africa



Throughout South Africa

Northern Sotho


Northern South Africa



Kingdom of Lesotho



Northern Cape






Limpopo Province



Limpopo Province

While looking at this data it is important to keep in mind several things. First, many South Africans can speak several of these languages due to moving around South Africa. It is also important to remember that due to the colonization of South Africa and the introduction of major cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg, many people tend to learn other languages depending on what is predominantly spoken in these areas. However, it is very unique to see a country with so many official languages. It shows great diversity within their overall culture.

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