Samoan Etiquette: Mind your body parts!

Samoans seem to be very body-part-conscious.

You might call it modest or reserved maybe, but all my training in ‘behaving so my mom, aunts and older cousins don’t give me the evils’ seemed to have a lot to do with how I positioned my body in specific situations.

Now that I’m grown, I see the wisdom and the respect behind the Samoan way of carrying oneself. The learning is so instilled in me, it even gets a little offensive when someone (inadvertently or otherwise) breaks one of the following, um… guidelines? around me.

  • Passing in front of people. Especially when people are seated, if you have to move in front of them to get somewhere, you MUST excuse yourself. In Samoan, the word is ‘tulou‘ (excuse me).

    You should also try to stay low. For example, if you are passing between two people who are standing, you should should bow down as you move (and excuse yourself), so that you don’t obstruct their view of each other.

  • Sitting. And you thought you already knew how to sit.

    If you’re sitting on the floor, omg fold your legs! (making sure, of course, that all your ‘bits’ are covered up properly).

    It’s very rude to extend your legs so that the bottoms of your feet show to anyone else in the room. If for some reason you can’t fold your legs, then tuck them under you somehow.

    Oh, and never ever draw your knees up to your chin while you’re sitting (you know, like when you’re hugging your legs) unless all your business is covered up properly. If you’re sitting amongst a group of elders, just don’t do it at all.

    Sitting on a chair? It’s all universal common sense. Just keep your knees together unless they’re covered up properly.

  • Standing while people are sitting. The only time you should be standing in an area where a group of people are sitting is if you’re taking yourself out of that area or you’re serving them (in which case the guideline above about excusing yourself would apply).

    If you need to speak with someone who is sitting, especially if this person is older than you, you need to bring yourself down physically to their level. Just sit or crouch down so that you’re at eye level or lower.

    It’s just wrong for them to be eye level with your stomach or somewhere worse while you’re beseeching their attention.

  • Legs and Pants. Pants are not in the traditional Samoan wardrobe, so even in the modern world, we’re mindful of how they’re worn.

    For ladies, if you’re going to be at a gathering of Samoans (i.e. family) and happen to be in pants, don’t be surprised if someone hands you an ie lavalava to wear over them, especially if you’re going to be walking around amongst others (i.e. serving tea, etc.).

    For men, pants are more acceptable of course, but for formal occasions and cultural-type gatherings, it’s always better to see them in ie lavalava or ie faitaga (the more dressy version of ie lavalava, that usually includes pockets)

  • Boobage and lavalavas. This one kind of surprised me. You always see images of islander women in ie lavalava wrapped high, up under their arms and over their breasts. I guess that’s okay for other Pacific islanders, but for Samoans, not so much.

    I was taught that my ie should be worn around my waist only (with a shirt or something to cover my top half, obviously). Wearing it the other way (up under my arms) should be reserved for the privacy of your own home / shower / husband.

    I’m not sure what the reasoning is behind that. Maybe someone can enlighten me (in a comment below).

Other guidelines about minding your body parts include not sticking your elbows in people’s faces when you’re passing an object to someone near them and not wearing bikinis / speedos when you’re swimming in public (Samoans wear shorts and tee-shirts or even jump in fully clothed. Seriously).

I think, though, that if you have the attitude that your body is sacred and so is everyone else’s, the Samoan way of positioning your body in social situations should make a lot of sense to you.

I would hope so, anyway.

xx HGG

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Have I missed anything? Please leave me a comment below.

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Known offline as Lillian (Lils, Lei'a) Arp, Hamo Geek Girl is just learning what it means to be Samoan. When she's not here, she's over at Manaui: Savour Oceania mostly talking about her other favourite topic: Food!

9 thoughts on “Samoan Etiquette: Mind your body parts!

  1. One of the rules that we had to memorise in Sunday school as part of the “Tu ma aganu’u” section was “E sa ona sulu aoao se teine.” I remember they explained that it was seen as too promiscuous and did not signify the humility in which a tama’ita’i Samoa should portray. That’s what I was taught. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Of the top of my head regarding body parts, ones you’ve missed are;

    1. The sacred head. Don’t pass anything over the top of someones head especially yo daddy. Passing anything across someone too, say tulou. Even a skip pass in rugby..you gotta say it. You have to.

    2. Eating whilst standing a no, no. I do this all the time at my partner’s very Samoan family gatherings and she tells me off.

    3. The dreaded backside. Don’t bend down or face yo derriere to anyone especially yo mama.

    4. Gaze aversion. Know your role and avoid eye contact with someone greater than you son. Especially yo daddy.

    See you

    Mathew

  3. Hi guys.. thanks so much for your comments..and for enlightening me on the boobage & lavalavas thing. I seeeeeeee ๐Ÿ™‚

    Okay the umu is something I am completely clueless about -- until after it’s vela, cause I’m a professional at eating lu’au and vaisu lol…

    Siana, you are so right though. The last time I was in Samoa, I was a little disappointed that it was not the Samoa I remember when I was a kid. In a lot of places, I might as well have been in NZ … ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thanks again for your kind words.

  4. your article was beautiful ๐Ÿ™‚ i am a 20 year old born and raised in the islands. though most people mostly think coming from the islands means your well-intact with the culture I’m afraid even in our homeland our culture is slowly slipping through our fingers. Girls at home (not all) pardon these aspects of our culture as if they were nothing. But being a Samoan is not just about knowing you have Samoan traits in your genes. Its knowing your culture, your legacy, and your ancestors. And all of this can be reflected in how you present yourself. ๐Ÿ™‚
    and as for the sulu’ao’ao (tying your ie under your armpits) its disrespectful because you are displaying your chest and shoulders which is similar to the reason as to why we need to cover our legs properly. The only exception of a sulu’ao’ao is when you are wearing a cultural outfit and you need to show a bit more skin to be covered in oil so you can shine/glimmer as you perform the samoan siva.
    and with reference to the sulu’ao’ao it is disrespectful to have show cleavage in any occasion. Thus you must always be mindful as you excuse yourself in front of people because this can lead to an accidental showcasing of your cleavage (trust me i know.lol) so its always good to put your hand or a fan on your chest to hold up the neck of your top as you exit ๐Ÿ™‚
    manuia totoega o lenei aso !
    SAMOAN RESPECT ALL DAY LONG ^_^

  5. You’ve covered all the important parts of the Fa’a Samoa when being around people. It’s funny how things come around into full circle.

    I’m in Samoa right now and I had to re-introduce myself in cooking Samoan food like the “Vaisu” (red snapper fish cook on coconut shells then coconut milk) and of course the palusami. Man….I had my butt chewed out by my elder uncle who’s the faife’au cos it didn’t taste the way it was supposed to plus my palusami was leaking out of the banana leaf like an overflow tampon….(may be a lil extreme but what da heoo….lmao) So I’m basically removed myself from the umu and the let the pros handle the rest.

    My point is, it amazes me how simple things can be so wrong if you’re not paying attention while doing it.

    Great post aye!!

  6. Great article! On the topic of boobage & lavalava’s I know it’s generally frowned upon for young Samoan girls to wear an ie lavalava from under their armpits. I’m not exactly sure why, other than the fact that it’s just too much showing of the skin. But I was always told that it was okay if you were an older/married Samoan woman.

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