Tulou – the magic word in Samoan etiquette

SE101_Tulou

Our Samoan etiquette series is for people who are new to our culture or just want to brush up on the kind of behavior expected from ‘good’ Samoans. It’s especially helpful if you want to make a good impression on Samoan elders, perhaps the parents of your (hope to be) significant other?

I wrote a couple of articles on the topic a while ago:

…and then we got a lot of feedback in the comments listing a bunch of other things we learned as Samoan children. So I figured we need to devote an entire section of this site to the Samoan way of doing (everyday) things. You know… in case we forget.

Lesson number one for me, and probably every other Samoan past the age of 2, was to say, “tulou,” (pronounced: too LOW).

This word means, “Excuse me,” and it goes together with a small bowing action.

We first learn to excuse ourselves when we’re walking past someone, especially if this person is seated. We’re instructed to say, “tulou,” and bow your head, or even crouch a little, until you’re in the clear.

Other times to exercise your ‘tulou’ muscles include:

  • When you have to reach across someone for any reason
  • When, to get past them, you have to walk between two people (seated or standing) who are talking to each other
  • When you’re telling a story in the presence of people you respect, and it’s necessary to mention something that might offend, like… toilet bowls, or rotting fish, or what consenting adults do in private, se’i tulou…

So basically, any time you obstruct the view of others, or your movements take you into their personal space, or you’re worried about offending them, you excuse yourself.

And now I feel like a kid again, listening to my aunts call out, “What’s the magic word? Tulou!”

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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!

4 thoughts on “Tulou – the magic word in Samoan etiquette

  1. Has the respectful manner of saying Tulou evolved over time? Just asking cause when I was little kid, I was taught that you were only meant to say Tulou if you are passing through your elders or those who may seem older than you rather than the ones younger than yourself? now its like a natural habit to say Tulou when passing a person of any age. just asking lol

    1. I agree with you. I even say it when I’m passing my nephews while they are chatting it up. Regardless whether young or an elder, “tulou” should be given out of respect to all and not just to our elders.

  2. When I was about 7, growing up in the states, I had this lesson ingrained in my brain by my oldest brother. He was fed up with my (probably) increasingly disrespectful crossings in front of others. One day, I tried to walk in front of him while he was talking with my parent. I’d nearly cleared the course when he snatched me up, told me that I’d better say tulou and if I tried that again I’d get a po into the next year (or something like that to my addled young brain). Ever since then, the lesson stuck! 🙂

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