Over the centuries the people of the steppe have developed their own ethics of social conduct. Mongolians are known to be a very hospitable nation. The hard conditions of life, far from embittering them, gave rise to the long-standing traditions of friendliness and hospitality. The host is well aware that the wayfarer entering his ger is tired and may still have a long way to go. Of course, he has also found himself in similar situations more than once. And so he does his best to anticipate and satisfy his guest’s wishes.
The Mongols do not like to talk about unpleasant things. It is believed that such talk may invoke trouble. It is even more impermissible to say bad things about friends and acquaintances. If at times something unpleasant has to be said, people try to do it as tactfully and inoffensively as possible. On the other hand, expressions of goodwill and praise are widespread. Praise of their mother country, the beauty of the natural scenery, the hospitality of the host, etc., presents a special form of folklore.
There are many types of greeting in the Mongolian language that is used depending on the situation and the time. The townsfolk usually say “Sain bainuu?” which is equivalent to “How are you?” The expected answer is “Sain”, which means “Fine”. National ethics do not permit a negative answer. It is only later in the conversation that you may mention your problems if you have any. Countrymen often salute each other with the question “Are you wintering well?” or “Are you spending this spring in peace?” Needless to say, the greeting should suit the season. Shepherds ask each other “Are sheep grazing in peace?” or “Are your sheep fattening well?”
The word “peace” often figures in greetings and good wishes. In the Mongolian semantics, it is equivalent to happiness. After all, when a person has no worries, he is at peace and, consequently, happy. In the village, the guest finding his host or hostess at work expresses specific good wishes. For instance, if the hostess is milking the cow, he says, “May your bucket be brim-full of milk.” If she is beating wool, he says, “May the wool be as soft as silk.” If the family is playing some game, his wish will be that everyone should win if only once. The answer to good wishes is always the same: “May it be as you say.”
When you are talking to an elderly person whom you know you are expected to add the respectful “guai” to his name, for instance, Dorj-guai. Addressing a stranger who is older than you, say “Akh-aa” which can be translated as older brother or uncle. Family Relations also have their ethics. We say for instance, “My Wife” and the “Father of my children”. One always has to use the correct form of address depending on the person’s age or position. If in the cities a foreigner may safely behave like elsewhere in the world, in the countryside at every step he stumbles against all kinds of customs and traditions that he violates without even knowing it. Especially in remote regions where traditions and customs are stronger. True, people are not offended if foreigners do something the wrong way because of their ignorance. “The ignorant will not be punished”, the Mongols say.
In Mongolia, it is not accepted to knock at the door of ger or say, “Can I come in?” The guest as he approaches the ger is supposed to shout loudly, “Hold the dog!” (“Nokhoi Khori!” in Mongolian) even if there is no dog, for what he actually means is to let the host know that he is coming. The host and hostess emerge from the ger wearing their hats and buttoned-up deels. As for the hats, if in Europe men take off their hats when greeting each other, in Mongolia the rules of good behavior demand that they wear their hats in such cases. The host helps the guest dismount from his horse and takes him into the ger.
To begin with, the men exchange snuff bottles. Never mind if you do not have one. You should accept the host’s snuff bottle, take some stuff and return it. The bottle should never be returned with the lid tightly on. Then the hostess begins to serve tea, often made in the guest’s presence. It is not acceptable to ask the guest outright where he comes from and for what purpose. He should say this himself at some point during the conversation or after asking the traditional questions about the weather, the cattle, etc. The hostess serves tea in a small bowl, holding it with both hands stretched out towards the guest, or with the right hand supporting the elbow with the left arm. The guest is supposed to accept the cup in the same fashion. It would be very proper to let down the sleeves for it is considered extremely impolite to expose your wrists. The Mongols have their own ideas about the hearth, the ger and what is inside it, and the guest should take care to respect the old taboos. It is forbidden, for example, to pour water on the hearth or throw garbage into it, to touch the fire with a knife, step over the hearth or spill milk. Whistling in the ger or leaning against the supports is considered an ill omen.
In summer the host will offer you koumiss (fermented mare’s milk) instead of tea. To establish friendly relations it is customary to eat off a common plate and drink from a common cup, notably koumiss. The host fills the cup and hands it over to the guest. The latter drinks a little and returns the cup to the host who refills the cup and hands it over to another guest. The host drinks after all his guests have drunk from the cup. Nobody will insist on the faultless observance of all the customs and rules but learning at least some before a visit to Mongolia would please your hosts and allow you to get a real feel of Mongolian culture.