The thing about traveling is manners are relative. They’re not standardized, and starting a conversation off on the wrong foot can be extremely problematic. I feel that particularly with traveling, especially when you first arrive at a new place, getting tidbits of advice here and there from strangers is what can make the difference between a good and bad decision of where to live, where to work, etc. The traveler has to rely on the kindness of others, and to do that, they need to be polite.
I’m from the South, so our default manners are to address strangers as either “Sir” or “Ma’am” and to greet everyone you see with a “Hello” or a smile. So far, those manners have been generally accepted in all the places I’ve traveled. But that’s not to say they’re perfect. Some of the mannerisms of the local West Indians in St. Thomas and the rest of the Virgin Islands are unique, and I’m still getting used to them. If you have plans to travel or live down here, here are a few pointers of things to say and things not to say.
First encounters should be one of five phrases: “Good Morning”, “Good Day”, “Good Afternoon”, “Good Evening” or “Good Night”. Period. Anything else, even a cheerful “Howdy”, is considered somewhat rude to the locals. Why? I have no idea, but it’s just one of their things. Also, a greeting should be announced to everyone when you enter a place like a bank, an office, or even the Safari (the $1 dollar public transportation system here).
Turing a service down
If someone offers a service, like a taxi ride or a product that they’re selling, the polite rejection phrase is “Not Today”. I guess saying “No” is just too forward or harsh. Saying “Not Today” softens the blow and implies that you’re open to the service/product at a later time, which is a much more pleasant thought.
If you’re coming down here to work as a waitress (which is one of my jobs), I’ve found that tipping is not really something locals do, similar to Europeans. It’s not uncommon for me and my fellow servers to be tipped 5% or less, and it’s rarely been 10%. I’ve talked with a lot of people about this to try and find out why this is, and I don’t really have an answer. In Europe, gratuity isn’t really important because the wait staffed get paid a living wage. St. Thomas is like the states in that waitresses get paid a dollar or two each hour, so I’m not sure why 15% gratuity isn’t standard from the West Indians. All I can figure is that because it’s expensive to live here.
Back in the states, honking is generally reserved for notifying nearby cars that they suck or that something bad is about to happen. Otherwise, it’s kinda rude to honk at someone. That’s not the case here. Drivers honk for EVERYTHING: To say hi to people on the side of the road, to wave to someone in a nearby car, to express their appreciation for a new building… Drivers also honk to warn for danger, so it’s just honks all the time.
Understanding the language
Although English is spoken here (along with a lot of Spanish), the Caribbean accents are thick and can be really hard to understand. I still don’t understand everything the locals say, and I’ve been here for a couple months. The best thing to say if you don’t understand someone is, “I’m having a hard time understanding you. Will you say that again, slowly?” It may seem overly formal, but there is nothing more aggravating than hearing “What?” five times after saying the same phrase. This way, you’re upfront on the fact that you are paying attention but your brain is taking a while to process the words.