It's considered impolite to eat while walking through a village, or to talk or eat while standing in a fale. Sit down cross-legged on a mat, then talk and eat. Don't stretch out your legs when sitting: it's bad form to point your feet at anyone or prop them up, and also a discourtesy to turn your back on a matai. Swaying from side to side indicates anger or contempt, and gesturing with the hands is considered bad taste.
If you arrive at a house during the family prayer session, wait outside until they're finished. A sign that you are invited to enter is the laying out of mats for you to sit on. Walk around the mats, rather than over them. Shoes should be removed and left outside. Your host will give a short speech of welcome, to which you should reply by giving your impressions of the village and explaining your reason for coming, beginning with the words susu mai (listen). If you are offered food, try to eat a small amount even if you're not hungry.
Some villages object to the use of their beach on Sunday, and some object anytime. If someone's around, ask, or find a beach that's secluded. Public nudism is prohibited; cover up as you walk through a village. Women receive more respect when dressed in a puletasi (long dress) or lavalava, and not slacks or shorts. It's inappropriate to wear flowers or bright clothing to church.
This said, don't be intimidated by Samoan customs. Do your best to respect tradition, but rest assured that the Samoans are indulgent with foreigners who make an honest blunder. Samoans are fiercely proud of the fa'a Samoa and will be honored to explain it to you. It's all part of the Samoan experience, not an inconvenience at all.
In fact, the fa'a Samoa is open to interpretation, and even "world authorities" such as Margaret Mead and Derek Freeman can create diametrically opposed theories as to just what Samoan customs were or are. Mead's version of happy, uninhibited sexuality presented in Coming of Age in Samoa has been challenged by Freeman's description of a violent, competitive society that prizes virginity and forbids premarital sex. Albert Wendt's 1979 novel, Pouliuli, is a superb analysis of that "laboratory of contradictions" that is Samoa.
Continue to Customs: Conduct »