About Tobago: Tobagonians - The Outside View

Getting the best from Tobagonian people, from the perspective of a regular visitor

Sunday Best

The unique character of teh Tobagonian people almost certainly lies in their island’s history.

As Carlos mentioned in Article 1, over 90% of Tobago’s population are of African origin. Their forbears were brought to the island’s sugar plantations as slaves. In 1807 slavery was abolished in the British dominions, but it was 1838 before the transition was complete and every slave freed. Due to a shortage of labour on Tobago, plantation owners gave former slaves plots of land on which to build a home and cultivate their own crops as an incentive to continue working on the plantation.

In 1884, the company that owned around 80% of the plantations went bust, bringing about the financial collapse of Tobago. Estates were sold for ten shillings an acre. The peasants took advantage of this offer, but this meant that even less labour was available for work on the plantations.

The bountiful resources of the rain forest and sea enabled the peasants to build homes and eke a simple but adequate living through subsistence agriculture. The rich coastal waters provided more than enough protein. They lacked for little and were dependent upon no one. Time had little meaning. Without any industry, family and community became the main focus for islanders.

From this heritage sprang the very great pride that is so apparent in every modern Tobagonian and which makes them different to most natives of the region. As land and property owners, they hold their heads high and feel subservient to no one. The downside to this pride is that jobs in the ‘service’ industry have always been treated with low esteem.

Relaxing at the end of the dayThe Tobagonian people have always placed paramount importance on educating their children. The opening of the Tobago Hospitality & Tourism Institute during recent years has assisted in raising the population’s consciousness about the service industry. Locals can now envisage owning and managing of key businesses in the service sector. Of course there are still those who are very conscious of their background in slavery and who still associate ‘service’ with ‘servitude’. Jobs in ‘service’ are still perceived as being of low status by many people.

Against this, Tobagonian people are by nature a friendly and hospitable people. They not only have great pride in themselves, but also in their island. Show any interest and you’re likely to be dragged off on a spontaneous tour, with nothing more than a smile expected in return. Understanding and respecting this pride is the secret to getting the best from Tobagonians and therefore Tobago. The secret is simple: respect will be repaid many times over.

It is easy for first-timers to get off to a bad start with Tobagonians because of the ‘pride/servitude’ issue. Waiting staff around the world develop a remarkable ability to conduct their duties without making eye contact with patrons. Tobagonians have refined it to a fine art. It can be hilarious watching a waiter or waitress ignore a demanding first-timer who has had the temerity to snap their fingers and bellow “Get me ….”.

Local boys rock fishingMany Tobagonians will not suffer disrespect silently. The island has full employment and most native ‘Gonians value respect above a wage packet. If you show disrespect, you are more than likely to be told so; quietly, politely, but firmly. I recall the Manager of a top hotel telling me how one of his waiting staff quietly scolded a foreign Ambassador during an official reception after the Ambassador belittled one of his assistants in front of guests. Good for her!

During my last visit to Tobago, I was discussing the subject of customs and manners with a Tobagonian lady who owns a successful restaurant in one of the outlying villages. I commented on how rude I considered it to pass someone in a rural environment without acknowledgment (I was speaking generally, not specifically about Tobago). The lady agreed. However, she also said that if she was passing a foreigner, she felt ‘presumptuous’ to speak first.

This comment surprised me greatly. This lady is a pillar of the community, well respected and liked and highly familiar with the strange ways of foreigners. I found it sad that someone of her ‘status’ could feel “presumptuous” to address a (white) foreigner before they had spoken to her. It may be the exception, not the rule, but it does shows how deeply ingrained the taint of slavery can be. Most of us never give the subject a thought. Maybe we should.

When passing a local, take the initiative and bid them a quiet "Good morning". It will be unusual for the politeness not to be returned. Pass the same individual a few days later and the chances are that they will greet you first, often with obvious enthusiasm and friendliness.

A local fruit stallYour first impression may well be that many Tobagonians are haughty and unfriendly. Do not be put off by their initial countenance. I was brought up in the region and taught that to most West Indians, what is known as a ‘polite’ face represents sober attention. Smiles are reserved for something funny, or someone well-known and liked. Similarly, interrupting someone’s conversation is considered extremely bad manners, so a waiter approaching you with a ‘polite’ face and not saying a word while you hum and hah and ponder over what to order is actually being very polite – not unfriendly or haughty, as you might think.

Of course times have changed since I was a child. Some, or even most, of my observations are less relevant these days, due to the effects of modern life, television and exposure to overseas visitors. However, awareness of these tips can do no harm, particularly when interacting with older Tobagonians, and those in more rural areas of the island.

The two main Tobagonian characteristics of pride and respect are followed closely by manners. Good manners are vitally important and it is very easy to unintentionally cause offence by exhibiting what are seen as ‘bad’ manners. To be described as ‘polite’ by a villager is just about the highest praise you can expect.

A very useful tip is to start every conversation with “Good morning” or “Good evening”, as appropriate, and close it with “OK” as you walk away. A quiet “Good morning” as you enter anywhere that locals gather, such as a mini-mart, bar or café, can do wonders. Do NOT abbreviate it to “Hi”, or even “Morning” and, more important still, NEVER, ever, use sickening platitudes like “Have a nice day”. This is an important point to remember when driving in the more remote parts of the island. If you stop to ask directions and start a conversation with "Can you tell me the way..." you are likely to receive nothing but a cold stare. Start with "Good morning, can you tell me...." and they are likely drop what they were doing, jump in the car and take you there personally.

Waiting for the busOne tip I always remember is that when shaking hands, do so gently and lightly. You may consider a firm, hearty hand-shake as polite, but West Indians favour a lighter variant. Similarly, avoid physical contact. Back-slapping and other touchy-feely expressions are not generally appreciated.

One very frustrating West Indian characteristic, particularly to a blunt Yorkshireman like myself, is their dislike of showing or expressing disapproval. This is something that affects villa owners more than ordinary visitors. You do something that offends the maid, possibly unintentionally, and she simply doesn’t show up again. She would never say anything to you and the worst thing is that you never know the reason. You could easily make the same mistake again.

The pace of life on the island is so slow that it is almost stationary. Given the nature of island life, time has little, if any, meaning. If you are to appreciate Tobago, you must switch off your northern concept of time as soon as your aircraft lands. The best thing you can do is to pack your watch in your suitcase. Nothing runs to time. A business that claims an opening time of 9am will probably open sometime before 11am. I remember one busy petrol (gas) station closing for two hours in the middle of the day because the owner was tired. The gentle shrug and non-judgemental “He gone for sleep, man” from another driver, sat patiently waiting for fuel, said everything one needs to know about Tobagonian nature. If you let your frustration show, you will immediately cross the divide.

Playing on the beachFinally, those of us from Britain and North America, in particular, have grown used to informal terms of address and of immediately calling strangers by their first-name. You may find it difficult to persuade many Tobagonians to reciprocate. Try not to embarrass them by forcing the issue. If they insist on calling you by your title and surname – they are simply being polite. You will make a big impression if you return the compliment. Obviously this applies more to older people than younger people, but by addressing a lady as “Miss …” you are sure to win lots of points and unleash that special magic.

It is a sad reflection on modern life that these guidelines apply less to younger people than older and less in urban areas like Crown Point and Scarborough, where residents are now well-used to foreigners. However, even in these areas you will be treading on safe ground if you apply these guidelines. The courtesy you extend will be repaid many times over as you unlock those huge smiles that rise all the way from the feet.

And those smiles are the reason that we love Tobago so much and return year after year.

The bottom line is that polite, well-mannered people who treat Tobagonians with respect and consideration release the magic without even realising how .

Tobago Satellite Map

Enjoy interactive satellite maps of Tobago. If you have Google Earth download the map here. If not, click the map below to view in a browser window.

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Page Updated: 18 Aug 17