The Virgin Islands are diverse—residents hail from nearly every Caribbean island, plus Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. Although both Virgin Island territories have administrative links with western countries—the United Kingdom and the United States—these islands and their people are distinctly Caribbean.
Some basic knowledge and understanding of the people, culture and traditions of the Virgin Islands will help travelers move through the islands, make friends and earn the trust of the people you meet.
Three-quarters of the people in the U.S. Virgin Islands and some 83 percent in the British islands are descended from African peoples brought to Caribbean islands during the plantation era. In both territories there are Indian, Middle Eastern, and European-descent minorities.
Both territories are made up of highly mobile people. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, about one-third of the population is foreign born, with most of the foreign immigrants coming from other Caribbean islands. The British Virgin Islands are highly dependent on immigrant labor in both tourism and financial service fields—the latest figures suggest that more than 60 percent of the labor force in the BVI is foreign.
The presence of such a large number of immigrants has led to some degree of xenophobia in both the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, although it is stronger in the BVI. There are distinct “rungs” of the local society, beginning at the bottom with newly arrived immigrants and ending at the top with prominent local families whose ancestry is traceable in the Virgin Islands all the way to emancipation. Virgin Islanders are astute catalogers of people: They know, seemingly by instinct, who is “from here,” who was “born here,” who has “come here,” and who is just passing through. Don’t think for a moment that you can just blend in.
Virgin Islanders in both territories have strong ties with the United States, due largely to widespread outward migration that took place during the first 75 years of the 20th century. Many if not most Virgin Islanders still travel to the United States to attend college—some do not return home. When you talk to Virgin Islanders, do not be surprised to learn that they are far more familiar with your country than you are with theirs. Although British Virgin Islanders are UK citizens, with the right to live and work in the United Kingdom and entire European Union, the destination of choice for British Virgin Islanders seeking opportunity abroad remains the United States.
The tropical climate makes early morning a good time to get things done, and many households are up before sunrise. Many women rise early to prepare food for their families. Early morning is also a popular time of day to exercise or work outside. By 8am the sun is on full bore, and there is a general bustle toward school and work. Traditionally, children and working men and women returned home for lunch, and some still do. Increasingly, however, lunch is eaten out. For those unrestrained by rigid work or school commitments, midday makes the perfect time for a nap.
After-work time is golden. Between four and six, the heat of the day begins to subside, and the pressures of the day are past. This is the time when men stop “under the tree” to catch up with friends or neighbors linger to talk over the fence. Schoolchildren, no longer concerned with keeping their uniforms clean, run around and play.
Darkness signifies the time to come home and settle in for the night. Virgin Islanders’ belief in jumbies, evil spirits of the night, may have subsided in recent generations, but it has not gone completely. Evenings not spent at home may be spent playing sports or attending church group meetings or social events.
Saturdays are the traditional day for cleaning, cooking, washing, shopping, and general chores around the house. Most households try to get these things done in time for the Sunday Sabbath, when they go to church and spend the afternoon at home. Many families adhere to the tradition of Sunday dinner at home. Sunday afternoon is also the traditional time for family outings to the beach, playground, or ice-cream shop. Many shops are closed on Sundays.
Men and Women
On one hand, women in the Virgin Islands are ahead of their sisters in more “developed” countries. Because racist laws limited the rights of both black men and women for centuries, women were never banned from voting, owning property, or obtaining an education because of their sex. During slavery, black women were expected to carry the same load as a man, and they did. After the end of slavery, women continued to work—and not just around the house. Women were farmers, laborers, fishers, and more.
When secondary education was introduced, girls were just as likely to go to school as boys. As a result, the first generation of educated local leaders included both men and women. Today, women are legislators, ministers, commissioners, judges, teachers, principals, and religious leaders. Although women have been elected to both territories’ legislatures, a woman has not yet achieved the highest elected office of governor or premier.
Despite the appearance of gender equality that exist in the public sphere, women still face inequality, particularly in their private lives. In the home, men and women often follow traditional male-female roles. Many men have not embraced the notion of shared housework or, to a large extent, coparenting.
Many couples have children but do not marry. Having children out of wedlock is widespread and widely accepted (statistics in both territories show that between 60 and 65 percent of births occur out of marriage). The burden of raising the next generation falls in many instances on the shoulders of single mothers who are struggling economically.
Meanwhile, policies to prevent domestic violence are only starting to gain traction in the islands—women who choose to leave abusive relationships face an uphill battle for acceptance and support. Violence at home may be frowned upon but it is also, in many cases, tolerated. Consider this: there is an actual geographic location on Virgin Gorda called “Throw Away Wife Point”.
Virgin Islanders like and welcome children. Very few households do not know the presence of at least one child, grandchild, niece, or nephew. Traditionally children were raised by the whole community—neighbors freely disciplined other people’s children, and children knew they could get food, shelter, or help from any adult if they needed it. There is still a good deal of communal child-rearing, although in many cases the community circle has shrunk to one’s immediate and extended family and friends. “The family circle” is a phrase in common parlance.
Corporal punishment at home is common, although it is practiced in moderation and probably much less than it once was. Often the threat of the belt is enough to get misbehaving children to do as they are told. In Virgin Islands culture, children are supposed to obey their parents at all times. In traditional families asking questions, talking back, or sharing one’s own opinion is considered undesirable, cheeky behavior. Children who are coaxed into conversations about their experiences, thoughts, and feelings are being spoiled.
Perceptions of Time
Island time is well known and well appreciated in the Virgin Islands. Very few things here start on time. Meetings start anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes late. Many offices and shops open later than their posted hours. Nighttime concerts or pageants are notorious, sometimes starting hours late.
If someone says they are coming “now,” that means they are coming soon. If someone says they are coming “soon,” look for them in a few minutes (or even hours). If someone says, “I’m coming to you,” it means “hold on, and I will take care of you in a few minutes.” Impatience is an undesirable trait associated with Americans and Europeans.
Service in restaurants and shops runs on island time, too. Unless you want to be perpetually annoyed during your vacation, just go with the flow. Maybe you will even start to appreciate the fact that just as no one else hurries, neither should you. Even if you can’t adopt the island-time mentality, don’t try to fight it. Getting frustrated or angry does absolutely no good. If you are really in a hurry, politely inform the waitstaff right away, and they will surely do what they can to speed things up.
There are some exceptions to the island-time rule. Ferries and airplanes run generally on time. There are also individuals who are perpetually on time. If you have made arrangements with someone, try to find out if he or she is an on-time person or an island-time person.
Virgin Islanders put considerable stock in their appearance. It is disrespectful, not to mention embarrassing, to show up in professional or religious environments without proper attire or without being properly groomed. Virgin Islanders wear their clothes well pressed and their shoes well shined. Being properly dressed and groomed shows pride and respect.
Virgin Islanders will let a slightly wrinkled shirt or scuffed shoes slide (but don’t think they don’t notice), but instances of gross fashion miscalculation are offensive. Bathing suits are not acceptable attire for town, for example, and shorts and a T-shirt are not appropriate for church.
Virgin Islanders are highly religious and churchgoing. Christian churches of nearly every persuasion exist in the Virgin Islands, although the Methodist, Moravian, Catholic, and Anglican have been here for the longest period of time. Statistics from the British Virgin Islands demonstrate this: Of 20,000 churchgoers, 97 percent are Christian. Of those, 37 percent are Methodist, 19 percent are Anglican, and 12 percent are Catholic.
There is no attempt at separating church and state in the British Virgin Islands. Prayers open House of Assembly meetings; school days begin with prayer; and references to God are common in political discourse.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, which are governed by U.S. laws, including the separation of church and state, religion plays a less obvious but no less influential role in daily life.
There are small groups of non-Christians in both territories. Arab immigrants from Palestine, Lebanon and Syria form an Islamic society, while immigrants from Guyana and Trinidad practice Hinduism. There are also some Rastafarians. These groups do not suffer religious discrimination, although they are rendered nearly invisible by the sheer size and influence of the Christian community.
English is the predominant language of the islands, but some islanders speak Spanish. The Virgin Islands English dialect is at first very difficult for many visitors to understand, particularly when it is being spoken between Virgin Islanders. Listen carefully and you will pick up more and more words. Many Virgin Islanders, especially those whose work brings them into contact with visitors, will slow down for your benefit.
Listen for dialects of other Caribbean islands as well. Once your ear becomes accustomed, you will be able to pick up the difference between, say, a Jamaican and a Barbadian dialect.
One of the most beautiful things about the language of the Virgin Islands is the colorful metaphors and sayings.
Virgin Islanders are excellent orators and storytellers, skilled at metaphor and suggestion. They often use proverbs to communicate subtle and straightforward advice. Here’s a sample of some classic proverbs:
- God Almighty never shut he eye. (God is always watching.)
- When rat see cat he never laugh. (Don’t take those who can cause you injury lightly.)
- Every fool got he own sense. (To each his own.)
- Empty bag can’t stand up. (A weak or virtueless person is but an empty sack.)
- If wind don’t blow, you won’t see the fowl’s bottom. (An ill wind can do good.)
- Time longer than twine. (Time will tell.)
- Bush have ears; long grass carry news. (Gossip and scandal spread in mysterious ways.)
- If you play with a dog, he’ll lick your mouth. (Familiarity breeds contempt.)
- Trial make mention. (Merit comes to he who overcomes adversity.)
- Sleep steal me. (I overslept.)
Styles of Communication
Virgin Islanders like to joke with each other. Friends who meet each other on the street may immediately start giving each other a hard time about whatever comes to mind. Sometimes you may notice what sounds to your ears like an argument, but really it’s just people having a good time. If a barb is thrown your way, you are expected to respond with a clever rejoinder. This kind of exchange has nothing to do with embarrassing or insulting you, but is merely the way people interact. Even business conversations often begin with a few moments of lightheartedness.
Good manners are an essential feature of daily interactions in the Virgin Islands.
The only way to begin a conversation with someone is to first wish him or her a “good morning,” “good afternoon,” or “good night” (depending on whether it is before noon, after noon, or after sunset).
Indeed, these should be the first words out of your mouth when you enter a room with others already inside or walk up to a group of people. Of course, if the roles are reversed, the only correct way to reply to someone else’s “good morning” is to echo the words. Only then can you begin to talk of something else.
In some situations, it is also good manners to ask how the person is or extend a similar neutral greeting before delving directly into the business at hand. This may not be appreciated by the immigration officer who has a long line of people to deal with, but in slightly less congested situations, it is the right thing to do.
Very mannerly people will look you in the eye when they meet you on the street and wish you a good day, regardless of whether they know you or not. Try it yourself.
Asking a lot of questions is considered rude. A few general queries about someone’s family and background are fine, but know when to stop. If there is one basic difference between Virgin Islanders and statesiders it is that visitors usually delight in talking about themselves to strangers, but Virgin Islanders generally do not. Respect the privacy of the people you meet.
Acknowledge people when you come into contact with them, with a handshake or nod, and eye contact. A smile is appreciated, but don’t take it too far. Virgin Islanders appreciate sincerity, not pretense. Stand at least a few feet away from the person you are speaking to.
Terms of Address
In keeping with the generally conservative and mannerly culture of the Virgin Islands, courtesy titles are used frequently and extensively. Until you are told otherwise, it is best to call people Mr. or Mrs. so-and-so. Police, immigration, and customs officials are often Officer so-and-so. Lawyers are Attorney so-and-so, and the list goes on.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from courtesy titles, nicknames are commonly used and generally lots of fun.
Many people are better known by their nicknames than their given names. The sports field, the ocean, and the playground are places especially conducive to nicknames, although those that are particularly evocative seem to find a foothold in every setting.
It is rude to take photographs of people you meet in the Virgin Islands without their permission.
On some islands, St. Thomas in particular, there are a few outgoing entrepreneurs who make a living by posing in colorful Caribbean garb astride a donkey. If you want something a little more authentic than that, you will have to ask permission before snapping. The only exception is at fairs and cultural events, where it is perfectly fine to photograph performers or participants.
Virgin Islanders are not hung up on table manners. You would no doubt feel awkward slurping your food at a fine restaurant, but that has more to do with the restaurant itself than the country in which it is set.
While Virgin Islanders do not employ strictures about knives, forks, and elbows on the table, they are sensitive about cleanliness and the potential contamination of their food. This arises in part from long-standing superstitions and fears of obeah; food and drink are one vehicle by which practitioners of obeah are believed to reach their targets.
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