“The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die.” 

Haji Ali explains to Mortenson the meaning of sharing tea for the Balti people in Chapter 12, as the two drink tea together. Haji has just asked Mortenson to stop supervising the construction of the school because Mortenson is making everyone crazy by being in such a hurry. Haji goes on to offer this advice: “If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways . . . Doctor Greg, you must take time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated, but we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here a long time.” Haji’s advice gives the book its title, Three Cups of Tea, because Mortenson says it was the most important lesson he had ever been taught. Mortenson, however, has to relearn the lesson several times in the course of the book, when his impatient temperament leads him to push ahead rather than create connections. As a result, the importance of building relationships becomes a constant theme throughout the work.

Although Haji’s speech is simply stated, there are several important points to note. He does not mean, for example, that just drinking three cups of tea with someone will make you like a member of the family. Mortenson drinks many cups of tea with other characters in the book and does not develop a close, trusting relationship. Haji means that it takes time for people to get to know one another, and that the Balti have established rituals to help this process. The offering of tea is important among people with few resources because it is a small sacrifice, made to show hospitality to strangers and honor to friends. By repeating this ritual over time builds trust. In a community that lives in hard conditions, cooperation is necessary for survival and trust is extremely important. Haji explains that the wisdom his people have developed through experience can be just as valuable as the engineering knowledge needed to build a school or a bridge, and that Mortenson will need both if he expects to accomplish his goals.