Mate is more than an exotic tea. Its preparation and consumption have some elements of ritual or even ceremony. If you want to know what to expect, keep reading, and keep in mind that the mate etiquette varies from place to place, so do not be afraid of asking!
In South America mate is a social drink. You can, of course, drink it alone, but it is very common to drink it with friends or family. Usually, the person who prepares the mate will also serve it to the rest of the group and will keep the role for as long the group drinks mate. This person is the cebador, and he or she will drink the first mate. This, although it might seem rude, it is actually a courtesy, as the first mate is extremely bitter.
After the first mate, the cebador will hand out the mate to the person on her/his right, or the one closest to him/her. And then it will continue to distribute it, maintaining the original order.
In Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay each person will drink until there is no more water in the mate you will know because you will hear a slurping-like sound, and no, it is not considered rude. In some areas of the south of Brazil, however, each person sips one time and passes the mate along. You will notice that after they have drunk, the simply give the mate back to the cebador, without saying thank you. This is not considered rude, and people will thank only when they have had enough mate and do not want to continue drinking it.
The choice of the cebador is not arbitrary: in general, an experienced person who knows how to assemble the mate correctly is chosen, to prevent the mate from being "washed", "burnt" or losing flavor quickly.
It is polite for the cebador to ask the rest of the participants whether they prefer sweet or bitter mate before the preparation. In general, the cebador’s suggestion is followed, but in some cases, when opinions are divided, two different mates can be used with different preparations.
When the mate gets to you, there are two other things that you need to remember:
First, do NOT move, swirl or play with the bombilla. Moving it can affect (some would even say ruin!) the taste of the mate. Second, although mate is meant to be enjoyed for long hours, please avoid taking a long time to drink the rest of the group may grow impatient!
The same goes for the "cebador". If the cebador takes too long to serve or inadvertently skips over a member of the round, it will certainly be noticed without too much joy!
Also, once the mate round is set up, with defined turns to drink, it is rude to change places because it disorganizes the turns. So, sit down and stay wherever you are and wait for your turn to drink.
When it is a round of several people and they are far away from each other, it is important to be attentive to pass the mate from hand to hand: think that every time a person drinks, the mate must go back to the cebador so that he/she pours water again. This way, no one has to leave their place in the round, and everyone enjoys drinking mate in their turn without getting up.
In South America, in work or university environments, it is not uncommon to find people who bring their own mates and decide to invite their colleagues to drink, whether they are friends, acquaintances or strangers. This is seen as an act of kindness and is always a useful conversation starter. Although it is more restricted nowadays due to the COVID pandemic, this custom has not yet been lost.
As you can probably tell, drinking mate is a bonding experience, and it is much more intimate than drinking coffee or tea. Think of it as drinking from the same glass or the same bottle, so do it if you feel comfortable. On that note, please be considerate and do not drink mate if you have a cold or some other illness that could be transmitted that way.