I recently had the fantastic opportunity to visit the African continent for the first time to travel and to present at the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology. South Africa definitely lived up to its name of the “Rainbow Nation” not only with its people but with its ecosystems. I highly recommend everyone to visit the beautiful city of Cape Town, the picturesque town of Stellenbosch, and to do a safari at the Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve in Mpumalanga!
But the tales from Africa I want to share today are actually stories from others who have visited Africa and from a student in Canada from Kenya. Both speak to the importance of being culturally sensitive and knowledgeable in successful intercultural interactions.
Tale #1: Allergies in Africa
This story comes from a management graduate student whom I met at the Cultural Intelligence Research forum at SIOP San Diego 2012. We were seated at the same table for lunch and we were discussing food allergies. As is more common in Western cultures (or at least I perceive it to be so), he has nut allergies (his background is German I believe). After the chef came out to ask him if everything was ok, the student shared with us his experience in Africa (forgot which country). Basically, he was with a tribe and they were inviting him to eat their food. He suspected that parts of the food had nuts in it and he knew that 1) people in the area do not have and would not understand nut allergies and 2) to mention his allergy or just plain refusing to eat the food would be rude to his host (i.e., his host almost “killed” him).
So this is the route he took. He explained to the host that nuts were part of his family totem. And that was all it took for him to save the host’s face in having serving him nuts and him not having to eat the nuts, because in this tribe, people don’t eat what’s on their family totem. A successful tale of someone being culturally knowledgeable and solving the problem in a culturally sensitive way.
Tale #2: Don’t look me in the eye
I recently attended an Intercultural Skills Workshop for the Graduate Studies Office led by Phyllis Powers. As part of the workshop, the facilitator invited international students to share their experiences. One of the cultural differences we discussed was the amount of eye contact; in some cultures (like North American), eye contact is a sign of attention and caring but in other cultures, eye contact could be construed as a sign of intimidation and lack of eye contact is a sign of respect.
One student from Kenya shared a very interesting story about eye contact. He mentioned that back in Kenya, he lived in a farm and they had various types of animals, and he’s learned to how handle these animals. One way to intimidate goats is to get down to their level, look them straight in the eye, and stare intensely. He explains that, in the animal kingdom, eye-locking is intimidating and challenging, and that is what he’s learned to do (or not do) with people also.
He also shared a story of someone from a Western country visiting a company in Kenya. As the Westerner was meeting a few people in the company, he noticed that most of the employees avoided his gaze and their eyes seemed shifty. The Westerner reported back to the superior of the Kenyan company that the employees there must be sketchy because their eyes were shifty. However, the superior of the Kenyan company said that the people who lock eyes were actually the sketchy ones!
Tale #3: Let’s shake hands again…and again…and again
When the same student from above first came to Canada, he would shake hands with his supervisor (who’s not from Kenya or other African countries) when he first sees the supervisor in the morning. Then repeats this every time he sees the supervisor. Eventually, the supervisor got quite uncomfortable and this became clear to the student.
He then realized that people in Canada only mainly shook hands the first time they meet and “never” again, while he was operating on the Kenyan saying and practice of “A good person is not greeted once.”
Hopefully you’ve learned a little bit about some different customs from very small parts of this large, diverse continent that is Africa!