In a luxurious restaurant in London an Englishman and an African began to eat their dinner. As the African nimbly picked up his food with his fingers the manager’s eyes flashed in anger.
“All right,” he said to the Englishman, “I must ask you to leave—and take your friend with you.” A lady snorted, “Why don't they learn to eat properly?”
The two got up and left, as all eyes followed them. What had gone wrong? Were they not well dressed and polite? Ah, but the fingers! It is not considered proper to eat with the fingers!
Often persons are unaware of how peculiar or offensive their customs can be to people of another background.
This was also illustrated a few years ago when a visitor from North America had an audience with an African chief .
The North American gestured freely with his left hand. He also presented a book to the chief with his left hand.
This shocked the tribal elders. Speaking to the chief in their native language, they demanded that the man be set straight as to what are proper manners.
You see, to villagers the left hand is unclean. This is because it is associated with toilet matters. So it is never used to give or receive things, or to eat food.
Even though one may wash both hands equally well, according to their custom the left is still considered unclean.
Customs vary a great deal, since people have such widely different backgrounds and educations. Do you think that your own customs are necessarily the best?
Or do you think that there is merit to the ways and practices of other people? Let us examine some customs. It will help us to answer such questions.
Even the customary ways that people receive gifts vary.
A polite American or European will generally open a gift with obvious delight, thank the giver profusely, and then probably be conscious of a need to reciprocate in some way to show that the friendship is mutual.
But what if you should give a gift to an African?
He would probably thank you briefly, tuck the gift under his arm and open it when he gets home.
The next morning when you may have concluded that he does not really appreciate gifts, he would return to thank you formally.
And somehow this extra effort makes the thanks seem a little more genuine. However, an African will not feel the need to reciprocate—at least not too soon. He will allow you the honor of being his benefactor.
Dress and hospitality culture
In some African countries a woman when dressed will customarily have her legs covered, but not necessarily the upper part of her body. Thus a mother will chat with a visitor while breast-feeding her baby.
And inside, one may meet an older woman at work covered from only the waist down. Do you consider that shocking? Perhaps so.
But it is not shocking to persons who have been brought up in a community where this is the customary dress.
On the other hand, consider an African who visits a European or American home. He may find the housewife in shorts.
And in some communities he may see her go out in public in the same attire. While this behavior may be acceptable to an American, the African would think: “Going outside in her underwear!”
So, you see, how one is brought up affects greatly what one considers to be proper.
What if you arrived at a host’s house and were offered a bath? Would you perhaps be offended, viewing it as an implication that you must smell?
Or would you accept the offer as a gesture of hospitality? Some Africans bathe twice a day, and they show their hospitality to guests by offering them a bath.
If you were visiting the hot country in Africa, you would probably agree that it is a fine custom, since a bath is indeed refreshing!
In America, greetings are inclined to be brief. It may simply be a quick “Hello,” and then parties proceed with the business or pleasure at hand.
In Africa, on the other hand, a guest is comfortably seated in a chair, and a period of time is spent formally greeting and welcoming him. Traditionally he is also given a glass of water or something to eat.
Perhaps you have a definite preference of one custom over another. You may feel that the lengthy welcome is a waste of time.
Or it may be your view that the brief greeting is too hurried, even rude. But can you be tolerant of the ways of others? It will make for better relations if you are.
Pace of life culture
The culture of formally greeting persons at length can be better understood when one considers the pace of life in Africa.
It seems that in a highly industrialized society people customarily time their activities, and have little races with the clock throughout the day. But not so with Africans.
They generally take it slow and easy. Would you find frustrating their unconcern about time? Or do you see merit in their relaxed way of life?
In Africa the family is usually a large clan operated much like a corporation. Several generations of relatives usually live together in a family compound.
This represents security, for theoretically the individual has the backing of a whole group of relatives whose number, wealth and power are ever at his disposal.
An African will introduce someone, saying, “This is my brother.” But technically the person may be only a cousin.
In other places in the world families are usually smaller and less closely knit. In speaking about his family, a European or American may mention that his mother is doing well. “She has her own home and lives on her own,” he may tell his African friends.
“Not living all alone?” someone interrupts. “Oh, yes, she is quite able to manage on her own,” is the reply. “How terrible! How lonely!
How cruel to leave your mother living by herself, not surrounded by children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews!” will be the reaction.
The person may be sorry that he mentioned his mother. And he is careful not to breathe a word about the old folks’ homes that are common back in his country.
Are you inclined to feel that there is merit to the African family style with its closeness?
To an American or European, polygamy may indeed seem a strange practice, but in Africa it is a commonly accepted way of life.
The ease with which it is accepted is indicated by these common introductions, “This is my father’s wife,” or, “This is my brother—same father, different mother.”
Understandably, then, that is why some African husbands often finds the standard of having only one wife difficult to meet.
Childbearing and Rearing Children culture
An African who visited America did not like the custom of carrying babies, observing that many a woman “pushed her baby in a box in front of her and held her dog to her bosom.”
In Africa, babies are usually tied to their mother’s back. The baby is secure, the mother’s hands are free and paraphernalia is kept to a minimum. You will no doubt agree that there is merit to this custom.
Also, an African could well be disturbed by the American and European custom of giving many toys to children, or of favoring them with their own special plate, their own chair, even their own room.
Is the child not being catered to as an adult? he may ask.
An African child, on the other hand, is just one of the group. Rather than have a room to himself, he shares his sleeping mat and rates a stool to sit on if no adult needs it.
He is surrounded by a crowd of relatives, and eats from the same bowl with his parents and friends. He has few commercial toys, but uses his fine imagination and ingenuity to make his own.
He is loved and cared for, but is unpampered. He is more likely to grow up respectful of all adults.
Often, when first learning about customs of other people, a person considers them strange or even objectionable.
But when he examines them more carefully and objectively, he frequently finds merit to them, in fact, that he likes some of them better than his own.
Have you found this to be the case? Share your experience with us.