At a recent conference in the USA hosted by my professional society, I attended a session titled ‘Global Etiquette’ that dealt with the problems and issues faced between people of differing cultures and backgrounds. It sought to increase awareness of the common faux pas encountered when doing business in a global context.
The session was great in that it covered stereotypes, misconceptions and faux pas between different countries and cultures. We discussed and shared anecdotes about our home countries or those we had travelled to and done business in, table etiquette and inappropriate gifts or gestures. It was awe-inspiring to see the amazing global reach of the host-organisation to hear about some of the work its members were doing to further their three strategic goals: Energy, Workforce Development and Globalization. India, China and Europe were mentioned a number of times and the Middle East was of course a hot discussion point. Strangely enough though, three-quarters of the way though the talk, I noticed that no African country or culture had been mentioned. Did this mean there were no risks of cultural misunderstandings when dealing with Africans? Or was it that nobody thought it worth looking into faux pas come across when working in Africa?
Of course, I couldn’t stay quiet about this one…
“Excuse me, but I’ve noticed that we’ve discussed India, China and the Middle East at length, and even have touched on South America as well as some European countries and Australia, but I am yet to hear anything about Africa. Please tell me about what the society’s plans are for expanding into Africa, bearing in mind that there has never been as much investment by businesses and industry in Africa as right now?’
The response came awkwardly, “erm…yes, I suppose we haven’t really begun spreading into Africa…. various reasons for this…limited numbers of members…corruption is a factor…oh yes, yes, of course we have our outreach program! I’ll be happy to connect you with members doing developmental work in Africa! And of course, our strategic partners, EWB-USA have been doing work in Africa for some time now…”
“Yes, I am familiar with this work, but I was talking specifically about the society’s expansion into Africa relating to workforce development and business opportunities: areas in which this organisation can be immensely instrumental relating to infrastructure and sustainability. Surely we would be discussing Africa-US faux-pas if you had any plans at all to expand your member base into African countries.”
“Oh, well, yes you’re right. Africa is of course the last continent to be looked at…lack of correspondent…unique problems…need more interest…blah blah blah…”
So in the end, I couldn’t get a straight answer, but a few people did come to me afterwards to discuss setting up a few student and professional groups in South Africa, so there is still hope! What I want to know though from readers is what I’d hoped to get out of the session: what faux-pas and misunderstandings have African national’s experienced when dealing with people from other nations? Are there notable, offensive or laughable cultural clashes when Ghanains work with Chinese, Americans with South Africans or Brazilians with Egyptians? Do Russian table manners make Ugandans want to choke? Or has an Australian given you a gift that accidentally implied something suggestive or untoward? Please leave your comments and stories about the challenges and humorous moments you have experienced, I would love to hear them!