|Posted on July 22, 2009 at 11:18 AM|
One of the most common frustrations I endured as an American expatriate in Africa lies in the question: "Why do I often get the answer 'yes', when they really mean 'no'?" But to understand this is to understand the African principle of maintaining 'harmony'.
In the beginning of my assignment, I was naively unaware that in African business settings, a show of dissent (or a direct 'no') can be interpreted as a show of disrespect. This is especially true when a young executive is facing a superior or a much older person. Thus, people will frequently reply "yes" to a request, even though they know they won't be able to fulfill it because that is what they think will keep you happy.
Hence, if I asked a local subordinate "Is this a problem you think you can fix?" the answer would often be "yes" out of politeness, but would fail to yield any real results. I used to find this extremely frustrating. But I later learned that by simply re-phrasing my questions, and making them open-ended -- e.g. "What do you think the problem is and how do you think it can be fixed?" -- I was able to encourage fruitful dialogue, avoid the easy "yes"/ "no" answers, and gain a genuine understanding of my African host.
The key here was being able to modify my approach in such a way that would allow my local counterparts to do most of the talking.
Generally speaking, in the cultures of sub-Saharan Africa, 'harmony trumps frankness' and saving face is highly valued. Direct and frank communication is not the norm in most parts of the region as most Africans are uncomfortable with blunt statements. Therefore, every action and every response is conditioned by the need to avoid offending or hurting the feelings of others. Consequently, Africans will often use metaphors, analogies and stories to make a point. That is why the ancient use of proverbs is still relevant in both the modern and traditional circles of African society.
This aspect of traditional culture is reflected in the business culture of contemporary African commercial environments as local counterparts may attempt to qualify what they say so that the message is delivered with sensitivity. This often leads to evasive replies, incomplete answers, and to what a Westerner may call, "white lies". To an American or European executive trained to interact with openness and directness in business dealings, this seeming lack of transparency can be disconcerting.
Therefore, understanding the African principle of maintaining harmony at almost any cost in interpersonal relationships will serve the Western executive well. An expatriate must understand the degree to which Africans will resist opening up without first being personally close. If the relationship does become close, the communication style will become more direct. But for newly established and more formal relationships, the use of tact and diplomacy on the part of the expatriate will be of utmost importance--particularly in getting at the truth.
In the harmony-seeking societies of countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and Zambia, many people will avoid saying negative things outright as it is generally accepted that one does not "have" to say everything. In light of this, it is crucial for the expatriate manager of an Africa-based firm, to modify their management style by making concerted effort to invite conversation in order to gain a genuine understanding of their African host.
copyright 2009 by Erika Amoako-Agyei www.exploreafricanculture.com
Categories: Tips in Cross-Cultural Management