Cross-Cultural (Mis)Communication

I was going to a Bible study with some Nigerian women for a while, and one afternoon (well, technically evening, as it was at 4 pm, and that’s the start of evening here) about a month ago we had a fellowship time scheduled at the leader’s house.  Chris, who already was taking off work early one day a week so I could attend the study, was working, so I texted the leader and subtly asked about bringing Judah with me to the fellowship.  She wrote back and said that as long as he wasn’t a distraction, that would be fine.

A distraction?  He’s 10 months old.  He wiggles, crawls and babbles (loudly) – and he’s cute (in my unbiased opinion); of course he’s a distraction!  I decided not to attend and let her know that, and she responded with a message letting me know that they were all disappointed that I didn’t come and they had really wanted to meet Judah but they didn’t want to pressure me into coming, that they felt it had to be my decision about whether or not to come (A message which, of course, with the sometimes bad phone connections, I didn’t get until it was too late to go anyway.).  In a later conversation – much later, really (me thinking, “Why is she bringing this up again?  This is really odd.”) – she told me again that they had really hoped I would come and they were looking forward to meeting my baby and seeing me, and they were disappointed I hadn’t come, but they wanted me to decide for myself about coming because after all, they couldn’t force me to come.

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How can a smile this cute not be a distraction?? 🙂

And that’s when it hit me. 

That part of our training before coming to Nigeria, and even in some of the “on the job” training we received here, that dealt with cultural communication.  That part that was a theoretical blur until I obviously offended someone here.  That part about direct and indirect styles of communication.

And the fact that typically Americans tend to be on one side of the spectrum (direct) while Africans tend to be on the complete opposite side (indirect).  Obviously there are individual exceptions to this, but for the most part, culturally, Americans value directness, while Africans often won’t come right out and say certain things (or at least that’s the perception of my more-direct-than-I-thought-American-self).  Even apologies here, we’ve noticed, would probably not pass as apologies in the States; they would look more like excuses (especially in situations where saving face is involved since that’s an important facet of the culture as well). 

So this young woman who invited me to her home really did want us to come.  In my mind, the minute she said that Judah could come if he wasn’t a distraction, he was not welcome (what with him being a distraction and all  😉 – or at least with me unable to guarantee that he WOULDN’T be one).  Even her message about it being my decision was, to me, like saying, “Do what you want, but if you had any social sense, you wouldn’t bring your loud, wiggly – though cute – baby.”  Nothing personal, of course, but for the sake of the others who would be there, it would be better for him not to come. 

…Except for here, everything is personal, in many ways.  It’s all about relationships.  She opened her home to me – and my 10 month old, by extension, distraction or not – and by opting not to come, I was, in many ways, choosing practicality over the relationship.

I still don’t get it, really.  Why not just say, “Of course it’s no problem!  Bring the baby!”?  I’m not sure what exactly went awry in that series of communication.  In a culture of indirect communication where relationships are highly valued and saving face is important, maybe she thought I was looking for an excuse to NOT come and she was giving me a way out. 

Or maybe what went awry is that I’m a product of my culture, she’s a product of hers, and neither of us even thought that the other could possibly understand anything other than, well, what we meant by what we said. 

This cross-cultural communication has more grey areas than I thought.  🙂

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4 thoughts on “Cross-Cultural (Mis)Communication

  1. Hi – I just hopped over here and realized I SHOULD be reading these posts more often – this one was particularly interesting. I majored in Comm. at Hope and touched on this issue a little bit, I think you are absolutely right that in the US we are so much more “get-to-the-point” and the subtleties aren’t only lost, they’re viewed as annoyances! Even more perpetuated by how much of our communication takes places via Internet and Text…. tone and body language are eliminated from the equation altogether; thank goodness for emoticons ;). It must tricky to feel like you are guessing at what someone actually means (what if she meant what she *said* and you offended her by bringing your adorable distraction?). Good luck navigating these waters! I’m sure your instincts will steer you right.

  2. Tricky stuff! Even though Americans (and Canadians!) tend to be more direct, there are still lots of grey areas. I had it the other day with a friend of mine, someone who I should have just been able to say afterwards, “Now, what exactly did you mean by that?” but sometimes that’s hard to ask, even to a friend! Another really annoying thing is that we sometimes have different definitions of the very same word, subtle or not, which can totally chance our perceptions of the things someone says.
    Anyway, next time, I guess you’ll just have to bring the cute, slightly distracting baby and not think about the alternatives! hehe

    Love reading your blog, keep it coming! I’ve not been very good at updating ours as of late…. and I can’t promise it’ll get much better. I’m starting back up at work next week. Oh, wait, I mean in three days. AHHH!

    Lots of love to your little family!!!! Love, Andrea and Derek, G, B and M. :0)

  3. Great point! Subtle statements can even sometimes be offensive here in the US as direct may be there in Jos. I would have probable taken what she said just as you did! “Ummm…please don’t we want to be able to study…he would be too distracting.”

    You’ll have to bring him and have him distract them next time!!

  4. Hard to navigate these waters. Sound like you and the Holy Spirit need constant communication.
    (Not necessesarily a bad thing).
    Luv ya.

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