These are conversations I wish I had had years ago- I wonder why I didn’t ever do it before? The cultural values I investigated were particularism/universalism, low/high power distance and individualism/collectivism.
I had experienced a collision in this orientation recently when we were planning how to sell off our belongings. The first people to hear about our leaving were the administrators (higher status) and they came to us expecting to ask for things first. But they were not the people we had the closest relationships with and to whom we would have preferred to give first choice. So to try to make it ‘fair’ we sent out a list to everyone and had everyone text their choice at the same time. Everyone could get one item. I explained why we were doing this in great detail, and very apologetically, to everyone I talked with but it was obviously not what they were expecting. Those of ‘lesser’ status- including 3 of those I talked with were delighted, because they would not normally have been able to get anything!
My friends remarked that it’s very much ‘who you know’ when it comes to jobs or services (like visas). But when you don’t know the right people, it’s very frustrating and they kept referring to the orientation towards particularism as a problem. They see the value in the universal application of rules but had all taken advantage of relationships at various times because everyone else does.
Conversations in this area made me wonder– should I have just done what was expected (affirm that those of higher status are more important and thus deserving of more things and preferential treatment) and ignored my sense of ‘fairness’ or is it okay at times to challenge the way the culture does things? Because we are leaving it’s easier to ‘ruffle feathers’ in the politest way possible, but if I had to live and work with these people it may have been more difficult.
Low / High power distance
I have been particularly frustrated by the orientation to High power distance especially since our current administrators are very authoritative and secretive and have been allowed to make decisions that have negatively impacted our school without anyone questioning them. (In fact, one person I had intended to interview had been put on compulsory leave for a month – a disciplinary measure as a result of her speaking out against the administration.) My friends agreed that often in organizations this high power distance is still expected –they may not like it, but they go along with decisions made for them without questioning them. There are, of course, exceptions. Our first Nigerian principal insisted on consensus from the faculty and went round and round . . .and round the table – wearing everyone down into consensus. The biggest change all four of my respondents noted was in family structure. The patriarch of the family used to make all the decisions (like forbidding anyone to harvest tea for 2 years from a field or deciding what food a woman could and could not eat) but it is changing, and most family heads will meet to seek consensus from all members. All four thought that this was a change for the better.
This is the area which has rubbed on my day-to-day life most often. Two examples: A mother here is known by her children’s name (i.e. Mama Daudi) and is happy to do so because the child belongs to her and is part of her. But I always felt that when I knew a woman by her child’s name, I didn’t know the woman herself. I wanted to know HER name. But of course my friends were astonished because that IS her name. In fact when they were asked to call us by our first names, one friend said he did so, but always looking over his shoulder expecting his mother to appear and punish him for being disrespectful! When the youth or choir are called up to present at church, or when asking for an answer from the class there might be a long pause before anyone would stand or offer an answer because no-one wanted to be seen as wanting to be the first. “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” Despite the changes that my friends saw coming in this area towards more individual considerations, they felt that most people felt themselves part of the community first. As we later talked about time orientation, they said that to show up to a wedding early may mean that you would be alone – and that would be terrible! People would think there is something wrong with you. Better to call each other and show up as a group.
As I was talking with my friends the first (and most obvious) thought was that I should have done this years ago – and why hadn’t I? Did I not see the need or was I fearing being told that I was the one who had to change? It really is only a God-given desire to love and serve another that will prompt me to give up my individual ‘right’ to live the way I want to live.
They were all very interested to talk about orientations and noted that it wasn’t just African/N. American differences, but that many of them on staff came from different African cultures and had each had to learn to adjust to the local way of doing things. Each had, at one time or another, been thought rude or thought others rude because of the differences. It was helpful and fun not just talking about what we should and shouldn’t do, but to understand the whys–looking “below the cultural artifacts” as Livermore says.
I thought I should encourage this kind of conversation among new friends from other cultures so we don’t spend time confusing or hurting each other when we could be more fully enjoying our rich diversity.