Cultural Differences – East Africa

In East African countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Malawi, it is essential to allow sufficient time to get projects off the ground. In order to establish a certain basis of trust, it is not unusual to talk extensively about personal matters with potential business partners. Family is very important in East African societies and is therefore a topic of conversation. Going out for a meal together and visiting each other are other tried and tested ways of getting to know each other better. In general, make sure that you do not rush straight into business, but allow enough time to pass before gradually moving on to business dealings.

Elaborate greeting rituals

Against this background, it is important to ensure that the greeting of potential business and project partners is pleasant. Long, elaborate greetings are very important for East Africans. It is considered polite to ask about the family, the house, the weather, the arrival and general wellbeing. In order to build bridges right from the start, it is worth learning at least a few Swahili phrases to open the conversation. You can then switch languages as the conversation goes on.

In Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Malawi and Uganda in particular, you should pay close attention to the rank and age of the person you are talking to. It is extremely important to show special respect and courtesy to older and/or higher ranked people. Violating the prevailing seniority principle would be considered to be a snub.

A strong handshake will also make a good impression. The best way is to grasp the other person’s hand with both hands. Women should be careful not to look men in the eye as this can easily be misunderstood. East African women tend to lower their eyes when interacting with men. This is not expected of European women, but too much “staring” can make East Africans feel uncomfortable.

The boss calls the shots

After an extended greeting, you should also be prepared for long meetings. This is partly due to the fact that East Africans communicate very indirectly. Critical points in particular must be expressed very objectively and politely. Western managers are therefore often considered to be too pushy and rude because of their more direct communication style.

You should also pay attention to the respective hierarchical levels of the different participants. As a general rule, managers have both the first and last word. It is important, however, that all participants in a meeting have their say, even if the final decision is made by the highest ranking individual. Most importantly, presentations should be focused on specific benefits.

At a meeting, the higher ranking person is allowed to be late. Punctuality is expected from everyone else, even if you have to wait if necessary.

Clothing is generally of vital importance in meetings. Make sure to wear formal business attire. Women should wear knee-length skirts and avoid tight pants. Clothing that is too casual is tantamount to a personal insult!

Friendly negotiations

East Africans enjoy negotiating and they do it well. Their negotiating style is in line with their principles of indirect communication. You will not hear a direct “no” to reject a proposal. On the other hand, you shouldn’t simply reject offers from your East African business partners with a “No thank you”. It is better to suggest possible alternatives. You should also try to control your emotions in negotiations, to react in a friendly way to everything that happens and to always remain focused on the other person.

Paternalistic leadership style

When working together on a project or during a longer stay, you will get to know East African companies and organizations from the inside. Please bear in mind that the prevailing social norms in the company are based on the family mode. Authority is in the hands of a few, decisions are made within a very narrow hierarchy. The leadership style tends to be paternalistic (in some regions also maternalistic). Managers are authoritarian and demand obedience and submission from their employees. They must give clear tasks and instructions. Individual freedom of action within a defined framework is rarely accepted in East Africa. On the other hand, employees expect their boss to be available to them at all times and to behave in a friendly but distant manner. Bosses are responsible for looking after employees and helping them with family matters as well.

East African companies use a very indirect way of communication. In addition, social distance between individuals on different hierarchical levels must be maintained. Communication between managers and employees is therefore usually very formal and adheres strictly to the hierarchical structure. If, for instance, an employee needs to be rebuked, this is usually done indirectly via “close associates” because a manager must not under any circumstances expose an employee through criticism.

Conflicts must not be dealt with in the open

In East African countries, to let conflicts arise between members of a so-called ingroup (team colleagues, employees in the same department, etc.) is avoided at all costs. Should a conflict nevertheless arise, it is usually settled indirectly. Should any conflicts arise between a foreign manager and an East African employee, you should assume that the employee will take even objective criticism personally. Conflicts are therefore always associated with loss of face. This in turn can lead to the entire workforce boycotting work and everyone allying themselves with those affected. In order to avoid conflicts, foreign managers should therefore try to control their own emotions and express themselves cautiously and indirectly. You can only give negative feedback in private. However, in most cases it is advisable to consult an experienced intermediary.

Culturally appropriate behavior during business meals

In the relationship-oriented East African business culture, eating together is of great importance. An invitation may be either official or unofficial in nature. It’s quite normal to just drop in on someone unannounced.

What both forms of invitation have in common is that guests are expected to behave in a culturally appropriate manner. Any food that is offered should only be rejected if you have a good reason for doing so, e.g. because your stomach is upset or because you have an allergy to these foods. These excuses will not be taken as “lies”, but as an indirect and at the same time polite way of saying that you don’t want to eat any of the food offered (e.g. because you are a vegetarian or find a dish very unusual).

Be careful not to put your foot in it: Some Westeners like to smell food and breathe the aromas in deeply. This is how we show our appreciation of a dish that smells good and show that we are looking forward to enjoying it. In East Africa this is considered a faux pas. The smell of food is associated with animals and smelling it constitutes extremely uncivilized behavior.

It is also important to know that East African employees often expect Europeans or Americans to pay the bill for the meal they eat together in a restaurant, especially if they have suggested eating out themselves. This is not because East Africans think that Europeans have more money, but because superiors are generally expected to take care of their employees both financially and family-wise.

Tupoka Ogette

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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