Cultural Differences – Ghana

In the West African state of Ghana there are well over one hundred different ethnic groups with their own religion, language and traditions. The largest ethnic group are the Akan, who are one of the few matriarchal ethnic groups in Africa. The Ashanti are the largest tribe within the Akan. Other large tribes, each with numerous subtribes, are the Ewe, the Mole-Dagbane, the Guan and the Ga-Adanbe.

From the 15th century onwards, European seafaring nations and Christian missionaries were also present in the Kingdom of Ghana and British, Portuguese, Dutch and Danish influences can still be felt today. In the 19th century, the British established their colony “The British Gold Coast”. It was known as the “Gold Coast” as it was here that Europeans traded gold brought from the Ashanti lands to the coastal trading centres.

In 1957, Ghana was the first African state to gain independence after the Second World War. This was due to strong nationalist movements within the large tribes. In terms of economy, logistics, education and social development, many milestones were reached during the British colonial period, from which multicultural Ghana – in comparison to other countries on the continent – still benefits today. The country’s recent emergence as an oil producer is therefore only part of the success story of this small, ambitious country.

Traditions and collectivism

Although rather a large number of Ghanaians live in cities, are Christians and have enjoyed a British education, old traditions such as ancestor worship or specific rituals still play an important role in their lives. In Ghana these traditions are not only associated with personal life but are important in the business environment as well.

Moreover, Ghana is strongly collectivist. It is not the individual that matters; it is the well-being of the community that is of importance. The bond between members of an extended family is very strong. These members in turn identify themselves as part of an ethnic group. The individual’s obligations to his family or tribe are great and always take precedence even over instructions from the boss. For example, when setting up departments or teams within a company, it must always be taken into account what affiliations the team members belong to already. Anyone who overlooks the fact that the members of a newly founded team belong to tribal families that are rather hostile to one another will be confronted with various inexplicable problems in day-to-day business.

African leadership qualities

The extended family is controlled by the head of the family, the tribe by the head of the tribe and the company by the head of the company. Hierarchies and associated rules of conduct play an important role in Ghana and must not be ignored by Western business partners or leaders. The boss in Ghana is not just the boss, but also fulfills a father role by taking care of many of the concerns of his employees, including personal concerns. In return, employees show unlimited loyalty to their boss and rarely question anything.

Those who have more authority in Ghana, be it in the family, in the tribe or in the company, must also fulfill their duty of care. This is referred to as the seniority principle. Leadership roles can also extend from urban, economic areas to rural, family areas. For example, it is not uncommon for highly qualified managers to work in the capital Accra during the week and take over their duties as rulers of their tribe at weekends.

Although the largest ethnic group in the country is matriarchal and women’s roles within the tribe and their families are consequently strong, Ghana has few female leaders. It is only in the fields of education, health and politics that women increasingly hold leadership positions.

African sense of time

“Grass doesn’t grow faster when you pull it,” is a well-known African proverb. To any impatience shown by their European or American business partners, Ghanaians will probably say: “You may have the clock, but we have the time.” In Ghana, the typical African attitude towards time and scheduling has defied Western influences: planning and organization play a rather subordinate role for Ghanaians. Things cannot be controlled anyway, so it makes more sense to focus on the short term.

The interpersonal level is much more important than time in Ghana. Ghanaians spend as much time as necessary in a meeting with business partners or colleagues and will not be dictated by the calendar who they talk to when. This is also a question of mutual respect. No Ghanaian will force his interlocutor to hurry just because their next appointment is due. Don’t take it personally if your Ghanaian business partner appears a few hours late for an appointment with you. Once there, he’ll give you his full attention – apart from a few interruptions like his constantly ringing cell phone and a few side conversations.

This is because people in Ghana have a polychronic understanding of time, i.e. they like to do many things at the same time and don’t work through one thing after another. This is associated with a high degree of flexibility that allows Ghanaians to send out emails during a conversation and always keep several balls in the air.

Reading between the lines

Foreign business people often have problems understanding what Ghanaians mean and will need to concentrate hard when talking to them. Ghana is a high-context culture. It is not just what is spoken aloud that is important; facial expressions, body language and above all the context in which something is said must be interpreted correctly. Statements are often ambiguous, are full of allusions, and much is communicated between the lines. Above all, sayings are a popular way of communicating one’s thoughts by using the words of another person. Foreign managers, who usually just say what they think, will have to listen carefully to understand properly.

As maintaining good relationships is always in the foreground in Ghana, Ghanaians will never say “no” directly, or even criticize others for fear of offending other people. Nothing is ever important enough to jeopardize personal relationships in any way. At the same time, dignity and honor are of great importance, so that criticizing can have far-reaching consequences, including irreparable loss of face.

Some rules of etiquette

Ghanaians value etiquette very highly. You should therefore pay attention to things like the hierarchical status of your counterpart and address them appropriately. This may include using their title and even their position in the company. If necessary, ask how their name and title are correctly pronounced. By the way, the Akan choose from seven first names for men and seven for women, depending on the day of the birth. For example, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was born on a Friday. “Kofi” is the first name for all boys who were born on a Friday.

In Ghana, handshakes are the common way to greet Western business partners. Business cards are usually exchanged during the greeting, using only the right hand. In Ghana it is generally a breach of etiquette to hand over anything with your left hand and you should also not use your left hand to point or wave to anyone. Even though only about one fifth of the Ghanaian population is Muslim, the left hand is generally considered unclean.

Since Ghana is an extremely relationship-oriented culture, a first acquaintance always includes a lot of small talk. It would be rude to talk business too soon.

Face-to-face relationship cultivation

In general, a meeting with Ghanaians may consist solely of casual chatting without addressing any business issues. On the one hand, Ghanaians have all the time in the world, on the other hand they would like to get to know their new potential business partners better or perhaps re-establish the relationship after having had some problems. Without a personal basis of trust, Ghanaians will rarely agree to do business together or move projects forward. The most important thing is always the interpersonal relationship, never the matter itself.

Against this background, it is no surprise that business meals are an important part of relationship building. You should always accept invitations in Ghana! Maintaining your business contacts in Ghana is of the utmost importance. Regular personal visits are obligatory and invitations to your home country will also be expected, even if organizational issues will frequently put the project on ice.

In general, personal contact is always given priority in Ghana. A business relationship purely based solely on correspondence is almost unimaginable.

What matters more than the written word

A written agreement is therefore of secondary importance in Ghana. For Ghanaians, what is verbally discussed tends to be far more important. After all, if things change, a new agreement will have to be reached. What is written in the contract will then be outdated and will not really benefit anyone. Just as calendars are not important, written agreements alone will not guarantee smooth cooperation. Only the people involved can achieve something together, as long as their relationship with each other is stable enough.

If you encounter any difficulties, don’t turn to looking for culpability or the corresponding contractual clause; instead, focus on solving the problems at the interpersonal level. Reach for the phone or even better, travel to Ghana and explain to your business partners why, for instance, on-time delivery is so important to you instead of recounting the weeks of delay or even threatening with penalties.

A long-term “communication-heavy” commitment

Overall, collaborative projects in Ghana are extremely communication-intensive. Your Ghanaian business partners are not the only ones who would like to talk to you personally. Even in day-to-day business, you must assume that you will be expected to give very clear and precise instructions. The hierarchies in Ghanaian companies are finely differentiated and people don’t try to think outside the box. A clear distribution of tasks is therefore essential. In order to transfer more responsibility to Ghanaian employees, a long, step-by-step preparation is usually necessary, which must extend to the corporate culture as a whole. However, many international companies report that the cooperation with Ghanaian teams ultimately works very well if both sides are willing to learn from each other.

Katrin Koll Prakoonwit

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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