Maybe it’s the sunshine, but foreign visitors to the West African coast often remark about how ‘friendly’ the people are. The term ‘friendly’ can mean a lot of things depending on the viewpoint and experience of the giver and/or receiver.
One day, I asked a friend from America why Nigerians were frequently referred to with this descriptive? The response to my question was suprising to me. In essence, the answer was this: ‘You people seem to be happy. You smile a lot and you greet people with enthusiasm. I was perplexed. Wasn’t that simply the basics of good manners? Of course, you didn’t just say ‘Hi’. It was rude to greet someone early in the day and not inquire about basic things such as their well being and the well being of the family members. Saying ‘Good Morning’ was simply the opener to polite conversation.
Years later, I found myself in America. I would quickly come to understand that the phrase ‘Let’s do lunch’ was not necessarily a serious invitation to meet for a meal. And, unless there was a specific follow-up, this seemingly direct and straight-forward request was merely a nicety. One which carried little sense of obligation for either party. At least that became my perspective as I waited for phone calls which never came in those early years.
Not only do societal norms and manners matter, they can be the oil which greases the wheels of progress and prosperity or the quick sand which sinkholes the unsuspecting novice. In many cultures, so called ‘niceties’ may be more crucial to a successful negotiation than the written terms of a contract. Having some level of clarity and intuitive knowledge can be critical to avoiding costly disasters – situations where the goodwill seems to evaporate without explanation, rhyme or reason.
Take for instance the simply politeness of saying ‘Good Morning’. My experience in my native country was such that if I forgot to say ‘Good Morning’ to anyone, I was reprimanded…in public…in front of the party I offended. And, then instructed to start out on the right foot by greeting people properly. Most individuals don’t need more than one or two public shamings of this sort to know that saying ‘Good Morning’ is a pre-requisite for polite company in southern Nigerian culture.
So, you can imagine my suprise when in the early years of my real estate career, I greeted a colleague with a cheerful ‘Good Morning’, only to be ignored. I was so surprised, I asked one of the secretarial staff if I had inadvertently offended the individual. I found the answer even more surprising when she responded with ‘O don’t let that worry you, that’s just how he is.’ So, a show stopper in one culture may be viewed completely differently in another one.
Cultural Intelligence enables us to adjust and adapt across cultures in ways that allow us to interact and to utilize the wisdom from keen observations to make good decisions. Being effective in different situations does not require mimicry in the traditional sense, but it does help to have enough sensitivity and personal insight to adapt in a way that shows goodwill towards people and situations that differ from our own.