I don’t laugh at people using chopsticks! (and other thoughts on intercultural communiccaiton)

Okay. I get it. I am not Malawian and I don’t know how to eat nsima properly. Because I was raised in a part of the world where eating with your hands is synonymous with an irate mother, I just haven’t got the hang of rolling a ball of maize-meal around in my hands before using it to scoop up meat, sauce, or relish. I understand the idea but in practice I am fairly inept. That being said, I am not overjoyed at the fact that Malawians find my style of eating to be, apparently, hilarious. And frankly, it is one of the few overt displays of rudeness that I see from otherwise polite and deferential people. Word to the wise: laughing and pointing at someone during meal time is rather obnoxious…

Anecdote aside, intercultural understanding and communication requires equal shares of patience, flexibility, and inner calm. For those of you who know me well, you are aware that I am good with flexibility and dynamism, but patience has never been my virtue and chaotic best describes my general state of being. Still, I try.

This morning in the office we had a complete system break down when it became clear that our senior Malawian staff had been agreeing with a suggestion that the PI (principal investigator) made just because they did not want to contradict her. When it became obvious that they could not actually follow through with the proposed plan, we went into crisis mode. Essentially, we were under the impression that we could hire 10 data entry clerks in Northern Malawi and have them live at home during the project (hence, no need to pay for their accommodation or per-diem). Conversely, the Malawian staff thought we were going to hire these staff members in Zomba and accommodate them in Karonga for the duration of the project. We were notified of this difference in opinion today, 6 days before the start of the project.

The issue has now been resolved but only after a long and tense meeting with myself, the in-country head of the research organization, and the 3 Malawian staff members. It is important to note that no one is really to blame for this break down in communication but it does highlight the difficulties that people of different cultural or social backgrounds may face when working together. We negotiated through this crisis by forcing the Malawian staff to assert themselves (after all, they know far more about how things work in this country–and what is possible in the different regions–than I ever will).

The truth is, politeness and deference are all well and good when sitting down to a meal but they can interfere with the smooth and efficient functioning of a project. On the other hand, my tendency towards assertiveness and straight-talk can really rub people here the wrong way (and not just because I am female). Ultimately, inter-cultural communication is probably a skill that can only be learned in the school of hard-knocks. Lucky for me, I received my letter of admission to that vaunted establishment some 23 years ago… tuition may be high but the education is priceless.


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