The Ugly American is one of the biggest best sellers, published by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer. Like Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, one of the most widely read books by an African author, it was also published in 1958. Whereas Chinua Achebe’s novel chronicled the beauty of Igbo culture and the refusal of colonial masters to integrate in the pre-and-post colonisation era. The Ugly American portrays the downside of American culture, showing insensitivity to local language, culture, customs and refusal to integrate overseas. the term later became a perjorative term for Americans living abroad, who disregard the local culture and rather appraise issues by American standards. One remarkable similarity of both very influential novels is the issue of integration.
In our clime, the integration of Western culture into our traditional setting has remained a protracted issue throwing the victims into endless dilemma. In several instances, perceived cultural infraction has attracted severe punishment leading to a strain in relationships.
Let’s examine three critical cases
A lady in dire need of assistance sought and was granted audience by a major influencer. After narrating her pathetic story, the influencer attempted a recap to ensure all the facts were understood and asked the lady, “Is that all?” to which she replied “yeah” and all hell was let loose. “How dare you respond with yea, don’t you know it’s disrespectful?” she demanded, livid with rage. Rather than expend the valuable time on the critical matter at hand, valuable time was spent putting out the fire ignited by the social blunder. On our way home, looking like a wet blanket, the poor girl asked, “Aunty, please what is wrong in responding with yeah?”
There may be nothing wrong in saying yeah but in our conservative setting, responding ‘yeah’ to seniors or superiors is considered rude and inappropriate. The appropriate response to a superior or senior is simply “yes.”
The art of meeting and greeting is strictly tailored along cultural lines. Whereas it is the norm to say “hello” with a wave of the hand in the West, traditional salutation requires curtsying, bowing, prostrating, genuflecting, kneeling down or any other demonstration of respect. Typically, in greeting “Good morning sir/ma” as the case may be, is accompanied by traditional courtesy. Business Etiquette may recommend looking people direct in the eye with a casual greeting, but good manners require a form of felicitation that demonstrates deep respect for the sensitivity of the recipient. Ever had an older person ignore your casual greeting before? The implication is that your salutation was not properly packaged. Many prospective brides and suitors have had their dreams truncated in the preliminary meeting with intended parents-in-law.
A top management staff of an IOC (international oil company) narrated her experience. She was actually incensed that a young intake about the same age as her youngest child addressed her by her first name. When she tempted to correct the young man, he made reference to the company policy that stipulates a first name basis for every staff irrespective of level. This boldness of the youngster infuriated her further. “These new intakes have no manners, no respect for seniors, no proper home training”, she fumed.
“I told him that I don’t care what the policy says, I will not tolerate that from a small boy who is at the same age bracket as my youngest child.” She went as far as threatening to ban the young man from the Management floor.
This is another clear case of clash of cultures. Traditional African culture typically does not permit young ones addressing seniors by first names. So whereas the Europeans and Americans can address adults on first name basis, it is socially unacceptable in Nigeria.
The requisite is a prefix like aunty, Uncle, Baba, Mama, Madam, Papa, Brother, Sister, Oga, a title or any local adaption of the prefix. Any deviation from the norm may attract reprimand. Often earning the offender the brand of an enfant terrible. I recall receiving knocks on the head and slaps by my mother on several instances she was mortified at my seeming lack of respect for seniors especially in the village. Etiquette is often ignored at great peril. A relative who was barely few years older shocked me when he stated that he denied me certain privileges because I addressed him by his first name. If you think this is extreme, consider the case of an honourable member of the House of Representatives (incidentally trained overseas), publicly disciplined by a professor at a village meeting, who inflicted a hard knock on the head for transgressing the social code of conduct.
Granted you may not be knocked on the head or slapped but the reality is that your relationship and people skills are being knocked by poor social skills. Irrespective of the subsisting corporate culture, the rule of thumb is to ensure that your manner of interaction is guided by respect, consideration and honesty with deference to the sensitivity of the recipient. Words, action, and appearance are three elements that affect your relationship. They must take cognizance of the affectability of the people you interact with. Etiquette advantage empowers you to handle any given situation with aplomb. It is unwise to isolate your self through anti-social behaviour. Business etiquette must be integrated into local culture. It is dangerous to treat social graces shabbily.
Remember that no one really cares about your intent, your action and it’s impact on people is what you will be judged with. If you take your relationships seriously, you would defer to the sensibilities of your clients. In the law of compensation, life will pay you based on the effort you put in.
Culture drives expectation and behaviour. Do not be an ugly Nigerian.