19 August 2014

Cultural Differences #7: Ambiguity versus Clearly-Defined Arrangements, Plans, etc.

African Friends 
and Money Matters  
by David Maranz

Africans find security 
in ambiguous arrangements, 
plans, and speech.

Westerners find security in clearly defined relationships, arrangements, plans, and speech.

Africans’ Ambiguity
Part of the social code in Africa is the use of ambiguity and the indirect approach, for it provides allowances for the uncertainties of life. It allows for ‘flexibility for changing realities’ or ‘keeping the options open’. It also gives ample allowance for ‘saving face’, that is, for avoiding embarrassment for oneself or others.

The following are areas where ambiguity is often seen: 
  • Borrowing money or resources, which leaves open when, how, or if return or repayment will be made.
  • Not having fixed prices maximizes the possibility of making greater profits by allowing the seller to maintain the advantage of knowing his bottom ‘last price’. It also allows for the inclusion of personal relationships and other subjective factors in pricing decisions.
  • Allowing for the renegotiation of agreements in the light of changed facts, hoping for a better agreement.
  • Not keeping accurate or precise financial records.
  • ‘No’ being an unacceptable response in many situations where it expresses a finality that is considered to be negative and even hostile, easily leading to a rupture in relationship.
  • Arriving or starting times for meetings or gatherings being indefinitely later than the announced times. Paying close attention to time gives Westerners a sense of security, whereas it causes a lot of anxiety for Africans.

Ambiguity is an art in Africa 
and imprecision is its first cousin.

The language of Africans is often imprecise and their numbers inexact. Westerners should be watchful for roundabout approaches by Africans they meet or work with. It takes more time and you may struggle to understand the point someone is making. But it’s your role to discover the issue. Africans love symbolism, proverbs, and double meanings, not straight-forward speech.

A confrontational, direct approach is inappropriate in Africa. People will find you offensive if you use this style. Instead, you need to communicate by beating around the bush.

Africans experiences have taught them that much of life if uncertain, including the future. Therefore, much caution is needed. Government is all-powerful and the goals and policies of those in power are shrouded in secrecy and are largely unknown. Transparency is much talked about but little practiced.

Available resources are very limited and there is much conflict over their control. Consequently, to commit oneself to a future action or to the use of personal resources is very hazardous or even reckless. Who can tell what will happen after a decision is made that will affect one’s resources, the rules, and even the playing field?

Ambiguity gives security because flexibility is built in; contingencies are allowed for. People have learned to be present oriented, preferring to focus on the present and deal with the uncertain future as it comes along.

Westerners’ Clarity

American idioms that express such clarity and directness of speech:
  • Lay your cards on the table.
  • Stop beating around the bush.
  • Face the facts.
  • Get on with the business at hand.
  • Call a spade a spade.
  • Stand up and be counted.
  • Get it direct from the horse’s mouth.
In fundamental contrast to the African experience, Westerners’ experiences and education have taught them that those who plan ahead get ahead. The conditions of their lives, governments, and institutions have been stable and predictable. And they assume they will continue that way. They have found that it pays to carefully budget their resources, time, and activities.

Ambiguity causes worry because future plans need to be settled now. If something is determined to be advantageous now, take advantage of it as conditions may not be quite as advantageous in the future. Ambiguity causes worry because of a need to know what future actions and commitments will be.

Ambiguity prevents Westerners from planning for the future. Being future-oriented, they need to make detailed plans for the future and when unable to do so, they are frustrated.

[Note: This post contains selected excerpts from the book 
and is only one out of 90 that the author explains.]

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