Wednesday, November 28, 2012

To Ask or Not To Ask: That is the Question

As I've lived in Nigeria, I have learned there are certain things you don't ask or say, especially to a new acquaintance. Things that are perfectly reasonable to ask or say to a new acquaintance in the U.S. This also works in reverse, as there are certain things that Nigerians will say to me that are perfectly reasonable here but if you would say in America, they would be completely unacceptable. I've collected quite a number of these cross-cultural quirks, so I thought I'd share some of them with you.

Things you shouldn't ask a Nigerian, especially if you're meeting them for the first time:

~"How old are you?" This is kind of impolite in some situations in the U.S., but not in the way it is in Nigeria. I don't know the age of the vast majority of people with whom I have interacted regularly for the past five months.

~"How many children do you have?" This is seriously taboo. If a person would answer that, it's almost as if they're saying that is "final." Even though they may only have 2 now, they may want 4, but if they say, "I have two," then it's like that's it. Done. No more will come. I believe it's linked to some old-school traditional beliefs, though I don't know anymore than that.

~"When are you due?" Never ever ask a pregnant Nigerian lady when she is due. This is terribly offensive. Again, I understand it's linked to some traditional beliefs about stating things before they're certain, saying things out loud and thereby giving demons a chance to do funny things (some believe), etc. This is something that even close friends don't ask one another.

~"How many brothers and sisters do you have?" We would totally ask this in a first conversation in the U.S., but it's not something you'd ask that quickly in Nigeria. It's not "relevant" or "fair game," and altogether too personal to ask when you first meet someone.

In general, we Americans ask a LOT of personal questions the first time we meet someone. A lot. So if you're meeting a Nigerian, just chill out with the question asking, and instead talk about sports, politics, or generalities about their life (e.g., How's work? or How's your family? rather than Where do you work? or What does your brother do?). Let people offer information rather than asking for it. Americans view asking lots of questions as showing interest and trying to get to know a person better, but Nigerians see it as suspicious behavior and think, "Why do they want to know this??" In general, Nigerians prefer to get to know someone by observing them, spending time together, or experiencing things together. Again, these are generalities about both cultures, not absolutes, but good to keep in mind. 

And for my Nigerian friends, here are some things you might want to refrain from saying or asking if you're in America.

~"You look like you've added weight." You can't imagine how frequently people say this to me in Nigerian. It seems Nigerians notice even small changes in the way people look, and it's perfectly ok to comment on it, as a totally 'matter of fact' statement, not in any way judging. Well, maybe some people are judging if they say it behind your back, but if they just say it to you, it's rarely judgmental. But yea, don't do this in the U.S., it is extremely rude. You can tell someone they look like they've lost weight, but not added. It's also common to ask people how much they weigh in Nigeria, and this would also be taboo in the U.S., unless it's a close friend.

~Asking a person about their acne/pimples. Even the word 'pimples' is not a word we use in the U.S., but it seems to be the preferred word in Nigeria.  As with so many things, we try to find 'nicer' words. Ah, the number of people who have asked me about my pimples! But it's literally not something you ever ask about in the U.S. Unless it's a mother to her child. Off limits.

~In general, men commenting on women's appearance. Now. Of course if a Nigerian guy my age who is intersested in dating me comments on my appearance (in a positive way), it's fine. I'm talking about older men commenting on younger women's appearances, especially in a professional setting. It's totally commonplace here, and I literally think all of my male coworkers/supervisors have commented on my appearance at least once. But in the U.S. you have to be super careful because people are super sensitive about sexual harassment and at the faintest whiff of sexual undertones, you might find yourself with a lawsuit on your hands. When you had perfectly benign intentions, and, as a proper Nigerian man, were just appreciating and celebrating the beauty of a woman.  

~"What church do you go to?" If you know someone is a Christian, it would be fine to ask. But unlike Southwest Nigeria where most people are "Christian" (or at least they would call themselves so because they go to church on Sunday), there are large portions of America where only a small percentage of people are Christians. Even if you're in a place with lots of Christians, religion is just not a "first conversation" kind of topic like it is in Nigeria. Again, assuming you don't know if the person is a Christian. Then again, if you have an evangelist's heart and want to share Jesus with everyone you meet, go right ahead, but just know that it may come across as a bit abrasive.  

~Interdigitating. This is a word I made up the first time I experienced it in Romania. One time we were all circled up before dinner to pray, and a Nigerian guy friend was next to me, and as we all joined hands, he interdigitated. You know, like the kind of hand holding that couples do, interlacing fingers. Not something guy and girl friends do. At all. Ever. It caught me totally off guard, and I was terribly confused at what it meant and if he was trying to 'send me a message.' When in actuality, it meant nothing, and it's just totally normal. Nigerians are affectionate in some ways that Americans aren't, and hand-holding (even interdigitational hand-holding) is quite common between men and women who aren't a couple, as well as between men. It's just part of the culture. Unfortunately I did not know this, and I am sure I blushed the first time it happened. Thankfully everyone was praying at the time and likely did not notice, and my confusion was shortly cleared up when I asked another Nigerian friend about the matter. But just to save any other Americans some confusion, be careful about your interdigitating.

With that, I will bring this post to a close. Hopefully this will help prevent a few misunderstandings and cultural snafus. If you can think of other questions or sensitive topics to add to this list, please feel free to post a comment!

1 comment:

Dave Hayden said...

Fascinating stuff Liz! Thanks for posting.

Regarding "how many children do you have" and "when are you due," I was wondering if the language blurs the tenses so that "how many children do you have (present)" and "how many children will you have (future)" are the same?

I've heard that in the American South, "what church do you go to" is perfectly acceptable and a common question upon first meeting. The question presumes that you're a particular religion and I think that's why it can be offensive.