Notes From the Field: Cultural Differences You Should Know in Uganda
With Uganda at the top of Lonely Planet and the New York Times’ travel destinations for 2012, is the country on your wish list of destinations for the near future?
I’ve already shared how to pack, what to wear, and a glimpse into my day-to-day, but before you go, it’s also helpful to know a few cultural tips for navigating through social interactions. While some of these you would observe quite quickly, others might take a little longer to notice. So, consider this your heads up when you’re meeting new people from Uganda.
1. Re-learn Your Handshake
You know that firm handshake you practiced until it was perfect for your first job interview? Well, you need to adopt the opposite for Uganda. When greeting someone, people extend their hands and lightly shake each other’s fingers—there’s no real grasp with a clearly defined starting and stopping point. And on that note:
2. Prepare to Hold Hands
The Ugandan handshake often extends for so long that it turns into hand-holding or arm-holding. This was difficult to adjust to—there seemed to be no real rule as to when you let go. Do you offend someone by letting go too early or be overbearing and hold on forever? I’ve learned to let your Ugandan handshake partner make these decisions, and to just follow their lead. Note: This often results in male friends (more often than female friends) holding hands as they walk down the street together, which is rather unusual to an American’s eyes, but not as surprising once you understand from where it comes.
3. Be Stubborn
If someone calls you “stubborn,” take it as a compliment! It means that you’re funny.
4. Say Sorry
“Sorry” doesn’t carry as much weight in the U.S. as it does in Uganda. In the States, telling someone you’re sorry about his or her loss, disappointment, or some other unfortunate event usually doesn’t feel like you’re saying enough—you want to go on and on. In Uganda, however, despite the fact that “sorry” is also used all the time, it still comes across as sincere when giving condolences or sympathies. You are “sorry” someone broke her foot or sorry that someone lost his grandmother, and that’s really all you need.
5. Take Answers With a Grain of Salt
Ugandans are so interested in being able to give you an answer (say, when you’re asking for directions) that instead of letting you know that they don’t know how to get somewhere, they will just point you in the direction of their best guess. Once you’ve received three different directions for the same location, you know that someone’s kindness got in the way of their helpfulness.
6. Use your Eyebrows, Not Your Words
Body language is ample but subtle in Uganda, and why waste your words when you can say the same thing with a quick lift of the eyebrows? Surprise, apprehension, and agreement can all be expressed with an eyebrow lift, and you can even give someone directions. Just raise your eyebrows and look in the right direction, and you've given them the information they need.
Now that you know a few of the unspoken rules of meeting people and getting around, you’re prepared to go! Book that ticket: USA —> EBB.
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