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K24 Day 6: Teaching Business Etiquette July 21, 2010

Filed under: cultural observations,K24 — Admin @ 5:18 pm
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“I no be gentleman at all, I no be gentleman at all, I no be gentleman at all…I be African man. Original!”

I love Fela’s music, but I don’t love that philosophy.

Some laugh at it and some get angered by it, but many Africans (not all, mind you), have this idea that African culture and western hospitality are opposites. And that’s what the music icon, Fela, was saying in the popular song “Gentleman.”

If you know the rest of the song, you know that when Fela sings,

“Them call you, make you come chop (eat)

You chop small, you say you belly full

You say you be gentleman

You go hungry

You go suffer

You go quench

Me I no be gentleman like that!”

He is saying that gentlemen apply certain mannerisms when eating and take only a little food, in the name of courtesy, even if he’s starving. But Fela, according to him, is an African man, not a gentleman.

But, we’re in the 21st century and times are changing. With continued globalization, the world is getting smaller and it seems that one can find western culture in virtually every part of the world. Whether you like it or not, the Western hegemony pervades and to succeed internationally, you may have to act more…well, Western. One my sixth day at K24, I did a story to explore how Africans are importing international business etiquette.

I stumbled upon Public Image Africa while researching story ideas online. The company began in the UK and branched out to Kenya by the likes of a guy named Derek. Derek teaches “soft skills,” or business etiquette, which includes the art of greeting, small talk, professional dress, dining skills, customer service, etc. He actually offers sessions to teenagers, so that was my original story, but he didn’t have any such classes scheduled any time soon. But he was going to be offering a workshop for a business company. I decided to restructure the angle of the story to focus on Africans adapting western standards in the business world and I sat in on one of Derek’s sessions.

It turned out to be a fun story, especially when I got a chance to do some MOS (man-on-the-street) interviews with regular Kenyans. I got out at a busy intersection with Leonard, a really cool K24 camera guy and approached a woman who was buying nuts. I inquired about her ideas of courtesy when it comes to a man being a gentleman. She mentioned that African men should learn to be more affectionate, and perform little gestures like: pulling out his ladies chair, surprising her, opening the car door for her, etc.

I stopped another guy. This guy’s expression was pure confusion. First of all, he had a hard time understanding my American accent and he didn’t know why I was asking him such a question, but he was great on the camera. He said that African men are, indeed gentlemen, by nature because most African cultures teach courtesy and things like that. I asked him if Africans must adapt western ideas of courtesy, especially in the business world. I asked him if an African CEO of an international company should learn dining skills that involve knowing the difference between a soup spoon and a dessert spoon. The guy vehemently said, “no” and that Africans must carry on their own standards. I spoke to another guy who said Africans must do away with traditional culture and become more “westernized.”

The debate continues.


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