By Farooq A. Kperogi
I need to clarify two things before I proceed. First, not all Americans think Nigerians are rude. Heck, many, perhaps most, Americans can’t even tell Nigerians from other Africans. Second, what follows is only an extrapolation from my informal encounters.
In the past three or so years, many of my colleagues here have invited me to talk about Nigeria to their intercultural communication students. One question that some students in these classes have consistently asked me is: “why are Nigerians so rude?” Of course, the irony of the question itself—at least by Nigerian manners—is that it takes a thoroughly ill-bred and rude person to ask that kind of question in such a stark and direct manner, especially to a person who is a native of the country you’re asking about. I have never failed to point out that irony.
To be clear, no white American has ever asked me this; only African Americans have. This is probably because white Americans fear that asking such a direct, culturally loaded question could expose them to charges of racism. African Americans have no such inhibitions. However, I suspect that other Americans who have related with Nigerians have similar concerns.
To confirm this, I typed the phrase “Why are Nigerians…” on Google. The search engine automatically completed the sentence thus: “Why are Nigerians so rude?” There were 139,000 results for the query. This indicates that several people (probably both in and outside America) have searched the term on Google. So I think the question is worth mulling over.
The first thing to be said about this is that perceptions of rudeness and courtesy are mediated, for the most part, by cultural differences. Many Nigerians I know also consider Americans rude. But a Nigerian is unlikely to ask an American professor that he or she is meeting for the first time why Americans are rude. He or she would most probably frame the question differently. For one, almost all Nigerian cultures reserve a lot of respect for people on account of their age and learning. In contemporary American culture, on the other hand, the power distance between adults and younger people and between students and teachers is low.
One particularly recurring question I get asked by African-American married women is why Nigerian men ignore them; they consider it rude that Nigerian men would only talk to their husbands during formal and informal encounters. Well, most Nigerian cultures I’m familiar with (Nigeria has over 200 distinct cultural and linguistic groups) don’t encourage men getting chummy with other people’s wives, especially if they are not family friends. It is a culturally sanctioned safeguard against the possibility of unhealthy suspicions. Americans think this is just plain patriarchal arrogance. But people don’t choose their culture; they are born into it.
Another question I’ve constantly been asked is why Nigerians are so aggressive and brusque. First, you can’t essentialize these traits to an entire nationality, not least one that is made up of hundreds of subcultures. But Nigerian urban culture, I must admit, probably predisposes people to be perpetually on their guard and to be suspicious of the next person. We struggle, even fight, to board public transport (where it exists) and permanently compete for right of way when we drive on our roads—and curse when we think our right of way has been violated, since traffic regulations are poorly enforced. Not all Nigerians are like that, of course, but people who internalize this urban, mostly Lagos, culture often come across as aggressive and curt.
From an American perspective, though, perceptions of aggressiveness and discourtesy can take many more subtle forms.
I consider myself mild-mannered, but I had probably been thought of as aggressive here because I wasn’t aware of and therefore didn’t observe certain cultural codes of behavior. For instance, in American elevator (lift) manners, a man is supposed to allow ladies to get out first. I had no such cultural socialization in Nigeria. It was an American friend of mine who one day called my attention to the fact that my habit of getting off from elevators before ladies made me come across as discourteous and ungentlemanly. Given the advances of feminism in this society, I thought such chivalrous indulgences would be considered unacceptably patronizing to women.
Obviously, feminism hasn’t completely annihilated chivalry just yet. I also learned that when a man is walking with a woman on the sidewalk (what we call pavement in British English), he is supposed to stay on the side of the sidewalk that is close to vehicular traffic. I had never consciously observed this American politesse until a female colleague of mine called my attention to it a few years back. I’d thought that only children needed that kind of protection; I had been conditioned here to think that excessive courtesy toward women was chauvinistic.
Another American cultural ethos, which many first-time Nigerians in America flout is the practice of holding the door for people coming behind you. It’s a universal practice here, but it’s one that is easy to ignore if you’re not socialized into it. It’s considered bad form to let go of the door when someone or some people are behind you. And people for whom you hold the door are supposed to say “thank you”— and smile. Not observing that reciprocal courtesy is as culturally offensive as not holding the door. Many recent Nigerian immigrants don’t observe this arbitrary, idiosyncratic form of courtesy because it’s not part of their cultural repertoire, and so they come across as rude.
Another issue that riles Americans is that most non-Americans (this isn’t exclusive to Nigerians—thank God for small mercies!) don’t say “excuse me” when they walk past people from behind. I have read several Facebook status updates of my American friends complaining about “foreigners” who “can’t say ‘excuse me’ when they pass you by or bump into you.”
However, although many non-Americans don’t say “excuse me,” they hardly fail to say “hello” before they ask questions from strangers. Most Americans, at least from my experience, don’t do that. That is considered rude in many cultures.
In Nigeria, for instance, if a total stranger walks up to someone and begins to ask for directions without first saying hello, one of three things would happen. The Nigerian would first say hello to the stranger with an emphatic tone to remind him that it won’t hurt to be polite and say hello before asking for help. Or he would pointedly tell the stranger that it’s bad manners to request help without the courtesy of saying hello first. If he is in a bad mood, he would completely ignore the stranger.
So what I end up telling the students, which they ultimately agree with, is that Nigerians are rude only if you gaze at their manners from a cultural lens that is alien to them. That is the case, I must add, for every other nationality, including Americans.