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Comparing Nigerian and American Manners (I)

This column was first published in the print edition of Weekly Trust on September 17, 2006. By Farooq A. Kperogi Twitter: @farooqkperogi...

This column was first published in the print edition of Weekly Trust on September 17, 2006.

By Farooq A. Kperogi

If last week’s article was “dry,” this week’s may well be characterized as “watery.” Not a bad contrast, huh? Well, this is a trivia about my observations of the differences in American and Nigerian manners.

This is sure to rile one of my friends, a big pretender to esoteric erudition (that is, the practice of “shamelessly” showing off knowledge exclusive to a small, arrogant cult of university people) who once wrote to me to complain that my column is “too personal.”

But, hey, this damned column is no more than the cheap personal diary (or a reporter’s notebook, if you will) of a Nigerian journalist trying to navigate the weird and wonderful contours of the new American terrain in which he finds himself. It does not pretend to be a platform to display an intellectual machismo that I don’t even pretend to possess in the first place. Well, so much for intellectual pretensions.

It is entirely conceivable that one may very well be aware of something but rarely conscious of it until one has had the benefit of a contrast of contexts. (Psychoanalysts define consciousness as the heightened state of awareness). This psychoanalytic probability defines my experience of straddling two national cultures in the past two years.

I am suddenly struck by the dramatic dissimilarities in Nigerian and American manners, dissimilarities that impressed themselves on me more boldly upon my last visit to Nigeria and my return to Atlanta.

It was one of my Black American acquaintances in Louisiana (she insists on being called African-American) who had occasion to visit Nigeria for the first time in her life that gave me the initial hint about these dissimilarities. She said even though she cherished the opportunity to visit our country where her ancestral roots are probably located, she couldn’t help registering what struck her as our loudness, rudeness, discourteousness, aggressiveness, and unfriendliness both to each other and to strangers.

As you can imagine, I was hurt. But my hurt was somehow subconsciously tempered by my knowledge that she couldn’t mean to insult Nigerians. My knowledge sprouts from many sources. First, she’s a racial minority, an associate professor of political science, and is historically prepared to have a reservoir of sensitivity to what Americans call political correctness— that is, avoidance of expressions or actions that can be perceived to exclude or marginalize or insult people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.

Second, this is a lady who is so passionate about Africa and Africans that when an old woman in Enugu mistook her for a relative and insulted her in Igbo because the old woman thought she was avoiding her, she felt “accepted,” shed tears of joy, and felt an intensified longing to reconnect with her roots. (Many African Americans I have met have been socialized to think that Africans don’t recognize them as brothers and sisters because we allegedly think that they have been racially “diluted” by white and Red Indian blood; that they are so-called mongrels, not genuine Blacks).

Third, when famine hit Kenya early this year, and a New Zealand woman donated dog food as her contribution to alleviate the hunger in the country, it was this lady who, out of racial pride and love for Africa, led the efforts to encourage African Americans to contribute thousands of dollars for the starving people of Kenya.

So she couldn’t possibly be intent on ridiculing or denigrating Nigerians by her observation. She thought she was just having an honest, down-to-earth conversation with her brother (African Americans habitually call each other—and other Blacks— brothers and sisters, even if they are not remotely biologically related).

I, of course, assured her that she was mistaken. She apologized and further assuaged my feelings by observing that she was probably suffering from the same kind of cultural miscue that leads white Americans to construe black Americans are aggressive and uncouth.

However, her observation hit home only after I returned home. I realize that I had taken for granted the incredibly contagious civility, courtesy, amiability, and complaisance of the American South. Nothing in all the Nigerian cultures I am familiar with compares with what I am talking about.

And this is no idle idealization or idolization of Southern American manners. It’s merely a record of my observations, which may be crudely impressionistic and misleading, but they’re my observations nonetheless.

In one of my articles, I talked about how it’s a universal practice for people here to smile at everybody, including strangers, and to address each other with tender words of endearment and honorifics.

If you go to buy food in a restaurant, for instance, and you ask how much your bill is, you are likely to get a response like: “It’s five dollars, my sweetie,” or such other phrase. Here, they have desensitized many of us to verbal expressions of love.

If you come to the American South, you will do well not to nurse funny ideas in your head because a woman or a man calls you her or his “darling,” or “love,” or “honey,” or “sweetheart.” It’s mere expression of courtesy and personal warmth.

However, it’s not only in words that they demonstrate courtesy. Their courtesy also manifests in deeds. For instance, people here fall over each other to open doors for others, or to hold the door while other people pass, and to allow people to “shunt” on queues. In metro trains and public transport buses, people give up their seats for elders, nursing women, the disabled, and just about anybody whom they think deserves it—and with broad, reassuring smiles too.

The pedestrian is the king of the road here, too. All drivers give the pedestrian right of way even if the pedestrian is in the wrong. I have seen—and have myself been involved in— instances where pedestrians find themselves in the middle of busy streets while the traffic lights turn green, with cars coming from all directions.

And all the cars would usually stop, and the drivers would wave to the pedestrians reassuringly with toothy smiles and ask them to take their time and cross. This kind of scenario would certainly earn pedestrians in Nigeria heavy curses at best and death at worst.

And this is not exclusive to the American South. I witnessed it in all the cities I have visited here, including unbelievably busy New York City. A self-deprecating American friend of mine in New York, however, said the universal respect for the pedestrian on American roads is not the consequence of the innate benevolence of American drivers. He said it’s because the law is severe on people who hit a pedestrian. I wish we had a similar law in Nigeria.

Again, here, when you are lost and ask for directions, it’s almost always the case that people will leave whatever they are doing or wherever they are going to and lead you to the place you’re looking for. Downtown Atlanta is, of course, an exception for reasons I had cause to state here some weeks back.

But, even in downtown Atlanta, there are honorable exceptions to my broad strokes about the attitude of people to Black men asking for directions. Sometime ago, I wanted to trace my way to a place, and my abysmal map-reading skills ensured that the map I was holding was little more than an elegant piece of worthless paper. I needed a human being to show me the way. (That’s what becomes of anybody who didn’t pay close attention to his geography teacher in secondary school map-reading classes!)

I casually asked an apparently middle-class Black guy for the location of the place, expecting him to repulse or ignore me. He did not. He said he too didn’t know the place, but that I should wait for him. He came back with his car and drove me round until we found the place.

He then gave me his business card and drove back to where he picked me from. This is not unusual in the South among both whites and blacks.

Now, what did I become conscious of when I visited Nigeria the last time? Our bank tellers, receptionists, taxi drivers, etc all seemed, with the benefit of my American experience, like they were permanently in a state of anger. Their responses to the most innocent inquiries struck me as needlessly defensive and discourteous. We demand or expect gratification for the solicited and unsolicited favors that we bestow on people.

And asking for directions in Nigerian cities exposes the asker to scorn (for being a “JJC”) or, worse, to suspicion. In Lagos, if you are lucky to get a response, you might be directed to the exact opposite of the place you ask to be directed to!

We seem to think that any stranger who relates to us is a potential cheat. So we are always on the defensive and therefore appear aggressive even in the most harmless interpersonal encounters. Perhaps, this is not unreasonable, given the culture of fraud that seems to be devouring the core of our value systems. And our culture of aggressively haggling over prices—in fact, over just about anything—makes us come across as unfriendly.

But I think that beneath the cold exterior of the Nigerian lies a very warm, hospitable, and friendly interior. It is our recent history of deceit and the suspicion and distrust that it has bred that mask our innate goodness and kind manners.

Related Articles:
Comparing Nigerian and American Manners II
Why Americans Think Nigerians are Rude

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