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Comparing Nigerian and American Manners (II)

This first appeared in my column in the print edition of Weekly Trust on September 30, 2006 By Farooq A. Kperogi Twitter: @farooqkperogi...

This first appeared in my column in the print edition of Weekly Trust on September 30, 2006

By Farooq A. Kperogi

I concluded the first part of this article by observing that beneath our cold, coarse surface lays a warm, refined interior, which is unfortunately dissembled by our harsh realities. If this is true, is it also the case that the warm, pleasant American exterior covers a multitude of sins?

Do the contagious smiles, honorifics, and words of endearment with which Americans in the South address both themselves and others mean no more than empty, fossilized social rituals that rarely extend beyond the surface? Well, I have no definite answers to these questions. I keep looking for the answers myself in my daily interactions with the people.

However, I guess most Africans, me included, are struck by the warmth of American manners precisely because they have been culturally predisposed to expect hostility from “bature” or “oyinbo” people.

I remember being taught as a child that Oyibo people don’t invite people to eat, even if you meet them eating and they know you are hungry as hell, unless you give them prior notice of your visit. This is usually said to dramatize our flexibility and accommodation in contrast to white people.

I was also taught that the bature society is so atomistic that the people only know their nuclear family members; that they have no space, like we do, for 42nd cousins, grandparents and other extended family members whose relationships to us would ordinarily require an expert in genealogy to trace.

So the logic of our expectation of hostility or at best indifference from the bature seems to sprout from this reasoning: if they don’t recognize their kindred who are outside the narrow confines of their nuclear families, they are likely to have even less tolerance for “outsiders,” not least outsiders that have been socially constructed as the “Other,” such as black people.

My experience of living in the American South has shown me that these notions are mere stereotypes—which means they are only partly true and partly false. I have had occasions to “gatecrash” on many families during dinners. On no occasion have I been put in the uncomfortable situation of watching any family dine while I watch because I didn’t have the presence of mind to give prior notice of my visit. Of course, most people here will rather call a family in advance before they visit.

And it is of course not true that the extended family is dead here. When I say "here," I am talking of the American South. I have not lived long enough in the North to be in a position to comment on their family structure, but I heard it’s slightly different there.

In the South, the multigenerational family (i.e. dad, mom, grandparents, brothers, cousins, etc living in the same place) is still alive. It witnessed a decline in the 70s and 80s, but has been making a big comeback in the last five or so years, according to people I have talked to here. But that’s by the way.

So when you’re confronted with these reversals, these dislocations of the stereotypes that you had been led to nurse about a people, your appreciation of their ways can become exaggeratedly distorted in their favor. It’s akin to the feeling you get when you prepared your mind for hostility and you a get a lukewarm treatment. The lukewarm treatment tends to get magnified in your perception as the ultimate hospitality. In a sense, that perception cannot be said to be exactly authentic.

I am not immune to this fact. The omnipresent smiling faces in the South can deaden one’s sensitivity to a whole host of unpleasant things. For instance, with all the celebration of its unexampled warmth, “Southern hospitality,” chivalry, community, family values, and religious piety, the South is probably the most negrophobic place on earth.

I prefer to use negrophobia (irrational fear or hatred of black people) to racism because one of the defining characteristics of the average southern American is their desire to see black people perpetually on the ground to be used and trampled upon by the “white master race.” They went to war with the North to preserve this. And there are many of them who still nurse deep-seated grudges against the North for taking the sweet of slavery from their mouths.

A white southern friend of mine who said he had to self-consciously work to peel off layers of negrophobia that had been implanted in his mind from his formative years to adulthood told me that it is impossible for a white person born before the 80s in the South not to have deeply-rooted disdain, even outright hatred, for black people. Of course, this is too over-generalized. And, as with all overgeneralizations, it misses many nuances. But I found the information very instructive.

When you know this, you cease to be impressed by smiles and outward displays of warmth. You would prefer Nigerian manners where you’re sure—or almost sure—that people who smile with you and address you reverently are people who truly admire you, not out of cultural pressures but from personal decisions. You would prefer that people who hate your guts let you know this by frowning or looking away when they see you.

However, a Nigerian I met here a while ago told me he would rather have people smile at him even if they secretly detest him as long as they their sly detestation of his person does not hurt him directly.

Maybe he is right. It would indeed amount to the social equivalent of what American lawyers call “double jeopardy” (that is, the prosecution of a defendant for a criminal offense for which he has already been tried) if people who have condemned you even before you were born (as Malcolm X characterized racism) also let you know by their facial expressions that they can’t stand you.

Well, in spite of our less than admirable manners in comparison to American southerners, we still do have some manners that I will never exchange for anything. We are generally very accommodating and flexible. That’s why in spite of our poverty, homelessness is almost an unthinkable thing.

It’s not so in the United States. There are so many homeless people here. What is scary about this is that merely defaulting in the payment of your rent can send you to the streets. In Nigeria, we can at least beg our landlords and landladies to give us extensions of deadline for payment of rent. If that fails, we can take recourse to staying with one of our relatives.

Again, the condition of old people here is a huge disincentive to want to live long. Children simply push their aging parents to “old people’s homes” where they vegetate in social isolation until they die.

The South is of course better than the North in this regard, but they are both worse than Nigeria. A Nigerian I met here who works in an old people’s home told me that there are many cases where these sequestered old people shoot their children to death and thereafter commit suicide because they can’t bear to be marooned in a lonesome, loveless place by children they sired and made sacrifices to bring up.

This country celebrates, almost worships, youth and despises old age to a degree that can’t cease to amaze me. One of my female students here told me last week that she was depressed because she had just turned 20! She wished she could remain a teenager forever.

People here are afraid of getting old. And it seems to me that when they extend considerations to the elderly, it’s usually more out of pity than out of respect for the wisdom and experience of old age. I read a report sometime ago that the government is concerned that Americans are living too long. Hmm…

I had an experience a couple of weeks ago (not related to my preceding discussion) that made me wish I was in Nigeria. I boarded the wrong public transport bus to my house. I didn’t realize it was the wrong bus because I was engrossed in a book that I had to finish reading before the following day.

When I realized what was happening, I was in the middle of nowhere. I asked where I was, and the driver mentioned the name of some place I couldn’t relate to. So he advised me to get down from the bus and wait for another bus to take me back to where he picked me from.

Shortly after I alighted, a heavy downpour started. There were houses around me, but I couldn’t go there because it was past mid night, and I risked being charged with “criminal trespass” if I sought refuge in any home at that hour—more so that black males have been pathologized as criminals here.

Cars passed by me and ignored my pleas and entreaties for a lift. Then I saw a black woman come out of a house. I rushed there to ask if she would allow me to take cover in her veranda. She refused. A bus finally came at 1: 30 a.m. but I was already drenched to my marrow.

That would not have happened to me anywhere in Nigeria. After all is said and done, home is where the heart is.

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

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