For my second blog, I thought I would write about how surprisingly impactful I have found cultural norms to be on day to day living but also at times of difficulty. I had previously given little recognition to how strong cultural norms shape our actions and more importantly the implications this has for our feelings. To illustrate this, I highlight two Kenyan customs which contrast greatly from those in a ‘Western’ world and the virtues these have. (Disclaimer: the following is filled with a set of wide and inaccurate generalisations)
Across the world, the British are famous for their reserve. Speaking to strangers in the underground is seen as a disturbance of public order, an offence worthy of harsh stares and ‘tut-tuts’. Suits in the underground have their earphones in, focusing their eyes on a newspaper in front of them as eye-contact beyond a glance is greatly discouraged. Any attempt to ‘escape’ from their surroundings and journey to work.
Sidewalks in Central London resemble two conveyor belts travelling in opposite directions looking solemnly at the ground whilst tourists wreak havoc on these orderly British queues. Life is fast-paced and people are in a constant rush, idle chit-chat adds little value.
Kenyans lead a different lifestyle, living more along the lines of the Jamaican bob-sleigh team in the classic film ‘Cool Runnings’ – ‘Feel the Rhythm, Feel the Rhyme!’. People stop and chat in the street and on Matatu journeys you often can fall into a deep chat about Kenyan politics. As oppose to wearing earphones, they walk with their phones playing music at full volume held to their ear – positioned upside down and jutting out to have the speaker in their ear – they are still engaged with their surroundings. Best of all, people look up and smile.
A Kenyan colleague of mine recounted a story whereby when travelling through the Tube he was sat next to a young girl and her mother alongside her. Kindly, he offered some of his crisps to the girl and as opposed to recognising this kindness the mother moved her child to the farther side of her! It has been all that easier moving continent and country from the UK to Kenya thanks to this far more open, warm and welcoming culture.
2. Togetherness at times of Bereavement
In our lives, some of the hardest moments are after the death of a loved one. In the Western world, we view the mourning process to be quite individualistic – those directly concerned stop working, gather with others directly affected and are given the distance to process it on your own terms. A funeral is held with closest family and friends and when the bereaved return to work, no-one in the office mentions it and we continue work life as if it never happened.
In Kenya, they take a very different approach. When a colleague’s mother recently passed away, despite having only shared general pleasantries with this colleague on two occasions, I was invited along with all at the office to his house. I was quite hesitant about going, wouldn’t I be an intruder? At such a painful time, why would he want a stranger there? Entering his home of all places, what a great imposition! I decided to speak to some Kenyan colleagues, but they insisted it was commonplace. Unprompted, they then openly spoke and listed the other recent ‘losses’ of different members in the office. I was a bit taken aback with how publicly they shared such private information, I had expected more discretion. It also transpired that it was the bereaved colleague who was going to drive me to his home! The Brit in me was horrified by my imposition and social transgressions, however, stuck between a rock and a hard place given how uncouth it would be to back out now.
I arrived at his house and he very kindly offered me a drink and laid out in front of me was a huge table of delicious delicacies. As other staff members arrived, he introduced us all to his wife and welcomed us into their home. The next two hours were filled with laughter and light-hearted discussions covering: bamboo trees as a great long-run investment, the new fad of growing bee-hives and of course, the next development in the Kenyan election. In the end, this colleague drew the evening to a close as he emphasised how happy he was that we came to ‘warm his house’ and as an FSD Africa (my company) family to share our condolences. As opposed to viewing the presence of a one-month-old intern in his home, eating his bananas and drinking his grape juice as an imposition – it was a gesture of support.
This different Kenyan perspective was most evident when it came to the funeral. Not only had we all been invited but all staff, as is the custom, contributed to its cost. A contribution based on what you could afford, not how close you were to the person affected. Once again, there was a sense of ‘togetherness’ that did not draw lines based on family or even friends. Creating a culture where your support carries on from your home into your workplace. It was also a beautiful way to highlight that as we lose someone dear to us, we have our relationships with others to support us and look forward to.
A Tentative Conclusion
Small, seemingly insignificant traditions such as these two customs or behaviours can alter the entire shape of a society. The importance of these for our own decision making has been championed by Richard Thaler, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on Behavioural Economics yesterday. Having an awareness of these nudges, both good and bad, is crucial in adapting or overcoming how they affect our decisions and ultimately our feelings.