Cultural Differences

30 11 2011

When you move across the world, you expect to encounter innumerable cultural differences.  Most of the times we only think about the big ones (food, language, politics, etc) but I think the hardest to cope with are the little things.

Some things we assume are common sense are actually cultural differences.

Joe’s company has a bunch of resources for those moving and living overseas and one of those resources is access to a database of information on other countries.  They talk about everything from climate to currency to finding schools and healthcare.  Last weekend, we were browsing the site looking at Gabon (to see how accurate they were) and I decided to look up Canada.  Reading the “Social Customs” section on our home country was quite amusing and it reminded me of some of the cultural differences we face while living in Gabon.

Some of my favorites are:

“Canadians are most comfortable when given ample personal space during conversation. They prefer not to stand very close when talking, and generally do not punctuate conversation with physical contact.”

This is so blatantly different here and it still drives me nuts!  For example, last week I was in a travel agency booking flights to Libreville.  The office is a fair size with 5 travel agents sitting at a long row of desks.  I was the only client in the office at the time and was seated across from a man who was confirming my booking.  The door opened and an older Gabonese woman entered the office and proceeded to sit right beside me.  There were probably 12 other chairs in the room and other agents who weren’t serving anyone yet she chose to sit in the chair directly beside me and directly across from my travel agent as if she was in the meeting with me.

The grocery store is another common place where I feel my personal space is being invaded.  In Canada, everyone stands in line at the checkout but we often give the person who is currently being helped more space.  Here, while I’m leaning over my purse trying to count out cash to pay for my purchases, there is almost always someone practically touching me while they watch me count my money.

Probably the most concerning place we notice this is the doctor’s office.  The one we use has a desk at the front with blocked off lines to check-in.  It is meant to form a single file line and there really isn’t room for 2 people to stand side by side.  One day, Joe was checking in, I stood behind him, and a man shimmied his way past me, right up to the counter beside Joe and looked on as Joe explained why he needed to see the doctor.  It was very awkward (for us) and had the potential to be embarrassing (depending on what you need to see the doctor for.)  Had my vocabulary for communicable diseases been better, I might have come up with something a little more amusing.

“Canadians are courteous with strangers and passersby. The uses of “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” are common.”

I can’t elaborate much on this one except to say, it doesn’t happen here.

“It is considered extremely rude to push ahead of others in line.”

While people do line up here, it’s not uncommon for someone to “join” the line ahead of everyone else.  If you happen to have an acquaintance already in line, it’s no problem to join them ahead of others.  Sometimes, someone sees the line, measures everyone up, and then decides they are more important and must move to the front.

One of the most aggravating instances happens while driving.  (This applies to many French men as well as local people here.)  Perhaps because there are no road rules that are enforced, people feel they can make their own.  When stuck in traffic or at a light, people begin adding lanes on either side of the actual lane and then force their way ahead of everyone else.  If you don’t let them in, they yell, honk, raise their fists at you like it’s your problem they have no where to go.  Perhaps, if they hadn’t driven through the ditch to pass 10 cars at an intersection, they wouldn’t be stuck there to begin with.

“Gestures in greeting or loud conversation generally are frowned upon.”

I often find myself wondering, ‘what all the yelling is about?’  In general, people speak quite loudly here and they aren’t embarrassed to hold a rather private conversation, loudly, in public.  Because we live above a store, I’m often privy to these conversations in the parking lot below.  Sometimes people are having an all out argument right there in front of everyone.  They’ll get quite animated, throwing their arms up, pretending to storm off only to return and yell some more and then seemingly out of no where, it just stops.  Both parties shake hands, wish each other an enjoyable day and head in their separate directions as if nothing ever happened.

While some of these cultural differences can feel incredibly frustrating, sometimes there’s nothing you can do but laugh (or join them.)

**The quotes above come from http://www.internationalrelocationcenter.com, Canada destination guide, as provided through the Halliburton network.**

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One response

2 12 2011
Ghafla!Guy

“While some of these cultural differences can feel incredibly frustrating, sometimes there’s nothing you can do but laugh (or join them.)” I totally agree 100% with you on this!

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