There’s Joy in Getting Cultural Norms Wrong

Dr. Joseph Mbele started his talk by laughing at himself. He’d shown up at United Way’s Books on Central in Faribault on time, yet by American standards he was late!  To his chagrin, his audience was already seated and waiting.

The Tanzanian professor of English at St. Olaf was at the bookstore to talk about cultural differences between Africans and Americans. He told stories that often showed himself in a humorous light while learning to adapt to American norms. His talk gave us a broad view of differences – but it was enough to reshape my view of what it might take to truly embrace diversity. 

Frequently traveling between Tanzania and the U.S., Mbele enjoys African and American cultures equally. He has learned to be one way in Africa and another in America. Cross cultural appreciation comes from communicating, keen observation and being open. 

He reminded us that the norms we are taught from childhood are as natural and “right” to us as walking, and that fact can make it difficult for us to respect and appreciate another’s culture. For example, when Mbele first arrived here over 30 years ago, he was sure Americans thought he was the “handsomest guy” because people couldn’t stop looking him in the eye. Direct eye contact here is valued. In Africa it can mean someone is attracted to you. On the other hand, “eye contact is not appropriate in many situations,” he said.

He asked us to imagine an American child at school in Africa boldly looking a teacher in the eye when being addressed, as his parents taught him. That’s considered very bad manners in Africa. Yet here in the U.S., a teacher would likely think the child was rude or even deceitful by looking away when being spoken to.  

Even after a long career studying, teaching and consulting in the U.S. and Africa, Mbele has to remind himself to be on time here, and late in Africa--which comes naturally. While in the U.S., lateness is rude, in Africa, a person on the way to a meeting will stop to greet neighbors they meet along the way. They’ll ask not only about their neighbor, but also about family members, taking all the time they need to catch up. Being social is the sign of a “good person,” Mbele said.

Mbele left us with a question. “Americans preach diversity; can Americans celebrate Africans being late?” Probably not, is the rhetorical answer. His approach to diversity is summed up like this: “When you are in another culture, you have to bend to their culture.” But that takes many years of trying; it’s no quick fix.

Mbele’s talk left me thinking about bending more right here at home. Couldn’t we all benefit from learning other ways of being? Afterall, what’s really more important: Taking time with someone or being on time? 

-- Elizabeth Child, Rice County Area United Way executive director. She can be reached at