When we first moved to Burkina Faso, we noticed that people hung curtains in windows and doorways so that the nice side was visible from outside the house, and the plain side toward the inside. This small difference is a sign of a much larger difference. Houses were for sleeping and storing things, but people lived outside. If you went to visit someone, you sat with them outside their house, not inside.
I was intrigued by a story of an African man who went to a conference in the US. Between meetings he went outside hoping to socialize with other participants. At first he thought that people were not friendly, only to go back inside and find everyone socializing there.
Often, small differences in culture, like curtains turned with the nice side the “wrong” direction, signal more important differences which need to be internalized by anyone working cross-culturally.
Here in Ghana, local restaurants list food on the menu by the staple – fufu, banku, rice balls, tuo zaafi (or TZ), kenkey, rice, fried rice, etc. The meat is then added. So you order fufu and then specify that you want fish, or chicken, for example. I am used to American menus which list dishes by the meat, often with options for the staple – French fries, baked potato, rice, etc. A Ghanaian friend of mine was having trouble finding what he wanted at an Accra restaurant with a western-style menu because he was looking the staple he wanted and could only find meats. Americans can have the same problem, in reverse, with Ghanaian-style menus. This small difference shows what is considered the center of the meal – for Ghanaians it is the staple and for Americans it is the meat. I try to adjust. So, if a Ghanaian asks me what I want to eat, I try to remember to say the staple instead of the meat. That way I give an answer that fits expectations.
They say that the devil is in the details. But in cross-cultural work, the joy, understanding and true connections to people often come from paying attention to the details.