An African friend of mine found himself at an airport in the US where he saw and heard a Nigerian man talking to a relative on his mobile phone in his mother tongue. He commented on Facebook:
Other passengers are happy that the people being “quarreled with” are not here or else it would be war. What they do not know is that this is not a quarrel. It is just a natural way of talking for these guys. It is fun being an African. Very few people in the world understand you.
I would have loved to be there and see the passengers freaked out by the loud and animated talking while the Nigerian talked on unaware of the emotional commotion he was creating. We encounter the same thing here in Ghana.
Accra, where we live, is in the middle of the Ga people. They speak so loudly and in such an animated way that even other Ghanaians think they are quarreling! The thing is, they are not angry. That’s just the way they talk. So when I hear a Ga person talking, I know in my head that the loud and animated speech is normal, but I get startled anyway. My fight or flight response kicks in and I want to get away. I have no choice. After thinking for a second, I realize there is no problem and try to treat the loud talking as normal. But that is not easy.
A while back, I stopped to ask some taxi drivers directions. They engaged in an exchange between them in their language that seemed heated to say the least. I just wanted to drive off.
When people talk about cross cultural issues they may focus on physical things like strange food. But the hardest cultural adaptations are those where the person in front of you is doing something that causes you to have a strong emotional reaction over which you have little control. You “know” that the person is not angry, but that does not stop the emotions. It is just plain difficult to wrap your head around the fact that the other person’s behavior is normal when it is making you uncomfortable.
The hard work of having empathy for people whose behavior makes you uncomfortable, or even afraid, is at the heart of cross-cultural mission. It feels sometimes like we have to abandon part of what makes us who we are. It mirrors what Jesus did when he left the comfort of heaven, came to this earth and fit himself into the culture of that day and place.
That is something we are still learning, even in our fourth decade in Africa.