Decades ago, when we were expecting our oldest, I went to my favorite furniture maker in Ouagadougou and asked him if he knew how to make a rocking chair. He answered “no problem”. But when I went to pick up the chair, it was very clear that there was a big problem – the chair wouldn’t stay upright, toppling over on its back whenever I stood it up. I designed new rockers and had the furniture maker make them to my design. That rocking chair served us for more than a decade until we sold it when we moved.
Many of my colleagues and other Westerners living in Africa have been frustrated by the promises they received from Africans who told them “No problem” but there was a problem. It appears to them that Africans will say anything to get you to do business with them. A number see this as inherently dishonest.
While “no problem” optimism seems to be everywhere, it is not at all universal. I have many African friends and people I do business with who tell me exactly how it will be even if they know that is not what I want to hear. There are also some who say “no problem” intending to deceive.
But for many Africans who say “no problem”, I think that there is a very different explanation. It seems to me that rather than dishonesty or incompetence we are dealing with optimism. I don’t mean wishful thinking. Nor do I mean some conscious attempt to think in “positive” ways.
Rather, I believe that those saying “no problem” are making promises in which they themselves are fully confident. They are sure that they can deliver, even though the results later show that their self-confidence was not warranted. By Western standards, they are recklessly overconfident but I don’t think that they are intentionally dishonest. They have a can-do optimism.
Some of my readers might think that I am just wanting to put the most positive light on what I see because I love Africa. I don’t think so and I have a powerful reason. My interpretation that we are dealing with optimism fits with all kinds of other behaviors including but certainly not limited to:
- Avoiding bad news (For example, if someone asks about an person who is ill, the answer is always that they are better, whatever their actual condition. In fact, in one place we worked if you said that their condition had deteriorated, that mean that the person died. So you couldn’t say that.)
- Avoiding negatives (For example talking about HIV and AIDS was difficult because it was not culturally appropriate to say that someone had an incurable illness.)
- Avoiding the idea of impossible (For example, in many places we have worked, something that was impossible was referred to as merely difficult.)
In all these ways and more, the Africans I know show that they prefer optimistic, can-do assessments. So, rather than engage in complaining or blame, it works better for me to just translate their sureness into my frame of reference by toning it down several steps. I can avoid frustration by realizing that the person I am dealing with actually believes he can and will do what he says. Instead of trying to judge his honesty, I focus on competence. This makes life a lot less stressful and it’s easier on relationships.