Our culture, our manners and etiquette
By Brigitte Dzogbenuku
I’M not sure about you, but l think good manners are gradually walking out the door in our dear country. As much as we try to be polite to others, we find that they just take that for granted and throw it right in our faces!
It might be that they don’t know, or they don’t care. Increasingly, l find that people don’t care how they treat one another. I guess not as many people are reading this column as we would wish.
It might also be that sometimes people think that their manners (based on our cultural practices) pass for universal manners. And here, l will give examples.
Last week, l went to a meeting; which required I carry my laptop. Now you know we ladies; we have our handbags, our laptops and if we don’t put our hones in our bags then our hands are really full. So this is how l arrived at the door of the venue; my phones, though, were in my bag.
A young lady came out to meet me, which was very nice of her. What was not though was that she reached for my handbag in an attempt to ‘unburden’ me.
Handbags are very personal items for as women. Everything is in there – money, handkerchief (used or not), sanitary towels (sometimes, certainly not used), make-up bag – a lot of personal stuff.
Our identity resides in there! We don’t want anyone grabbing it without reason. So, back to my point, l declined. No, thank you. Then she decided, well, the laptop then.
My hands were actually free and my laptop was not heavy. It was a nice-to-do, but l was really okay. I could manage quite comfortably.
This is what they lady didn’t get. So we engaged in a little tug-of-war there… of “let me help you” and “no l am fine, thanks.”
While we agree it was polite of her to offer, my first refusal should have been enough for her to understand that l didn’t need that help.
I have seen cases where some ‘big people’ have others walk behind them carrying their handbags.
If you can’t carry it, don’t walk around with so much stuff in it. I suppose it is a sign of respect, in our culture, to offer to carry people’s personal items for them.
I wonder where that came from and we must actually investigate it. When we offer to help, which should simply be “Do you need help with your bag/stuff?” or “Can l help you?” and the person declines, let it be.
Helping someone with their bag is not the only way to show how polite we are.
Sometimes, we translate our local language into English in showing good manners, but it just doesn’t work! One example: “Welcome.”
I can relate to that. Being Ewe, I know we welcome people: from work, from church, from the farm, from….from….from…. Yes the word ‘woezor’ or ‘woede’ is used rampantly, depending on where you’ve been and how long you’ve been gone.
If l arrive at work the next morning, though and l am told “welcome” in English, my immediate response is “From where?” l didn’t travel well, living on Spintex Road sometimes feels like a travel, but still…. Yes, it is the Ghanaian way of being polite but it just doesn’t translate well universally. Our usual “good morning” works just fine.
The same goes for when we drop our ‘Please’, because we think our ‘poor me’ facial expression, or our hands – one capped in the other – shows we are pleading.
Sometimes we use the Akan word ‘wai’ regardless of whether it is understood or not. These are not universally accepted gestures or words.
We must get to know what is universally acceptable and use those.
In this case ‘please’ is.
A few days back, a friend was talking about how her house help always refuses a tip on the first offer and yet will eventually take it after she presses a few times.
We get that too, don’t we? Then furtive glance at the person who is offering, or at the offer, with our head turned, saying. “No, it’s okay” a few times and yet reaching for the offer.
And then it is followed by that coy “Oh thank you, shice….” What’s with all that; when we know we are going to accept it? In fact, we need it! So would that be good manners compared to an outright “Thank you” and taking the money?
What if the offer is withdrawn after the first offer? Try that somewhere outside of Ghana or with a non-Ghanaian….that offer will be gone and not come back.
Once again, we tried to get to the bottom of that… where in our culture did that come from? I don’t know. l need to find out.
But universally, refusing an offer might be seen as rude. The person officering might think it was not ‘big’ enough, or feel it was thrown right back in his face.
Another cultural sign of politeness is not looking someone straight in the eye when talking to them. I had a helper who would almost have her back turned to you when talking to you.
That, l think l can explain. Our elders used to think that a child who would look his elders straight in the face and answer (back) was disrespectful. It is very Ghanaian.
Universal etiquette though demands that to build trust one needs to look the other in the eyes when speaking. It shows sincerity and integrity. Not looking someone in the eyes makes one suspicious and not trustworthy. Even a build or darting eyes can be interpreted negatively universally.
If our elders insisted on us looking away as we spoke to them, then they did nothing but encourage us to perfect the art of lying! It is easier to lie when not looking someone in the face.
Ghana has become an international hub with all kinds of nationalities living with us and more to come…. You’ve heard about the OIL, right?
We must learn how to interact and live with all these people. Believe me, they read and learn about Ghana (well, most of them do) before they come.
We must also learn to adopt some universally acceptable ways of doing things.
We must learn that universal manners also matter.
The Mirror Page 24 Saturday, May 28, 2011