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Civility changes with the culture—take Uganda

Guest post by Stephanie Nelson, Iowa State landscape architecture student

Photo: Stephanie at the end of training celebration in Bulayi

Maybe Americans are direct about our opinions, but Ugandans are direct about appearance. Because I have been entrenched in U.S. political correctness for so long, this directness has been hard to get used to.

The word that directly affects me is, of course, "muzungu," meaning white/Western person. I have to remind myself that Ugandans use Muzungu as a sort of title, not meaning to be derogatory or discriminatory but simply calling you what you are. When children see me they just shout "Muzungu bye!" over and over. It drives me nuts, and the worst part is they don't stop shouting until I react with a wave.

Ugandans use descriptions as names for many people.
One example is Ssenga, Luganda for aunt. Ssenga Teo came to stay with us for the weekend and she was called simply "Ssenga" the whole time by everyone in the family. Another description used as a title is old person. Some jobs essentially become someone's name, as with doctor and teacher. Otherwise if someone is describing someone else they will say "the fat one" or "the very black one," all descriptions we shy away from in the United States as being improper to point out.

I have a new set of eyes here.
I am improving the ability to see beyond "that person is black" to distinguishing people's different facial features. The different shades of black are now becoming visible. Ugandan's describe each other as "the brown one" or "the black one."

This phenomenon goes both ways of course. When we were introduced … as Krystal has brown hair, Stephanie's is blonde, etc, the Ugandans couldn't tell us apart. We looked the same until they spent time with us and we became individuals.

I encountered a more surprising iteration of this inability to see things one is not used to seeing. I showed my host brother my driver's license. The "eye color" category caught his attention; mine says green. I thought he disagreed that my eyes were green so I asked him what color he thought they were. His first answer was "white." It took me a second to realize what he meant – and he is absolutely right: eyes are primarily white! Next he answered "black," as in the pupil. So I said "ok what about between the white and the black?" Only then did he notice the color of the iris.

He said he had never heard of eye color being used as a description. When our friend Sharifa came in a few minutes later, I asked her what color my eyes are and she also said "white." In Uganda, eye color is a meaningless description because Ugandans' eye colors are shades of brown.
(End of Stephanie’s post.)

Global economy
As we work in relationships with other cultures, civility is very important. It’s not simply manners, but an understanding and respect for other cultures. It takes some humility to confess you don’t know about other cultures but if you learn and respect their ways, you’ll be in a much better position to develop trust and good working relationships.

Really…in a different dimension…couldn’t you say that about any new company or organization you work with?


Lynnette---this was a fascinating post. It really highlights how civility is a function of culture.

My sister worked in northern Spain for several years. It took her sometime to get used to what seemed to her as the abrupt greeting "Speak to me" on telephone calls. To the folks in Oviedo---it wasn't abrupt just the way they answered the phone.