African Cultural Differences — by Pascale Sztum

Many African leaders have used the term ‘We Africans’ in their speeches and statements. Subsequently, many researches and works based on findings in one African society have been deemed to be relevant elsewhere in Africa. For example there are books on African organizations, on the African management style, on African values…Those pieces of work are never based on empirical studies covering the entire continent.

For many years, I relied on the opinions and statements of prominent experts and leaders about Africa culture. Only by living and working in different African countries, did I learn to understand the empirical evidence of the numerous cultural differences between Africans. Even when Africans share some common values, they can express those values differently. Therefore, what may be right and respectable in one culture becomes improper and disrespectful in another place. Even common values may have different ranks in a particular culture’s hierarchy of values.

But could so many distinguished experts and leaders be wrong?

It took me several years to solve this riddle. The mystery began to unravel when I attended a performance given by two groups of artists, an Ethiopian dance group and a Japanese group of drum players. In spite of the totally different performances offered, the officials of both countries went on stage and commented on how much they share in common. They could not be more wrong!
I was attempting resolve their incongruous emphasis on commonality and trying to figure out why they had not emphasized the beauty of their cultural differences, when I remembered a major difference between individualistic societies and group-based or collectivist ones.

In individualistic societies, differences are beautiful. They are studied and the subject of much interest and many comparisons. In group-oriented societies, commonalities rather than differences are preferred as they ensure the harmony between the members of the groups.

The discovery of the explanation of African leaders and experts’ focus on their commonalities makes it clear that their true message had not been properly understood. Subsequently many foreigners but also many Africans have been misled. This situation yields many adverse outcomes:

Intra African cultural differences related to working with Africans have been widely overlooked in most literatures. For all too long, Africans have been economically isolated from globalization. Now that they deal with new business and trade partners, they may commit many blunders caused by their lack of cross-cultural understandings. International synergies between Africans and foreigners but also between Africans from different countries are critical to help African economies grow and compete globally. Without additional research and without developing capabilities to handle the human side of the technical synergies, many efforts will remain ineffective.

This is why I am a fervent advocate of the development of cross-cultural competencies in Africa!

Pascale Sztum
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