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I am hopeless at reading implicit cultures!

A couple of months ago, Mama Velo, our normal house mama, starting sending her daughter Esta instead of coming herself. We heard that Mama Velo was sick but then we heard that she was better, and yet, she had not returned. Why not?

One of the things we learned in our intercultural training is that we come from an explicit culture. In our Australian culture, people feel the need to spell things out. Someone might show you they love you, but you’re never quite sure until you hear the words ‘I love you’. Implicit cultures consider this unnecessary, perhaps even tasteless. In places like Tanzania, words carry less weight; actions are where the meaning is.

So Arthur and I set out to read the situation. Here are the pieces of evidence we gathered:

  • Mama Velo is getting on in years.
  • Shortly before she fell ill, Mama Velo started bringing Esta to work with her to help her.
  • Esta said Mama Velo was better, but Mama Velo had not returned.

TENTATIVE CONCLUSION: Perhaps this was some kind of planned retirement and Mama Velo was handing over to Esta.

Now, we’d expect any permanent change to be discussed, but where were the boundaries on the implicit thing? It’s not as if Tanzanians never discuss things, but was this something you’d expect someone to discuss, or was it something we were meant to pick up from the context clues?

We had no way of knowing if our hypothesis was correct or how long to wait and see. However, there were some things I felt needed to be resolved. For example, Esta required more instruction and supervision than Mama Velo, something I would have been happy to provide if she were to come on with us long term, but something I wouldn’t worry about if it was just short term. Eventually I decided I would have a conversation with Esta. After all, as the employer, I figured I was entitled to some peace of mind! I sat Esta down and asked her what was going on.

Here’s what I learned: there was indeed an implicit message, but it wasn’t about some sort of retirement plan.

Here’s how we should have read the situation:

  • Esta said Mama Velo was better.
  • Mama Velo had not returned.
  • Therefore, Mama Velo was probably not better yet.

Simple, right? And much less intricate than our whole retirement theory!

But this is what’s so tricky for those of us from explicit cultures: we can’t work out what we’re meant to be reading implicitly! To us, if you don’t spell out what’s going on in a situation, it could mean anything!

The thing about implicit communication is that it is learned over time. People who grow up in these cultures have 10 or 20 years of observation and the knowledge we grasp so ineptly at is second nature to them. So we’re constantly playing catch up, needing the obvious (to everyone else) explained. I feel like Prince George in Blackadder 3. When he’s told that a solution to his problem leaps to mind, he responds, ‘You couldn’t make it leap any higher, could you?’

Categories: Culture Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

3 replies

    1. Because in an implicit culture, what you’re saying doesn’t need to be accurate, or at least carries less weight. (Maybe a bit like in Australia when someone says, ‘How are you?’ and you say, ‘Fine’ because it’s a social convention not because it’s the truth!) It may be that my question about how Mama Velo was wasn’t taken as a genuine inquiry or in need of an ‘accurate’ answer – if Mama Velo wasn’t back, clearly she was still sick!

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