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An example of a ‘cross-cultural tension’

Those of us who live in a culture other than our own often talk about ‘cross-cultural tensions’ and it looms large for us as the stuff and stress of everyday life. However, I suspect it sounds kind of vague and wishy-washy to your average Joe. So I thought I’d give an example here to help flesh it out. I’ll start with some theory and get more practical as we go along.

Tanzania is generally a fear/power culture, where the western tendency is more towards guilt/innocence. In a fear/power culture, the authorities call the shots and you have to learn how to live in that world as part of a larger system. A guilt/innocence framework is much more interested in individual responsibility.

A broken cup

Very early in 2013 when we were studying Swahili for the first time, we learned about an indirect passive voice. It’s a whole construction which avoids having to say who did something. You don’t say, “I broke the cup” (niliharibia kikombe) or “the cup was broken by me” (kikombe kiliharibiwa na mimi). You say, ‘The cup is broken’ (kikombe kinaharibika). That’s not an accident: language reflects culture. In a fear/power context, things just happen.

Swahili has another saying, ‘Pole’ or ‘Pole sana’ (pronounced pole-ay). It translates into English as ‘sorry’, but it has none of the connotations of apology or admission that ‘sorry’ has in English. Rather, it’s an expression of sympathy. It’s more like, “I’m sorry that happened,” but you would never respond with “Oh, it’s not your fault,” because there’s no admission of guilt implied.

Contrast this with our Elliot who at four and a half is very interested in whose ‘fault’ something is. He is often saying, “You did it, not me,” or “It’s my fault”. This is also a learned behaviour. We want him to see the direct impact, both good and bad, that his actions have on others, so we talk with him about the causes and consequences of them. We see this as empowering; with this understanding he is enabled to modify his actions to increase the positive and the kind, and decrease the negative and the harmful.

A rearranged conference

So, here’s an example of how that plays out in our work environment. Four days before a major event when staff from all over Tanzania were going to be traveling to Dar, we received a WhatsApp message saying the event had been put off for a week. Normally after these events everyone gets a couple of days’ holiday, so now the event would take place in the holiday week, and the holiday would happen the following week.

As is normal in fear/power societies, this news was delivered without any real consultation. Travel plans had to be changed at short notice and holidays for the week after cancelled for the staff. The implications were even greater for us. We had coordinated some international travel on my part for the original holiday week, so that I could be with the boys while Arthur was away and he could be with them while I was away. Now we would both we away at the same time. My international travel couldn’t be changed, so Arthur replied to the WhatsApp message expressing his disappointment that he would not be able to go, and that the significant amount of teaching that he had been asked to prepare for this event would now be wasted.

The response he received was a round of heartfelt ‘poles’. Lots and lots of sympathy.

But do you think we wanted sympathy? Sympathy’s OK I guess, but what we wanted was some kind of change. After all, isn’t sympathy kind of empty if you don’t try to change the situation? And this situation was pretty easily fixable, at least in our estimation. But even those who made the decision talked about it like they were the victims here too. They replied saying things like, “It’s hard for all of us that this is the case.” Like it has just happened, like this situation wasn’t the direct result of someone’s action at least, if not theirs in particular.

So we’re back to the cup again. It’s just happens to be broken. The big event just happened to need to be moved.

And we want to ask, ‘who is to blame?’ and ‘what can be done?’, but these very instincts betray our own cultural point of view. Tanzanians sit with others and offer sympathy; westerners activate into doing, helping, and fixing. The cross-cultural tension here is not so much that the conference was changed at the last minute, or even the lack of consideration given to us. The cross-cultural tension is that they are trying to offer care to us –”Pole sana!” – in a way that we receive as empty, and even a slap in the face, because we are geared towards action rather than sympathy.

It goes back the other way too

We call these interactions cross-cultural tensions, because we realise that the difficulty is felt both ways. No doubt our Tanzanian colleagues feel that we are pushy, or want to move on from things too fast. And if our cultural values became dominant, we would consider ourselves to have acted without integrity; that’s why this is a tension to be held and tolerated, not a battle to be won.

And besides, we think there’s lots to be learned from the Tanzanian cultural tendency towards sympathy. Red Twin has just been diagnosed with cancer, and many of her friends have felt useless. They ask, “What can I do?” but there is often no answer to give. In Tanzania, just giving sympathy is doing something.

And also, Tanzanians see this as an important role, so they’re much less inclined to try to ‘fix’ you, or blame you, or tell you what to do about your cancer, as some of those around Red Twin have unhelpfully tried to do.

So the next day Arthur went to the office and accepted all the ‘poles’. And he did it genuinely, because it was happening in Swahili and in that headspace.

Categories: Culture Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

1 reply

  1. Thank you for the cultural explanation. I do really understand the meaning of poly sana. Also I feel poly for twin, for I am about to begin diagnostic investigation for prostate matters. I have known people who have died from this, and people who have been cured. So it is interesting. Kwa Heri . Kingsley

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