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A lesson about building trust in a culture of secrecy

Yesterday I ran a session for university campus workers on crossing cultures. I was the teacher, but I learned heaps too. For example, I learned that the way people treat children is a key way in which you can judge their character. I knew that interacting with children is very important for Tanzanians, but I had not made the leap to working out that this is something of a test of character. It came in the context of a discussion about trust. How do you build trust?

I gave three key things that are necessary in Australia: time (opportunity to see one another in action), competence (turning up on time, being prepared, etc) and authenticity (informality, self-deprecation, humour). They split into groups and discussed what is necessary for trust in their culture.

The big one, which every group had, was honesty. This might sound like a no-brainer. (Perhaps you’re wondering why I didn’t include it on my list for Australia too.)

But it floored me, because two days before this seminar, I’d run one on emotional intelligence and the group had been very against expressing emotions openly, with bosses or parents or people senior to you in a hierarchy.

So I asked them, if openness and honesty are key to building trust, do you get a more senior person to trust you by being open and honest?

Of course not, they told me. You must follow the cultural norms for respecting those people.

OK then, I continued trying to puzzle this out, so is showing respect a way of earning that person’s trust?

I expected that practising those social mores would be key to building trust. However, once again, they disagreed. It was like those relationships that I was mentioning were not about trust. I put this to them, and they were uncomfortable putting it that starkly. They preferred to speak about trust in the context of friendship and peers, but not in the context of hierarchical relationships.

I started to wonder if I had asked the wrong question, whether I’d made an assumption that trust can be earned, rather than ascribed on the basis of position. I’m not sure. Perhaps I had assumed that those social norms are there to build trust, but maybe they have a different function. I have so much more to undo, and to learn!

Everyone identified that trying to build trust with someone requires vulnerability. You take a small chance on someone, and those chances get bigger as you build more trust, but it’s always something of a leap of faith. They could disappoint you, and that would hurt. By the same token, to be trusted by others, you must let down some of your self-protections to be open, and that can be scary.

They all expressed a desire to cut through the fear and have open relationships. This has been valued in us by Tanzanians. We say things others won’t, and people say to us, “Thank you for being so open! Now I know how things actually are. I know I can trust you.” They find it refreshing, even though it is basically just our cultural ineptness on display!

But then, we are somewhat adjacent to the normal hierarchies. We are wealthy, and our income comes from an outside source. We have our own kind of power because we are westerners. And people are less likely to hold our mistakes against us, because we are not African. We risk less relationally; we can afford to be honest. It is not our livelihood or our social network which is on the line. Fear plays a big role in relationships for Tanzanians, and that’s justified.

We first wrote about the culture of withholding and secrecy over four years ago, and we are still trying to get our heads around it and put flesh on how it works. It’s part of living in a fear/power culture, where you are constantly assessing who has more power, and how you can protect yourself.

Categories: Tanzania Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie

Tagged as:

Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

3 replies

  1. I love how smart you are, how you’re able to dig through these things and write blogs that are so interesting and insightful. I love hearing about your learning and having the opportunity to ponder in a small, limited way the things you are pondering as you ‘live’ it. Thanks for taking the time to write and share these things.

    1. Thanks for your affirming words Sally! It’s for my benefit too. One of the tips I gave yesterday for crossing cultures was to journal what you’re learning, because it will help to clarify it, and help you to work out questions that are still unanswered. Plus you also have a record. My ‘A lesson about…’ tag on our blog is basically my journal of what I’ve learned. Over 5 years now!

  2. Thanks Tamie. Fascinating post. Love the insight and love your teachability even as a teacher; great vulnerable mission strategy. Hoping to emulate and learn similar cultural lessons in Cambodia as I begin to teach and learn through teaching. Looking forward to further insights that you journal on and then share.

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