These are some points I recently read in African Friends and Money Matters by David Maranz. The 3 bullet points are a summary of about 10 pages. I also replaced African with Haitian since we are in the mindset of Haiti. The Haitians here today were originally brought over as slaves from Africa and you find many similarities between the two cultures.
1. Compliments are frequently given indirectly in the form of a requests for gifts and are often formulated as questions.
Examples are: “Why don’t you give me your blouse?” Or “Give me your pants.”
These mean that the blouse and pants are really nice. Typical compliments and acceptable responses are like these:
“I like your shirt.”
- “I will give it to you when I take it off,”
- Or better yet, “When it has a little brother I will give it to you,” meaning, “When I have another I’ll give it to you.”
The responses imply that they will give it to the person, yet really they have no intention of doing so! Haitians understand those responses as replies that mean No. For the average foreigner the answers seem a bit dishonest, or at least deceptive. To a Haitian it would be considerate of their feelings than would be a blunt “No, I won’t give it to you.” It may seem strange that these compliments are given as requests, and the responses are given as though they were real requests.
The American may think that if these are complements, why not just answer with, “Thank you for the compliment, I’m glad you like my blouse.” But this is not how the GAME is played. The rules of the game dictate that the response to the compliment be given on two or three levels.
- Level 1 – The first level is to appear to take the request seriously as a request.
- Level 2 – To fend off the request with a polite and phony excuse as to why it will not be granted
- Level 3 – If the one receiving the compliment is capable of responding on this level, what most delights Haitians is to have a joke made out of it in a clever way.
- Better still – is to be humorous or clever and in addition mildly embarrass the other person. Playing word games of this kind is one of the joys of conversation.
Example of Level 3
When a friend was hiking in the mountains she came upon a cattle herder watching over his animals. He admired the watch she was wearing and asked her to give it to him. She said, “Gladly, and I’ll take one of your cows in exchange.” The man was incredulous, “One of my cows?” She responded, “Yes, but since the watch doesn’t keep good time, you can give me a cow that limps.” At that point they both began to laugh, and each went on their way content with having had a pleasant verbal exchange.
2. Westerners are not accustomed to compliments being formulated as requests, and easily misinterpret them and take offense.
It makes sense why we, foreigners, misunderstand compliments. In our own culture compliments are virtually never given as requests. In Haiti, foreigners are constantly approached by people requesting money, aid, loans, or real requests. We can feel bombarded by these requests. After time we can become conditioned to quickly react negatively to all requests, not understanding the subtle differences between importunity and compliment. *I didn’t learn this until much later. If only I had read this book the first month we came .
Example of a request not expected to be granted
“Can you take me to your country?” Or, “Will you teach me English?” Certainly the asker would like to have these requests filled, but when the foreigner being addressed is almost a total stranger, he knows it is very unlikely. I understand these requests to be conversational openers, attempts to establish a friendly relationship, and verbalization of the recognition that the person being addressed has access to resources, position, and power.
3. Haitians prefer to apologize symbolically, rather than verbally, when they have made a mistake or feel personal shame.
Haitians want to maintain dignity, honor and similar personal qualities, and avoid shame and humiliation. These are extremely important. So direct apologies, which might be construed as admissions of weakness, insufficienty, or ineptitude are avoided, yet are obliquely admitted through symbolic apologies.
I have seen this at the guest house, when a worker has made a rather major mistake, I have looked for an apology or some kind of acknowledgment of fault or regret. Usually in vain.
An example of a symbolic apology
When constructing, the head carpenter made a major mistake in the pitch of the roof he was building, requiring that wasted time, energy and money be spent to correct the error. The construction supervisor, let the carpenter know of his displeasure with the situation. The next morning, the carpenter brought several pineapples to the supervisor’s door. Nothing was said but the implicit message was: “Let this gift put our relationship back on course.”
Some of these things you learn as you go along in Haiti. It would have been great to have this book back when we first arrived. This will sounds strange but the book is very dry and boring to an extent BUT it has fantastic insights into the depths of the Haitian/African culture. Must read for anyone who is moving to Haiti.