A European-American in Africa Print
Written by Corina Mihaela Paraschiv   
Sunday, 09 March 2008 19:22


How is it to be a European-American visiting Africa? Will one have a large culture shock or would he blend in easily? Following my one-week stay in South Africa, I will comment on the adjustments a European-American may have to make in an African environment.


First and foremost, even though seen from North America, Africa and Europe are just two big continents, they are, in reality, an aggregation of many different cultures and customs. This is why it would be impossible to discuss an entire continent. The focus here will be on Eastern-European immigrants living in North America, visiting South Africa.

 Converging Values

The culture of South Africa is surprisingly close to that of both Eastern-Europeans and North Americans in many regards. Family is very much valued in South Africa, just like in Eastern-Europe, however, there is a difference. In South Africa, the feeling of belonging and the loyalty that comes with it extends from the family to the clan, and to the country. In Rumania, family and friends are very important but individuals are also recognized as having their own wills. Canada goes a completely different way; it does not assume that the friend of a friend becomes your friend. It is much more based on merit than on connections.


Appearance is another big issue : everything a South African would do would be done keeping in mind how others may perceive it, and conformity is therefore important. While speaking to locals, I was often told peer pressure is very difficult to surmount because people are trapped in en environment, and feel they have to act in a certain way to be accepted. Because belonging is so important, it becomes more imperative to conform than to do what one may think is right. This is why volunteer organizations often stress the importance of working with youth outside of the townships where they live, so that they may be in an environment where it is safe to think for themselves and be themselves, after which they can have the courage to continue upon returning to their community. As a North American, this could be something difficult to accept, because we are taught to have self confidence and follow what we think is right. A North American who invites an African to a restaurant and offers to cover the expenses for him might see himself refused. Although they will not tell this clearly, the reasons underlying the African’s refusal may be because it is shameful to appear less wealthy than others, or because it would mean leaving his friends behind – as they cannot afford joining them.


Lack of initiative may also be frustrating to a North American, because leadership and personal responsibility is not stressed as much as in North American culture. In fact, South Africans are a little bit fatalistic, thinking that whatever is meant to happen will happen. In Rumania, initiative is also valued but in a different way : the group is very important, and particular individuals will be valued for their cleverness or intelligence. Those particular individuals will be expected to accomplish more because of their gifts, but underlying that is an expectation that they help the ones that do not share their status or their luck.


In South Africa, respect for the elderly is very important. It is the elderly’s job to share the stories of his life as wise advise to the young ones. In Rumania, this is also valued, though as a Canadian, I could also say youth would be valued for its potential. In North America, the knowledge and skills you have are relevant and sometimes unconnected to your age. It is a form of democracy. A European-American would therefore respect both the elderly for their age and the young for their potential.


Women and Men in South Africa have different roles, which is much less common in North America where the sexual revolution of the 1960s changed the family dynamics. In Rumania that is less common as well, since communism had men and women alike work side by side in fields, granting them equal obligations – and therefore equal rights. The experience of being treated differently because of the gender might come as a culture shock to a European-American.


The Universalism that is praised in both America and Europe would confuse an African; in South Africa, everything must be viewed in its particular context, and exceptions are usually the rule.


Communication and Time Patterns

In terms of interactions, the relationships are very important in both Eastern-European and African culture. This might explain why there is a polychronic notion of time; finishing off a discussion with one person might be more valued than being on time for an appointment. Rumanians have a cross between the African laxism and the North American punctuality; as a Rumanian, you must always be on time (except when visiting friends, in which case it would be polite to give them extra time to prepare for hosting), but you must be ready to wait without being upset if the other is late. This would probably be an easy transition therefore, into Africa, for a European-American having kept this attitude.


South Africa is a high context culture, which means when you speak with people, they will rarely get to the point and will have a more circular way of exposing ideas. They might also use a lot of metaphors and images to explain something, because they wish to avoid being rude or confrontational. It might exasperate a North American who wished to clearly convey an idea, and do it quickly at that, too. The Eastern-European education of that European-American, however, may help adapt to the situations, as Rumania is also high context – under communism, people have learned they cannot bluntly say everything. The way it emerges though is very different; Eastern-Europeans are very subtle at coding messages, and pay attention to nuances implied in their communication. It is not that the communication is circular, like in Africa, but rather, the nuances – things that are or are not mention – convey the complete picture. Humor is very subtle as well, and is often used to voice an opinion rather than just to entertain. I remember watching Rumanian movies as a child and having my parents pause the video every five minutes to explain the jokes; they are highly contextual and understanding the language simply did not mean I was able, as a North-American and Western-European bred child, to understand what was implied through the jokes.


The South African culture is very warm and welcoming; when I visited the townships, children were fast to gather around and climb up on my laps. They touched me friendly and played with my hair and my camera equipment, not conscious of the difference in treating a stranger and a friend. A stranger was a new friend, simply put. In the North American culture, there often seems to be xenophobia; children are taught not to speak to strangers and not to play in the streets without supervision. Interestingly enough, the crime rate in South Africa is probably much greater than in North America, yet the locals seem more trusting than a North American would be. The Rumanians once more fall somewhere in between – formality and distance is necessary with strangers but as an in-group you would be treated with the same warmth and trust the Africans would exhibit. The interesting thing to highlight though is that, unlike North America, in Eastern Europe, referral is very important; if I get to a new country and mention I am a friend of a person that Rumanians see as part of their community or circle of friends, I will be immediately welcomed and treated very warmly, as if I had known the people for years. As such, this part of the heritage may help the European-American understand the African’s friendliness.


Diverging Factors

All that we have seen seems to point that European-Americans are well prepared to travel to South Africa and blend in with the locals. However, cultural differences are only one aspect of the factors that trigger culture shock. The ethnocentrism of the country visited can influence how well, despite of your cultural similarities, one may integrate another culture. The truth is that even while speaking to South Africans about their country, I was unable to see them as accepting of other cultures. They cohabitate with many different groups and cultures within Capetown, but they are always very clear to distinguish between groups within their country. This separation amongst themselves (at a large level : South African Whites, Colored, Blacks; at a smaller scale : Zulus, Swazis, Xhosas, …) underlines how an outsider would still be labelled as an outsider even if he fit in at some level. The time I’ve spent in the country also did not allow me to really assess what life was really like; a cultural immersion would mean being surrounded by locals for a longer period of time, trying to live the way they live their daily life. It would also include cultural isolation – during my travels, even when I spent time with locals, I was always surrounded by Americans or Europeans that still have me a feeling of familiarity and the ability to exchange on experiences with a similar view on things. This limited my ability to be truly integrated to the culture. The English language I used enabled me to be understood by the majority of people within the city, but in the townships, I was unable to really communicate properly with the locals. And although I have read much literature on the topic, I would still not know what to expect, were I to truly immerse myself in that environment, because I found the locals often catered to me, as a foreigner, not allowing me to really suffer from any cultural shock. Even the shopping malls were arranged like back in Canada; I had no trouble going by the isle in rush and finding precisely what I needed without help. A local was explaining to me that the entire city is arranged so that the visitors will not be confused or disoriented, but he made a point to explain that there was a big pride in South African particularities and that amongst themselves they would do business differently, they would interact differently, they would speak differently. Because of this, I felt very in control the whole time of my stay, but I was in reality living a tourist experience, not an African one.

Lastly, we can talk about the status and visibility issue; in Capetown, white people are common, and their status is ambiguous because they are a very powerful and wealthy, although they are a minority. This leads to mixed feelings amongst the population. In the townships I went to, I was well received, and was much of a curiosity. But when talking to locals, I also got a feeling of resentment against the white because of past historical tensions – which unfortunately are still at the core of current historical developments. I believe that as a foreigner, my education and gender would have a different value than it would were I a local.


Additional Resources

In conclusion, even though European-Americans can be well prepared to face a smooth transition into the African culture, there will inevitably be some friction and surprises as they move into the country and discover that living with the locals, immersed in their day to day reality, and being isolated from their usual frame of reference, makes the experience completely different to that of being back home!



For more insight into American and South African cultures, you can check your nearest library for these titles :


FOSTER, Dean The Global Etiquette guide to Africa and the Middle East, John Wiley and Sons Inc. USA, 2000.


FOSTER, Dean The Global Etiquette guide to Europe, John Wiley and Sons Inc. USA, 2000.