‘My Way’ Is The Hard Way

In the back of the Land Cruiser, “Claire” and her husband rolled up to the gate of their apartment complex after a dinner out. The driver flashed the car’s lights. They waited. He tentatively honked. They waited. Finally, a guard opened the gate, zipping up his trousers.

Claire was incensed. This is Lagos – it is not for nothing that we have guards. So how were they doing any guarding if they were asleep? She had a good go at them and the next morning reported the incident to the estate manager.

Weeks later, despite her best efforts, nothing changed.

After 9 months living in Lagos, Claire was convinced that:
a) The guards wilfully disregarded the rules
b) The estate manager purposely ignored her complaints
c) The behaviour of both was a sign of gross incompetenceDuring Friday drinks around the pool, the Nigerian-British wife of a colleague overheard Claire’s rant. Like a patient school teacher she explained that the guards are paid very little for their jobs and often their measly salary comes days, even weeks, late.

Frosty glasses in hand, we all agreed that it was rather a miracle that they show up to work at all.

Brushing away a sweaty strand of hair, Claire snapped that it was grossly negligent not to pay the guards. ‘That estate manager is useless!’

Well, continued the neighbour plopping an ice cub in her glass, the manager hires guards through a subcontractor who is then responsible for the guards’ salaries. The manager switched security companies before when it became clear that the company was keeping the bulk of the fee rather than paying decent wages. If he complains to the security company, they fire all the guards and hire new ones from the gigantic pool of jobless men desperate to feed their families. They tell these new ones not to complain about their salary and for God’s sake, stay awake.

To those of us who had been in Lagos for a while, Claire’s fiery mission seemed like a jog in the midday sun – too much hard work for too little return. That guards are not well paid is horrible, but that they sleep at night does not pose a huge security risk. Given the fact that we have little control over the system, would it not be in our best interest to be super nice to the guards so that they have at least some motivation to do their job properly? Claire is a really nice person, but her harangue gave her a bad reputation with staff and management of the complex, and got her nowhere.

It seems that we mobile nomads can spend a lot of energy trying to change our new environment to make it ‘right’. Interculturalist Joseph Shawles explains that neural science has observed what happens in our brains when we are confronted with behaviour we don’t understand. First, we actively observe our surroundings with our conscious mind. But when we see something that doesn’t make sense, it is the sub-conscious part of our brain that searches for an explanation. It looks around for memories of events that could explain what we are seeing. Using our subconscious past experience and expectations as to how the world should work, our conscious brain then formulates an explanation of what we don’t understand:
Observation: night guards sleeping
Expectation: sleeping night guards back home would be fired
Conclusion: these guards are incompetent
Action: get the guards fired or retrained or something…

Claire’s conclusion did not take into account the local context. Her reaction was the equivalent of hacking off a sore thumb – it didn’t solve the cause of her problem: her sense of insecurity in Lagos:

Observation: Night guards sleeping
Expectation: I don’t feel safe
Conclusion: I need to figure out how safe I am
Action: Ask how safe the compound really is at night, what can be done (by me or by others) to make it as safe as possible (would finding a way to get the guards to stay awake be helpful?)

Living within another culture is a skill. The more experience we have the better we get at it. People who dealt with cultural differences as children seem to have a better time of it – perhaps because they have a wider set of experiences that their subconscious looks to for answers. And the closer the culture is to our own, the longer it takes to start noticing differences that matter to us.

The point is to get enough information to understand the context of what is going on around us – not because we have to like everything or take on new ways of doing things, but because we need that knowledge to be able to get what we need or the result we want. We will not change the local culture but we can learn to live and even thrive within it: we all sleep soundly since we’ve never had a night-time security incident.

Diane Lemieux was born in Quebec and moved to live abroad for the first time at the age of three. That journey continued through 11 countries on five continents during which she collected 4 languages, two passports and several cultural identities. She started her career in international development but decided over 15 years ago to raise her two children and pursue her passion: writing. Today, she is author of four books including The Mobile Life: a new approach to moving anywhere and Culture Smart! Nigeria. For more information see her portfolio: www.diane-lemieux.com or blog: diane-lemieux.com/mobilelife

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