A friend of mine who I shall call Anna, knows that I give Dutch language and culture trainings for foreigners for my living. She recently told me this story while roaring with laughter. It shows, once again, how differences in culture can make the simplest communications come completely unstuck.

One of Anna’s sisters was married to a man from Zanzibar – let’s call him Freddie. Freddie never looked at Anna when she spoke to him. He often took a long time before replying to anything she asked him and he didn’t work either. Now of course it isn’t that easy to find a job here being a foreigner from such a distant country, but that was something my friend wasn’t too conscious of at that time.

One day visiting her sister, Anna asked Freddie something. He again took a very long time in answering her and as Anna was very tired, this annoyed her. And when he did answer her, he still didn’t look at her. This made her so upset that she started yelling at him: “Yo, lookatme man! Look at me when you’re talking to me!”

Fortunately Anna’s sister knew a few things about her husband’s culture and shocked as she was, she explained to Anna that men from Zanzibar aren’t used to looking at another woman. To them looking at another woman implies a lack of respect. Anna was highly ashamed after that outburst, but now she laughs about it and has even allowed me to write this little article about it.

By contrast in the Netherlands it’s very uncommon not to look at someone while talking or listening to them and it’s a mark of disrespect. Whether you are a man or a woman and whatever the other person’s gender, age or position in society, you look at them while talking to them, even if it is the queen.

When people come to settle here from other cultures, they pick up this way of behaving in order to communicate with the Dutch (or other Western) people. But you can maybe imagine that it isn’t easy to change your habit and start doing something that is seen as disrespectful in your country. Just imagine going to Zanzibar, where you’re not supposed to look at the person you’re talking to. You might feel really uncomfortable maintaining a conversation with someone while looking at the wall. If the other person was slow in replying, you might even think he ‘d secretly went off!

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©Language Coach Sophia Berkati 2009

English text edited by Dr. Nick Parrott, Textual Healing

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