A Zookeeper in Action: When Locals Help Explain Foreign Behavior

As a Third Culture Kid living in Africa, I would sit in the shade with my father when visitors came.

One day, a trusted employee named André stopped by.

As was normal in the Mossi culture, discussion unfolded at length in a friendly manner, while we drank cup after cup of water.

When the conversation wound down, André at last stood to leave.

It was only then that the aim of his visit became known.

The Favor

A wedding was approaching, and André wanted to ask my dad for help in transporting bags of sorghum (a type of grain). 

The pair sat down again to discuss.

My father told André that while he would like to help, he was unfortunately very busy and couldn’t take the day off that the bad roads would require to transport the grain.

André left and, from that day onward, their relationship was broken.

My father’s trusted employee and cohort now avoided him like the plague.

My father wondered what he’d done wrong. He felt helpless and couldn’t change what happened.

He also couldn’t find fault in what he had said or done. 

He understood he’d had a monkey moment but wasn’t sure what his blunder was.

He really was busy and, on such short notice, couldn’t accommodate André’s request. He had explained and apologized for this.

No matter how hard he tried, his relationship with André didn’t improve.

At a loss, my father sought out his zookeeper for assistance.

The Zookeeper Explains

Freeman Kabore was born of noble blood from Ouagadougou.

He spent time studying in Europe and so had familiarity with both cultures; the perfect quality in a zookeeper.

When my father told Zookeeper Freeman about what had unfolded between him and André, Freeman taught him something about Mossi culture.

An important request like this one should not be refused upon sight.

Instead, one should take the time to consider the request – or at least have the courtesy to appear to take the time to consider it.

If my father had told André, “I will think about it. Please come back tomorrow, and I will let you know,” and then, the following day, kindly declined, this would have been acceptable in Mossi culture.

To the Mossi, this face-saving formality shows your friend the respect he deserves.

Being delivered a direct “no” is considered rude and inconsiderate.

With help from Zookeeper Freeman, my father learned an important norm of the Mossi culture, one that would save him from further monkey moments and help him maintain valuable friendships.

Next week, we’ll talk about Third Culture Kids: the ultimate zookeepers.

3 Vital Reasons to Learn a Language

“Hola!”

“Bonjour!”

“Ni hao!”

“Zdravstvuyte!”

While there are many reasons to learn another language, the below BIG THREE are vital.

1) Understanding Each Other

Communication – a vehicle to understanding – is of course one of the main reasons to learn a language.

English is the official business language of many international companies. Most managers, even of foreign companies, speak fluent English.

In this regard, successful management may not be entirely dependent on learning another language if you look at it purely from a communication perspective.

However, if you’re meant to feel at home in a foreign culture, better understanding will only be had once you know the native language.

2) Learning the Culture

As we talked about in last week’s post, language and culture are intertwined. 

Learning the language will teach you how the culture‘s people think – including your colleagues. 

One personal example of this: 

My father wrote the dictionaries for the tribe of the Mossi, whose language spellings weren’t standardized in the ’70s.

In writing these dictionaries, he learned not only about the language, but about the values of the culture, due to the importance of certain words and phrases.

Greetings, for instance, were many and varied.

When meeting a group of people in a field, you’d extend a different greeting than that of a group congregating under a tree.

Not only does the location impact the greeting, the response is also standardized.

Asking after one’s health is important, as are formalized responses to these greetings.

Even the Mossi are aware about how difficult these greeting customs are to master.

They have a saying, “Saan puusem yaa a ziibo,” which means, “The greetings are a heavy burden for foreigners.”

My father became fluent in the Mossi language and began to understand conversations and idioms.

“When the crocodile is sick, then the buffalo can drink,” for instance, is an optimistic statement meaning there is always an upside in life.

When you learn the language, you learn the culture.

It’s as simple and complex as that.

3) Demonstrating Respect

As my father did with the Mossi, learning another culture’s language demonstrates your respect for the people.

When a Walmart CEO announced that English would be the official company language in Germany, his actions weren’t taken well.

In fact, this – at least in part – led to the conglomerate withdrawing from the German market and to a billion plus-dollar loss.

Instead, handle language as the British CEO of Korean automaker, Daewoo, did. 

When it became apparent that General Motors, the U.S. company that bought out the failing motor company, Daewoo, was viewed as an outsider in Korea, Daewoo’s British CEO, Nick Reilly, took this to heart.

What did Reilly, known for his policy of “putting people as No. 1,” do?

Unsurprisingly, he put people first by way of appearing on a Korean television commercial.

When the people saw Reilly himself speaking the language to show his – and, more importantly, the brand’s – respect and commitment to Korea, they were colored impressed.

The result: the commercial resonated with Koreans, and the Daewoo company – although reorganized and rebranded in many places – saw a dramatic recovery.