Making Acquaintances: Differences and Similarities

Sample of Making Acquaintances: Differences and Similarities
(Country: Kenya)
Historical Background
Kenya is a country made up of many different languages, ethnicities, races, and cultures. Because
its geography isolated the interior from the coastal regions until the mid-19th century, Kenya’s
modern history is also divided (Horrobin, 1971). Over fifteen hundred years ago in the interior of
Kenya, agriculturist Bantu language speakers from Western Africa arrived, followed by the
pastoralist Nilotic speakers from North Africa (Editors of Time-Life, 1987). These peoples would
remain in the interior with little contact outside of the areas they settled until the arrival of
Europeans in the mid-1800s (Horrobin, 1971).
Along the coastal areas of Kenya between 200 and 1490c.e. Indian, Indonesian, Persian, Arab,
Chinese, and even Roman sailors had made contact and traded with the locals (Horrobin, 1971).
Eventually, many of the Arab and Persian traders settled in these regions perpetuating Islam, and
the Swahili culture and language (Horrobin, 1971). The prosperity of the coastal trade eventually
attracted the ill-fated attention of the Portuguese around 1500. The Portuguese conquered, and
then ruled coastal Kenya until the mid-17th century, bringing Christianity to the people (Editors of
Time-Life, 1987). The Portuguese were later ousted by the Omanis who ruled from the early
1700s, returning Islam to the coast, until they slowly lost power to Great Britain by 1898
(Horrobin, 1971). The British built roads and railroads to the interior finally unifying the
country’s geography but bringing an influx of European settlers (Finlay, Fitzpatrick, Fletcher, &
Ray, 2000). Colonial rule under Great Britain resulted in an attempt to wipe out the African
culture, discriminate and suppress Kenyans in favor of the British and European settlers. Over the
next 60 years, Britain would first oppress, but then later slowly allow, through a series of violent
protests, the country to return to majority African rule. In 1963, Kenya declared independence
and now functions as a republic (Horrobin, 1971).
Communication Styles
The official languages of Kenya are English and Kiswahili (Horrobin, 1971). Because of the
diversity of the people, the total amount of languages spoken, mostly African tribal languages, is
62 (“Kenya: Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette,” n.d.). The largest of these groups are the
Bantu language-based Kikuyu, Luhya, and Kamba peoples, followed by the Nilotic based
speakers: Luo, Kalenjin, and the famous Maasai peoples (“The World Factbook: Kenya,” n.d.).
Oral histories and folklore are the traditional methods of preserving the history of the various
ethnic groups and have only recently begun to be preserved in writing in English and Kiswahili,
using Latin script (Sobania, 2003). Nonverbal communication styles include close proxemics
(even with new acquaintances), shaking of hands when greeting anyone, and demurring eye
contact as a sign of respect and non-aggression (Finney, 2001). Another important aspect of
communication styles for Kenyans is that they are a very contextual society and when speaking
they will be neither direct nor frank (“ Kenya, Greetings,” n.d.). They try to retain or build cordial
relationships and therefore want to couch anything they say with the most amount of tact (“Kenya
Etiquette Tips,” n.d.).
While over 82% of Kenyans practice Christianity, roughly one-third of those belong to “over 200
or so African independent churches” (Editors of Time-Life, 1987 p. 8). This reflects Kenyans’
desire to combine traditional African belief systems with Christian belief systems. Traditional
beliefs focus on the here and now, the community, and health and moral order in the present,
whereas Christianity focuses on the afterlife, the individual, and salvation (Sobania, 2003). The
other dominant religion is Muslim, concentrated in the coastal areas (“ The World Factbook:
Kenya,” n.d.). Kenyans place great emphasis on family and kinship, respect for the elderly, and
cooperation among family members over individuals (Finney, 2001). Among rural areas,
Kenyans hold a subjugated belief towards nature, and until colonialism and the introduction of
cash crop economy, did not rely on surplus farm production or over-hunting of their territories
(Editors of Time-Life, 1987).
Society Structure
Kenya is a group oriented society and “Harambee” a Bantu word meaning “to pull together” or
mutual assistance is practiced widely (“Kenya: Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette,” n.d.).
This is especially true for the family and extended family, which is the center of Kenya’s
collectivistic society. Monogamous statutory marriages account for 40% of all marriages and
60% are customary or Muslim marriages, of which 16% are polygamous (“Gender Index:
Kenya,” n.d.). Families include parents, children, grandparents and often extended relatives or
village members (Sobania, 2003).
Kenya is also a patriarchal society with a wide gender inequality in favor of men (“Kenya,
Greetings,” n.d.). Men hold the majority of positions of authority in politics, at work, in the
family and men are almost exclusively the landowners. In village or rural settings, which account
for over 2/3 of the population, men are the members of the elders, provide protection, and tend
herds (Sobania, 2003). Women do most of the farming, provide all home maintenance, and child
rearing (Sobania, 2003). Children are highly valued, but are expected to obey and show respect to
their elders without question (Finlay, Fitzpatrick, Fletcher, & Ray, 2000).
The Republic of Kenya is a highly diverse nation with over 40 ethnic groups, multiple political
parties, and free elections (Finlay, Fitzpatrick, Fletcher, & Ray, 2000). Like elders, political
leaders are given great respect (“Kenya: Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette,” n.d.). Kenya
is a also hierarchal society- a country of mostly “ wanachi”- workers, laborer, domestics, and
farmers or herders, and “wabenzi”, meaning literally those who drive a Mercedes-Benz (Sobania,
2003, p.2).
Reasons for Codes of Cultural Behavior
1. Greet Kenyans by shaking hands each time you meet them. In addition, it is considered
respectful to grasp your right wrist when shaking the hands of an elderly, or higher ranking
person. Lastly, when meeting members of the opposite sex, it is polite for a man to wait until a
woman offers her hand first (“Kenya, Greetings,” n.d.). Reasons: Shake hands because Kenya is a
particularistic culture with situation –specific interactions that are expected in social settings.
Shaking hands shows that you respect their common etiquette rules. Grasping the wrist of the
elderly or higher ranking person is important because Kenya is a collectivistic linear culture,
which means they consider the well-being of the group to be paramount and they respect and
defer to those considered in a higher authoritative position. By doing this you show the required
respect and that you are willing to put the group needs of social well-being ahead of your
individual needs. Men should wait until a woman offers her hand before shaking because Kenya
is both a hierarchical society with strong emphasis on status differences between individuals and
an ascription valued society which places great importance on inherent qualities such as gender or
religion. In Kenya’s hierarchical society, women are lower socially than men and it is considered
respectful for them to approach the superior male. Kenya’s ascription values highlight the
importance of honoring the differences in the various backgrounds of women. Some may be
Muslim, which means they may never shake hands with a man who is not a relation, and allowing
a woman to approach first, avoids the embarrassment of offering a hand that cannot be shaken.
2. Address men as “bwana” and men obviously over 35 years old as “mzee” to show respect.
Women of all ages are to be traditionally addressed as “mama” (“ United Nations Office at
Nairobi,” n.d.). Reasons: Using Kenyan traditional terms of address is important because they
value collective collateral relationships. This means the individual is part of a social order that
values harmony and politeness. Using Kenyan terms shows a willingness to be polite and put
others at ease, helping bring harmony to everyone. Using “mzee” to address elder males is
important because Kenya is a linear society which expects unquestioning respect to someone
considered in higher authority, such as males over 35 years old. It is also important because
Kenya is an ascription based society which places higher status based on gender and age and
therefore expects others to show respect to older males.
3. Always politely and patiently ask after your acquaintance’s health and the health of their
family, ideally by using the Swahili term “Jambo?”, or “How are you?” (“Kenya: Language,
Culture, Customs and Etiquette,” n.d.). Reasons: Kenyans are collectivistic which means
individuals put group needs above their own, and Kenyans’ family groups are the most important.
You honor their group by inquiring after them. Kenyans also have a present relationship to time.
The conversation they are having with you is the most important thing at that moment. They also
have a polychromic relationship to time, which means they believe the time, no matter how long,
spent building human relationships is not limited and wholly worthwhile spent in conversation
with you. Being patient and thorough in this initial conversation shows you value them as they
value you.
4. When invited to dinner at a private home, it is polite to bring the hostess a gift such as flowers
or a dessert, and in rural areas it is polite to bring sugar or tea (“Kenya Etiquette Tips,” (n.d.).
Reasons: Kenya is a particularistic, high-context culture. This means there are situation-specific
patterns or rules of social situations that are followed such as bringing a gift to a hostess. In
addition, Kenya’s high-context culture means there are rules of behavior that are expected but not
explicitly spoken. This means bringing an appropriate gift such as non-personal and useful items
are considered the most polite and appreciated even though no specific examples are written out
in society.
5. When dining, use formal table manners, wash your hands before and after dinner, and do not
start eating until the eldest male at the table has begun eating (“Kenya: Language, Culture,
Customs and Etiquette,” (n.d.). Reasons: Kenyans have a collateral relationship orientation which
value politeness and group harmony. Formal table manners and washing hands show politeness
and a willingness to not cause any embarrassment to the host group. In addition, deferring to the
eldest male is important because Kenyans also have an ascription orientation which values the
inherent qualities of the individual based on, in this case, gender and age. This means the eldest
male has a higher status among the group therefore you and the group honor him by letting him
eat first.
1. Do not take photographs of people without getting their permission first. In addition, be
prepared to pay for the privilege (“United Nations Office at Nairobi,” n.d.). Reason: This is
important because some of Kenya’s ethnic groups have a high uncertainty avoidance which
means that anything uncertain to them is considered a threat. Some indigenous people may
believe a photo can steal their souls (“ United Nations Office at Nairobi,” n.d.). Tourists should
avoid threatening them by simply asking permission before photographing. In addition, collateral
relationships are valued in Kenya which means each person is part of the social order and in that
order politeness is important. By asking permission, you are showing the correct politeness. It is
important to be prepared to pay to photograph a Kenyan because they are also a particularistic
culture-based society. In this instance, situation specific patterns- thousands of tourists visiting
over decades- have developed an expectation of a certain interaction- that of the tourists paying to
photograph people. This is especially true in the rural areas where poverty can be extreme and
tourism is a large part of the local economy.
2. Do not dress sloppily or wear revealing tops or short bottoms in places other than the beach, as
conservative dress is the norm (“Kenya Etiquette Tips,” (n.d.). Reasons: Kenya is a collectivisticcollateral culture where the emphasis is on the well-being of others and adherence to group social
welfare and rules of etiquette. Neat, tidy, non-revealing clothes are considered the social norm,
and tourists who don’t adhere to this show disrespect for Kenyans’ social rules.
3. Do not get angry, swear, or blaspheme. Kenyans are a polite and non-confrontational people,
and showing your temper is considered very ill mannered (“ Kenya, Greetings,” n.d.). Reasons:
Kenyans are a highly contextual society and one way this is manifested is that they do not speak
directly or frankly, even under duress. Because their methods of communications are very
implicit, they also do not show anger. Also, Kenya is a collectivistic-collateral culture where the
emphasis is on the well-being of others and adherence to group social welfare and rules of
etiquette, especially not causing embarrassment. Swearing or blaspheming would show rude
manners and embarrassment to those around you.
4. Do not speak loudly, whether positive or negative, as it is considered insulting (“ United
Nations Office at Nairobi,” n.d.). Reasons: Kenyans adhere to a collectivistic-collateral culture
where the emphasis is on the well-being of others, adherence to group harmony and being polite
in order to not cause embarrassment. Raising your voice would violate these cultural values and
disrupt group harmony so you should always speak in a reasonable voice.
5. Do not point your finger at someone, or call them by curling up your finger or waving your
upturned palm towards you. All of these gestures are deemed rude. Instead use your head to point
to something and beckon with your palm up (“United Nations Office at Nairobi,” n.d.). Reasons:
Reasons: Kenya is a particularistic, high-context culture. This means there are situation-specific
patterns or behaviors that are considered impolite in Kenya such as the above hand gestures. In
addition, Kenya’s high-context culture means there are non-verbal cues that are not acceptable,
even if there are no written rules about them. Tourists should avoid using these gestures because
it would insult the person you are trying to communicate with as well as those around them.
Editors of Time-Life. (1987). Library of Nations: East Africa. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books.
Finlay, H., Fitzpatrick, M., Fletcher, M., & Ray, N. (2000). Lonely Planet East Africa (5th ed.).
Melbourne, AUS: Lonely Planet Publications.
Finney, M.K. (2001). Kenya: Nonverbal Issues. Retrieved April 25, 2013, from
Gender Index: Kenya. (n.d.). Gender Index Website. Retrieved April 25, 2013, from
Horrobin, D. F. (1971). A Guide to Kenya and Northern Tanzania. New York, NY: Charles
Scribner’s Sons.
Kenya Etiquette Tips. (n.d.). Vayama Country Etiquette. Retrieved February 18, 2013, from
Kenya, Greetings. (n.d.). Culture Crossing Website. Retrieved February 18, 2013, from
Kenya: Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette. (n.d.). Kwintessential Website. Retrieved
February 18, 2013, from
Sobania, N. (2003). Culture and Customs of Kenya. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
The World Factbook: Kenya. (n.d.) Central Intelligence Agency U.S. Retrieved April 25, 2013,
United Nations Office at Nairobi. (n.d.). Cultural Do’s and Dont’s. Retrieved February 18, 2013,
Major Value Commonality
Japan and Kenya share a common value in collateral relationships where group harmony and
politeness in social situations is very important. Kenyans will not be frank when speaking to
others even if asked a direct question, going so far as to use metaphors or context to get meanings
across. They do this to extend the most sensitivity to the listener, rather than risk offending or
disappointing them. You mentioned that Japanese also prefer a softer, non-confrontational style
in communication as well as a more diplomatic approach which is in line with Kenyan values as
Major Value Difference
There is a major cultural difference between Japan and Kenya in their relationship to time. You
wrote the Japanese are a past-oriented society believing what one has done in the past will
determine one’s future. Kenyans, in contrast, are a present-oriented society. They do not see time
as circular; they are concentrated in the moment and consider what is happening at the present to
have high significance. An example is when Kenyans meet someone and spend what other
cultures might consider a very long time to inquire after each other’s health and the well-being of
their family members.

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