“Why don’t you speak?” an employee asked me at my service site.
“I-I’m sorry?” I stuttered, confused by the sudden break in the conversation.
They stared at me, waiting for an answer.
“I guess I was just listening. My friends have said it all,” I replied.
They turned away and resumed their conversation with the two other students, unconvinced.
I experienced a similar reaction two days earlier with another co-worker. It seemed like they thought I didn’t understand the things they were saying because I wasn’t speaking as much as the other two students. I quickly became frustrated by the fact that they kept checking in to see if I was okay and following the conversation.
When I think of Seattle, I see silhouettes walking through the gray, rainy skies, each standing alone. The visual feels so relaxing to me right now. You see, in Seattle we stick to our own business. We don’t interact with strangers unless we must. Some would sooner get on the wrong bus than ask for directions. If a stranger greets you on the street, it’s because they have mistaken you for a friend.
Possibly influenced by this culture, I am an observer. If I don’t know which bus to get on, I analyze the individuals on each bus I am considering, creating hypotheses about where their destination may be, and then decide which to get on based on the data. In Ghana as we ride the tro tros, I sit back in silence, admiring my friend’s ability to have conversations with the strangers next to them the entire ride home.
Like many Seattleites, I don’t interact with strangers unless I must. I’d rather learn about a person through listening to a conversation they have with another and analyzing their actions than directly speaking to them. I’d rather learn about an organization through looking at it, observing is employees’ and clients’ behaviors and conversations than asking direct questions. I’m quickly learning, however, that’s not how things work here in Ghana.
It appears the fact that I don’t speak often or ask questions is seen negatively. I have recently discovered in Ghana, if someone is uncomfortable with a question or does not think the asker will appreciate their response, they will say nothing, the way I do so often.
Is my soft-spokenness seen as stupidity? Rudeness? As if I don’t care to learn as much as other students? Does it appear that when sit, listening to conversations that nothing is going on in my head? Does it look like I am bored, or like I don’t care?
Observing and listening are simply my individual preferences when I don’t know someone well. I like time to think and notice behaviors to understand the people and the setting before speaking up. I’ve decided I need to adapt, to leave my introverted self in the dust in order to acclimate, to form the best relationships with the people I meet here in Ghana. Now all I need to do is learn how to do that.
Background on Ghanaian etiquette
Overview of history and culture in Ghana
Another perspective on friendliness in Ghana
Background on Ghanaian culture
Cultural information for visitors