Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On Etiquette and Manners

I've been in Haiti for just over 10 months now and I'm still trying to figure out the Haitian system of manners and etiquette. It's funny how I thought Canadian norms of manners were universal - silly me! While there are a lot of things that are the same, there are a lot that are different. Here are a few of the things I've noticed.

  •  As a well-trained, polite Canadian, I say "please (souple)" and "thank you (mesi)" all the time. Only recently have I begun to notice that "please and thank you" are not always required. Often times when somebody wants you to bring or pass you something, they simply say "Ba'm ________ (fill in the blank) which translates to "Give me __________". This is not considered rude. I still always add a "souple" afterwards. Don't get me wrong, Haitians are very polite, it just all depends on the situation and context and how you interpret it. What may seem important to a Canadian just might not seem important to a Haitian - or it is and is just shown a different way.
  • Forming lines does not come naturally here. The only place I've seen it work well is at banks where they actually have those roped mazes to follow, otherwise, it's a free for all! Whether it's a counter at a fast food restaurant or cashier counter at a store you have to do your best to be heard or seen to place your order or pay for your merchandise. I am not good at this. Maybe there is a system of how things work - I have not learned it yet!
  • Time. Punctuality is usually not important here - but sometimes it is. Most people are early for church - I suspect this has something to do with being able to find a seat. But for events like weddings, graduations, parties, it is acceptable to start and/or show up 1, 2 or 3 hours later. I, of course, am still usually 5 minutes early from the set time. I'm also learning that many people just do not have a good concept of time. A friend may be going to Cap Haitian, I'll ask what time they will be back, they reply that they will be back in 1.5 hours. Now, this is impossible as it is a 1 hour drive to Cape and a 1 hour drive back and then you still need time to do your errands! 
  • Haitians don't like to ask questions or say no to someone who is their elder or superior, even if they ask you to do something that will completely affect your plans for the day or require more work for everybody. They will just do it even if there is a better option - which I have often pointed out! Also, if something isn't as it should be, they don't seem to investigate. Example. The clinic has been waiting for a number of money wires to come in the past couple of weeks. Several times we have sent the signatories to the bank to check if the funds were received. Each time they came back and reported that they were not there. So, I started sending some emails to see what the problem was. I was told that the funds were indeed at the branch. So, on Monday I go to the bank with the two accountants myself to get to the bottom of this. We ask the teller if the funds are there, it takes a little while, but eventually she tells us that 2 have been received, but not the one that I had been told by the main bank was there. So, I asked some more questions, she started investigating and found out there had been a little problem so the account had not been updated correctly. The money was there. I can only imagine how long we would have "waited" for the funds if I had not gone to ask questions. My friends here think I'm crazy for asking so many questions - but you have to here. If you don't all you get is vague answers and perhaps misinformation!
  • Haitians are patient. They will wait and wait and hardly complain. I used to think I was a patient person, but being here, I've learned there is a whole other level of patience that can be achieved. An example, the neighbour kids will often sit on the steps outside my door waiting for me to come home or to leave the house so I can help them with their English. They don't call for me - or if they do it's so quiet that I can't hear them. If when I get home I have something else to do, I tell them that, and they still wait for me until I have time for them. 
These are just some of the things I am learning and understanding... very slowly! 

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