A few months ago, I was sent to a meeting on gender and HIV. The group was trying to decide upon the next steps required to launch their coalition.
I had (what I thought to be) a great idea, and decided to share it. I structured my argument in the same way I would in Canada:
I stated my point concisely (I think we need to do X first, followed by Y and then Z) and then provided the necessary rationale (because it would be more challenging to do Y before X first for this reason, and it would be in our best interest to do Y before Z for this reason).
After what I thought to be a pointed intervention, everyone in the room looked at me perplexed, it was as if I had been speaking another language.
I listened as the conversation continued. It was clear that they had either completely disagreed with my recommendation, or I had failed to communicate it in a way that my colleagues would understand.
I listened to how my colleagues formed their arguments. They didn’t actually directly say what they thought most of the time – rather they indirectly brought their colleagues to certain conclusions by asking questions and speaking around the answer.
After about half an hour, I decided to try again, as we were still on the same topic.
Instead of stating my point and then backing it with facts, I took my time.
I posed a question to my colleagues, then asked which task needed to come first, eluding to the reason why I thought one thing should come before the other.
My colleagues listened intently, and gave me the time I needed to finish. At the end, instead of the perplexed looks, tongues started wagging! ‘I agree with Chifundo’s (Chifundo is my Malawian name) point!’, ‘Let us proceed in this way!’…
I realized that it was the delivery, rather than the content of my message that was lacking.
Malawians communicate in a way that seems indirect to many Canadians. Oftentimes the answer is not contained in an explicit statement of facts, but can be found within context, verbal and non-verbal cues and proverbs. I find myself missing a lot and feeling very simple minded because of my difficultly in decoding proverbs (my mind feels lazy and seems to require explicitness and directness to understand things).
Proverbs roll of tongues here and are a great way of communicating and receiving consensus. I accidently dropped the old ‘Grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’ once and was surprised at the positive response and solidarity it rallied.
Another facet of Malawian communication is that although ‘no’ is technically in the vocabulary, it is rarely used. As a direct Canadian, I have found this confusing when the actual answer to the question you are asking, if it were to be stated directly, is ‘no’. If your ‘no’ detector goes off, you need to re-pose the question in a few ways to get to the root of the answer and determine if there is a ‘no’ at the bottom.
For example, if I ask my colleague if they are available to discuss something that day, they may say ‘yes, let’s discuss later today’. When I ask when they are available, they may indicate that they have a meeting that afternoon. If I then ask if they can meet that morning, they may tell me that yes, we can meet, but they have a report to write. It becomes clear that the meeting isn’t happening that day.
I may then ask if another time later this week would be better, and they will say yes and recommend a time when they are actually free to meet.