I was mildly scolded by an older Motswana lady in our office this morning for not going around to greet everyone when I arrived. I had come in, gone straight into my office and turned on my computer and started work. Much as I have done almost every day for the past ten years in DC. But Gaborone is not DC. And Batswana observe protocol. And the common courtesy is to acknowledge everyone in the office each morning when you arrive. She was sweet about it, and the way she said it was cute, like, “oh we didn’t even know you were here today, because you didn’t come greet us when you arrived.” But her point was made. In her own subtle way she was informing me that I had been rude. Point taken, Mma. Tomorrow I will issue a Dumela Mma when I arrive. And she will smile and give me a hearty Dumela Rra in return.
I feel embarrassed. Because I pride myself on having more cultural sensitivity than most Americans. But clearly I have slipped into the American office space mentality, in which you can see someone every day in the same office for years and never say hi to him, or never know her name. But this serves as a wonderful reminder that everyone could use a bit more common courtesy. What would this world be like if we all just took the time to say hello to each other in the morning? Or to wish someone a good evening on her way out the door?
When someone asks me what’s the biggest difference about life in other countries compared to America, I don’t immediately think of the exotic and foreign things. I don’t think of the baboon that was stalking the parking lot of our office today, sitting atop my rental car. I don’t think of the vervet monkeys that clatter across the roof tiles over my bedroom every morning. I don’t think of the sci-fi sized cockroaches that scurry across the floor when I turn on the lights at night, or the donkeys and cows and goats that sometimes wander through the city streets. None of those things seem exotic or foreign to me. But what does stand out as unique and different are the simple things like politeness and courtesy. Especially coming from a place like Washington D.C., which epitomizes the impersonal unfriendliness that is unfortunately all too common in East Coast America.
Good morning, America. How are you? Have a pleasant day!