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Language and Life

Looking Natural
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

I remember sitting at a table in a Nairobi coffee shop one day, watching a European walk by.  "He looks like a tourist, a foreigner," I thought to myself.  Then I asked myself, Do I look like a foreigner, or a tourist?"  Then my self thought a while, and finally answered me, "No, you look like an American who lives in Kenya."

I reflected on that answer, and finally, satisfied, I agreed with my self.  There was a difference in the way I looked, the way I carried myself, the way I moved through the town, the kinds of places I went.  I could not help being lighter skinned, and I was identifiably American, with my American clothes.  But in Kenya you find every type of clothes and shoes or boots.  Most Kenyans wear jeans if they can get them, even cowboy boots if they can, so that was no problem.

But I had no khaki, no shorts, no baggy safari shirt, no sloppy safari hat like tourists commonly wear. (And I usually did not have a camera around my neck.)  In addition, everywhere I went I used Swahili with everyone who would.  Or Kikuyu if I heard them speaking that language.  I could even converse in Luo.

In Nairobi, many people know English, and may even use it with other Africans in certain contexts.  But the foreigner, the tourist, knows only English.  The resident European can distinguish himself from tourists by use of the local language.  Even a greeting and a comment or two in Swahili can changed the dynamics of an encounter.

It is important to project the image that you belong, or that you want to belong.  This involves willingness to use the local language.  Sometimes you may need to use some of the language even in an urban context where English is preferred, just for the purpose of letting people know you are not a tourist.

When the local person realizes you are not just a foreigner here for a few days spending all the money you can, the attitude toward you will normally change.  You need this opportunity to identify with the local scene and dissociate yourself from the foreign image.  Consider what image you project.  Do you look natural, or do you look foreign to the local people?

Once I met a friend from Tanzania whom I had not seen for a very long time. When I saw him on the road, I stopped and talked with him for quite a while.  He grasped my hand and held on a long time when we began our conversation. Then periodically as we talked he would grasp it again. We continued talking and shaking hands for a long time.

The handshake is often an indication of the warmth of the greeting; the more you shake, the warmer the greeting.  It had been a long time since we had seen each other.  For some African peoples, the longer it has been, the longer you shake.  Or the more times throughout the conversation.  Greetings are culturally determined.  The things you say, the facial expressions, the body motions, the form of the handshake or other hand motions.

These paralanguage features of communications are often overlooked by Europeans in another cultural setting.  The words are obviously different, and we focus on language.  But the missionary must learn the whole language of the people, including the physical modes of communicating.

This means our powers of observation must be developed, and we must become actors, in order to imitate, or practice, the new ways of acting and relating — until these ways begin to feel natural.  Just as we must learn and practice the language patterns until they become natural, we must also learn and practice the local ways of behaving until they become natural.

After the way we look and the way we talk, the way we act is the most obvious distinguishing characteristic. This applies not only to our mannerisms, but to our methods and attitudes.

In a country where the majority are of a different race or color, the foreigner is going to be visibly different.  Nothing can be done about that.  And as people get to know one another, their physical appearance becomes less important.  But the important part of how we look, is how we act.

The more time you spend with local people the more you will take on their mannerisms, their expectations, their patterns of greeting and relating.  The more you can do this, the more you will be accepted.  The more the local people trust and accept you, the greater your chances of presenting a valid Christian witness.

Does a foreigner really want to contribute? For example, a Christian missionary? The foreign missionary must earn a role in the society.  It is up to the foreigner to adapt, to become culturally competent, to earn and develop the right to speak, as well as the technical competence.  The foreigner must overcome the differences which are seen by the local people as critical impediments to acceptance and communication.  As foreigners, we must adapt to the roles allowed to us in order to have some local identity.

Even today, some western missionaries inhibit their own work by their attitude.  As long as the missionary is seen as existing outside the local sphere, the gospel will be seen as foreign.

Language is the first identifying factor, but cultural awareness is a close second to it.  To be effective as foreigners in another culture, we must strive to sound natural and to look natural, in ways that go beyond the particular clothes we are wearing.

Also related:
[TXT] Cultural Role and Language Proficiency
[TXT] Culture and Experience
[TXT] Learning as a Communication Event

Also view related PowerPoint Presentations:
What is Worldview


Originally published in Language and Life (Communication Press, Limuru, Kenya), 1989
Also published in the "Language and Life" series in Afri-Com April 1989
This version written and posted on Thoughts and Resources 6 October 2008

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 1989, 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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