We accept our need to show cultural respect. But Brazilian psychotherapist Kerley Most says West Africa taught her the difference between learning a culture and absorbing it. She notes the extraordinary value of correcting our mistakes. While as guests we’re often given a pass on cultural norms, that’s a privilege we should try to decline.
How can we work effectively across our world’s cultural divides? USIP and Burning Man Project travel to that frontier, hearing stories and practical lessons for working in unfamiliar cultures. The Culturally Attuned podcast complements USIP’s online, self-paced course on Cultural Synergy. Both help us cultivate the skills we need to do good work in a diverse world.
What have you given up on recently? Trying to exercise more? Keeping up with your book club? It’s sad but true that when the going gets tough, sometimes we simply stop going. But that’s not true of Dr. Kerley Most.
This is Culturally Attuned, I’m David Yang, and today we’re going to hear how even a culture that feels incredibly familiar can have depth and complexities that will surprise you, even after a decade. And how we can overcome hurt feelings and navigate dangerous situations by staying engaged and persistent in new cultural surroundings.
Our guest today is Dr. Kerley Most, a psychotherapist practicing in Washington D.C. Kerley applies her many multicultural experiences when helping individuals, couples, families and organizations navigate challenges.
Dr. Kerley Most
I am Kerley Most, I have spent 11 years in West Africa, Guinea. In West Africa I met my husband and because of love, I came to America. So that's the beginning. I'm from Brazil, from Sao Paulo, and as a Afro-Brazilian connecting in Guinea, West Africa, where I spent 11 years at was not very challenging because certain traits of the Guinean culture were very closely aligned to the Brazilian traits and one of the most important traits of the Guinean culture is the trait of acknowledging presence. It's very impolite to walk in a room and not say hello or when you're sharing public transportation's not to greet people. It's a way of life. If you're asking for directions, first you have to say, hello, how are you? How's your family? Is everything okay? And then you ask for directions. So I thrived in Guinea. It was very close to the Brazilian culture. We don't do the same way but it's very close, acknowledging, presence.
Kerley takes us to the market place in an isolated community in Guinea where she was trying to learn the local language.
Dr. Kerley Most
I was in Guinea, West Africa developing some grassroots preschool projects. My desire was to develop the project and to support communities in French, but I quickly learned that to work with women and children, I had to learn the local language. So I had had some language learning training and I received authorization to study for six months to study the local language for six months. And then I headed to an isolated community and decided to learn the Susu language. I study a schedule of eight hours and early in the morning I would go to the market to sell rice with the rice vendors, females just sitting around and be part of the life of the community. So I had my list. Like today I'm learning, “My name is Kerley.” And it was too hard to say. So they gave me a name. And I said okay, it’s too hard. You’re name is [IB]. So they gave me the name [IB]. I got a name and I sat there and I would say, “How do I say rice?” And they would say okay, “You say rice this way.” And when I would repeat, “You say rice this way” they would laugh so hard at me for what I had said. And I say, “Did I say it correctly?”
And I remember at first I laughed with the females. But then day after day, the same happened. The more I ask questions, when I repeated, the laughing would come. No matter, when the females I was talking to, the same thing.
After some weeks I recall not wanting to go to the rice market. Not wanting to leave at all, I got tired of being laughed at. It was hard. But I had the desire to learn. So okay, you go again. A little annoyed. I would say hello. I am learning this, how do I say this and waiting again, for what came… I overcame, those feelings and those challenges. And later on, I learned that as a way to encourage people to learn fast, in that culture, when you're learning any new skill, people will laugh at you to encourage you to learn faster. So the females were really trying to encourage me to learn faster. My culture is different. And I think they became the best culture resource for me. I learned so much while I was sitting at the rice market being laughed at. I wish I had understood and I wish I knew the fact that people would laugh at you when you're learning. That would have helped me a lot, but I didn't. So I had to deal with my heart a lot, be conscious in presence for them besides despite my desire to hide, because of being laughed at.
In an unfamiliar setting we sometimes get tripped up when we don’t understand the cues that people use to express themselves, such as the laughter Kerley experienced from the local women. Kerley learned by sticking with it; by staying present and engaged. Next Kerley recounts a cultural misstep while visiting a family in mourning.
Dr. Kerley Most
I was in Guinea Conakry, West Africa developing grassroots projects and I decided to visit a neighbor who had lost a loved one. In Guinea, the tradition is that when you lose someone, you sit with the family. So they had chairs outside. I sat with the woman outside in the chairs and waited. So I sat in there I think for an hour or two because in Guinea, it's very important for you, not only to visit but the time, amount of time you spend in there. So I'm sitting there with the woman, just listening to the stories, just listening to the stories and suddenly I see a man that was very agitated and he came towards me and he was talking and in a loud voice and he was wearing clothes of a spiritual leader. He was very agitated and I thought, wow, he must be mad about something. Something must not be okay and he was coming to our direction, say, whoa, whoa, who did something here? And he kept on coming. And I noticed that he was talking to me and he was screaming at me, “Why are you doing? Why are you doing that? And “Who do you think you are to do that?” And I looked to him and I had nothing to say, but my neighbors interviewed… my neighbors intervened for me. And they came in and they said some things to him and he stopped, looked at me, nodded and walked away. And then I asked, what happened?
And the woman, he told me, well, he doesn't know you're a foreigner, because I'm black. So I was just sitting there and he thought I was part of the culture and that it was very disrespectful of you to sit honoring the dead without a head cover. And he was telling you that you should have had a head cover. But when he knew that you're not from here, he was like, okay, that's all right without that cover. And they sat there and I explained to him that you’re not, you're fine. And I said, oh, I had no idea that females should cover their heads. I really have no desire to disrespect your dead. Please give me a head cover. So she did that and I sat in there for some hours with my head covered.
That experience really shifted the perspective my neighbors had of me, the neighborhood we were closer afterwards. I think they saw me as respectful and as aware of their own lives and willing to do whatever it took to honor their realities.
I'm a foreigner. So because of being a foreigner, I'm not constricted to the local rules. I’m okay. I don't need to cover my head, but for my neighbors what I believe, and everyone told me this basically, I know that something shifted. I think for my neighbors, the fact that as a foreigner who did not have to do it, I was willing to cover my head out of respect for their own faith and beliefs that were not mine. So I think that that was what I imagined made a difference with them.
When we are in an unfamiliar culture, there will always be something unexpected, that we cannot prepare for. Even the most experienced global travelers cannot anticipate every scenario. Yet we can almost always find ways to overcome a misstep and honor people, particularly as we become aware of what is expected and appropriate. Kerley recounts an encounter, in a moment of tension, at a police checkpoint where a mistake was made. The dangers from the misstep were high.
Dr. Kerley Most
So I was in Guinea, West Africa and that was in the year 2000 and Guinea was going through a challenging political time and the country has been surrounded by rebels from different West African countries. So the political situation was shaky. I felt safe. I felt okay. And a friend of mine came to visit. She came to visit Conakry and I hosted her and one night we decided to go out for dinner. So here we go. We go out for dinner, we have a delicious dinner, we're talking and when it's time to come home, I had this little voice telling me, “Did you ask her about her passport?” And I thought, oh, when we left home, I did not ask. But of course, we know that when we are in a foreign country, we should carry our documents at all times. So I put the voice down and kept on going and for the evening, and then we decided to go home. We're driving home when there is a new checkpoint between the restaurant and my apartment. So the police stops us. Even before the police stopped us I looked to her side, and said “By the way, do you have your passport?” And she looked at me, she said, “I don't, I left it at your house.”
My heart pounded because we had heard, a week before I had heard, that foreigners were experiencing a lot of challenges because of papers, because rightly the government was concerned about having rebels in. So people had to prove that they were from the country they said they were.
Well, it's very serious because my friend was a American in the nighttime sitting without her papers. And as I said the week before, there was big news about a group of foreigners that had really spent a night and half in prison because of not having their papers because they were perceived as disrespectful because they were not honoring the laws of the country. So honoring the laws of Guinea was very important and people were afraid. There was fear in the air. So not being able to prove where you're from could involve getting in trouble, going to prison or spending hours and hours and hours, until some higher authority would allow us to go. It would maybe have to contact the embassy to let somebody know that we had forgotten, so all the hassle, like for me when I heard that my fear was like, oh no, that means that our evening is far from done. It's far from over. You're going to sit here for a long time.
Here we go. The checkpoint is moving little by little, little by little, little by little. It's our time to be checked. And the policeman looks at me and says, [IB] how are you? How's your family? Papers? And I gave mine. Her papers? “She forgot her papers at home.” “Out of the car”. That's what he said, “Out of the car.”
And she was starting to move, but something in me just said no, like just hold. And I took a deep breath and he said “Her papers” and I told her to go out of the car and I said sir. And then I told in Susu, I looked to him and I said in Susu, not looked to him in the eye, actually, just his direction looking down. I told him [IB] “Brother from the same mother”, I said, “This woman is a foreigner in my home. I'm hosting her. So I am responsible for her destiny. And if she experiences shame or sadness while I'm caring for her, her shame and sadness and dishonor are going to be upon me. So I'm asking you as the son from the same mother to spare me of that. It was my fault that she did not have her papers. I just ask you to support to me and save my honor please.”
In West Africa, when you respect someone, you do not look at them in the eye. If a person has authority over you, you will not stare at them directly in the eye. You will look down. And when you also call someone [IB], it means you're my brother and you're not only my brother, but we are my brother from the same mother because of some families. They have some husbands, have many different wives, so you can have a brother from a different mother. So having a brother from the same mother is very important. So it's a way of saying, well, we are really close. I think I called his humanity and I respected him by saying, but not looking at him in the eye, and asking for a favor.
And he laughed and he said that [IB] means like you are mischievous. “You’re mischievous. You’re mischievous, oh my goodness you’re mischievous.”
And I chose to tell this story because it really, it connects with what we have been talking about before. It's that when I was learning the language and sitting with people and trying to decipher so many things, I had no idea that I was learning those concepts also. The concept of honor, the concept of having people and hosting people, and being responsible for your guests, that as part of the culture that is very important. The most horrible sin is to be mean to a person you're hosting. You offer the best to your visitors. So that came out of me. I didn't even keep thinking about it. But that was because it was part of the culture all those times sitting around and just watching that seemed endless. I ended up learning that concept.
Kerley’s years in West Africa teach us the value of not simply learning—but absorbing—the norms of a culture in which we are working. We cannot dabble in cross-cultural knowledge or check out when it gets hard or we make a mistake. Over time, and with repetition and guidance, we make sense of the cues, the body language, and the customs. We do it by staying present and engaged.
Have you ever made a cultural faux pas? What did you do to recover from it? Are there ways in which you think you could become more present in another culture as Kerley urges us to do?
Thanks for listening to this episode of Culturally aTuned. This has been a production by the United States Institute of Peace, with big thanks as always to our partner, Burning Man Project. If you like what you heard, be sure to tune in to more episodes and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Culturally Attuned Credits
Executive Producer: Dominic Kiraly
Co-Creators: Christopher Breedlove, Kim Cook; and Dominic Kiraly
Audio Engineer and Sound Designer: Tim O’Keefe
Contributors: Honey al-Sayed, Kye Horton, Stuart Mangrum, and Namiko Uno
Narrator: David Yang