So something that I’ve noticed about immersing yourself in a culture not your own is that the list of perceived peculiarities grows as you go along. Most of the time, the categories of difference fall under style of conflict, expectations around time, collectivism vs. non-collectivism, shame vs. guilt. That sort of thing. But then there are the things that take you by surprise. There are cultural differences that come out not just in the obvious stuff like food and language. Little things. Sometimes I find that they are things that immediately offend my sense of politeness, things that seem rude to me at first. Sometimes they just plain don’t make sense to me. At first they are blaring. I’d spend my time asking myself why they do that. And most often my answer would be to just write it off as a weird cultural difference. “Just culture, I suppose."
But what I’ve found over time is that what at first seemed very strange, illogical, and maybe even offensive actually has a very good explanation. I find myself saying often, “Ooohhh. Oh right. Yeah. That actually makes sense.” This week, I’d like to share a few examples.
The first full day that I was here, the Assistant to the Bishop, Rev. Rogers, introduced me to the city. We spent a lot of that day in his SUV driving from place to place. As you can imagine, he is a very busy man who juggles a lot of things at once. When I go to his office, it’s not uncommon for him to be handling requests and issues from four or five different people at a time. When he’s out of the office, he often does business on the road by phone. His phone rang probably every fifteen minutes or so that day. And there’s no voicemail here, so it’s best not to screen calls. (That is another something this introvert who hates the phone has needed to get used to.)
When he was finished with each call he would say “Alright, ok. Alright, ok” and then hang up. It was often during what seemed like the middle of a conversation to me. Or sometimes he would just make a humming sound and hang up. And I thought to myself, “Did he just hang up on that person?!” Coming from a place that has a whole production about saying goodbye on the phone (“Well, I guess I better get off the phone since I’ve got someone in the car with me… Yeah thanks for calling… Yeah, you too… Tell so-and-so I said hello… Ok, bye.”), that felt very abrupt. I started to notice other people doing it too. In fact I rarely heard someone on the phone give a true goodbye. One time someone hung up on me as I was asking a question. That was mostly because I heard a lull in the conversation and didn’t hear my US goodbye ritual so I figured that person still wanted to talk. Nope.
I just wrote that off as a weird cultural difference. Sierra Leonean people don’t say goodbye on the phone. I don’t get it. Must be culture. But then I mentioned it to someone at the International Church who has lived here about seven years now. She nodded her head and said, “Yeah it’s because they don’t want to waste their phone credits. Goodbyes take too long. You’ll start doing it too soon enough. And you’ll get annoyed when people talk too much on the phone. Like you’re wasting my credit, man!”
Oh. Yeah. Actually that makes sense.
So the way cellphones work here is you buy a certain amount of credit from vendors, often just individuals on the street. That credit gets used up when you make a call or send a text to someone else. When someone calls you, it’s their credit that gets used up. So every second you spend on the phone is costing you or your friend on the other end money. And when you only make so much money, those seconds count.
(On another cell-phone related note, I spent a good long time looking for someone to fill up my credit a few weeks ago only to find out from my driver that I could have gotten it from my security guard in about 3 minutes by stepping outside. I miss debit cards and automatic payments.)