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Across Cultures

Gas-Pumping and Finger-Pointing Fiasco
Cross-Cultural Adaptation Needed: Haitian and African in America

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

I have a question, on a behavior that I find quite curious.  I pulled into a gas station and an African man pumped my gas as he has done on many occasions.  I live in Hanson MA.  This one time I pulled in and requested for him to fill my tank up to twenty dollars.  I remember my left hand was down and I cupped it backwards to hand him the money, not thinking anything of it, and certainly not aware that this may have been insulting.  He went ballistic and told me he would never pump my gas again cause of the way I handed him money.  I asked him what I had done wrong, and he waved me away in a very angry, frightened way that upset me and scared me, and told me to never come back again.

There really are places still around that will pump your gas for you?  The only place I have seen that for a long time is in Canada.  But I have not been able to travel in New England.

I was not clear from your description exactly what position your left hand was in.  Did you mean you were giving him the money with your left hand?  I cannot envision what you mean by saying you cupped your hand backwards.  Perhaps you had the notes (bills) in your left hand and turned your hand up and out to give him the money through the open window?  Or was your back partially or fully to him when you handed it to him to the rear?  At any rate the problem appears to be that you used your left hand, a taboo in many world cultures.

Since he was an African, and you did pay with your left hand, I can see why he was upset.  If he was from West Africa, it is even more serious.  Handing something to someone with your left hand is an insult.  This is the same in Arab culture and many other cultures of the world.  However, here are some other factors.

The problem on his side here is that he has moved across cultures, but has not made the cultural move.  He has wrongly judged a local event by the terms of his alien culture, not on the basis of its meaning in its context.  As the foreigner, he needs to adapt to the culture he his new host culture.

This is always a challenge and we always remain between cultures.  But he has missed some important clues of cultural expectation and meaning.  He needs to make progress in learning the new culture of his Massachusetts home.  Use of the left hand in interactions with others does not have the meaning he learned in his home culture, which he feels is natural, and improperly imposed upon the Massachusetts cultural setting.

The Attendant
1.  He was at fault in refusing to answer your honest enquiry about the event.  He should have told you why this was offensive to him.  I have seen this happen in East Africa, though.  The person assumes that as a competent and normal-looking person you should have known, he would think, and it is beneath him to have to explain it, probably an added insult.  Everybody "knows" it you should know it.  He has assumed everyone here should have the same "common sense" that everyone in his home culture "knows" is noral and natural.

1.  He is the foreigner.  It is not his prerogative to set the rules or context.  He will need to consciously learn to work in a context somewhat unfamiliar to him.  He needs to learn a new context for evaluating the local forms of interaction, and become flexible to shift contexts.

2.  He has no right to tell you not to return:  Unless he is in fact the owner of the station.  It would be appropriate for you to report his behavior to the manager, at least to clarify why this occurred.  He was way out of line for the social and cultural context and expectations.

The gas station attendant seriously needs some guidance in American (New England?) culture.  He needs some serious work in cultural adaptation if he plans to seriously live in the US.  His employer has failed to give him proper work orientation.

On the other hand, there is no reason you as a native North American cannot ease the situation for him.  Knowing this aspect of African and Arab culture, I always avoid using my left hand when interacting with someone of those cultural backgrounds.  Accommodation on both sides helps ease awkward situations.  This helps the newcomer more easily deal with the challenge and gradually become more comfortable with the encounters where an inadvertent movement evokes feelings of disgust in him.


Also I am an RN and work with the elderly in this country.  One of my aids refused to take care of a resident because the 84 year old pointed her finger at the aid.  The aid is Haitian.  She has been a CNA for years and has lived in this country for years.  She is also one of the most kinder people I know, and very spiritual.  However she flipped out at the resident and started yelling, called me into the room and told me she did not want this woman pointing a finger at her.  I do understand that pointing a finger at someone is rude, but the reactions from this incident has me curious as to what other meaning (voudou or otherwise) might be attached.  I work with many people from Kenya, Haiti, Nigeria.

It is puzzling why someone of the experience and caliber of your aid would have had such a violent reaction.

It is hard to imagine that this was the first time someone had purposely or inadvertently pointed a finger at her in all these years.  Is there any other dimension to their relationship?  Maybe previous unpleasant encounters with this resident have built up to the point of "the last straw."

I understand to some degree the voodoo background and think that is, as you suggest, underlying the serious reaction you observed in the second instance.  The pointing of the finger does have occult connotations in most cultures outside Europe and North America.

In a voodoo context it could be the throwing of a curse.  However, the context should have belied or mitigated that.  The Haitian and related southern Florida and New Orleans Haitian culture's voodoo (voudou, voudun) is very similar to the original Yoruba religion it derived from.  Cuban Santeria is another form of this.

The Aid
1.  She should know the difference inthe context and should have had plenty of opportunity to observe and understand the finger-pointing uses in North America.  Unless this residence is also Haitian or there is some other reason (previous conflict, bad words, threats) in their past relationship that would heighten expectations of malice on the part of the resident.

2.  She should be aware of the differences in expectations between the two cultures.

3.  She violated a serious taboo in her own culture by her response, disrespecting an elder.  Very strange.  She violated her own home culture's norms.

4.  She also violated the professional code of conduct for a care giver.  The focus of her position is on the needs of the patient/client, not on her feelings about the patient or their interaction.

It is certainly appropriate for you to debrief her further (I assume from what you say you are her supervisor, at least in some regard?)  You should help her clarify why this behavior of the resident affected her so, and why she so lost control.  It would be good to know why or in what context she felt it was at all appropriate to react directly and violently as she did.

As her supervisor, you could then provide some cultural clarification and orientation.  You could explain in a positive manner that pointing a finger is a motion of emphasis, though it can also be a motion of reprimand.  See if you can get her to clarify why the motion was so insulting to her.  Explain that pointing a finger would not have the occult or insulting meaning she may have attributed to the motion.

There is likely a generational factor involved here, also, and she should be aware that older people may feel a commanding attitude toward younger individuals, despite any sense of "official" status or role.  Elderly individuals are not always as focused on the social niceties of exchange.

Perhaps the aid felt her "authority" had been challenged or threatened.  Her position, however, is not one of authority, but of service.  Servants gain their authority by serving.

Most important, she must come to the realization that she is not in a position to determine the behavior of the residents who are her clients.  She is not in a position to deliver ultimatums to her clients or her employer.

The most puzzling thing in this case is why the Haitian CNA, in all her years of experience in working with American elderly and ill, would not have already had plenty of occasions to learn and overcome this cultural or generational difference.

Double Shot
Thanks for sharing these experiences.  You certainly got it with both barrels!

It seems to me that you are right that both these persons over-reacted.  From the rules of cross-cultural living I discuss in my writings, it seems the two individuals you mention were definitely at fault.  They should have proceeded to explain or ask what was happening, rather than become incensed out of context.

As foreigners, it is their responsiblity to learn and adapt to the local culture if they want to be accepted and have a positive role in the commuity.  It seems they are seriously deficient in awareness of their host culture (where they are living and working) and need to work on adaptation.  Why that should still be a problem for your aid is more uncertain and problematic.

They are the foreigners in another country, but they seems to have reacted on the basis of their foreign expectations and values, rather than those of the native host culture.  Employers and supervisors, though, can take a proactive role by providing some cultural orientation and realize that cultural differences can and do cause conflicts due to different meanings attached to common humans motions.

This is the dynamic of working and living across cultures.

Also related
Dealing with Differences
Getting Acquainted with Your New Home
The Right Hand of Blessing
What Everyone Needs to Know Before Communicating Across Cultures

Related on the Internet:


Original written in response to an email query 20 October 2008
Developed into an article for Thoughts and Resources 27 December 2011

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright 2011 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email: researchguy@iname.com
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