Getting My Attention

Who would have ever thought that something as simple as how to get another person’s attention would become such a cultural battle. Over the past few weeks there have been some very explicit examples that just serve to remind me that sometimes, I still just don’t get, “it,” and though I won’t share the examples, I thought I would use the reminder to typify the experiences to my readers.

The first thing one must understand about living in Kenya is that on a whole, everything and everyone is much quieter here (two exceptions being matatu music and anything related to religion; both are very loud, all the time). People, when speaking, are very quiet compared to the average American volume and this serves to cause problems when someone is trying to get your attention through spoken language. Back home I am accustomed to a very direct, slightly emphatic, imperative, “Jonathan,” or, “Jon.” Here, you drop the directness, drop the emphasis, drop the imperative. I wake up every morning and hear what would be perceived as faint whispers emanating from my neighbors’ house: “Jonathan, Jonathan, Jonathan,” repeated over and over again until I finally pick up on the clue and respond with, “Habari za asubuhi,” (news of the morning, literal). For the techies reading it, consider this the UDP approach to information transmission: just throw it out there and hope someone picks up on it. For an American, it lacks the directness to which we are accustomed.

When it comes to non-verbal communications, it gets even more challenging. In Kenya, when someone wants to get my attention, whether in the classroom, a hoteli or across a field, he will make a hss-hss sound and motion with his hand palm down, curling fingers inward quickly. I explain to anyone who is curious about why I don’t always respond to that: “Because that’s how we call a dog back home,” and it usually takes a while for the average volunteer to get over it. I think what exacerbates the problem is that sometimes we are just so blatantly objectified by those living around us that to then call us like we are animals (our perception; not reality), only makes things worse. On a good day, it’s fine. On a bad day, it’s aggravating beyond belief.

Sprinkle in some other cultural inconsistencies such as constant mispronunciations of names (I am Johnston; my friend Erin is Helen; my friend Helen is Ellen), the ever-great brow-raise, where students raise their brow to get your attention (in America this is used to signify sexual interest in an individual; also uses as an affirmation of the positive here) and the rapid-fire Kiswahili interrogation method, and it becomes an adventure everyday to know when someone is actually trying to speak to me. It’s a good thing I like adventures.

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2 responses to “Getting My Attention

  1. Sean

    Oh I know it! But in the Philippines, the language is passing-declarative and that style in American culture is so unnerving. And pleasantries are right out the windows sometimes… Instead of “good morning” I would get a “Sean you will be the one who will eat now.” It became a joke with me and my host family after a while šŸ™‚