Ethiopian Culture

Communication

Verbal

  • Indirect Communication: Ethiopians tend to be non-confrontational and highly considerate of others during communication. Therefore, they generally resist saying things that could be perceived as embarrassing for others. It is common for Ethiopians to understate their opinion in an effort to remain polite and harmonious. For example, it may not always be immediately evident when they have been offended. Therefore, one often has to rely on reading non-verbal cues to draw further meaning.
  • Refusals: Ethiopians can be quite hesitant to give direct refusals, especially when asked to perform a favour by a friend. This can mean that they agree to do something they do not want to or cannot do in order to avoid sounding rude. If you receive a final answer that is unsettled (e.g. “maybe”, “let’s wait and see” or “let me think about that”), it is generally a good indicator that they mean “no”.
  • Language Style: Ethiopians pride themselves on their eloquent speaking style and expect others to speak clearly and use metaphor, allusion and witty innuendos. They often use exaggerated phrases to emphasize a point.
  • Gratitude: Thank-yous are often given in the form of a blessing. For example, rather than saying “thank you so much for your help”, an Ethiopian might say “may God help you as generously as you have helped me”.
  • Apologies: Ethiopians may not give direct apologies by explicitly saying “I am sorry”. Often people will show their regret through their follow-up actions. For example, if someone injures another person, they may say, “I did not see you. Are you hurt? How can I help?” and move to resolve the problem.
  • Sounds: Trilling the tongue is an expression of excitement or happiness. This sound is commonly heard at celebrations, such as weddings.
  • Tone: Ethiopians generally speak with quite soft tones. Loud volumes can be seen as too aggressive.
  • English: People may speak slightly more directly and louder when communicating in English.
  • Humour: Ethiopians love to laugh and enjoy jokes. However, sarcasm and irony may be misinterpreted during the first hours of discussion. It is best to wait until you have gotten to know someone first before introducing nuanced humour into discussion.

 

Non-Verbal

  • Physical Contact: It is common for people of the same gender to touch one another while talking (e.g. patting the shoulder or arm). Greetings are also often affectionate with many hugs and kisses exchanged. Children may be picked up and kissed by strangers. However, physical contact between the genders is generally kept to a minimum. Romantic affection is rarely seen in public.
  • Eye Contact: Direct eye contact is normal and expected. People may look away intermittently to avoid prolonged stares. Lowering the gaze away from a person’s face is a sign of respect towards elders and superiors. However, totally avoiding eye contact can raise suspicion.
  • Facial Expressions: Ethiopians are generally quite animated people. Their emotions are openly expressed through their facial expressions.
  • Pointing: It is inappropriate to point with the finger or foot, or point at a person directly. Pointing at someone with the left hand is especially rude.
  • Nodding: Quick nods of the head indicate agreement, while nodding slowly can indicate reflection or sorrow.
  • Body Language: It is polite to keep your hands by your side during conversation rather than putting them in your pockets or crossing your arms.
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