Kenyan Culture

Communication

Verbal

  • Indirect Communication: Kenyans are generally indirect communicators as they often seek to avoid conflict or confrontation. Indeed, Kenyans prefer to maintain harmony rather than confront someone about a problem. Many will avoid saying ‘no' directly or a negative reaction as they are uncomfortable with blunt statements. Instead, they will usually say ‘yes', ‘no problem' or will commonly use metaphors, anecdotes or analogies to make a point. This communication style means that their true feelings on a matter may not always be immediately detectable. 
  • Communication Style: Most Kenyans converse in a polite and friendly manner. From a very young age, Kenyans are taught to respect hierarchy, defer to elders and superiors, and to speak in a deliberate manner. They generally contemplate what they will say before they speak, ensuring their words are considerate. Losing one’s temper, speaking loudly or angrily, swearing or using demeaning language reflects poor manners and, for some, a poor upbringing.
  • Criticism: Criticism is usually delivered in private and indirectly and sensitively. This is to avoid conflict or appearing too blunt.
  • Humour: Conversations are often interjected with humour and laughter. The appropriacy of humour in a conversation depends mainly on the relationship between conversation partners. Many disputes are resolved through the use of humour. 
  • Sheng: The term ‘Sheng’ refers to a type of language, similar to slang, that is a mixture of Swahili, English and other indigenous languages. It is commonly spoken in urban areas by the youth of Kenya.

 

Non-Verbal

  • Personal Space: Kenyans generally do not consider it to be rude to stand close to another’s personal space. Kenyans stand within an arm's length when conversing with one another. It is common for Kenyans, particularly from rural areas, to feel that someone who keeps a distance while speaking is being aloof. However, Kenyans from more urban areas are more likely to expect and give more personal space.
  • Physical Contact: Physical contact is usually kept to a minimum during conversations. However, people are more tactile among close friends and family. Public displays of affection between couples are not considered acceptable behaviour in most areas, although they are becoming more common in the capital city of Nairobi. Between people of the same gender, it is common to hold hands while walking in public. It is particularly inappropriate to touch an elder or someone more senior.
  • Eye Contact: Many Kenyans, particularly those from urban areas, engage in direct eye contact as a way to show interest and honesty. In some regions of the country, some might not initially make direct eye contact with an elder or more senior person. Those in rural areas may not maintain regular eye contact when speaking.
  • Gestures: Many Kenyans use gestures to emphasise a point in the conversation. One common gesture in Kenya is to hold one's left fist closed and to smack the thumb-side of the closed fist with the open palm of their other hand. This gesture is used to indicate that a bus, car or restaurant is full. 
  • Pointing: To point with the index finger is considered to be rude. Rather, people point with their chin or their lips in the direction they wish to indicate.
  • Beckoning: The most common way to beckon is to wave all fingers of one hand, with the palm facing either up or down. As a way of beckoning someone or getting someone's attention, some Kenyans may also make a ‘tsk' sound very loudly and as many times as necessary to alert someone. Making this sound is quite common and is considered an acceptable practice.
  • Smiling: Kenyans tend to smile a lot in conversation regardless of whether the discussion is humorous.
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