South African Culture

Communication

Verbal

  • Direct Communication: Though mannerisms in communication vary among ethnic groups, most South Africans have a direct style of communication. They generally speak confidently and straight to the point. Their intention and meaning is generally very self-evident. For example, a South African is likely to openly point out when you are wrong or disagree with you on the spot. This can come across as overly assertive or blunt. However, keep in mind that this is not generally the intention. Moreover, they are likely to appreciate similar honesty and not take offence to it as such.
  • Raised Voices: Afrikaners and black South Africans (particularly females) naturally tend to speak at a louder volume than those from the English-speaking West. It is also normal for black South Africans to continue conversations by shouting when situated at a distance from one another (e.g. standing across the road or a room).
  • Silence: Silence can be interpreted as a sign that the conversation is not engaging or that something is wrong. South Africans can grow uncomfortable with prolonged periods of silence and may naturally speak to fill it.
  • Location and Formality: Communication may vary depending on the location, with more traditional approaches being used in rural areas and people adopting more cosmopolitan approaches in urban areas. For example, Afrikaans people might find it very rude to refer to elders without using the prefix "Oom" (uncle) or "Tannie" (auntie) while in a small town. However, in an urban environment they might simply use the formal "Meneer", "Mevrou" or "Juffrou" (Mr, Mrs or Miss) when talking about older people.


Non-Verbal

  • Physical Contact: South Africans are generally comfortable with physical affection and like to express warmth through actions such as hugging and patting each other on the back. A lack of physical contact can be interpreted as aloofness, unfriendliness or a lack of trust.
  • Hands: Some ethnic groups may find it impolite to make gestures with the left hand. Black South Africans generally favour the right hand. White South Africans are generally comfortable with using both left and right hands. Putting your hands in your pockets can be misinterpreted as disrespectful.
  • Expression and Body Language: Black South Africans are very animated and communicate heavily through their facial expressions when speaking. White South Africans generally make less use of hand gestures in conversation.
  • Eye Contact: South Africans tend to maintain steady eye contact throughout the duration of a conversation. However, older South Africans may avert their eyes to show respect to authority.
  • Personal Space: Black South Africans often sit and stand very close to each other. Therefore, some may stand at proximities that a Westerner may consider to be uncomfortably close. It is likely they have not been made aware of the discomfort some people may feel with this.
  • Gestures: Making a ‘V’ with the index finger and middle finger in the shape of the peace sign is very rude if your palm is facing towards yourself. Youth in South Africa sometime use the sign known to the West as the ‘shaka’ or ‘hang loose’ sign (thumb and little finger extended and other fingers against the palm, rocked side to side) to express ‘hello’ or ‘good-bye’.
  • Pointing: It considered rude to use your index finger to point at someone.
Cultural Competence Program
Cultural Competence Program Logo

Join over 300 organisations already creating a better workplace

Find out more
Download this Cultural Profile

Too busy to read it right now?

You can download this cultural profile in an easy-to-read PDF format that can be printed out and accessed at any time.

Country https://dtbhzdanf36fd.cloudfront.net/countries/177/za.svg Flag