I believe that people all over the world are truly kind and want to help others. Though, feeling respected is important for someone to authentically want to go out of their way to help another. People in Côte d’Ivoire are no different. People in Côte d’Ivoire are extremely friendly, greeting you with smiles and a stream of “Bonjour” as you walk through the streets. They will go out of their way to help you. For example, a guy walked us through a field, up a hill, over a bridge, across a freeway just to show us where to get a taxi. He even flagged down the taxi and negotiated a reasonable price for us without expecting anything. But for him to have gone out of his way for us, it started with us showing him respect.
The cultural norm of what politeness and respect look like in Côte d’Ivoire is a bit different than what it might look like in other parts of the world, particularly compared to the US. I quickly learned these norms through three particular encounters during my first few days in the country.
Encounter #1: We walked past a bank security guard towards the ATM to withdraw cash. Upon exiting the ATM booth, the guard chastised us for walking by without greeting him. He said, “Because you ignore me, then if you get into a fight I would just watch. If you say to me ‘Bonsoir’ and then I see you get in a fight later, then I will come help you!” We apologized profusely. He nodded in acceptance of our apology, then smiled and proceeded to teach us basic French phrases to help us during our stay. He also mentioned his interest in learning some Chinese. So in return, I taught him how to count in Chinese. Instant friendship and connection!
Encounter #2: We approached a guide sitting at the exit of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro where we had just finished exploring. We kindly (or so we thought it was kind) asked, “Where can we get a taxi?” He ignored our question and said “Bonjour.” We responded, “Bonjour” and again asked where we could find a taxi. He got upset: “You see me sitting here. You should come greet me. Shake my hand. I’m not just a service animal you order to get you a taxi. I’m a person” We apologized and ended up chatting with him. We learned that he could speak a few phrases of Chinese and wanted to learn more. So I taught him a few phrases and we laughed and joked together as I helped him practice!
Encounter #3: We’re taking photos of crocodiles outside a Presidential Palace when a guard sprinted 100+feet towards us, grabs my phone, and yells at us in French. We don’t speak a lick of French. So we have no idea what he is saying and can only tell that he’s extremely angry with us for taking photos. He storms off to another guard who’s holding a rifle at the front of the palace gate, then yells at us again and locks the phone somewhere behind the palace gates. I try to plead, apologize, but no luck; he’s angry. After some miming I realize he’s upset because we didn’t ask to take photos in front of the palace that he’s responsible for guarding. This makes him feel disrespected. After 15 minutes of back and forth, communicating purely with body language and signs, I mention something about being Chinese. The guard smiles for the first time and asks, “Bruce Lee? Jet Li?” while making karate moves. We laugh, pretend to karate fight and he softens. He explains through miming that tourists always come and just take photos without respect. I nod in understanding and after another apology from me, he not only gives the phone back to me, he even calls the crocodiles over so we can get closeup photos and shows us the best angle to take good pictures!
So what did I learn from these encounters?
Lesson 1: Regardless of where you are in the world, a friendly greeting, a kind smile, and true human connection can go a long way. People are kind and good at heart. They just want to feel respected and connected to others. Perhaps that’s what makes life coaching and coaching relationships so powerful.
Lesson 2: You don’t need verbal communication to truly communicate. A smile, a hug, and body/facial language (even some karate chop moves) are powerful. The most powerful, are through the eyes where you can connect with and catch the authentic twinkle of kindness, love, and care from withing another human.
Lesson 3: Showing respect in Côte d’Ivoire means starting with a friendly greetings (and not asking for something). If you do this, people will go out of their way to help you. And if not, people will feel disrespected and they’ll let you know!
Lesson 4: People love Chinese here!
And crocodiles are quite scary up close!