Cameroon cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
The people of Cameroon are so diverse that it is usually not that easy to predict a person’s reaction upon meeting him/her for the first time. However, if you are a foreigner and you meet someone for the first time in his/her normal environment or surroundings (family, work), in a city or in a rural area, it is certainly useful to begin by talking to him/her about football and the Invincible Lions (the name of Cameroon’s national team and symbol of national unity). It is undoubtedly the best subject that could be used as a springboard toward other, more delicate ones. The answers to questions about family, food, national resources, work or someone’s background mostly depend on the level of education of the person to whom you are speaking.
Questions about politics, religion or an individual’s beliefs could easily offend or at least cause problems. In general, people have the impression that you are judging them by their beliefs; or that you want to trap them in their political beliefs. This may damage your relationship if they know that you do not share the same viewpoint. It is the same with corruption and equality between women and men, for example.
An average Cameroonian will voluntarily tell you that he is getting along just fine if you try to lecture him about certain practises he follows in their daily work. Senior government officials will let you know that it was not their country that invented corruption and that, in any case, Cameroon is not more corrupt than certain countries that are said to be well-governed. The same goes for the debate on equality between the sexes, still a controversial subject likely to provoke heated debates. For all these reasons, it is best to be very subtle and use a lot of tact if you wish to broach these subjects with a Cameroonian. Remember, however, that they are still very playful and may tease you about your status as a foreigner, providing you with an initiation to local humour. Don’t let it irritate you!
Good discussion topics include basic personal questions (on family, what village/region they are from and languages spoken) and subjects of national pride (Cameroonian soccer, food, music and natural resources). Almost all Cameroonians will have something to say on each of these subjects and, given the number of regions and ethnic groups, you will learn a lot about the diversity of the country and its people in listening to the responses.
It is best to avoid political discussion early on in a relationship. The countrie’s political past is marred with stories of repression against political dissent. As the government controls access to resources and information, people are reluctant to speak out against the ruling party for fear of reprisals or restricted access to scarce resources. People can be especially suspicious in the capital city, Yaoundé, where political informants are said to be numerous.
Humour is appreciated. Laughter and jokes are used in a variety of situations and you should not take it personally if these jokes are made at your expense. As an expatriate, you are in a power position and making fun of yourself can help break the ice. Humour can be effective in making friends and gaining respect.
One of the most well known facts about the diversity of the people in Cameroon can be easily observed in their differences in how comfortable they are with physical and verbal contact, and gestures. The level of comfort naturally varies with the region in which they live and, to a lesser extent, their religion or ethnicity. But in general, no matter where they are, Cameroonians live according to the practises and customs of their environment.
Therefore, people will shake your hand and look directly in your eyes while giving you a warm smile and will stand one or two meters away from you when you first meet. The next time you meet, your handshake will always be followed by snapping your fingers, indicating trust, camaraderie, or friendship. Men and women who know each other kiss one another on the cheek (once on each cheek), greeting each other and snapping their fingers.
When walking or talking in a public place it is very common to see men or women walk hand in hand or repeatedly touch one another without it bothering anyone. This type of behaviour even exists in the workplace, but depends on the level of familiarity between people. It is best to observe things and go about things gradually, especially if you do not yet fit in.
Other than showing someone your extended middle finger (a gesture that would provoke anyone in the world), Cameroonians simply play around a lot with gestures and use them more to communicate or get the attention of the people they are speaking with. That being said, Cameroonians gladly avoid gesticulating with foreigners if they know that they are different from them.
Between friends and in informal situations (but less so at work) touching can be an important part of communication. Both men and women rest their hands on each other’s knees/legs when sitting and sometimes hold hands when walking. During conversations regular hand shaking and backslapping can take place.
Cameroonians are very expressive in speaking and discussions can easily get heated and seem aggressive. This is particularly evident when negotiating a price for something people can appear to be arguing fiercely, but in reality this a bargaining tactic. If done in good faith, and intermingled with humour, it can often result in the opposing sides becoming good friends.
Cameroonians will rarely say I don’t know to a question, and will instead give a very vague or even inaccurate answer. Asking open-ended questions (do you know how far the next town is?) will allow you to gauge the sureness of an answer more so than a closed-ended one (is the next town 50 kms from here?).
A few common gestures are used a lot by Cameroonians. Waving the index finger back and forth means no, motioning inward with fingers (which Westerners interpret as bye-bye) means come here, and closing one hand into a fist and banging it with the palm of your other hand means a lot. Hissing is frequently used to draw attention or call people over.
Display of emotion
It is rare to see people kiss or get angry in public in Cameroon. People are generally modest and discreet in the ways the express their affection or anger. Therefore, even if certain loving or angry gestures (which show the intimacy between two people) are tolerated in public, those who actually display them in public would feel like such a minority that they would force themselves to be more discreet if they want to continue let their emotions run free.
You will hear people call others by set nicknames such as "auntie, uncle mummy, "sita" ("sister" in pidgin), little one, "répé" ("father" in pidgin), "rémé" ("mother" in pidgin), "bigrépé" ("grandfather" in pidgin), etc" which are used to show respect towards close friends or relatives depending on their age.
Most kinds of dance include rather bold contact and movement (bordering sometimes on sexual harassment). The same goes for flirting (people are rather direct), which could be misinterpreted by someone who is not used to it.
Public displays of affection between members of the same sex (e.g., holding hands) are very common while affectionate or sexual gestures between men and women are less common and not acceptable in most situations. However, much Cameroonian dancing (especially in bars, nightclubs or parties) is close/grinding and appears sexual by Canadian standards.
Other emotional displays, such as anger or grief, are very public and common.
Affection is also demonstrated in the way people call you. Children call older women ta ta and men ton ton. Adults can call older men and women papa and mama to show respect and affection.
Dress, punctuality & formality
People’s behaviour will differ according to the workplace (ie: whether it is public or private). In the public sector, the times when you must start or finish work are only a rough guide—especially for senior civil servants who may arrive or leave whenever. Regular employees try to always arrive on time at the beginning of the day and may, for whatever reason, not be at their desk later on. They may be away until they`ve finished whatever they need to do elsewhere. In any case, they will all tell you that they have done their work well.
In the private sector, punctuality and cleanliness are expected at work. Given that, often, salaries are justified by individual productivity, absenteeism is less frequent. People care about deadlines and more readily work together to take on urgent tasks. It is not uncommon to see people do overtime to finish work that, for whatever reason, was not completed.
In general, everyone is well dressed in clean, formal, and well-ironed suits (no need to have heavy clothing since it is warm even in the rainy season).
In most cases, colleagues and even superiors use the informal form of "you" ("tu" in French) and often call one another by their first names. However, to formalize things, it is recommended that when addressing superiors at work, even if you are quite friendly with them, you use "Mr." or "Mrs." followed by their last name. Do not be surprised to hear people speak every now and then in their dialect or in "Cam-Fan-Glais" (mix of French, English, and local dialects) at work. This is normal in Cameroon.
In spite of the heat, Cameroonians tend to dress more formal than Canadians for both work and social activities. Clothing is important in terms of communicating your status; locals find it odd or amusing that well-off Westerners tend to dress down. Women wishing to avoid attention should avoid overly provocative or revealing clothing.
Language and addressing of colleagues / supervisors is also formal by Canadian standards. Superiors are always addressed with vous, monsieur or madame and should generally be addressed before colleagues. It is generally appropriate to shake hands and exchange salutations with all colleagues upon arriving to work.
In social situations, men and women usually exchange a kiss on each cheek (a la Française) and good friends end regular handshakes (which can occur several times during a conversation) by snapping each others fingers.
The importance of punctuality depends on the work context but in general it is less important than in Canada, especially for social events (which almost always start 1-2 hours after the scheduled time). Absenteeism is high due to frequent illness or family obligations. Productivity is lower and deadlines are relatively fluid.
Preferred managerial qualities
A boss, whether he is your director or supervisor, is above all respected for his expertise in the field and related experience. His knowledge, as well as his ability to motivate employees or colleagues to do their work, will make him well liked and respected by others.
Moreover, if he knows how to deal with people well, if he listens and shows that he supports certain events in the employees’ social lives (mourning, births, weddings, etc), he will likely see the level of trust of his staff increase. In return, they will be willing to work harder and be dedicated. In any case, people’s social activities greatly affect their performance at work. It is up to the boss to make known the link between what he will do to help his employees socially and the work standards required for the business to meet it objectives. This is valid for locals as well as for expatriates. The degree of the supervisor’s flexibility will depend on the way the company is run.
Qualities most respected in local managers are generosity, authority, and personal status. Managers that are able provide a fair wage and good working conditions are rare, and employees will respect this and work hard to keep their position. In terms of authority, discipline is often gained through running a tight ship, and employees expect direction and orders from their supervisors. This is especially true when working with lower level positions (e.g., labourers, guards, construction workers, etc.). Often lower level employees will view their employer as a protective father (e.g., someone who provides and disciplines) rather than as a colleague or friend. Often employers are respected or well regarded simply because they expect to be - and employees risk their job if they don’t show this respect. Finally, an employer who has good connections and is financially stable will be well regarded.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Decision-making in the professional world depends on the personnel organization in each company. In the public sector, the majority of the decisions are made by those in the upper ranks of the hierarchy; this is not necessarily the case in the private sector. In the private sector, ideas or strategic decisions may come from junior officers or executives to bring a project or a mission to a successful conclusion before they have justified their actions to one of their superiors.
In either case, it is always best to listen to the supervisor’s suggestions; do consult him if he insists that you do so. Even if you do not do exactly what he asks. The important thing is to be tactful so that the work proceeds smoothly and so that people feel that they are mutually respected.
Managers in Cameroon tend to micro-manage, and more often than not they take the final decisions. Given the level of corruption and poverty in the country, managers tend to be suspicious of staff and like to ensure that checks and controls are in place throughout the organization.
Managers are generally the source of ideas and opportunities for employees to generate or share ideas are limited. While employees may complain about this in private, they are often hesitant to speak up in front of their employer.
These processes are not as relevant for expatriates, who are highly regarded and often looked to for advice and ideas regardless of their level of expertise or experience. Expatriates can generally approach their superior directly, although care should be taken to observe how other colleagues react.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Cameroonians’ behaviour and practices in regards to sexual gender are as diverse as they are varied. There are many times when the woman is totally submissive to the man’s authority whatever her level of upbringing. It is just as common to see a woman challenge a man’s authority. But in general, the rules and traditions are such that in relationships the man still takes on the role of the lion.
More and more, people are getting used to the notion of equality between men and women, especially in the professional world where women are proving themselves to be efficient business partners.
There is every kind of religion in Cameroon. There are people who are enthusiasts of so-called classical or traditional religions (the Catholic church, Islam, Protestantism, etc.) who are in merciless competition against animists and those they accuse of being cult followers. These last two categories do not let themselves be intimidated. Each religion tries its best to convert and maintain its followers and people seem to be used to the incessant confusion.
Social classes do exist in Cameroon, but the same apply to the weakest and the most powerful each fights for its own self-interests. Those who are born into misery struggle to attain what they believe to be happiness. And the rich do not spare any effort to stifle the enthusiasms of the poor and thereby guarantee their gains. In this unequal and eternal conflict, war has never erupted because, fortunately, Cameroon is self-sufficient enough to provide for its own dietary needs.
In the public service, the State tries its best to ensure a pseudo-equality between men and women, while at the same time, striving for regional equality when appointing high-raking civil servants in the system. And in general, all ethnic groups are represented and work together in all departments. However, in the private sector, it is not uncommon to see a certain ethnic group prevail. This depends on the region that the recruiter or boss is from, which can create conflicts that may spoil the workplace environment. Public opinion does not hesitate to label this kind of company. But often what is most important are the results that the company posts at the end of each fiscal year.
Expectations around traditional gender roles are strong, but evolving. While women are increasingly finding their way into the workplace, and moving higher up its hierarchies, women still work in predominantly clerical and administrative positions. Women who work continue to have full responsibility for all household and child-rearing duties.
Expatriate women are not confined to these same gender roles and will be treated at the same (or slightly higher) level of local men. However, men in managerial positions are likely be respected more then women.
Cameroonians are generally religious (Catholic, Protestant or Muslim) but most follow a traditional religion as well. Belief in black magic is common (especially in cases of illness or bad luck) and as a manager, you may be confronted with unusual stories or requests (e.g., requests for sick leave to clean bad spirits from home). Religious/traditional ceremonies can require a great deal of time and resources for employees (e.g., funerals can last several days) and developing a clear and consistent response to these requests/situations can help avoid conflict.
It is important to understand class relations within the workplace. A disconnect between class and position within the organisation (e.g., someone of a lower class being appointed to a supervisor position) can create tension in the workplace.
There are over 200 ethnic groups in Cameroon, categorised into a smaller number of tribes. Like nationalities, each tribe has stereotypical traits associated with it. Some are know to be tight with money, others like to party, and others are thought to be lazy. In a work situation it is important to understand which colleagues are from which group and to recognise that in some situations, and to protect their social status, an individual’s loyalty will go firstly to people from their village, ethnic or tribal group. This can be especially important in procurement of goods or services, employees with these authorities are subject to enormous social pressure to distribute contracts or sales to others in their ethnic group.
It is always very useful to try and build solid and productive relations with a colleague with whom you often work on a team, just as it is beneficial to develop courteous relations with a client who may represent potential business advantages. In either case, it is a question of making the most of the situation while giving your best in a lasting relationship. This should be done without compromising your personal integrity, your work or your business. To do this, it is important to find out the level of power or influence that the colleague in question has over your work and the company in general. Alternatively, you may ask what are the potential benefits that the client in question could offer your business. Next, you should try to facilitate the necessary contacts to maintain mutual, constructive relations. It is also important to note that Cameroonians have the reputation of being skilful and cunning negotiators in all fields. Do not expect to regularly receive free favours.
Contacts are important in Cameroon, especially given the lack of written rules and information, and good personal relationships can facilitate business. In addition to allowing for access to information, good personal relationships can allow you to better understand an individual and gain their trust. Understanding the individual and their culture is important to be able to adapt to local business practices and develop judgement in a new context.
Good personal relationships can be established by expressing interest in personal background and ethnic origin (e.g., learning a few words in their language can go a long way). Showing an interest in learning about the country/region/city can also be useful: invite people to local restaurants, ask questions about Cameroon’s culture and history, and attend music or sporting events.
Privileges and favouritism
If you hold an influential position which may benefit people who are in direct contact with you or who are close to you in one way or another, it would seem rather logical that a colleague or a privileged employee would try to make the most of the situation in any way possible. However, if you wish to help someone, you should first protect yourself against possible backlash that your actions could cause in the workplace. Even if total discretion is used and the decision still backfires, never let it be seen in public that you let yourself be influenced by your protégé. This could have a negative effect on your reputation.
Expectations and requests for preferential treatment, pay increases, and hiring of friends and family can be frequent and come from unlikely sources (e.g., someone you share a cab with). Friendship can intensify these expectations and it is important to establish limits early on. Refusing these requests will not damage a friendship, although it should be done with tact and sympathy.
Conflicts in the workplace
It is best to directly confront your colleague if you have a work-related conflict with him. Find a convenient time to go to his office, or invite him to yours to discuss it with him. Only if it is a case where the employee has refused to comply or if it is a second offence should other colleagues be involved when you call him.
It is best to confront colleagues privately but not too directly. The discussion of problems and solutions should be prefaced with general discussion (perhaps on job satisfaction, elaboration of the problem, discussion of causes, etc) and should allow for more time than in a Western context.
Colleagues may approach you, but will not speak directly. It is a good idea to observe for clues that a colleague is unsatisfied, and then ask questions to try and get at the problem.
Motivating local colleagues
In a country where buying power is low, good jobs are rare. Once people have one, if they believe that they do not have a chance of finding a better one elsewhere, they will do everything possible to keep the job that they already have. Simply for this reason they will work hard and the company’s performance will increase. If, moreover, the superiors or bosses of the company create a good reward system to compensate their employees’ efforts while promoting a strong feeling of team spirit among the workers, all this can become an additional motivational factor for everyone. Thus, the desired rewards will soon follow.
Cameroonians are sensitive to image and therefore status, good working conditions, possibility of advancement and money are strong motivators of good performance. For many local managers, fear is also an effective motivator (e.g., threats of salary cuts, unemployment). Given the unemployment rate and lack of social infrastructure, job security and health benefits are also considered valuable.
Recommended books, films & foods
Learning about a culture as rich and diverse as Cameroon’s requires that you give yourself some time to visit the different aspects of the country. No book, film, television/radio show, place or food on its own is sufficient to correctly illustrate the diversity of the culture of Cameroon. Take everything that you want/can in with (or without) moderation and you will learn a lot!
Before leaving for Cameroon, the following may be of interest:
The movie Chocolate shows some great Cameroon scenery and gives a glimpse of French colonial life. The book Ma Passion Africaine (also available in English) by Claude Njik-Bergeret is an autobiography of a French woman who marries a village chief and Africa for Dreamers is written by a woman from Halifax who travels across Western/Central Africa.
There are many good Web sites, too numerous to mention. Many of the daily papers are now available electronically; an internet search will give you lots of options to choose from. The satirical paper Messager is humorous and informative.
If you are unfamiliar with Cameroonian food, there is little to be found in Canada to try ahead of time. However, Ethiopian restaurants give you an idea of the texture and method of eating (get used to sharing plates and eating with your hands!)
Your colleagues and friends, or Canadians who already live locally may be excellent resource people who can guide you through the challenge of understanding the Cameroonian culture. Also contact the Department of Tourism as well as taking your own initiative to discover that which you would especially like to know. You should know that each activity will only give you a partial idea of the rich and diverse culture of Cameroon, whether it be a cultural activity in which you take part; a sports or comedy event that you attend, or multimedia support that you use to keep yourself informed.
Feed your curiosity by visiting many regions, by going out from time to time in some of the red-light districts in town at night, by reading, watching and listening to the media, and by attending social ceremonies (weddings, funerals, etc.) as much as possible.
To learn more in Cameroon, attend as many concerts, soccer games, local bars and traditional ceremonies as possible. Invitations to visit villages provide great opportunities to experience rural life. The local French cultural centre carries a lot of material (mostly in French!) on Cameroon. For English books on or by Cameroonians are only available in the English provinces. American Peace Corps Volunteers, who live and work in villages for 2-year periods, often pass through the big cities and can be valuable sources of information.
Other than national political heroes (of which there are many) from the anti-colonialist era, I would gladly mention the most recent sports heroes—especially in soccer. Roger Milla and Thomas Nkono are living legends due to their exceptional talent on our national "football" team (that North Americans call "soccer"). Their fame extends beyond the African continent.
The countries heroes revolve around sports and music. The most famous soccer play is Roger Milla. In the music scene Manu Dibango is internationally recognized and a national hero. His music is available for purchase in Canada.
Shared historical events with Canada
Since Canada has never directly nor indirectly been associated with an embarrassing or painful conflict with Cameroon in the past, it can readily be said that there is nothing that could affect work or social relations between the two countries or their people. The two countries have similarities and differences that represent a wonderful opportunity for research and exchange between people. In fact, they share English and French as their official languages and both belong to the Francophonie and the Commonwealth.
Canada and Cameroon are the only two French-English bilingual countries in the world, and the only two that belong to both the Francophonie and the Commonwealth. There are a number of political commonalities in terms of dealing with language minorities (e.g., Cameroon has 8 French provinces and 2 English provinces)
Canada is generally known in Cameroon for its technical schools/expertise and missionaries. Many educated Cameroonians have had a Canadian teacher at some point in their lives.
These factors can help forge amicable work or social relations, especially given the negative perceptions that many Cameroonians have of former colonial powers (e.g., France, England, Germany).
Nowadays, thanks to the media revolution that the planet is experiencing, many prejudices have been destroyed. In fact, the Internet, to just give one example, has actually become the most efficient world highway. Wherever it is installed, people have a new way of seeing things and stereotypes are crushed and replaced by new ideas. It can no longer be said that people who travel are heading to the absolute unknown. Because even before travelling they can access an enormous amount of useful information about the place they intend to visit.
Some Americans and Europeans stereotype Cameroonians as corrupt (bribing is common), lazy (work tends to be slower paced, punctuality is not a priority), and greedy (expecting or asking for gifts is not uncommon).
About the cultural interpreters
Your Cultural Interpreter was born in Cameroon to a family with seven children. He was raised in the city and in rural areas of Cameroon. He studied at a number of primary schools, secondary schools, and universities in Yaoundé and Douala and has travelled a number of times to all the provinces in Cameroon, both for work and for pleasure. He recently immigrated to Canada to finish his MBA at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa, where he lives with his wife.
Your Cultural Interpreter grew up in a small family in Saskatchewan and obtained a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Saskatchewan and a Masters in International Development from Carleton. She spent three years in Cameroon, two in Douala and one in Yaoundé. During this time, she worked at a local technical school, a French company and an embassy. She now lives in Ottawa and is married to a Cameroonian.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.