Côte d'Ivoire 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
Just like most others, people from Ivory Coast like to talk about things that are familiar to them when they first meet someone; it makes you look good. Therefore, it is obvious that topics of discussion will be different depending on the people or situation. It is recommended that foreigners do some preliminary research in order to learn a bit about the people with whom they will be speaking; this does not mean that you need to do exhaustive research about their lives. In general, posing a basic question to someone who knows the person with whom you will be speaking, as well as the environment, will be enough to obtain the information you require.
When meeting a junior employee for the first time, you should talk to him about work unassumingly while skilfully proving your knowledge of the field. This will get you the respect and recognition you are seeking.
If you are speaking to a member of the local political class or to a manager, you should remain humble and put the emphasis on listening and asking questions about the country or certain aspects of your work rather than trying to show off your expertise or talking about yourself right away. You will likely have a chance to prove yourself in other situations. This way, the locals with whom you are speaking will find you to be a wise person who is eager to learn things even if you were sent there as the "expert".
At all costs, avoid off-colour or somewhat rude jokes. If you enjoy making these kinds of jokes, wait until you know your audience a bit better before trying them out. You will undoubtedly be able to do so to your heart’s content later on. When you first meet someone, this kind of behaviour will make you appear flippant, impolite, and disrespectful.
The family is at the core of Ivorian culture and it is important and well received to ask about someone’s family when you first meet. Inquire about the family in general and, if they have children, ask about them as well. Questions about their health are welfare are always appreciated.
Work is another general topic of conversation that helps make your first contact with someone and show that you are interested in what he/she does. Other subjects include talking about the weather as people from all over the world worry about it and this topic is particularly relevant in Africa where many people are dependent on agriculture. Weather directly affects people’s quality of life (i.e., rain or drought result in plentiful or scarce harvests) as well as transportation systems since some roads become blocked in the rainy season.
It is always a good idea to ask about, or comment on, the country’s or region’s latest or forthcoming sporting/cultural events (i.e., soccer games, music or film festivals, religious festivals, etc.) as this demonstrates your interest in your host country.
If you have friends or acquaintances in common, you should mention them and ask how they are doing. Ivorians like making these kinds of connections and discovering that you know their cousin, neighbour or even a local political figure. It is also worth noting that people from Ivory Coast are generally very interested in learning more about your country and culture. Be prepared to answer many questions about Canada’s cultural, political, and economic life and other queries about your family and friends. Depending on whether the situation is formal or informal, it may be appropriate to bring a small photo album of pictures of your family and region.
It is best to not discuss issues related to the country’s politics with anyone until you have become relatively much close to the person. If someone from Ivory Coast asks for your opinion on the political situation in the country, you should be very diplomatic and discreet or simply state that you do not know enough about what is happening to voice a strong opinion on the subject. Avoid saying anything that could be considered to be a criticism of the country, its customs, or its traditions. Beware of making comparisons between Ivory Coast and Canada that might give the impression that "things are better in Canada".
Colonialization has left its mark. As in France, people from Ivory Coast give a firm handshake when first meeting. You should, therefore, keep an arms length from the person to whom you are speaking and give a solid handshake (but not to the point that it is painful, of course).
Since the country is culturally diverse, you should take into account the ethnic background of the person to whom you are speaking as this may make a difference in the way you greet someone (although exceptions are few and far between). Generally, people are tolerant and will not be offended if you make a mistake.
Eye contact is very important. It shows that you are interested in what the other person is saying. Other than the now universally accepted handshake, you should not touch people when you first meet them. Conversations between men and women are acceptable. Be sensitive to the exceptions that may apply when talking to people who are Muslim. Although there are few offensive gestures, you should avoid belching in public, pointing at people you are talking about, or extending your middle finger out of anger.
The way people think about privacy and personal space is very different. In general, people from Ivory Coast keep slightly less distance between one another when they speak. They tend to get closer to each other when they are enthusiastic, angry, or if they are trying to convince you of something. Touching someone when speaking is acceptable, but usually only between people of the same gender. You may see two male or female friends hold hands in the street and nobody will presume that they are homosexuals. When with friends in public, men and women may touch slightly when talking or joking. However, if a man touches a woman in private (or vice versa) it means something entirely different and may be interpreted as an invitation to take things to another level.
Eye contact is important, but it does not need to be as direct or held for as long as it is in Canada. On the contrary, keeping a steady gaze is seen as a challenge or a sign of disrespect. With an older person or a superior, it is best to have periodic eye contact.
Physical contact is commonplace and accepted between colleagues of the same status or rank in the hierarchy, provided that they get along well and have developed a friendship.
Abrupt gestures and shouting may not be well received and may provoke violent reactions (i.e., if market vendors are too pushy and are following you around, try to not become impatient and try and fight them off; using humour to convince them to leave you alone is always a better method). A women should not sit in a position that is considered to be "too relaxed" as this could give her a bad reputation.
Display of emotion
Displays of affection and anger are commonplace. This type of behaviour in the workplace may, at times, be crude or shocking. Offhand, this type of behaviour is acceptable as long as it is justified and done in an intelligent manner! This applies to displays of anger or affection; when you are angry an intelligent action may justify your behaviour.
In Ivory Coast, these kinds of gestures may be acceptable or not, depending on the person who makes them. It is common that managers, directors, or other individuals in administration or politics abuse their position or power intentionally or unintentionally. Although most cultures in the country recommend moderation, those in power tend to live their lives differently. Everyone would likely silently condemn this kind of behaviour, but no one would dare denounce it publicly.
On the other hand, if a regular employee or a foreign technical assistant did the same thing it would likely be poorly viewed and everyone would probably criticize and chastise him/her.
Ivory Coast’s socio-political situation, which may continue for a few years yet, is not very welcoming for foreigners (Canadians providing technical assistance or others). It is best to play it safe when working in the country and keep a low profile. Therefore, concentrate on your work and gain the respect and friendship of those around you so you will have support should you ever need to express your anger in public.
Public displays of affection between lovers or married couples are rare. This is considered to be intimate behaviour, which is best to be kept for private moments. Sometimes young couples are more open. Affection (i.e., hand holding, kissing on the cheek, or hugging) is frequently expressed between friends of the same gender and family members and may be shown in public without causing problems.
Ivorians are very animated and displays of anger and other types of emotions (i.e., resentment, or grief when mourning) are often shown in public. In general, it is acceptable to express emotions in public provided that certain rules are followed (such as respecting elders and hierarchy, using appropriate language, and not resorting to physical violence).
Dress, punctuality & formality
Your position will determine how you will dress. If you are a director or manager, it is best to wear a jacket and tie most of the time. You will make your employees and company proud as they expect their director to always be well dressed and respected by all.
However, if you are a clerk, hold a junior position, or if you work outdoors (in the field or in a small village, etc) you do not have to be immaculately dressed every morning.
No matter your position in the company, you should set an example—for instance, you should always be on time and, except in exceptional circumstances, should never address your colleagues or superiors with the informal form of "you" ("tu" in French). You should know people very well before addressing them in this way.
If you have already worked or lived in France then you basically already know what to expect and how to behave: shake hands and give your name and job title. Wear a jacket and tie at formal occasions. Unless you are in public relations or marketing, avoid talking non-stop to your guests. If it is the first time you are meeting someone, it is best to speak less than usual and put more effort into listening. Once you know the people you are with a little better you can express yourself freely without worrying about breeching protocol.
Your employer will most likely explain your work hours to you. Normally, Ivorians work from 8:00 am (sometimes 7:00 am) until noon and then from 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Most people eat lunch at home and take a little nap. Do not forget that there is no winter, which means that it is always (or almost always) light out at 6:00 am and the sun does not set until after 6:00 pm.
Canadians, particularly Francophones, tend to quickly become familiar with their superiors and colleagues. In Canada it is common to hear employees call their bosses by the informal form of "you" ("tu" in French) or by their first name, or joke around with them. This kind of behaviour will never be acceptable in Ivory Coast as it is very important to respect hierarchy and people’s titles. Superiors should always be spoken to with respect by using the formal form of "you" ("vous" in French) and calling them "Mr." or "Ms.". Address the director of an organization or department by saying "Monsieur, le directeur" (Sir, the director) or by his last name preceded by Mr. (as in the case of "Monsieur Ouattara"). Once a friendship is established with colleagues, it is acceptable to the informal form of "you" ("tu" in French), unless the person is older than you. It may seem surprising, but friends and family usually call one another by their family names.
What you wear to work is important. People from Ivory Coast, particularly women, are always well dressed. Being well dressed is even more important during special events such as the inauguration of a new building, festivals, or when a deputy minister visits, etc. The way you dress and how you take care of yourself is important as people interpret this to mean that you are serious and plan to finish what you have set out to do.
At work it is expected that you will be punctual even if, particularly in the civil service, people do not always practise what they preach. If you need to be absent for urgent or unexpected reasons, always let your direct supervisor know and ask him/her for permission.
Preferred managerial qualities
In order to gain respect from your employees, do the following (in order of importance):
Have an open mind. You need to accept the differences in the way your employer runs things compared to how things were handled where you previously worked. You can contribute to organizational change in your new institution by respecting what is already in place even if it is part of your role to incite change in the organization and in the hearts of the people with whom you work. Avoid wanting to change things overnight.
Administrators or directors need leadership skills in order to help employees attain their objectives and gain their trust. There is nothing in particular that you can do to know whether or not people think highly of you. People will make it known subtly. One thing is sure: if you are a manager or an administrator, people will expect you to tell them what to do.
A boss’ experience, charisma, leadership, and teamwork are most highly regarded. It is also expected that a superior will be understanding and open, and that he will create good working conditions for his employees. Bosses are not necessarily expected to be overly familiar with employees, but they will value you being kind and friendly and expressing your appreciation and gratitude. You will know if your employees think highly of you through the comments that you overhear, whether people readily come to see you when they have professional or personal problems, or if they invite you to functions outside of work.
It may confuse your employees if you give them a lot of freedom and little supervision as this is a very different approach compared to what they are used to locally. However, people will appreciate it if you make yourself available while letting them take initiative and trusting in them.
Hierarchy and decision-making
The following are a few ways to generate ideas:
Brain-storming sessions are quite common. The trick is to understand what your company prefers. Some managers would rather have you give your suggestions directly to them; there is no set model in Ivory Coast. If a local manager runs the company, you can ask him and he will advise you of the procedure to follow.
It is difficult to describe a "typical" meeting. Generally, meetings are much like those in Canada: formal or informal notice to attend depending on the urgency and the topic to be discussed, circulation of the agenda, a manager as chair, etc. The difference may lie in the way the meeting is run. It may vary from one company to another. Canadians going to Ivory Coast may find meetings to be rather "ceremonial". But, for the most part, the material discussed during meetings is much the same as anywhere else in the world.
If you have not been officially invited to a meeting that you would like to go to, call ahead or have an intermediary ask if you can attend.
Generally, decisions are made in a vertical fashion without consulting too many people. Nonetheless, this may vary from one workplace to another as well as between the private and public sectors.
In the workplace, Canadians tend to try and reach a consensus and the majority’s position rules. In Ivory Coast, although managers consult their employees and take their thoughts into consideration, at the end of the day, "the boss" opinion is the one that counts even if it is contrary to what the majority has agreed upon. It is his prerogative since he is of a higher rank.
It is also important to always consult your manager before making decisions and to not show too much initiative. (In fact, when a boss knows that you will consult him and that you respect his opinions, he will eventually give you more room to manoeuvre.)
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Over the past six months, people’s attitudes towards ethnic origin in Ivory Coast have radically changed. Previously, all nationalities were welcomed with open arms; today the country has come up against religious tribalism and an artificial xenophobia promoted by some of the politicians. Religion and ethnicity have, therefore, become two delicate topics, particularly in the workplace. It should be pointed out, however, that those providing technical assistance for specific aid projects in Ivory Coast will not be subject to the same kind of xenophobia that other Africans might endure. Social class is also important in the workplace. As mentioned in the previous question, being related to someone (i.e., brother-in-law, sister-in-law, cousin, etc) in a high position gains you respect. Contrary to what one might believe, gender does not have much influence on people’s attitudes in the workplace. In fact, whether you are male or female, people respect and listen to you as long as you know the director general, the Minister, the President of the Republic, etc.
Although people from Ivory Coast generally do recognize the invaluable role that women play in the family and in society, women and men have rather traditional tasks and few people believe in what we call “gender equality”. For them, certain things should be reserved for women only and others for men; the man is clearly the head of the family. Nonetheless, these strong beliefs are being challenged by upcoming generations. Few women have positions of responsibility or are involved in politics.
In addition to animism and other traditional beliefs, the two main religions in Ivory Coast are Islam and Catholicism. Whatever the religion may be, there are few fundamentalist rallies; therefore, the different groups tend to get along well and people of different faith tolerate one another.
Social class, standing, and success are important. Nevertheless, it is expected that successful individuals will give something back by paying for some of their family members’ education or healthcare, finding a job for their brother, or helping a cousin finance a new business. People who do have money but do not assist others are scorned and may even be subject to retribution (i.e., witchcraft, poisoning, etc).
People from the upper classes have a lot of power and people from the "lower" classes are not considered important and are underpaid; labour in general is undervalued.
Historically, Ivory Coast has been an island of security and stability in West Africa where people from different ethnic groups (as well as citizens from other African countries) lived relatively peacefully. However, for the past decade or so (more or less since President Houphouet-Boigny’s death) tensions have risen between the ethnic groups living in the north and south of the country. The most recent coup d’état that rocked the country was proof that the people of Ivory Coast are becoming increasingly divided. Because of the current crisis, ethnic origin may be a source of conflict or discrimination in the workplace.
There are no strict rules on this. However, it is generally known that it is easier to discuss business with someone you know. It is best to establish a relationship with people before talking about business. Nonetheless, time is also a factor. It is difficult to determine how much time is required to establish a good professional or personal relationship. It depends on the people and circumstances involved.
It is crucial to establish a personal or at least cordial relationship with someone before getting to business. Family and social networks are very important in Ivory Coast and business is conducted, contracts are signed, and partnerships are established on these terms. Trust must be established prior to talking about business.
In order to do this, you can invite your counterpart out to eat or have a drink at a restaurant or to your house to get to know him in a less formal environment. Asking about and participating in his professional activities is another way to establish trust and this may take a few weeks. A small gift from Canada is always appreciated.
Generally, in order to develop good relations and make progress on projects in the public or private sector, you will need a lot of patience, diplomacy, and perseverance. You should greet people with respect by noting the person’s job title (i.e., "Deputy Minister, it’s a pleasure to meet you."). Be well dressed, use an appropriate level of language, and avoid politically incorrect jokes, acting too familiar or talking about politics. See the section First Contact for more ideas about appropriate topics of conversation.
Privileges and favouritism
It is obvious that you should make friends in order to understand the new society in which you will be living. Expect that these friends will presume you will give them special privileges. They will open the doors to parts of their culture outside of the workplace (i.e., by readily taking you to a village, driving you to special festivals, etc). They will also help you at work (i.e. brief you on each employee, the manager, who is friends with whom, and who is important, etc.) In return, the person who helped you out will expect special favours, which, depending on the case, might range from asking you to hire relatives/ friends to requesting a raise.
It is important to realize that this manner of seeing things is linked to the fact that the country’s ancestral societies are based on mutual aid ( you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours). It’s a little like an old reflex still found in today’s society.
Given the significance of having a network of friends, acquaintances, and family in Ivory Coast, it is likely that a colleague might expect special considerations or exceptions if you are friends. I do not think that it is healthy or desirable to give the person in question special treatment, particularly if you are in a position of authority. This will create feelings of resentment or jealousy between staff members. It is best to explain to the person that this is not the Canadian way of doing things and that it could affect team spirit. This will not stop you from still being friends with the person outside of work or to "give him a hand" as you would for any friend.
Conflicts in the workplace
Everything is determined by the type and seriousness of the problem. Depending on the circumstances, you can judge whether you should directly approach the individual about the specific problem. Otherwise, you can always ask a colleague to assist you. If the problem will not put the person’s job at risk, it would be best to discuss it with a supervisor. Usually, after a few months, you will find out who is trustworthy. This is why is always best to observe a lot when you first arrive.
There are no particular criteria that will help you know whether you have offended someone. You will find this out through the person’s behaviour, by an intermediary, or directly from the person in question.
Canadians have the reputation of being direct and going directly to the person in question when things are not working out. In Ivory Coast, you should, at all costs, avoid direct confrontation. Use an intermediary, preferably someone of higher rank, when a work-related problem arises. Speak to your manager who will decide when and how to discuss the issue with the person in question.
Motivating local colleagues
Money is a good source of motivation for people. Remember that we are talking about an environment where many people aspire to a modern or developed-country lifestyle. A great many people want to make their dreams reality and live in the same the way they see people living on French or American television shows (i.e., owning a nice car, a house, the latest fashions, and gadgets such as a cellular phone, etc). In order to do this, they need money and this is why it is often the prime motivating factor in the workplace.
Loyalty, pride, good working conditions, appreciation and respect for superiors, and advantages that the position offers are factors that motivate people to work hard.
Recommended books, films & foods
One might recommend a series of video clips made by the country’s comedians. These video clips make fun of customs, politicians, and everyday life. Although foreigners or visitors cannot always easily understand them, they will help you discover certain aspects of life in Ivory Coast.
Titles that you may wish to ask for include: Les Guignols (The Puppets), Faut pas facher (Don’t Get Angry), Qui fait ça (Who Is Doing That), etc.
I would suggest all of Amadou Hampâté Bah’s novels. Even though the author is from Mali, he has a wonderful way of describing the outlook and way of life in Western Africa. I also recommend African news magazines as well as the "Journal du Jeudi", a satirical newspaper from Burkina Faso, which is available on the Internet.
African cinema is diverse and thriving despite small budgets. It is worth it to check out what is available at video stores to get an idea of what has been created by filmmakers from Ivory Coast and other West Africans countries.
Channels such as TV5, French CBC, Télé-Québec, and RDI produce excellent documentaries and stories about West Africa. The NFB has many specialized documentaries about this region.
Local television shows, radio, and community theatre groups (if there are any) are good ways to get to know the country’s culture. You can also make friends and ask the right questions without passing judgement. If you ask for help, people will be pleased to assist you so long as you are humble, friendly, not arrogant and do not judge others.
The best way to get to know your host country’s people and culture is to go out and meet them! Accept invitations that are offered to you, take the time to sit and chat with those around you, whether it be your boss or the guard on night duty, as they will teach you about this new culture. Invite people over for a drink at your place and take an interest in their life!
The different cultural, sporting, and religious events are also ways to get your foot in the door and get to know Ivory Coast culture. There are many ways to participate in local life and meet the people and find out what makes them "tick" whether it be through music festivals, theatre, films, national or local sport tournaments, weddings or funerals, or religious festivals.
Every region in the Ivory Cost is interesting and visiting them will help you learn more about the people, their lives and their outlook. The city of Abidjan with its skyscrapers, big stores, and trendy restaurants is not representative of the lifestyle of most people from Ivory Coast.
You should taste all the traditional dishes as the cuisine is very rich and varied depending on the area and product availability.
Newspapers, radio and television are other ways to get a feel for the country. It is essential to obtain your information from the more alternative and critical media as the major channels and press are government-run. Satirical or witty publications voice the people’s concerns rather well. Freedom of the press is still limited.
People will likely be pleased to assist you if you ask them to help you learn more about your new environment.
Some people would say that the first President of the Republic of Ivory Coast, Félix Houphouet Boigny, is the national hero. Others would say that he was responsible for the corruption that currently affects the country. In a small country that has more than 50 dialects, each person has his/her own hero depending on his/her religious or political beliefs.
There are few unanimous national heroes. Former President, Félix Houphouêt-Boigny, who ruled during the first thirty years following the Declaration of Independence, still has a number of followers, but increasingly people are starting to criticize certain aspects of his leadership and legacy. Other people who are respected and admired include international and national soccer players, Ivory Coast music stars (e.g., Alpha Blondy), as well as some soap opera actors who are very popular.
Shared historical events with Canada
Presently, to my knowledge, there are no historical events might have a negative impact upon you in the workplace.
No. In general, Canada has a very good reputation in Ivory Coast.
The general opinion is that Canadians do not have a past that is tied to Colonialism. Therefore, Canadians receive good press and this will work in your favour. You will be called upon in your work and the way you interact with locals to confirm and help preserve how people think about Canadians, whether you are Anglophone or Francophone. Respecting and accepting the differences between countries will put you on the right track with local people.
Many "northerners" judge according to their beliefs of how things should be and see Africans as unconcerned about work and deadlines and untrustworthy when it comes to money. I have also heard people complain that people from Ivory Coast never say what they mean to the person in question: "They say "yes" even when they mean "no"."
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter, the seventh of twelve children, was born in the Republic of Ivory Coast. He grew up in a rural area and studied in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, as well as at the Université du Québec in Montreal. His studies and work initially took him abroad to participate in the World Youth Forum in New York City, United States and in the first ever Festival de la Francophonie in Quebec City, Canada. He spent the next 10 years in Ivory Coast and 15 years ago he moved to Canada where he presently works. He is married and has one child.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Canada, the eldest of two children. She grew up in a rural area and studied at the Université de Montréal. Her work first took her abroad to Peru where she spent a year. She has worked in the field of international cooperation for the past twelve years and was living in Ivory Coast until relatively recently. She has been living in Canada for the past two months where she works at a private non-profit organization. She is from Quebec and married to a Belgian who grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). They have one child.
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.