Democratic Republic of Congo 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.
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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
"Hello Sir/Madam" is how you should address someone the first time you meet and you can even shake hands. However, it is best to wait until your superior extends his/her hand.
The first conversation can be structured around names. People may not tell you their name if you do not ask for it, but it is always best to first give your name. Congolese will often ask things such as "How is your family? How are your children?" and they will not be offended if you ask if they are from the area. Yet, at least when meeting them for the first time, insisting on their ethnic origins may be badly perceived.
Congolese joke around a lot, but humour may be a source of misunderstanding for foreigners for the simple reason that it is not always universal. Avoid giving people nicknames as people prefer to be called by their real names, unless they have given you permission to call them by some other name. Nevertheless, Congolese do not mind positive comments about their health if it is good. Size (even to the point of being overweight) is a sign of good health and mentioning it is even taken as a compliment.
It is rare that people talk about the weather unless they are discussing a particular situation such as a torrential rain. In the Congo, people generally say what they are feeling.
I found Congolese people very open and interested in almost anything. A good starting point would be positive comments on the area, their nice work or office surroundings, questions about their job, just general chit-chat. A little bit further in the conversation you can ask about the family etc. If it is not appreciated you will notice immediately since the answer will be polite but avoiding the issue. Talking about work in a professional manner is usually also appreciated. Politics, war and ethnicity in a first contact should be avoided unless your Congolese counterpart brings up the topic. DRC is a country where millions have died and the chance is very big you will meet people who have been directly affected by the war. In that case, you can ask what happened and when. It is appropriate to express your sympathy.
Humour is used frequently, although it can get awkward if your jokes are not understood. Safe jokes are those about yourself, but only as long as they do not damage the respect you should have for yourself (and others).
With the exception of (political) authorities, Congolese often touch one another and talk quite frankly. Too much praise may not be well received in the end, but compliments are always welcome.
Constant eye contact can intimidate the person with whom you are speaking and may be seen being impolite, particularly when speaking with superiors. However, in order to show that you are paying attention, you should look at the person’s face every now and then. Generally, there is no set protocol—everything can vary depending on the moment and how people are feeling.
Touching is a sign of friendship and people hold hands and tap each other on the shoulders.
You can usually read in people’s faces how they are feeling. When something is not right, it will show on their face and in their tone of voice. They will not smile just to please someone.
The more official the communications, the more distance there is. At an official first contact you shake hands and stay at least at arms- length. By the time you get to know the other party better, you can get a little closer and the handshake will last a little longer. If you are amongst colleagues, they may hold your upper arm while they shake your hand. For more informal contacts you still shake hands and sometimes even hold hands (between males). If you are male, you will shake hands with females; beyond that you do not touch them while speaking to them, though this is common among the Congolese themselves. Gestures and facial expressions are widely used but if you overuse them they may get the wrong impression. They may think you are making fun of them or showing disrespect. Eye contact is normal especially in less formal contacts; basically, it is the same as in Canada.
Display of emotion
Affection between lovers or parental love is often discreet; however, emotions such as anger or happiness are openly expressed in public.
Displays of affection in public are not really common, except in nightclubs and bars, where it is more acceptable. It is not acceptable to kiss in public. An arm around a shoulder or holding hands is acceptable for same and opposite sexes. However, same sex relationships are taboo. Display of other emotions is quite acceptable. People can easily get into screaming matches in a market. It doesn’t earn you any respect but people won’t hold it against you. People will mourn at funerals and display their grief, but otherwise I have seen little public mourning. Even after villages were burned down, and people were killed, the survivors would pack whatever they could carry and run to a safer place to start all over again. They tend not to show a great deal of emotion about this, as it can be quite a common occurrence.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Cleanliness is essential. Your clothes do not necessarily need to be the latest fashion, but they should be classics: a button-down shirt done up and tucked in your pants is acceptable. Depending on your position, it may be okay to wear a light coloured suit. Ties have come back in style after being banned for decades. Jeans are not acceptable and women wear pagnes and matching blouses. Nevertheless, female foreigners can wear dresses or traditional skirts.
It is acceptable to address colleagues informally, the same way you would your friends. As soon as you meet superiors you should greet them, but they will decide whether or not you shake hands. When addressing a superior for any work-related questions, you should begin by saying "Excuse me, sir." Use formal language and do not call superiors by their first names. You should also not address them using the informal form of "you" (vous in French).
Punctuality is encouraged and even rewarded, particularly in the private and educational sectors. The public services, however, are very relaxed. People come and go when as they feel. Generally, bosses do not seem to follow the same rules when it comes to punctuality.
My experience is that it is well accepted to dress practically, but according to your status for work. This means that a suit and tie is only required in very special circumstances, when you meet high dignitaries, especially if it is for the first time. Otherwise, you can dress taking temperature etc. into account. Women should avoid short shorts; it is not so much that it is offensive but more that it is seen as bad taste. There are no issues with bare arms, cleavage etc. Congolese seem pretty liberal as long as it is tasteful, which is meant in the more classic sense of looking good.
Colleagues should be addressed as professionals. Work is taken very seriously and generally, people are proud of what they are doing. You can expect punctuality, both in completion of assignments as well as being on time for work, etc. Meetings are very important. Elaborate minutes are often taken. Teamwork is highly appreciated but it has to be clear who is reporting to whom. Regular team meetings can be lengthy but are essential.
Preferred managerial qualities
A superior who shows his skills in terms of education and experience and who sets a good example for his/her workers is appreciated. Actually, this is what the Congo lacks the most, which is why Congolese workers tend to respect a foreign boss more than a local one.
Motivation and productivity are good methods by which managers can judge what their staff thinks of them. Congolese do not have a habit of openly criticizing their bosses.
Leadership, being open to new ideas, experience and personality are qualities that are more appreciated than education. Among Congolese, education may be an issue; as an expat your education is hardly ever an issue. People will assume you have the qualifications. Your manners, how you interact with people and how professional you are—those are the important issues.
Especially in the beginning it is hard to figure out how your Congolese staff see you. Most of them will be very polite and nice to you and if they see you in a positive way you will be approached with well- prepared ideas and suggestions for changes. If you really aren’t doing well, some senior staff may tell you so and suggest change. If you are not that lucky there is a good chance that work will slacken, some people may take advantage of your lack of leadership and create a power position for themselves even to the point of diverting resources and time to other enterprises. You can expect this to have a demoralizing effect on the work environment.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Until quite recently, democracy was not in the vocabulary of Congolese workers. Therefore, decisions were made by the board of directors who told the workers what to do.
Decisions are taken by those with (delegated) decision-making authority. My experience is that most people, in particular senior staff, generate new ideas and present them in team meetings. Sometimes the presentation of ideas in a team meeting has been preceded by little meetings between the involved staff or supervisor. It is very acceptable to go to your immediate supervisor for answers or feedback, but do not go to his or her superior, because this will be seen as undermining their position. Hierarchy is important; many people have an ambitious agenda and breach of hierarchy is seen as an opportunity or, alternatively, a blow for the person being passed over.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Women are still seen as being good for housework.
Congolese society is secular and even though people are very religious, their beliefs are personal matters.
There is no class system in the Congo; however, rich people and politicians are almost above the law.
There is neither a dominant nor a dominated ethnic group and similarly there is no ethnic group, which has a better social position than the others. Nonetheless, people still give special treatment to members of their own ethnic group.
Sexual inequality is the only thing that might have a negative impact in the workplace, as many workers may not be very open to respecting a female supervisor.
There are no particular gender issues. It is totally acceptable to have women in senior positions. In those cases they would have nannies and house staff to raise the kids and do the house keeping. Otherwise, women raise the kids, sometimes very independently from the husband as the husband can have a number of other wives with children from each. Both men and women work the land and men don’t seem to be very helpful in assisting with household tasks.
It is hard to find a non-religious person. The Roman Catholic Church, in particular, still has a big influence since it is often connected with the health and education facilities. I never noticed any religious-based tension. If parishes or the church itself are targeted, it is because of their wealth and power rather than their religion. Religion is not a hot topic and not omnipresent in daily life. However, some tribes believe strongly in magic, which is often used in warfare. For example, I once saw a group of Hunde warriors preparing to go to war. All were naked and armed with spears and they believed that they were invisible and immune to bullets. So strong and convincing was this belief that a group of "enemy" fighters armed with Kalashnikovs that we met a few kilometres away refused to fire at them.
There are class differences between the haves and have-nots. But that applies in the same way as in Canadian society.
This is a touchy subject but only in various regions. In most of the country it is far less of an issue than, for instance, in neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi. But in other regions, like in Ituri at the moment, it is a matter of life and death. Being from the wrong tribe at the wrong place and time can mean certain death. Ethnicity is often used as a tool in war and politics. Kabila took charge of Kinshasa thanks to the Rwandans, but after a while the Rwandans became too influential and were kicked out. From that moment on it was dangerous to be a Tutsi in Kinshasa. In very sensitive areas it is advisable to have staff from different ethnic backgrounds. That will increase your neutrality as well as your flow of information.
It is important to establish a friendship before talking business. If business comes first, there is a possibility that you might come across someone who just wants to take advantage of the occasion. Friendships are created by everyday actions such as going to peoples’ homes, inviting them out to eat and even by asking people to help you out.
A professional relationship is more important then a personal relation ship. So you can, after the normal formalities, get to business pretty quickly. After completing said business and having set the standards, it is helpful to establish a good personal relationship as long as it is clear that business and pleasure are different things. This will be advantageous in future dealings with the same business relation as you can now count on reliability and loyalty. If you do it the other way round it may be more difficult to set your conditions and standards without troubling your personal relationship.
Privileges and favouritism
This is a part of the popular mentality. Favours provided to workers to keep managers on their good side can have two consequences: they can be a motivational factor or they can create envy and jealousy. Favours should be given discretely to avoid frustrating colleagues. In the Congo, something that happens in the workplace can have an effect on family life.
To a certain extent, yes, but more in preferred treatment then in pay. Certainly when it comes to hiring staff, a good personal relationship is expected to play a positive role in the hiring process. This applies more to former employees or ex-colleagues than to family members and usually it is based on the professional qualities and personal relationship. This is a widely accepted practice, and if more qualified people win over the known relation, there is usually no problem.
Example: A driver who is laid off after a project closes will have his hopes up if the person for whom he worked now starts up a new project. If the driver is good and a position for a driver becomes available, then the driver will expect his former boss to lobby for him or re-hire him for that position. It would be considered rude of the former boss not to do his best for this driver.
Conflicts in the workplace
Generally, Congolese say what they think; however, people may prefer to keep quiet in order to not lose their jobs. If you are in a position of authority, you may not know what people are saying about you, but their expressions may tell you a great deal.
The use of the right tact and tactics, within the limits of the rules, is very important. Most people are ambitious and will play the game to get where they want to go. So confronting a colleague in public would be considered a public lashing especially when you are his boss. Unless of course you are in a meeting and there is an interesting difference in points of view and the purpose of the confrontation is more to start a discussion to convince the other party. If you have trouble with a colleague that is more personal, talk in private with him and use all your tact. Make it clear where the problem is and involve him or her in finding a solution.
If a colleague has a problem with you, he may come to you in private or he may play it via others so you will hear about it. His or her general behaviour will be more formal then usual, with the intention that you will notice and ask him if something is wrong.
Motivating local colleagues
Congolese usually like to keep their jobs since there are not very many opportunities. Simply treating them well will improve their workplace performance. Similarly, you should provide them with clear and strict rules. Now and then, taking disciplinary action will also do the trick.
Earning respect for professionalism, your own commitment and giving the means to do the job well inspires people and increases loyalty to the organization. Fear of failure hardly ever plays a role since the causes of failure would be, in most cases, truthfully beyond their control. Salaries should be competitive and reasonable in order to ensure that the staff will take pride in their organization. The Congolese are a very proud people.
Recommended books, films & foods
There is practically no official documentation about the Congo. The tourism office has not produced anything to help people learn more about the Congo.
An excellent book about the people, the power structure and the games that are played in the DRC is called La Danse du Léopard by Lieve Joris. This writer travelled around DRC during Laurent Kabila’s takeover and after he took control of most of DRC. The book gives an excellent insight into current Congolese culture. Unfortunately, it is not yet available in English.
For more on history, an excellent book would be King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild. This gives an excellent account of how the Congo got colonized as the personal property of King Leopold II. In the process of colonisation and getting rich as fast as possible between 6 and 8 million people got killed. This book is also available in French.
There aren’t many Congolese films in the Canadian circuit, but an excellent one is: Lumumba named after the biggest Congolese hero Lumumba, the first and last democratically elected prime minister, who led Congo just after the independence from Belgium in 1960. It is available on DVD and VHS. The original version is French and the theatre version is subtitled in English.
Speaking French is pretty essential, and learning the local language even better. It’s easy to find a local teacher to help you out.
Congolese enjoy music a lot and rarely play foreign music. Someone who would work toward promoting Congolese music would be seen as a hero in the Congo.
The best way to learn and understand more about the local culture is to ask a local person you know, like a local staff member to take you to a local café or bar. Music plays an important role in Congo and they have world-renowned musicians. That would be an enjoyable and wise starting point.
Patrice Lumumba is the only national hero, political trends aside. He fought for Congolese independence and was assassinated for his nationalism. Prior to him, there was Simon Kimbango whose struggle took on a messianic character. He is revered as a profit.
Patrice Lumumba is the biggest hero. Being from a small (and not terribly influential tribe), he was the symbol for a united Congo. He wrestled Congo from Belgium and led the newly independent country briefly as prime minister. However, after two months he was fired from the job over the separation of the Katanga Province. He rejected his dismissal and while on the run, he was arrested by an army colonel called Joseph Mobutu. Mobutu had the support of the Americans and Belgians. Even in prison, Lumumba was considered a threat to his opponents, so they handed him over to the rulers in Katanga and was killed shortly after that, apparently by the Belgium army. Subsequently, Mobutu took over and was a dictator for more then 30 years. The outrage about Lumumba’s assassination was so great that even Mobutu had to declare him a national hero. Many believe that Lumumba was born too early and that he should be in charge of the country right now.
Shared historical events with Canada
No, Canada has a prestigious image in the Congo.
No, not as with Belgium. After all King Leopard II claimed Congo as his personal property he enriched himself as much as possible at the expense of the Congolese people. People also remember the American role in the capture of Patrice Lumumba and currently there are issues with surrounding countries since they have invaded DRC in the past years. Most of them are gone again, but especially with Rwanda and Uganda, tensions are present. The occupying armies of the neighbouring countries financed their involvement by illegal mining operations, lumber operations etc. See also a recent UNSC report about the great plunder of DRC.
There are no negative stereotypes; however, when Congolese meet Canadians they think that they have met a money tree, but this is no different from how they treat any expatriate from a developed country.
Few Canadians know very much about Congolese culture. A potentially damaging view may be:
...that Congolese people are all corrupt.
There are definitely a lot of corrupt people around, but that has a lot to do with survival on a non-sufficient or non-existent salary. So if you want decent service or commitment from your staff or colleagues, make sure that they receive a decent salary, enough to live of with a family, pay school from and healthcare.
that none of the Congolese are sufficiently educated.
There is a belief that due to years of war and conflict, nobody has been properly educated. This is not true, as some people have studied overseas and the local universities are functioning in many areas. Education for the population is extremely important and there are college and university programs that are quite good, in spite of the enormous difficulties the people face.
About the cultural interpreters
Your Cultural Interpreter was born in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), the third of four children. He grew up in the city and obtained a secondary school diploma in Biochemistry at the Institut du Mont-Amba in Kinshasa. Due to the political situation, he immigrated to Canada in 1993 to study and earned a BA in Computer Science. He has lived in Ottawa since 1995 and works in the high-tech sector. He is married and has one child.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Goes, the Netherlands, in a family of five children. He was raised in the South West of the Netherlands. He studied Civil Engineering in Vlissingen. His studies sent him abroad for the first time in 1983 where he worked in South Africa. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter went to Bosnia, Burundi, Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Albania, and a number of times to Zaire (later DRC), where he lived about 9 months, mainly in the eastern part and in Kisangani. Most of his work and travel in these countries has been for emergency medical aid organizations, mainly in emergency assessments, logistics and water and sanitation. He is a Canadian citizen and is currently living in Wakefield, Quebec, where he is working on his pilot license. He is married and has no children.
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.
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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.
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