Guyana 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
Making a good impression. Guyanese generally do not believe in small talk. So from the outset the visitor would be bombarded with direct questions. Assuming that both persons are the same gender. If they are both male for example. Some details of the trip might be a good opener. Family is not a popular topic of discussion in the beginning, but that may change when you get to know each other very well. Guyana are easy to talk to and are not as steeped in culture and tradition as in some more traditional societies.
Work is a safe topic but talking down to a Guyanese about his/her knowledge and ability should be avoided. On the visitor’s part, admitting to ignorance of something work-related will likely be viewed more as a sign of incompetence rather than honesty. After all, the expat is supposed to know everything. Caution is advised in the beginning as a word of a mistake would quickly spread through the community and Guyanese do not suffer fools gladly.
The visitor is the one who will be asked most of the questions and evasive answers are not usually enough.
The Guyanese male is keen on sports and even though cricket is the only organized team sports in the country, he would be able to recite the statistics of Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali. Guyanese society is small and everyone literally knows each other so one should be careful about using names. Most people have nicknames and they are usually quite different from their real ones. However, the use of nicknames is usually reserved for close friends.
Guyanese have a peculiar sense of humour and enjoy a good joke. Sometimes their humour is misplaced and might cause inconvenience and even grief. The visitor should never assume that his/her best interest is the primary concern of his/her host.
Family, work, nationality and place of origin are common and acceptable topics for conversations with Guyanese nationals. However, you must avoid topics about racial and religious issues; particularly politics mixed with racial issues. Guyanese are generally very humorous.
Eye contact is less important in Guyana than it is in Canada. However, it also applies in Guyana that someone deliberately avoiding eye contact is considered untrustworthy and/or dishonest. Touching each other while talking is more common between women than between men and is rarely seen between the genders. Body language is very important in communication in Guyana—to a greater extent than it is here. Facial expressions are also important. Extreme anger is demonstrated by gritting one’s teeth while a smile means the same as it does in Canada. Guyanese tend to be direct, even blunt in speech. The visitor would have to become accustomed to this. They tell it like it is rather than have the visitor try to figure out what is happening. A good example of this is if you drop in on someone unexpectedly, if they cannot visit with you they would tell you so. In personal communication Guyanese believe in "personal space" and would consider it rude or impolite to go "nose to nose" with someone. Since Guyanese communicate with body language and with their hands, standing too close would deprive you of essential information.
Like most Latin American and Caribbean countries, once you get to know them, Guyanese people are very friendly and possess a great sense of humour. During a conversation they stand close to your face. Eye and hand contact (touching your arm/shoulders with their hands), gestures and facial expressions are very common. However, when it comes to their tone of voice it appears to be loud and they are very direct. When doing a favour for a Guyanese, do not expect a word of "Thank you" in return. If you thank them for a favour their response will be "Don’t mention it."
Display of emotion
A handshake is considered a friendly gesture and is done everywhere—even between genders. Kissing in public between men and women—even a peck on the cheek à la quebecoise, is not usually done in public between genders although it is common between women.
Public displays of anger are often seen and one could be told off in public for a seemingly minor inconvenience. Guyanese air their views in a direct manner and sometimes forcefully—even in public.
Public displays of anger and affection are very common among GuyaneseHowever, as an expatriate, it is recommendable that you be rather reserved.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Dress is casual in Guyana. The occasions are few where suits and gowns would be de rigueur. Although short trousers may be worn by men doing field work, shorts should not be worn by women at work.
Although greeting colleagues is expected, there is no formal Guyanese greeting. A simple "Hello Mr.... or Miss/Mrs.... The title Ms. is often used. Guyanese are not too concerned with formalities. Nevertheless, titles and surnames are used extensively (i.e. Dr. Jones, Mr. Brown). First names are usually used only among equals in informal settings. It is seen as gauche for a junior to address a senior staff member by his/her first name in the workplace. Likewise, a foreigner calling a Guyanese by his/her first name at the outset will be viewed as "talking down" to them rather than as friendly; this usually changes over time, however. Even among equals, time and repeated contact are pre-requisites for going on a first-name basis. In Guyana, friendship is something that evolves; this contrasts with the tendency in Canada for people to consider someone a friend until proven otherwise.
Guyanese do not have the high regard for time that Canadians have. Thus, deadlines are sometimes missed and reporting late for work and for meetings are not unusual occurrences. Some managers go to the extreme of announcing a meeting for earlier than the real starting time just to make sure that everyone will be there by the time the meeting actually starts. Absenteeism is also to be expected—especially after a holiday. Productivity is also much lower than it is in Canada.
The dress code depends on the occasion. Still, most Guyanese dress up. For women, knee length dresses and pants are acceptable for work. As for men, dressy shirt and pants or long safari-type suits of one solid colour are also acceptable. At work, you address the person according to their status. If the person is above you, you would usually refer to them by Mr. [Last Name]. If at the same level, calling the person by the first name is acceptable. Merchants, people in small business and employees at home will refer to the woman of the house as "mistress" and the man as "boss".
In Guyana there is the expression "tomorrow after tomorrow" in regards to punctuality. As a foreigner, you require tons of patience and flexibility to meet deadlines. Absenteeism is a common problem.
Preferred managerial qualities
Education is important; the manager should be qualified to hold the position and be able to make rational decisions. Age is also a factor; a young manager could have difficulty dealing with an older assistant. The key to hiring a local manager rests with his/her leadership qualities. The criteria are the same in Guyana as in Canada. The expatriate manager should have a relatively easy time managing since he/she would not be expected to follow the same rules as the local manager. The expatriate manager would have a good idea of how his/her staff views him/her since one of workplace habits is the dropping in of colleagues for a chat or for a cup of coffee. Visitations outside of the workplace are also largely on an impromptu basis since telephone communication is largely unavailable and cell phone usage has not yet fully taken over. Guyanese workers want to become involved and usually have something to contribute.
Among highly regarded qualities in the work environment are experience, education, being personable and hard working; this last one being the most highly regarded of all. Guyanese come to respect you when you work side by side with them. If you’re an expatriate who is personable and has good interpersonal skills, staff under your supervision will show you a great deal of respect and esteem. You would know how they view you through their commitment and loyalty and occasionally through direct verbal complements.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Decisions are made by the top of the hierarchy, but one-to-one exchanges between workers and supervisors are invariably fruitful. Workers may have suggestions that would facilitate implementation of the decisions. Staff meetings are also useful. Exchange of information between ranks is very helpful in motivating workers.
Ideas and decisions are both generated and taken by superiors and higher authorities. Although you can approach your immediate supervisor for answers and feedback, his/her role is mostly supervision of staff and liaison between superiors and staff. If you want to be proactive, you must introduce your idea to your supervisor slowly and convincingly, demonstrating your knowledge.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Guyana has very little gender bias in public life. It has had a female head of state, cabinet ministers and heads of service in its history. Although certain occupations are still considered male bastions e.g. military service, women participate in all walks of life. A male Guyanese worker would not hesitate to take orders from a female supervisor, although he may not feel comfortable doing so.
Guyanese consider a person’s religion as being a personal thing and would rarely discuss it in public—or even in private for that matter. Groups celebrate each other’s holidays. For example, Christmas is celebrated by all and it is not uncommon during the festive season to see a Christmas tree in a Hindu or Muslim home (even during the month of Ramadan). Religious differences are widely tolerated and proselytizing is frowned upon. Thus, religious missionaries are viewed with some suspicion. Mixed names are common for instance John Mohammed might be a devout Muslim while John Singh a devout Hindu. Christmas cards are sent out by everyone and close friends exchange gifts on boxing day—irrespective of religious affiliation.
There is some class distinction but it is based on wealth rather than caste or colour. There are traditional "rich" families - as in Canada; the "self-made" individual; and the lower, "working class".
Here is where some knowledge of Guyanese history is necessary. Most things are described along racial lines, sometimes explicitly, but often implicitly. Race relations: the Achilles heel of Guyanese society. People are still classified by their skin colour—not officially of course, but in day-to-day life and conversation. Political leaders would try to convince you that is not so.
The derogatory terms for blacks are the same as those in Canada. Brown-skinned of Indian descent are referred to as coolies after the porters in India. They refer to themselves as coolies as well. Mixed race are referred to as "dougla" while the aboriginals are referred to as "buck". It must be noted that though the local designations are not politically correct, only the very sensitive consider them offensive. Nevertheless, race is the great divider of Guyanese society. The political establishment tries to paper over this division but it is always there as an undercurrent. The expat has to be aware of this in the workplace and work around it. Usually, professionals are able to overcome this distrust.
Guyanese society is male oriented. However, Afro-Guyanese women seem to be more in charge and stronger willed than either East Indian or Amerindian women. Drinking alcoholic beverages and smoking is very uncommon among women in general.
Guyanese society is very tolerant and opened minded in terms of religious inclinations. The country is 57% Christian, 33% Hindu and 9% Muslim. There is also a minority of other religious groups in the country.
Four classes can be roughly identified:
- Aristocracy: owners of gold and diamond mines, large logging concessions, import/export business, etc. Not very keen in mixing or socialising with expatriates, unless of course you are an ambassador.
- Bourgeoisie (the nouveau riche): foreigners that have established themselves in the country, professionals that have developed successful business, hotel owners, and wealthy merchants. They are keen in socialising with expatriates.
- Middle class: mostly professionals and mid-size business owners and farmers. Friendly and open-minded.
- Poor: paid labour, petty merchants, unemployed, homeless, etc. Commonly inhabiting marginal lands and squatter settlements.
Very complex, lots of rivalry and discrimination among races, particularly between those of African and East Indian descent. This situation is more aggravated in lower classes. There is also a lot of discrimination towards Amerindians (native Indians).
In terms of ethnicity and class, when dealing with paid labourers it is difficult to have a mixed ethnic team. At professional and business level there is still friction, however subtle and manageable. Also, the difference between the sexes is accentuated in the upper classes. For example, some clubs like the Rotary Club of Georgetown Central accepts only male members. Spouses occasionally attend their meetings as special guests only.
Issues of gender, religion and class are not common causes of conflict in the workplace environment. On the other hand, ethnicity is a major cause of conflict and a very touchy issue. The way this is handled depends a lot on the context, academic level and class of the individuals you are dealing with. Among Guyanese they’ve got their own way of dealing with those issues. Do not, under any circumstances, try to interfere, or worse, give your opinion or offer sympathy.
As a foreigner one must be careful when dealing with a mixed racial group in terms of distribution of work and inclusion in meetings, working groups and committees. If you are a supervisor or are responsible for a team, make sure to have ethnically balanced groups, otherwise you might be either seen as or accused of having a preference for a particular race. Regardless of religion, ethnicity and gender the quality of the job in the workplace depends a lot on the individual. Religious holidays and ceremonies, including funerals are greatly respected.
Guyanese value good workplace relationships. Discussion of workplace issues is commonplace, even at social gatherings. Taking someone into your confidence too early in the relationship could get you into embarrassing situations since information is very tradeable in a small society such as Guyana’s. A good working relationship may be established by involving the local counterpart in the planning as well as the execution of the work. Guyanese do not take kindly to being treated simply as executors of instructions.
Personal relationships are not important in business development. However, getting to know the person at the business level and demonstrating you know about their work beforehand, is important. As an expatriate, it is hard to establish a friendship with a Guyanese colleague: rarely will they invite you to their houses, unless there is a special occasion such as death of a relative, christening of a child or a wedding.
Privileges and favouritism
Workers would appreciate special privileges but rarely would they ask for them. They would leave that up largely to the employer. As for employing relatives, this is usually done as a service to the employer rather than the reverse.
It would be common for a Guyanese to expect preferred treatment.
Conflicts in the workplace
Guyanese do not shy away from settling their differences in public. This can become quite rowdy. However, they would not find it appropriate if an outsider does the same to them. "Losing face" is viewed very seriously in Guyana. What is worse is if two foreigners emulate the Guyanese way and try to settle their differences in public. It would be the talk of the town for quite a while.
It is better to confront the person directly, and in private. If a colleague is having problems with you, will notice the person becomes distant. However, reactions somewhat differ according to ethnicity. Africans are usually verbally expressive and East Indians generally quiet, although they may go to your supervisor. Amerindians will often say nothing and disappear quietly; you might never see him/her again.
Motivating local colleagues
What motivates local colleagues? This is a very complex question since personality may overshadow the other factors but some of the motivating factors would include:
- Money and perks (i.e. visible manifestations of appreciation people can show off to colleagues and others). Guyanese place a high value on monetary and non-monetary rewards. Whatever perks they can get they will appreciate. A good worker would expect a year-end bonus and special privileges.
- Appreciation. They expect recognition for a job well done. This gives them a certain amount of prestige among co-workers as well as in the community.
- Good working conditions would be more important for workers’ reliability than as an incentive. They are used to difficult working conditions.
Satisfactory job performance is motivated first by money; second by good working conditions, and third by the degree of commitment and loyalty.
Recommended books, films & foods
There are very good online resources. The Guyana Chronicle; the prominent daily newspaper, is available online and is a good source of news on Guyana. A "cultural interpreter" may be found through any of the Guyanese associations. There are a number of them in the Toronto area. They publish their activities in community newspapers such Caribbean Variety, which may be found at any West Indian supermarket. These newspapers are not usually found in Montreal however. Guyana gets only a few pages in Guide Books on South America and on the Caribbean. It is out of the tourist circuit and only the very adventurous goes there.
Guyanese are prolific writers, but most of them would argue one side of an issue so it is important to read authors from both sides to get the full story. The country has changed so much over the past decades that it would be misleading to confine reading to older works. The following are references that should give the visitor some background knowledge: Area Handbook—should be required reading even though it presents an American perspective and can be downloaded from http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy@field(DOCID)+gy0004).
Backdam People: A collection of short stories. Peepal Tree Press by Monar, Rooplall (1985) is an introduction into Guyanese Creole—the Guyanese brand of English that will be heard on the street. The Making of Guyana. Macmillan Caribbean, by Daly, Vere T.(1974), is a concise, comprehensive and very readable history of Guyana. It is somewhat dated but recent material is widely available on the internet. Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson is a romance set in the Guyana jungles. Other Guyanese writers of note include Edgar Mittleholzer and C.M. Kanhai. Guyana does not have the equivalent of a V.S. Naipaul. Even though Mr. Naipaul has written some rather unflattering things about Guyana, he is revered there as well.
The Link Show is a Guyanese production that used to come to Toronto in tour. I am not sure if it still done. Regarding films, there is a famous Canadian production from a Toronto-based Guyanese director called "The Mustard Bath"; it is an OK movie but a bit exaggerate on the issue of personal safety.
Danns, George K. (1982), Domination and Power in Guyana: A Study of the Police in a Third World Context. Note: Old, but still provides facts on the social and political environment of Guyanese politics. About Guyana: Attenborough, David (1956), Zoo Quest to Guiana. Note: Very old, but still accurate in regards to wildlife and the hinterlands.
The major newspaper is available on line and is called The Stabroek News.
Guyana is one of the places where you have to experience it to understand it. The visitor can try to inform him/herself as much as possible but the situation is ever changing. Guyanese culture per se is an ill-defined entity. Because of transportation difficulties i.e. poor roads, many large rivers, travel from one area to another is a hazardous undertaking so culture has to be interpreted in a "local" rather than a "national" setting. Some Canadian writers have tried to define Guyanese culture but end up misleading the audience since their description is invariably a local one—not applicable to the rest of the country (much like Saguenay culture being applied to Vancouver Island).
Every ethnic group prepares its own food. Those of Indian background eat rice everyday and cook practically everything with curry powder. The Afro-Guyanese prefer a diet of "ground provision" i.e. vegetables, root crops such as plantains, cassava, sweet potatoes, eddoes etc. in a sauce of coconut milk. They also prepare a dish called "metagee" or "metem" in which they put everything. The Sino-Guyanese use rice and noodles as the basis of most of their dishes. They make a chow mein quite different from any other. In fact they export their spice mixes to Canada. Fruits are plentiful, fish as well. Fresh fish from the sea and from fresh water are available in the markets and from roadside vendors.
Soc\a enjoys countrywide popularity particularly during the big national festival "MASHRAMANI", which resembles Trinidad’s Carnival only at a very small scale. Underground music from India and traditional Hindustani tunes are very popular for Hindu religious festivals like Diwali and Pagwha. There are also traditional folk songs and instruments, which are mostly played in Amerindian villages during their celebrations.
PEPPERPOT: this dish is usually prepared for Christmas. The fame of this exotic dish thrives on the main spice used known as Casareep; a liquid made with the juice of bitter cassava, which has high levels of cyanide. The bitter cassava juice is boiled for several hours until it acquires a thick and dark consistency molasses like. The best Casareep known is the one made by indigenous groups from the Northwest. The origins of this dish dates back to colonial days and it is said that was brought by the Portuguese and adopted by the natives. METEMGEE: this is a traditional dish of African origins, it consists of salt fish and provisions like cassava (yucca) and eddoes, and ripe plantain cooked in fresh coconut milk. SALT FISH & BAKE: soaked and drained salted fish is fried with onions, tomatoes and garlic and served inside a deep fried doughnut like bread; very popular for breakfast. CURRIES: chicken, mutton and fish curry is the most popular and common dish in Guyana. Guyanese like East Indians, eat curry nearly every day. A popular and exquisite dish among the curries is the one made with Labba a large size rabbit like wild rodent, whose meat is considered a delicacy among both, locals and foreigners. CURRY LABBA is available in restaurant of major hotels in Georgetown. COOK UP RICE: very popular dish in Barbecues and parties. The dish consists of rice, split and black eye peas cooked in coconut milk; occasionally they add beef.
As mentioned before, Guyana has one major festival in February called MASHRAMANI fun to attend. There are also two major Hindu holidays in which foreigner are free to participate. Please note that personal security is an issue in Guyana; it is recommended to first get information either from colleagues, friends or hotel clerks about the places you want to visit. There are lots of restaurants and cafes located on popular and main streets, recently the Pegasus Hotel opened a Latino Bar said to be one of the most popular in town.
In Guyana, the CIDA-PSU has a part-time employee functioning as a resource person for new incoming Canadian into the country.
There are very few truly "National heroes" in Guyana. The true heroes are mainly drawn from sports e.g. cricket. Politicians try to impose national heroes but the population has not adopted them. A case in point is the runaway slave "Cuffy" who led an unsuccessful revolt. Guyana does not have a military past and so does not have military heroes. So in an off-the-cuff answer as to who are heroes of Guyana and you are likely to hear names such as: Rohan Kanhai, Clive Lloyd, Carl Hooper... all cricketers, rather than Cuffy the liberator.
I cannot think of any at the moment.
Shared historical events with Canada
Ties that bind Guyana and Canada. Both countries are members of the Commonwealth; both were largely settled by immigrants. Canada has played an important role in the history of Guyana. Canadian involvement in Guyana goes back a long way. Firstly, Canadian missionaries ran some schools in the rural areas. Also, salted cod from Nova Scotia was a staple on the sugar plantations. This was so much a part of Guyana’s cuisine that even today many dishes can only be prepared with this product. The same is true for Canadian flour. In fact good flour was called "Canadian". Finally, politically, Canadian leaders always spoke up for the less fortunate countries such as Guyana. So Canadians are readily accepted in Guyana’s society. Being members of the Commonwealth, Canada and Guyana share this common bond.
Not really, Canadians are well respected and accepted.
Stereotyping. The Canadian work ethic could be a sore point in relations. Although a Canadian might not make a point of it, his/her drive to "get the job done at all costs" could be an irritant to the Guyanese since the local might view this as trying to "show him up". Some Guyanese rise to the challenge and increase their productivity but most prefer to view the Canadian work ethic negatively.
Canadians can be seen as being too trusting.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in a village named Dundee in Mahaicony District on the East Coast of Demeraraw (where the Demerara sugar got its name). It is located on the north coast along the Atlantic ocean. He is the eighth of eleven children and was raised in Dundee village until the age of twenty-six. He moved to Raleigh, North Carolina to attend the North Carolina State University and then went on to Madison, Wisconsin to study at the University of Wisconsin. He was trained as an Agronomist although he has frequently been called upon to work outside of his area of specialization. From Wisconsin he moved to Montreal where he now lives. He makes regular trips to Guyana to visit his relatives who are still there. His grandparents were of Indian origin.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Nicaragua the fifth of nine children. She was raised in the city of Managua. She studied Agriculture/Forestry in Nicaragua at the University of Agriculture. Personal reasons sent her abroad for the first time in 1989 when she came to Canada. Afterwards, Your cultural interpreter went to Guyana, where she lived for four years. For the last six years, she has been living in Canada, in Gatineau, Quebec. She has finished a Master's degree in Geography at Carleton University in Ottawa and is currently working as a consultant in international development.
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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