Haiti 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
Haitians are generally open-minded and willing to discuss any subject. However, subjects such as local politics and sports (particularly international soccer) may provoke strong reactions.
Greetings are very important in Haiti and are considered key in communication. It is important to say “Bonjour” (in the morning) or “bonsoir” (in the evening) before starting a conversation. This is particularly noticeable in rural areas where people often greet each other along a path, or in a village before continuing on their way or engaging in further dialogue. You can demonstrate interest by enquiring about a person’s family. Haitians prefer to be addressed using their titles (e.g. Doctor, Professor, etc.)
Common greetings when meeting someone for the first time include asking them how they are doing, how their day has been and other standard greetings. When meeting someone in a professional context it is acceptable to ask about the person’s job or role in the organisation or community. Once a conversation has been initiated feel free to identify yourself, your background, role, or capacity in Haiti. Once you are familiar with someone it is polite to ask how their health is and how their family is doing. Avoid controversial and divisive topics such as politics as these discussions can become emotional.
Haitians use implicitmessages, at times unintentionally, when they communicate. Gesticulations make conversation friendly along with humor. They use touch as a form of friendship when having a conversation. But it is inappropriate to point at someone.
As a sign of respect, direct eye contact with elders or people in authority is usually avoided. However, more acculturated Haitians may maintain eye contact during conversation with age peers. Prolonged eye contact is traditionally considered rude.
Educated Haitians speak French with a small number of people speaking English. The majority of the population speaks Haitian Creole (Kreyol), a language derived from French. When meeting a person for the first time, a handshake is an acceptable greeting.
Display of emotion
Public displays of affection are not always accepted in Haiti. Women and men rarely show public affection toward the opposite sex but are warmly caring in private. Same sex individuals could be frequently seen holding hands in public as a display of friendship. This is commonly mistaken by outsiders as homosexuality.
Display of emotions such as crying, laughing loudly, or shouting in certain public occasions are acceptable. Most Haitians greet new and formal acquaintances with a handshake in order to express that there are fond of someone. Kisses (on one or both cheeks) are the customary greeting for those more familiar. Crying is not usually seen as a public display of sadness or anger.
Public displays of affection are acceptable but should be kept respectable. Haitians are passionate and emotional people and they are not afraid to show their emotion. Whether it is in song and dance or through conversation, most Haitians are comfortable conveying how they feel. Haitians can sometimes come across as aggressive during confrontations. It is not unusual for voices to get raised during arguments. Discipline through force is common among Haitians, especially by parents and teachers. It is possible to see a child get yelled at or even hit for minor infractions.
If it happens that a Haitian is aggressive towards an expat I have found that remaining calm and not allowing the situation to escalate is the best course of action. Sometimes walking away from a situation and allowing the local staff to have time to calm down and reflect on the situation is the best course of action. This being said, it is important to establish clear authority in the work place and remain strict with expectations or one can appear weak. Some local staff may take a sign of weakness as an opening to push for further concessions.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Appearance is very important in Haitian culture and is often seen as an indicator of wealth. Haitians usually wear western style clothing and are generally well dressed in clean, neat and conservative clothing. Some women in rural areas may wear a head scarf or head wrap.
Punctuality is often an issue in Haiti. While tardiness is often expected in social settings, Haitians will make every effort to be punctual for business engagements and similar appointments. Late arrivals may not be seen as disrespectful for other events. Punctuality is not a priority in rural areas. Remain flexible and learn to reschedule. In general, if you keep being punctual, Haitians will follow.
When working in an office, punctuality should be treated no different than working in a Canadian office. Local staff are punctual for work each day. Traffic in the larger urban centres can becomes very congested especially during school. This should be factored into travel times when planning to attend meetings.
Deadlines are critical in the success of projects. Depending on the skill level of local staff, extra focus may be required. It is important to remind locals of the importance of deadlines and verify that work is being completed to ensure deadlines are not missed.
In the office, staff dress business casual opting to wear dress pants and button up shirts. Similar to an office in Canada, appropriate length skirts and tops are permitted. Field staff often dress more casual, wearing jeans and shirts with the organisations logo. Expats generally wear the same.
Outside of the office, the style of clothing is a large mix, but predominately western style. Due to the warm climate, skirts dresses, tank tops and shorts are generally acceptable.
Preferred managerial qualities
The supervisor/manager is supposed to be the one who knows and makes decisions. In general, supervisors and managers have to keep control, encourage their team, plan with them, and monitor what their staff are doing.
Relationship building are very important in Haitian culture. Good supervisors/managers must communicate with employees, must be available for them and must show their appreciation. Being aware of what people think of you as a supervisor/manager is very difficult. However, you might hear it through an informal network.
As a good manager one must first understand the deep history of oppression Haitians experienced, which still strongly influences the way many Haitians perceive internationals. A balance of compassion and strength, is required to foster a strong working relationship with local staff. Attempt to involve locals in discussions and decisions rather than operating as a dictatorship. At the same time a manager must be cautious to not appear weak as this can be taken advantage of.
You will know how staff view you based on their work performance. If staff are ignoring direction, not producing results, not showing up for work or speaking over you, this is a sign of a lack of respect. You will need to work with your staff to correct.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Decisions are usually made by the head of the family or by the supervisor at the workplace. Non-governmental organizations (NGO) have reinforced the traditional decision making processes. As such, supervisors/managers often use the system of gathering people together for group decision-making and brainstorming sessions - even in rural communities. Seniority and authority are very important in Haitian culture and in many cases, advice from elders is very welcome. Therefore, it is recommended to work with local leaders whenever possible. Not taking this cultural value into account may result in a breakdown in the decision-making process and lead to failure of an activity or project. It is valuable to use tact and to be culturally sensitive when speaking, suggesting ideas and building consensus.
Decisions in the work place require the approval of supervisors especially if any costs will be incurred. Due to a history of mismanagement, a high level of oversite is required to ensure things are handled correctly. This will help prevent finical losses, ensure accountability and reduce safety risks.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Haiti is a primarily Christian country, with the majority following Roman Catholicism followed by Protestantism. Voodoo is also broadly practiced. Syncretism (the merging of religion and traditional beliefs/practices) is very common. There are a few Muslim and Hindu practitioners in Haiti.
The class system in Haiti is derived from one’s wealth and income, the work they do and their level of education. In addition, social status is a key factor. Who you know, particularly senior members of government and politicians, is important. Haiti's upper class is made up of a very small minority but they control a great part of the wealth of the nation. The elite or upper class also include Haitians of Lebanese, Syrian and Indian descent who have become financially successful in the country. Increased access to education had helped carry some individuals into the ranks of the upper class.
The middle class can include public servants, moderately successful business operators (including agricultural producers), consultants, technical specialists, etc. They typically are well educated, speak French (and English) and live in urban areas.
The lower class, or proletariat, is socially very mixed (poor peasants, poor urbans) and it has little class awareness. They can be the domestic workers, labourers, and the unemployed or chronically under employed masses. They often live in “bidonvilles” within the city or on the outskirts. This class also includes a significant number of young Haitians. Lower-class parents still make a real effort to keep their children in school throughout the primary curriculum.
In Haitian language there are only two types of people in the world: "Haitians and blanc" However, "blanc" (a French word that literally translates as "white") in this terminology does not necessarily refer solely to people of Caucasian descent. Rather the term "blanc" is used universally for anyone who is not Haitian. Foreigners are given respect in most situations, but the term "blanc" can also be used as a form of mockery especially when one has little understanding of Haitian culture and language. Another significant population group in Haiti’s capital is essentially Haitian, but has strong roots from Middle Eastern countries. Syrians, along with "light-skinned" Haitians, (called "grimmel" in Creole) hold a lot of business and land in Haiti’s capital and forms a significant part of Haiti’s middle class. Another separate class of Haitians are the diaspora, Haitians who live abroad, usually in the U.S. or major cities in Canada and have attained foreign citizenship. All of these populations in Haiti are part of the wealthier classes and are generally held in higher esteem and carry most of the political power in Haiti. The general population that makes up the other 90-95% should certainly not be left out of discussion. If one is visiting Haiti outside of the capital city these are the people who typify true Haitian culture.
Haitian culture is traditionally male dominated. Men and women in Haiti in general have traditional gender roles. In rural areas, women are responsible for child rearing, cooking, cleaning and going to the market to either buy or sell goods. Men spend most of their time working the family farm. Normally, men will be the leaders in the community and women still tend to be submissive to their husbands.
Haitians are predominately of African descent. There is a small portion of mixed European and African descent from the time of French and Spanish rule and as a result of a heavy international aid presence over the years.
Christianity is the most popular religion in Haiti with many Haitians donning their Sunday best every week to attend mass. The Voodoo culture is still present, with many Christians still participating in voodoo practices and rituals. It is best to keep an open mind and respect the culture and beliefs of each individual.
Gender roles are heavily visible if not discussed. Women often work stereotypical female roles such as house keepers, teachers, nurses and clerical jobs. More physically demanding jobs such as construction, drivers, and police are predominately filled by men. A high percentage of government and business positions are held by males.
Gender roles within society can have an impact on work. Females working in a position of power must be strong and resistant to intimidation. Meeting gender equality goals in the workplace can be challenging based on the type of work. While Haitians are grateful for the assistance of foreign organisations, years of involvement of foreign governments has created a level of distrust of foreigners. The issue often lies with the belief that foreigners are only a temporary presence and do not care about the long term wellbeing of the person or the country. Ensure that you are not making promises that cannot be kept. Haitians are respectful of foreign workers and the knowledge that they bring but are not hesitate to challenge a situation if they have a different idea. Work with the local staff to achieve sustainable change.
Haitians are warm and very particular about salutations. You are expected to exchange greeting when you join a group or meet someone, regardless of the location. The same is true when you leave a group or a public space where you were accompanied by other people, in which case you would usually say au revoir.
Relationships are very important in Haitian culture. Therefore, it is important to establish a personal relationship before getting down to business. This will help simplify all the formal procedures. It is important to be aware that your Haitian partner will talk business mostly after they are familiar with you. Going out to eat or having a drink shows an open mindedness which in turn helps gain a person’s trust. Business discussions should be saved until the end of the meal, or for later. Take your time and be patient as the goal of your Haitian partner is to build a long-lasting relationship.
It is not required to establish a personal relationship before getting into business, however there are benefits to taking the time to learn about colleagues or clients. You will better understand their knowledge and skill set as well as their motivation for doing business with you. Having good communication and understanding what is important to your colleagues will help you relate and know how to incentivize them for improved performance. Haitians will work hard and go out of their way to help those who they feel are genuine and trustworthy.
Privileges and favouritism
Relationships plays a big role in the workplace. Special privileges may be expected in both business and personal relationships. The fact that you are a foreigner will likely exacerbate this fact. A relationship, whether it is friendly or romantic, can always play a part in negotiations.
Relatives and friends often come first when hiring decisions are to be made. People rely on family members to find a job. This is not uncommon in countries where hiring practices are not necessarily as formal and structured as in a Western environment.
There is some expectation of special treatment given personal relationships or friendship but one should never feel pressured to do anything they feel unethical. Opportunities are hard to come by for locals and they will look to leverage any connection. Most Haitians understand the constraints foreigners are working under and will understand if their requests cannot be accommodated. Take the time to explain any refusal for assistance in a calm and logical manner.
Conflicts in the workplace
People do not like to be confronted or criticized in public but are more likely to accept it when done in a private discussion. Confidentiality and discretion is very important. If you are in a position of authority, employees and subordinates will be reluctant or unwilling to discuss issues or grievances if they concern you directly. Therefore, if you are their manager, you will have to know your colleagues and be very perceptive; watch for changes in behavior towards you or other subtle differences in their comportment. These cues will provide some indication if there is a problem. Frequently, you may be approached by a third party to broach the subject.
When looking to confront anyone you must assess the situation. Some Haitians have a more volatile personality which can make confrontation a risk. If you are unsure, always speak with a supervisor/manager. Haitians are a proud group so when confronting a colleague, do not do so publically as this can be perceived as an insult and will embarrass your colleague. If you are concerned about confronting a colleague, consider using a respected local staff member to help convey the message in a language that is more relatable to the colleague.
Motivating local colleagues
Good salary, good working conditions and professional satisfaction are important factors in on-the-job performance and achieving optimum productivity. Cordial employer-employee relations that make employees feel as if they belong to the same family are strong motivators to having a devoted and loyal team. Again, relationships are key in motivating colleagues to perform well on the job.
Motivation is very different for each person. Most colleagues are primarily motivated by the opportunity to make a steady wage. Especially in a contract situation, staff will work hard to get an extension. Small things such as covering the cost of transit and providing coffee or a meal at training sessions or meetings is greatly appreciated and in many cases expected. Make sure the goal of what you are trying to achieve as a team is clear and let colleagues know how they, their families and their community will benefit. As with all people, make sure to recognise the hard work of local staff and provide positive feedback often to motivate staff.
Recommended books, films & foods
I recommend reading the press of the country and watching films and especially documentaries on social living in Haiti. We have many Haitian TV shows and radio programs available on the internet. Watching and listening to some of the programs will help you develop a better understanding of the country and its people. Also visiting clubs, cafés and restaurants where you can meet Haitian people with a good knowledge of the Haitian culture will be very helpful prior to your departure.
Haitian cuisine is often taken together with other regional islands as "Caribbean cuisine," however it offers unique flavor different from other Caribbean dishes. It includes the widespread use of herbs, and the abundant use of peppers. A typical dish would probably be a plate of diri kole ak pwa (rice and beans). This is a dish of white rice with red kidney or pinto beans glazed with marinade as a sauce and topped off with red snapper, tomatoes and onions. Dishes vary by regions. The dish can be supplemented by a “bouillon” ; a plate consisting of various spices, potatoes, tomatoes, and meat (typically goat or beef). There are many regional dishes that are truly worth sampling. Migrants from Lebanon and Syria have also influenced Haitian cuisine.
- Ainsi parla l’oncle by Price Mars
- The comedians by Graham Greene
- Avengers of the New World, by Laurent Dubois
- The Uses of Haiti by Paul Farmer
- Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain
- Haitian Corner (1988)
- Haitian Slave Children (2001)
- Haiti Cherie: Wind Of Hope by Richard J. Arens (2010)
- Haiti: Triumph, Sorrow, and the Struggle of a People (2010) (Jonas Nosile) (Vieux-Bourgeois Picture) (ABC TV)
- Herby, Jazz and Haitian Music (2012) by Arnold Antonin
The Battle for Haiti – Documentary
Haiti Untold: The documentary
Carami, TVICE and Klass – Music
Check this website for highlights on local events, concerts, festivals and restaurants.
There are many activities that will help you learn more about Haiti’s history and its people including the numerous museums and galleries in Port au Prince. There are national parks and spectacular natural settings, including beaches, abound in Haiti. Churches and open air food and arts/crafts markets, bars, cafés and restaurant are good places to interact with people. Each and every Haitian is a spokesperson for their culture and history – take the time to speak with colleagues and make new friends. They will provide you with endless opportunities to learn more about the culture.
Learning about the culture and people is as easy as talking to locals. The Haitian culture has developed its own unique music, dance and artwork. Cultural events take place throughout the year, provided security is not an issue, are great to attend. Alliances Françaises has centres in Port-Au-Prince as well as other major cities in Haiti and often puts on shows and markets featuring local artists. If you have a chance, attend a concert and do not hesitate to get up and dance. If in the country for Carnival, make sure to take a trip to Jacmel. Known for its artistic flair, the Carnival in Jacmel is full of colorful paper Mache masks, dancing and music. Les Cayes and Port-au-Prince also have Carnival festivities. Always make sure to check security risks before attending any large public events.
The Marché de Fer (Iron Market) is one of the main hubs in Port-au-Prince and is a lively space throughout the day. Destroyed by the earthquake, its reconstruction has been a bright point in efforts to restore living conditions and improve life for those affected by the earthquake. If safe to visit, it is a great opportunity to see and interact with Haitians. It can get extremely crowded so if you do not like crowds, you might want to stay away.
Haiti’s national heroes are those who have all, in their bravery, contributed to the creation of a free and independent Haiti.
- Toussaint Louverture is the most important figure in Haiti’s history and widely renowned for ending slavery on the island.
- Jean-Jacques Dessalines is considered as the founding father of Haiti. He was a military leader who worked with Toussaint Louverture and who gave the country of Haiti its name.
- Alexandre Sabès Pétion was the first President of the Republic of Haiti and considered one of Haiti's founding fathers, together with Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and his rival Henri Christophe.
- Henri Christophe was a former slave of Bambara ethnicity, and key leader in the Haitian Revolution, which succeeded in gaining independence from France in 1804. He is known for constructing Citadel Henry, now known as Citadelle Laferrière, the Sans-Souci Palace, and numerous other palaces.
- François Capois or François Cappoix was an officer mostly known for his extraordinary courage and especially his bravery at the Battle of Vertières where the French general Viscount of Rochambeau, commander of Napoleon's army in Saint-Domingue called a brief cease-fire to congratulate him.
Toussaint L’ouverture was a leader of the Haitian revolution helping to free Haiti from French rule. A prominent figure in Haitian culture his achievements were vast. Although he died before Haitian independence was declared, his role has secured him a place in history.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide was the 1st democratic leader. He was a priest before he got into politics. His career came to an end when he was forced out in 2004. He remains a polarizing figure in Haiti.
Shared historical events with Canada
Haiti and Canada have a well-established relationship. There is a substantial well established Haitian community in Canada. The first Black Canadian mayor, Dr. Firmin Monestime, was originally from Cap-Haïtien. Michaelle Jean, former journalist and Governor General of Canada was born in Haiti.
Haiti and Canada are both members of the Organization of American States (OAS) and La Francophonie. There is a continuous presence of Canadian development organizations in Haiti.
Haiti and Canada have a good working relationship with Canada providing a lot of aid to Haiti over the years. Haitians generally have a positive view of Canadians with many having friends and family who have immigrated to Canada.
It is a common stereotype that everybody in Haiti is a practitioner of voodoo. Although there a many worshippers, there are many followers of other religions in the country.
Haiti is often depicted in the international news as a dangerous country. As in any country with similar economic conditions, there are certain criminal elements. However, Haitians are generally warm, very friendly and care a lot about visitors and foreigners in their country. They are ready to help and assist visitors in making their visit as agreeable as possible.
Another stereotype is related to time management and workplace organization. Because Haitian people have different ideas about time and productivity, it is easy for a Canadian to assume that Haitians are always late and disorganized at work. A few days in the country show that is not the case.
Economic conditions and certain governance issues tend to drive emigration. However, not all Haitians want to leave their country – most are very proud of their history and culture. Finally, beware not to judge the pace of work too harshly. Most Haitians have an incredible work ethic and are willing to go the “extra mile” to get the job done if they are motivated.
As the poorest country in the western world Haiti is seen by many as a dirty, corrupt, dangerous place to visit and live. Violence is present and safety precautions should be carefully considered, but most Haitians have a kind and loving heart. While the conditions are rough and many do live in poverty, Haitians have a strength and determination about them that is inspiring. Despite the hardships, family and community is highly valued, with many Haitians taking in family members who are not able to support themselves. Many Haitians are hardworking and willing to do whatever is required to put food on the table for their children, a quality that is to be admired.
Another misconception centres on the practice of voodoo. While many Haitians believe in voodoo, they are also faithful Christians. They do not see a conflict between the two beliefs as the practices do not conflict.
An open and accepting attitude is the best way to ensure that you will get the most out of your experience.
About the cultural interpreters
Your SME was born in Haiti and is the first of four children in his family. He grew up in Saint-Marc and left at 13 to study in Port-au-Prince. He studied at the College Georges Marc, the University Of Haiti (Faculty of Agronomy), at Ecole Nationale du Génie de l’Eau et de l’Environnement de Strasbourg (ENGEES), (FRANCE) and at Tottori University (Japan). After working for more than 20 years in all the departments of Haiti in many domains, he moved to Ottawa, (Canada) with his family in 2008 and studied at the University of Quebec (Gatineau). He has a very good knowledge of the country and its people. Since 2013 he has been working in Haiti as an international consultant in agriculture, project management, capacity building.
I have a background in construction and disaster management. I spent a year in Haiti working on reconstruction efforts on behalf of a Canadian NGO in partnership with an Italian NGO. The reconstruction work I did was focused on Martissant and Cité Soliel, two of the most impoverished and dangerous areas in Port-au-Prince. Due to the security risks, these areas are some of the least assisted areas by NGOs and local government. As a Yonge female working in a male dominated field, instructing men who were often older and very strong willed, presented many challenges. But as with any challenge, the experience was a great learning opportunity for not only myself but the local staff. I was able to demonstrate the ability of females to participate in construction and lead projects, building respect and appreciation among those working under me. I was fortunate to work with some very skilled expats during my stay and got to see the softer side of many of my local staff.
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.
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