Jamaica 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
Sport is always a good topic of discussion, as - everyone will tolerate differences of opinions on it. – especially school sports.
Avoid discussing politics, religion and sex. Be careful with bringing up music, - the lyrics of some songs can be controversial and perceived as discriminatory by some people, which could lead to feelings of resentment.
It is always advisable to keep discussions away from politics, even in the election season. Politics are not just a neutral ideological discussion. As a professional from overseas, your objectivity would be compromised if you show any preference. A unifying topic is always West Indies cricket – if they are winning. When the team is performing poorly local pundits have their own opinions about who on the team is most responsible for the losses. There is a long-standing rivalry with England, which has not been as intense recently. This is arguably because of the Caribbean’s colonial past. Almost everyone has an opinion on local news items and topical issues that are discussed on local talk radio. When engaging with locals, it is advisable to have discussions that solicit their advice or opinion from a more generalized or sociological perspective.
Jamaicans use a lot of gestures when communicating and expressing their feelings – this can include eye and body movements and even guttural sounds. These may not always be complimentary. Common examples include:
- hands akimbo - with hands on the hips and elbows turned outward indicates impatience and defiance which Canadians may refer to as 'having an attitude'.
- hissing through one’s teeth OR as Jamaicans say 'kiss 'im teeth' means "To make a sound of annoyance, displeasure, ill-nature or disrespect by sucking air audibly through the teeth and over the tongue".
- saying “uh-huh” under one’s breath - is said with a sarcastic air meaning disapproval.
If you hear conversation where you can barely discern a few English words, you can credit this either to the Jamaican accent or the ‘Jamaican patois’ or ‘creole’. Among themselves, Jamaicans speak a version of pidgin English. Language is always evolving so there are phrases that would be better known than others. It is best if a non-Jamaican, particularly someone with North American speech patterns adhere to standard English. English is understood by the general public, since primary and secondary education is conducted in standard English. There is no need to speak extra slowly or adjust the North American speech pattern, because, due to the influx of US television, people are already familiar with the North American accent. Primary education is compulsory so it is expected that everyone with whom you interact will understand at least basic English. Some foreigners might attempt to learn some of the local sayings as a means of demonstrating their willingness to acculturate. However, these demonstrations should be done mostly in a social setting and not in a professional environment, and preferably when rapport has been well-established.
Nonverbally, a greeting between professionals in formal meetings- especially if this is the first meeting - is done with the formal handshake. However, handshakes at subsequent meetings are not necessary. The minimum, standard one-and-a half to two-feet distance for conversation is acceptable.
Display of emotion
Jamaicans are generally very outspoken people. They will readily join a ‘private’ conversation and share their views without being asked. Just take it in your stride.
Public displays of affection are not the norm. Physical displays between same-sex couples - such as holding hands - would not be accepted.
Jamaicans pride themselves on being authentic in their communication. Do not be surprised by passionate displays of emotion among peers and people who know each other well. As an outsider, you are expected to adhere to your own cultural norms. In professional interactions, a Canadian colleague would be expected to handle conflict in an even-keeled manner. Honesty is valued more than deception or surreptitious communication.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Many professional offices – such as banks, law-, insurance- and accounting firms provide uniforms for staff – especially women. Proper shoes are always required – i.e. no flip-flops.
First names are used only between the closest of friends in the workplace, and not at all in more formal workplaces. When a person’s first name is used to address them, it is generally done to demonstrate class superiority.
Canadian professional summer wear is acceptable work place dress in Jamaica. Of course, flip-flops and tank tops are not acceptable wear for the office. A tie is optional for men. The preference for short-sleeves or long-sleeves is determined by the organization’s culture, and in some cases whether the office is air-conditioned. Cotton is a recommended fabric for both women and men’s shirts blouses and dresses, because it is light and breathable.
At the office, it is not unusual for subordinates to address supervisors by title and last name – example, Mr, Mrs. This is different from the informal Canadian workplace.
With regards to time, although a few minutes tardiness is not uncommon, many professionals aspire to punctuality especially when their offices interact with the public. For social functions away from the office, punctuality is not expected. It is common to arrive an hour to an hour and a half late for house parties that have no stated end-time and to which you have been invited by word of mouth.
Preferred managerial qualities
Staff will generally not be shy in telling you that they like you. They may bring you little gifts – such as a slice of cake that they baked over the week-end, or peppers from their home garden. They will tell you stories about their family and seek you out to talk to you and ask you how you are doing.
Office politics is present everywhere and might be more intense because of closer relationships in a society where people know each other well or where interpersonal relationships are deeply networked because of the relatively small population. However, a Canadian manager is expected to rise above the fray, and be impartial and fair in decision-making and interactions with staff.
A manager is expected to be a leader without being paternalistic. Because of the country’s colonial past, and its place among the fore-runners of the independence movement in the Caribbean, many Jamaicans value self-determination and autonomy.
It is difficult to say that there are specific verbal or non-verbal cues that would provide some insight into how a Canadian supervisor is regarded. It is safe to say that respectful, cordial and friendly interactions are likely to be reciprocated in Jamaica as anywhere else.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Decisions in the workplace are made by the manager or jointly with a supervisor where both exist. Ideas are generally welcomed by the supervisor and manager and are channelled through the proper hierarchy of the organization i.e. to the supervisor who in turn takes it to the manager, unless, directed to do otherwise. Going direct to one’s immediate supervisor for answers or feedback is expected, again, as it means respecting the chain of authority.
Organizational culture and personality types and preferences dictate decisions and office norms. The willingness to approach a senior supervisor for feedback, rather than a colleague or lower-level manager depends on the relationships that have been established and whether the supervisor has an “open door policy”.
Intercultural research shows that in Jamaican society power is not necessarily distributed along strict hierarchical lines. This means that people are more likely to view you as a person and not just as “the boss”. Office relations are generally cordial, and sometimes might have the feeling of a work-family. Although lower-level employees might be deferential in their interactions with a senior Canadian staff member, expect them to speak up if they think something is unfair. It is best to give middle-level managers the leverage they need to make decisions within their departments while the senior manager is responsible for ensuring that the organization’s vision, goals and targets are met. Therefore, staff appointments to managerial positions need to be made based on competence and alignment with the organization’s values.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Many women have great academic achievements, but are often overlooked for promotional opportunities in the workplace, and are paid lower than men. Men are taught from childhood that their role is to be unemotional, the breadwinner, and be in control. Unfortunately, the reality is that the men, who are paid a higher salary are rarely the breadwinners, and are rarely in control. On the other hand, the woman regardless of social position, and at a lower salary is often found in the role of breadwinner, caregiver for the children and elderly parents.
A woman is the head of the household in most cases – and women generally assume all decision making in the home.
Men and women, with or without high academic qualifications, who occupy high leadership roles are perceived as 'better off' than others, and receive certain privileged benefits. These 'benefits' include being invited to social gatherings hosted by or attended by other similarly placed Jamaicans in the banking, financial, and political arenas. Social mobility gives promise to opportunities and outlets for both achievement and self-expression in the workplace with higher salaries and higher recognition.
Generally,Gender, Class, Religion and Ethnicitydon't have much influence in the workplace.
Cultural morés are mostly influenced by Judeo-Christian values which would filter into the sense of morality that finds its way into the workplace. Christianity is the most prevalent religion in Jamaica, with the Seventh Day Adventist, Pentecostal, Baptists being popular denominations. A sizeable sector of the population also has no religious denominations. Rastafarianism is one of the religions that is also viewed as an ideology by some. There are also adherents to Judaism, Islam, Hindu and the Baha’i faith. Female-headed households are commonplace in Jamaica. Women as equal participants in society and professional life is a well-established fact. There are organizations that advance women’s rights like SISTREN which is a theatre arts group that tackles women’s issues. The University of the West Indies Mona campus in Jamaica frequently conducts research with implications for gender and other social dynamics in Jamaica.
There is racial diversity on the island as a result of migration and a result of the country’s diverse history with representation of White, East Indian, Chinese and Black. The population is predominantly Black of African descent. Differentials among the locals in the society are more likely to be class-based than race-based.
The establishment of a personal relationship with a prospective colleague or client should be minimal. It is important to know people as part of doing business or working together. However, if meeting at social gatherings is not possible, then some small talk should occur before business is discussed. It is best to allow your host to begin the business discussion.
Some amount of “small-talk” is expected depending on the context and the depth of interaction that is expected beyond the initial meeting. Mention of having friends or colleagues in common is sometimes a good ice-breaker. The classic “how are you” greeting will provide the perfunctory response. Although there is some degree of informality, business transactions are expected to be legal and “above board” in all respects. In other words, bribery is not an acceptable way to get business done. If you visit Jamaica for business, it is best to disclose that even in the process of getting to know potential business partners. There is a fine line between casually getting to know someone and being perceived as being too intrusive in questioning. The Canadian visitor should lead in self-disclosure and the Jamaican colleagues would reciprocate to the extent that they feel comfortable.
Privileges and favouritism
No. This can be the basis of strong resentment among others and not a good idea.
Special relationships are not uncommon given the level of informality in the workplace. However, privileges should not be seen as unfair since the recipient of overt favoritism would not be fully accepted by peers in the workplace, and expressions of favoritism could undermine a manager’s credibility.
Conflicts in the workplace
Always talk to the ‘offended party’ privately first. It may be a simple misunderstanding and can be resolved quite easily.
Although relations are relatively informal and there is an expectation of equality between co-workers and managers, public confrontations are not recommended. The desire to be perceived positively by others is ingrained in the society. Co-workers do not wish to be publicly shamed, even if there is an emphasis on ‘team-work’ or ‘lessons learned’. Disciplinary actions, confrontation or corrections are best done privately.
Motivating local colleagues
Apart from money, praise for a job well done is acceptable. This praise can be done privately or in a public meeting with other colleagues.
The idea of team work, rather than competition is more likely to be more effective. The idea of the organization ‘putting its best foot forward’ or representing the organization well is more likely to be rewarded. Features like employee of the week could engender competition in a way that is not productive to the entire organization.
Recommended books, films & foods
The Jamaica Gleaner has a series called Pieces of the Past – http://old.jamaica-gleaner.com/pages/history/story0063.html which provides a synopsis of the various peoples that call Jamaica home.
Encyclopaedia of Jamaican Heritage by Olive Senior;
The Harder They Come.
- (These might be available in local Canadian public libraries or on amazon.com)
- History of Jamaica by Clinton Black (available on Amazon.com)
- In Focus Jamaica: A Guide to the People, Politics and Culture (The in Focus Guides Series) by Peter Mason
- Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica by Deborah A. Thomas
The movie Cool Runnings is a well-known movie released in 1993, but captures the nostalgia and national pride of the now-famous Jamaica Bobsled team that competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Canada – although Jamaica has no snow. The movie is a fictionalized telling of the events. For more on the movie versus real life visit this article and this story.
Every Jamaican will proudly recommend these dishes:
- Ackee and Salt fish. Ackee is a locally-grown savory fruit that is usually served with stewed, seasoned codfish.
- Oxtail with peas and rice. Oxtail is the cow’s tail served as a brown stew, with rice and kidney beans.
- Peanut Punch is a sweetened blended drink made from peanuts and is therefore high in protein.
There is also the ubiquitous “jerk” seasoning added to just about any meat or fish. Jerk seasoning is a blend of anything that is likely to make something delicious. Think of combining thyme, cinnamon, parsley, pepper, nutmeg, sugar and salt and any of your favorite seasonings, and you’ll have an idea of the ‘jerk’ flavour.
Reggae is Jamaica’s most famous cultural export and still the most popular musical genre. North American pop music also influences local music styles and is featured heavily in local radio.
There are some reggae artists who are among the classics and belong in the Hall of Fame of Jamaican reggae music. A few of these are, Bob Marley Recommended (Redemption Song; One Love), Peter Tosh, (Get up, Stand up; Mama Africa, Bush Doctor), Toots and the Maytells 54-46 was my number; Take Me Home Country Roads
More contemporary artists are
Tessanne Chin the Jamaican recording artist who won Season 5 of The Voice that aired on NBC in 2013. Omi whose real name is Omar Pasley is a young, up and coming recording artist signed with Ultra music, which is a subsidiary of Sony Music (Recommended song: Cheerleader)
Over the years some of the top reggae artists have turned to the Christian genre – such as Lady Saw; Stichie, Chevelle Franklyn and Papa San among others.
Jamaica's culture revolves around music, sports, food, and family fun. You can find all of them in any local watering hole; a visit there to mix with the crowd will get you into conversation with any or all of the topics. It is a great university especially with a glass of white rum in your hand. Caution: do not have more than one drink of the Jamaican White Rum! It is an unrefined over 100% raw rum that can have a distressing effect on someone not used to that strength.
Weekends are generally a time when people ‘let their hair down’, socialize and interact with family and friends. A well-established social circle is the best assurance of weekend fun.
At-home soccer matches involving the national team (Reggae Boyz) and the women’s team (Reggae Girlz) are usually events that display national pride and sporting enthusiasm. Soccer is referred to locally as “football”. Festivals and shows are advertised on local radio stations (like Radio Jamaica and RJR94 FM) and are passed around by recommendations from friends.
Sunday afternoon picnics with family and friends are also a relaxing weekend activity. Museums are now open on Saturdays – the National Museum of Jamaica, the Natural History Museum, and the National Gallery. There is some nightlife in the New Kingston area. Carib Theatre is also a popular movie destination in the capital.
The established ones are: George William Gordon, Paul Bogle, Nanny, Sam Sharpe, Marcus Garvey, Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley.
The people however, have embraced popular singer/songwriter, Bob Marley, as their cultural hero and more recently Usain Bolt for his accomplishments on the track.
Some of Jamaica’s National Heroes are also internationally known. Names like
Marcus Garvey (Pan Africanist), Bob Marley (Musician/Reggae artist), Usain Bolt (athlete), Norman Manley (scholar and politician), Alexander Bustamante (politician). Track and field athletes are particularly popular during international sporting events and competitions.
Shared historical events with Canada
Jamaicans have a history of migration to Canada since the country became a British Colony. In 1796 Jamaicans arrived in Nova Scotia to help build the Citadel in Halifax and since then they have had trade with Canada through the exporting of rum to Newfoundland in exchange for codfish; Jamaicans participate in Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) and its Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. Canadian companies have also opened branch offices in Jamaica in areas such as banking, and trade employing both Canadian and local Jamaicans.
There are no known historical events. Because of its colonial past, Jamaica has more in common with the United Kingdom.
Jamaica’s affiliation with Canada is established mainly through migration and trade. In 2013, Jamaican was among the top 15 countries providing migrants to Canada.
Over time the perceptions of Jamaicans by Canadians have changed due to exposure to the island through travel and technology. As a result, Jamaicans are now regarded as hard working people, proud, aggressive, having strong leadership styles, loyal, humorous – traits that lead to effective relations.
Jamaicans are accepting of Canadians and although some Jamaicans, especially in the tourist areas, may see Canadians as wealthy. Those in Kingston, the seat of business, will see and treat Canadians as one of them - as equals.
Canadians should be wary of stereotypes portraying Jamaicans as laid back, weed-smoking people whose favorite expression is ‘yeah mon’ and ‘no problem’. Jamaicans are just as astute, complex, multi-faceted, and socially and politically aware as people anywhere else in the world.
On the other hand, there is another stereotypical misrepresentation of confrontational law-breakers both at home and abroad. Media portrayals often gravitate towards extremes. There are admittedly socio-economic factors that contribute to criminal activity in any country.
About the cultural interpreters
I was born in Kingston, Jamaica and have lived in London, England and New York, USA. After returning to Jamaica I was actively involved in preparing the annual celebrations for Independence Day in August. Festival, as it was then called, was an event that showcased the performing arts of Jamaica leading up to the island's independence in August 1962. These preparations provided exposure to the many cultures of the island. These cultures varied from one parish to another in names of food, music/dance forms, religion, etc.
My involvement in the Festival instilled an interest in knowing the culture of Canada which I am constantly learning through my travels across the country with Ottawa being my home base.
The SME is a former regional correspondent who has contributed to news bureaus in Jamaica, the Eastern Caribbean and British Virgin Islands. The SME is now resident in Canada and has worked with international organizations in a communications capacity and has taught intercultural communication and organizational communication at the university level.
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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