Senegal 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
You will make a good impression when first meeting people from Senegal if you ask them questions and show that you are interested in their country and culture. In general, avoid subjects that are related to religion and sex. Coming from Canada, where all topics are open for discussion, you should not assume that the same situation exists in a country like Senegal where religion plays such a central role. Sexuality is something that you talk about only with people you are very close to or who are approximately the same age as you. When meeting someone for the first time, take the time to introduce yourself and learn as much as possible about the person and his/her culture. It is common to run up against a wall of resistance (superstition) if you ask the age of the person with whom you are speaking or how many people there are in his/her family. (Ethnologists say that this opposition stems from colonial times when schoolchildren were rounded up because families did not want to send their children to school but there are other interpretations. Colonialism also introduced the birth certificate or card.)
Greetings are key and of great importance. They can easily last for 10 minutes and may even be repeated again later in the conversation. It is essential to take enough time to do this and inquire about the health and welfare of family members and friends of the person to whom you are speaking. Subsequently, you can ask other questions related to the context in which you are meeting. For example, if the meeting is business related, ask a general question about how work is proceeding. If you have recently arrived in the country, you can ask about the origins of certain festivals or where a certain dish comes from and how it is prepared. Avoid asking any personal questions that might lead people to believe that you are indiscreet and keep to general topics of discussion. Refrain from interrogating people within the first five minutes of meeting them; asking a person if he/she works, if he/she is married, or if he/she has children, etc. This would be HIGHLY inappropriate in Senegal. Try to listen to what the person with whom you are speaking is saying as he/she will steer you toward topics of conversation that are of interest and appropriate. You should also accept that there will be periods of silence when nobody will speak for several minutes; do not feel obligated to fill this "dead air" by asking personal questions which will only intimidate the person with whom you are speaking.
Contrary to Canada, where people tend to not touch one another and keep a distance, Senegalese tend to casually stand very close to the person with whom they are speaking. It is not an exaggeration to say that there is a big difference between the two countries in this regard. A foreigner strolling in the streets of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, might notice two men holding hands quite naturally. In my opinion, this kind of gesture could be interpreted as a sign of homosexuality in Canada.
Eye contact does not have the same symbolic value. In Canada, it is proper to look people directly in their eyes and it is also a sign of honesty and candour. However, in Senegal this same gesture is not well viewed and often may make people think that you are arrogant. Senegalese culture dictates that you should lower your gaze when talking with older people. People touch one another’s hands and shoulders, but this kind of behaviour is not always appropriate; once you are friends with a person you can touch him/her without thinking twice about it. When I first arrived in Canada, someone told me, much to my surprise, that I touched people a lot. Only after this comment did I begin to notice and understand that things that were allowed in Senegal were not necessarily the norm in Canada.
In general, there are basic differences between the two countries when it comes to male-female relations. Do not forget that there may be greater differences between people of the same culture than between people of different cultures. For example, the similar social status of Canadian and Senegalese professors may negate any cultural differences.
Specific gestures that you should avoid include: keeping your shoes on when you walk in a room; refusing to eat when you find yourself visiting someone during mealtime (even if you are not hungry it is best to taste the dishes that are served); or not greeting others when you arrive at the office.
In general, start by shaking hands with people when you meet for the first time; this sets the appropriate amount of personal space between you for the rest of the conversation (the length of your arm plus that of the person with whom you are speaking). If you know the person well, the handshake should be more enthusiastic and you could also pat the person on the shoulder. He/she might even continue to hold your hand throughout the conversation. These situations are more common between men and it is not unusual to see two men holding hands in the street while they are walking and talking to one another. Generally, greetings between men and women or two women will be less elaborate.
Making direct eye contact with someone who is older than you is not very well regarded. Lower your eyes somewhat when the person speaks to you and even when you are addressing him/her.
Business partners or colleagues may greet each other as men do (see description above). Avoid shaking hands with your left hand.
Display of emotion
Public displays of affection (e.g., hugs, kisses, etc) are not well accepted.
Neither public displays of affection nor getting overworked when you are angry are acceptable. It is best to appear composed. In public, showing affection is limited to shaking hands. It is proper to laugh and be in a good mood; even if you are overwhelmed by problems or anger, you should never let these emotions show.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Senegal is a very hot country. However, when attending certain functions it is recommended that you are well groomed. Generally, people pay attention to the way they dress.
It is best to address your colleagues, and particularly your supervisors, with the formal form of "you" ("vous" in French). Here in Canada we call professors by their first names—this is unthinkable in Senegal where hierarchy is very important.
You should take into account that the means of transportation you use will affect whether or not you arrive at work on time. People may also be absent for social events (e.g., attending a funeral, needing to take a sick parent to the hospital, etc).
You will be confronted by two very different systems. In Senegal time is like a rubber band while in Canada people are stricter with time. Concerning deadlines, everything hinges on the circumstances and the nature of the project. In Canada, deadlines are more uncompromising.
For Senegalese, the way you dress is very important. You should be well dressed, and have an immaculate and well-groomed appearance; otherwise you run the risk of being seen as unkempt. People will appreciate the way you look and I would even say that they will respect you more if you take care of your appearance.
Regarding language, you can address colleagues by the informal form of "you" ("tu" in French) although it is best to wait until the other person does so since you are the guest. Use the formal form of "you" ("vous" in French) if the person is older than you, unless he/she tells you otherwise. Also use this formal manner of speech when speaking to superiors and call them by Mr. or Mrs.
It is always best to be on time; after a while you will realize what is acceptable in your workplace. You will quickly find out that there are many legitimate and genuine reasons for being late: traffic jams, car accidents, and sickness (as on certain occasions it is very hot and people get sick more often). It is quite possible that you might take a day off to go to a wedding, baptism, funeral, or simply because you are ill. Rain and the inconveniences that it causes may be another reason to not go to work.
North Americans find that deadlines are generally "too" flexible for their liking.
Preferred managerial qualities
Qualities that are most highly regarded in a boss include: punctuality, resolve, open-mindedness, ability to listen, and, ironically, a slightly paternalistic attitude.
Criticizing someone in front of his/her colleagues is poorly viewed. Avoid humiliating colleagues or employees as this behaviour is not easily forgiven.
In Senegal, degrees are highly regarded and the Canadian ideal of the "self-made man" does not carry the same weight if he does not have the appropriate education. You may not have necessarily seen the résumé of the person with whom you are doing business; therefore, experience matters at that point. In any case, it is necessary to have an open mind to assist you in adapting to the new and different situations in which you may find yourself.
Behaviours that offend people include drinking alcohol when people are praying, kissing your spouse in front of others, etc. If you are in a position of authority, being too friendly with the people with whom you work could create a more lax environment than you had intended, although this may not be immediately apparent.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Some supervisors are very open-minded and understand that others can come up with good ideas. As a Canadian, your comments and knowledge are highly appreciated since people believe that this is what made Canada the successfully developed country that it is.
Given the importance of hierarchy, decisions are normally made by those at the top and others do not necessarily have much of an influence.
Your ideas will be welcomed, provided you are there to generate new ideas and people are counting on you to provide some inspiration. However, never forget to express your thoughts in such a manner that people do not think that you want to impose your ideas. By asking "What would you think if we did something this way", people will be happy to give their opinions and talk about it. If you are not there to play this kind of role, it is best to accept the decisions that are made and be very diplomatic should you want to voice your point of view.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
People do not think about gender equality in the same way. The slave status that has been attributed to the submissive African woman must be put into perspective. In Africa, it was customary to divide responsibilities; it was up to the man to feed and clothe his family. Today, however, women support the family financially. Therefore, it is obvious that the division of labour is changing even though Africans are not talking about gender equality.
People are tolerant. The first president who was elected was Catholic even though more than 90% of the population is Muslim. Moreover, he was not from the largest ethnic group in the country. At the same time, people do not react favourably when you criticize their religion.
Contrary to popular belief, social class is not a very important factor. This is not to say that the rich and poor are treated equally. Rather, what I am talking about is caste, which is actually more important than social class. Take into consideration, however, that things have changed in modern times and that, in modern-day Africa ethnicity, religious affiliation, etc. are not as important.
There is a tendency to blame all conflicts in Africa on questions of ethnicity. This is not the case in Senegal. Ethnicity rarely comes into question; this does not mean that it does not play a role in certain situations, namely the Casamance area. Rather, I would say that economic factors play a far more important role.
In the workplace, managers often allow a little prayer area, but this does not usually cause any problems with people of different faiths.
Senegal is ahead of many other African countries in this area. Having said that, men’s and women’s roles are very set. For example, in the home there are certain domestic tasks (e.g., cleaning, cooking, children’s education, etc) that belong to women even if they have female hired help. Moreover, men are considered to be providers who will take care of their wives and children. Nonetheless, women work, drive cars, and run businesses that they have created. However, they still have household responsibilities. It is very rare that you see the opposite situation; even if the women work, men will not take on additional household chores.
This distinction between gender roles is most noticeable in the workplace when jobs are assigned. For instance, a man will never be hired as a secretary. I would say that a man would be more readily promoted, while a woman might hold her job for many years without being promoted.
Almost everyone is religious (85% Muslim, 10% Catholic, and 5% Animist) and very devout. There are no inter-religious conflicts; people respect one another and it is not uncommon to see individuals participate in other faiths’ celebrations. For example, Muslims will celebrate Christmas Eve and Catholics will participate in the Muslim Tabaski Festival.
In the workplace, you may notice someone praying in the office or leaving the office for a day to attend a baptism.
Social classes in Senegal are the result of ancient traditions whose effects are long lasting. Some people are considered to be aristocrats (the upper class) and others are casté and belong to a caste (people of lower class). However, without being Senegalese, it is impossible to fully comprehend the different classes as you need be on familiar terms with their distinctions or know all the traditions. People will make jokes (that will not escalate above teasing) about class in the workplace, but before you can understand them you need to have lived there for a long time and speak one of the native languages.
There are many ethnic groups that have roots from countries that border Senegal such as Mali, Niger, Mauritius or Conakry, the capital city of Guinea. Effects in the workplace are similar to those for class.
It is important to get to know the person with whom you are speaking whether he/she is a colleague or a client. Take the time to get to know one another better and develop a sense of trust before talking business. Interpersonal relations are of the utmost importance in Senegalese society. Certain factors, such as age and hierarchy, are sensitive subjects. Treating everyone equally, as you would in Canada, may be detrimental to your relationships.
In Senegal, relationships are key since one day, you may require someone to give you a hand above and beyond what is required given your professional rapport. Therefore, it is essential to take the time to establish good relations that will strengthen over time. Always show an interest in the people with whom you are doing business; take the time to greet them and ask how they are doing.
Once you have met someone, you have established a tie that will not break simply because you do not see the person every day or even every week. With time, connections will deepen and stay strong, even if you go back to Canada.
I think that it is faster and easier to establish good relations in the private sector since the bureaucracy in the public sector is considerable. Still, if you do form ties with a civil servant, you can always go visit him years later and he will not have forgotten you and will be happy to see you and assist you.
Privileges and favouritism
Yes. It is poorly viewed to treat a friend as you would treat other employees or colleagues.
Yes, since interpersonal relations are at the heart of everything, you can always expect something in return, but you can also count on this person. You can easily offer your company chauffeur a "monetary incentive" to pick up your daughter at school. The worst thing would definitely be to hire a friend of a contact and have it not work out. It would be very difficult to let the person go and your contact may insist that you give the friend another chance. This may jeopardise your relationship with your contact.
Conflicts in the workplace
It is best to first talk to the person in question. Senegalese say that misunderstandings are due to lack of communication. Asking another colleague, particularly one who is older than you, to give a hand may certainly be of assistance. It is risky to ask a supervisor to intervene since the other person may interpret this as you trying to make problems for him/her and create a conflict between the person and his/her boss.
If you notice that your colleague’s attitude toward you has changed (e.g., he/she stops talking to you or does not greet you) this is a sign that the individual is holding something against you. However, some people will confront you and will candidly tell you what the problem is.
It is best to try to solve the problem directly with the person in question in order to avoid everyone knowing about the situation and fuelling gossip. Should your predicament not improve, explain the circumstances to a colleague and ask for suggestions to get to the bottom of what is happening.
You should only ask your supervisor to intervene if it is your last possible option since he/she will have other things to worry about and bothering him/her may create unwanted consequences.
It is possible that you may not know if a colleague is having problems with you since Senegalese try to not to ruffle other people’s feathers. Therefore, you may learn about it through a joke or from another colleague.
Motivating local colleagues
In my eyes, the most important element is thoughtfulness, but all factors play a part.
At a new job, people want to make a good impression on their boss. It is quite possible that new employees will relax after a while if the schedule, the tasks to be accomplished, and probation period are not very well defined. If the salary is not very high, the chances of this happening are even greater. However, if the remuneration is good and there is possibility that it may increase at the end of the month, the person may work very hard even if there are not set rules or workplace policy on working hours, etc.
The people who are hired in Senegal are usually people who have been referred to you by someone you know; thus, employees will presume that they will never be fired. Also, since work is so scarce, people will likely go to see you to implore you to take them back if you have let them go.
Recommended books, films & foods
Sembène Ousmane, Senghor, Birago diop.
Youssou ndour; Diamono, Ismael Lô.
Rice with fish, Yassa, rice with peanut butter, couscous.
The most useful internet links
http://isenegal.free.fr/; http://www.au-senegal.com/; http://www.izf.net/izf/Guide/Senegal/Default.htm; http://www.sudonline.sn; http://www.lesoleil.sn; http://www.walf.sn.
Books by the following authors: Leopold Sedar Senghor, Cheikh Anta Dioip, Cheikh Amidou Kane (Les Bouts de bois de Dieu).
I would suggest Tableau ferraille and Karmen (released in 2001).
It is easiest to learn about the country’s culture if you have a "guide" such as a colleague or friend. Senegalese are known to be hospitable and for them it is always a pleasure and a duty to treat their guests well. If you ask, your friends will most certainly oblige.
There are plays that you can see on Senegalese television channels, but these are often in the country’s official language.
Places to visit
The museum and slave house on the Island of Goree, the Institute fondamental d’Afrique noire (Ifan) Museum, and tours of Dakar and St. Louis.
Tchieb bu jeun (rice with fish), chicken yassa, maffe (peanut sauce), rosella or ginger juice, and Senegalese tea.
If you want to visit the city you can always ask a colleague. Although he/she will not necessarily feel obligated to take you, "no" is practically non-existent in the Senegalese language. Thus, the person may agree, but on the actual day he/she may come up with an excuse if he/she actually was not free to take you around the city. Yet it is quite possible that you may find someone who will be happy to show you around.
I would suggest that you go see a traditional wrestling match in the stadium as well as Youssou Ndour, an internationally renowned singer who sings in his own nightclub every Saturday, provided that he is not on tour. However, do not expect the show to start before one o’clock in the morning. You can get a feeling for everyday life by watching the hilarious Senegalese plays on television. However, you may need an interpreter since most are in Wolloff (the local language). Go to see a Sabar (a dance where several groups consisting of ten women each dance to tam tams in the middle of a circle of people). This is a special event, but you will not read about it in the newspapers since it is held in people’s neighbourhoods; someone from that part of town will need to tell you about it.
The following resistance fighters are national heroes: Ahmadou Bamba, Lat Dior, Aline sitoe Diatta, etc. People are also very proud of the Senegal Lions, the national soccer team.
National heroes include:
- The Lions, a Senegalese soccer team that played in the 2002 World Cup
- Youssou Ndour, an internationally acclaimed singer
- Lat Dior, a traditional warrior who prevented the French colonialists from building a railroad in the Sahara
- Cheikh Amadou Bamba who opposed the French settlers and lived in exile in Gabon for many years. People say that he performed many miracles.
Shared historical events with Canada
Not to my knowledge. Canada has a good reputation in Senegal. Many institutions (such as the Paul-Gérin Lajoie Foundation, CIDA, CECI, IDRC, etc) have operated there for many years.
People from St. Louis are called the "Senegalese Canadians", but I do not know why.
On the contrary, Canadians have a very good reputation and there are no shared historical events that might negatively affect relations between the two countries.
By extension, certain members of the population regard all Whites as colonialists. Other than being labelled in this way, there are no other stereotypes that may negatively affect relations between Senegalese and Canadians. As I mentioned in the previous answer, Senegalese have positive prejudices about Canadians.
Even though Canadians and Senegalese have different customs, they share a good sense of humour and tolerance for one another and I cannot think of an example of something that might be offensive to either party.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in a rural area in 1958, and is the second of five children. He grew up in Dakar where he also attended the University of Dakar. In 1986, his studies took him to Canada; however, he often returned to Senegal during vacation periods. He is currently back in Canada and has lived in Quebec City for the past ten years, where he is finishing his PhD in Ethnology. He is married and has one child.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Montreal in 1971 to Québécois parents and is the second of five children. She studied women’s clothing design at the Collège Marie-Victorin. She subsequently travelled to Central America where she worked as an international observer in native communities and trained interns. She later received a certificate in multiethnic counselling. On several occasions, she and her husband went to Senegal and on one occasion, she participated in a six-month CIDA internship. She currently lives in Montreal where she works in a community organization. She is married and has one child.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
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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.