Somalia 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
When meeting a Somali for the first time, it would be best to start a conversation with "Sidee tahay?" That basically means how are you? It is known that Somali people are very outgoing and they like to engage in a flowing conversation, especially if the topic is related to their culture, particularly if asked, what is your favourite Somali dish? One can also keep the conversation active by responding with a little bit of humour. Another known fact is that Somali people love to
laugh, so cracking a good joke or two is encouraged. It is assured that the typical Somali person will and is a bit more comfortable if he or she can
have a good laugh. Somali people love to be complimented. If you mentioned how beautiful Somali ladies look in "diracs", an elegant Somali dress that most of the Somali women wear, the results will be very pleasant. Additionally, if interacting with a Somali man, acknowledging that he has a nice style will end up with an appreciating smile.
Good discussion topics would be to ask how they and their families are doing. Somalis are very curious people and they would want to know about you. It is best to talk about what you do, where you come from, how many siblings/family you have, and if you are married or have children. They would often want to know why you came to their country and what your intentions are. Many Somalis informed me that they are suspicious of foreigners, especially aid workers, because they take a lot of pictures and information from the community and afterwards they are often not heard from again. Somalis are open people and they hardly find many topics offensive but you should stay away from criticizing anything about their religion, Islam. I think it is also good idea to not question cultural practices such as polygamy or FGM because you might be seen as questioning their way of life or wanting to change it.
When communicating with Somali men and women, the approaches are totally different between the two, depending on the gender. For example, if two people of the same gender are communicating they can come within a close distance and converse with each other comfortably. They can make eye contact and touch each other while speaking. But when an unmarried men and women are talking with each other, it's totally a different issue. They must talk to each other in a respectful, professional manner, and touching is not allowed or encouraged. The speaker can still make eye contact, gestures, and facial expressions, as long as he or she is not too close.
If you are talking to the opposite sex, don't stand too close; maintain 2-3 steps distance. It is important to not establish direct eye contact, especially if you are a women talking to a man, but it also applies if you are a man. This is seen as disrespectful. Never touch a person of the opposite sex. This is even more so if you are a man because Somali men are sensitive about foreigners coming after their women. Gestures and facial expression depend on the conversation and they are usually the same as in Canada. Somalis are loud and often other persons will jump in on the conversation without having anything to do with it. If your tone is really low, you are seen as shy and sometimes might be asked to speak up. If you are a woman, shyness is a desirable quality. On the other hand, if you are a woman and loud, you are considered the opposite of a shy woman (although sometimes you might be perceived as strong women especially when you are standing up for something) and some religious individuals might complain that your voice is distracting their mental and spiritual state. Therefore, a low tone of voice is recommended in spiritual and religious settings or gatherings.
Display of emotion
In Somali culture, most of the intimate interactions are kept private. Since these people are Muslims, it is forbidden for them to engage in any intimate activity with the opposite sex if he and she are not married to each other. It is allowed or recommended to show affection to the husband or wife in public, such as kissing in public in a very guarded manner. Due to their modest culture, Somali people still keep their intimate affairs private. One will not see most Somali people kissing each other on the street or even holding hands. A married man and a woman would walk with each other side by side, and not cling on to one another. It is also part of this culture to show modesty and act respectful. That is why you will not see Somali people or married couples angry and yelling at each other in public. These are considered to be private matters and are only dealt with behind the scenes.
A note of warning, NEVER display affection in public especially one that involves between a man and a woman. Other emotions such as anger or cheerfulness should be mildly displayed because the Somali culture is a communal one and individuals might want to know why you are upset or would want to share your happiness. Basically, unless you want everyone in your business keep your emotions in tack and in private.
Dress, punctuality & formality
If someone is going to be working in Somalia, he or she must dress appropriately. Just like in Europe or North America, when one goes to work, he or she should dress professionally and conservatively. An individual should not expose too much skin; also he or she should wear loose fitting/formal clothing during work and not tight clothes. In Somali culture deadlines are very important; it is stressed a great deal when it comes to the work environment and it should be treated as such. Socially, Somalis are not punctual but they do expect others to be punctual - especially if the individual is from Europe or North America. This is due to the stereotype that westerners value punctuality.
Dressing for work is the same as when you are dressing to get out of the house. If you are a man, you can wear a simple pant and shirt just make sure that the shirt is either long sleeve or reaches at least your elbow and that your pants are long. T-shirts are allowed as long as they are at your elbow or close to it. Shorts are not allowed. For a woman, pants, short sleeves, T-shirts and other attire that show your skin are considered absolutely unacceptable and could get you into a lot of trouble. You must always wear a head cover or Hijab; showing your hair is also unacceptable. If you do not want to wear the big head cover, you could wear a head rap and tie it in a bund. The traditional dress or BATI/SHEET is comfortable although difficult to wear at first. It is also an excellent way to keep cool from the heat. Some international organizations would allow you to be less covered up in the office because you would normally be notified if someone is coming to see you. However, to be on the safe side, be fully covered unless you are advised otherwise.
You usually do not use last names when addressing your colleagues or anyone else. You either call the person by their fist name or the first three (3) names. Most Somalis use nicknames and they even fill their work or other documents using this nickname. Meeting deadlines is as important in Somalia as it is in Canada but sometimes you might not get all of the cooperation you require. Time operates differently over there and local people are not obsessed about time as we are in Canada. They have a more relaxed attitude towards it. Often, punctually is not an issue because many NGOs and other organizations have their guesthouse and offices in the same compound. There is also flexibility of working hours because local workers perform two (2) out of the five (5) prayers during working hours. Prayer hours are usually built into the work schedule for everyone.
Preferred managerial qualities
Highly regarded qualities that a superior such as a manager should have include respect to his/herself and also to others, good work ethics, emphatic leadership qualities, openness to new ideas, being non-judgmental, and willingness to assist others. It does not matter if he or she comes from a different background as long as he or she has these qualities. Most Somalis will follow their leadership; in other words when one gives respect, the chances is he/she will get respect in return. A quick feedback from staff is usually a good indicator of how the leader is performing and their level of acceptance.Most likely Somalis will respond with positive feedback.
Leadership and honesty are two qualities highly expected and desired from the superior/manager, be they local or international. Fairness and being open are also other qualities that are desirable. Workers want to be led by a strong leader who is fair, decisive yet is flexible when required. You would know how your staff feel about you by the way they interact with you. If your staff pretends they are doing work every time you come in and they do not say much, it could mean that they fear you, dislike you or both. On the other hand, if they are open, share jokes, personal information and they are not afraid to show you when they are being unproductive, it could mean that they like you or they have taken you in as one of them rather than a boss they fear.
Hierarchy and decision-making
In the work place, decisions are taken by managers or supervisors as ideas are, oftentimes, generated mainly by the boss. However, employees can have some input, and it is okay to ask the immediate supervisor for feedback.
Decisions are made by top officials. Sometimes it is good idea to brainstorm ideas and decisions with local staff because they would be able to advise you on sensitive issues. Clans are very strong in Somalia and each city is controlled or is "owned" by a certain clan. This can limit what you can and cannot do. Therefore it is best to consult the local workers when it comes to such issues as resource allocations and other issues that are clan sensitive.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
The Somali culture does not discriminate based on gender, however, there are identifiable roles between genders, and this in congruence with the teachings of Islam. In the Islamic religion, it is absolutely forbidden to discriminate against others based on their class, ethnicity, religion and also their gender. That is exactly what most Somali people practice. At a young age Somalis are also taught to respect their elders, a rule that they honour a great deal during their adult years. In the workplace these attributes would have a positive impact because people respect and treat others equally based on those attitudes.
Each gender has its specific role. Somali women are in a way different from their neighbouring Muslim women in the sense that they perform many of the micro-economic activities of the country. They work both inside and outside the house and they are usually the primary head of the house in terms of raising the children and looking after the house. There is certain degree of gender segregation. Men and women are not encouraged to socialize or be friendly towards each other. However, in the workplace, such mixed gender socialization is acceptable as long as it does not go beyond that.
Almost all Somalis are Sunni Muslims. Religion plays a major role in the Somali society. It affects every aspect of the individual's life and it is taken very seriously. Criticizing religion is not something that is taken lightly. Somalis are tolerant of other religious groups as long as they do not go against their own beliefs and principles. Basically, Islam is not just a religion in Somalia but a way of life. It dictates everything including how colleagues can interact with each other.
In Somalia, there is not a huge gap in terms of class. The majority of the population lives in semi-poverty conditions. Those who have wealth are obligated to share with their immediate and extended family members and in some cases with their clan members. Therefore, class is not a major issue in the workplace or greater society.
Somalis are mostly from one ethic group and the issue of ethnicity is non-existant in a sense. However, the clan performs the role that ethnicity plays in multi-ethnic societies. Clan practices are widespread all over the country and clan loyalty is very strong and deeply rooted. Even Bantu Somalis, who are classified as a different ethnic group, are seen as a different clan rather then ethnic minority. Such clan affiliation affects the workplace. If an organization hires predominately one clan, they can be seen as favouring that clan and tension might arise. Clan structure is very complicated and it is very central to life in Somalia today.
It is not necessary to establish a personal relationship with a colleague or client before getting to business, but if he or she would like to do so, then one can establish that by being friendly and outgoing, particularly during the early stages of the relationship whereby establishing trust is important.
Establishing a personal relationship with a colleague is desirable but it is crucial with clients and program beneficiaries. Locals, as I said, can be distrustful of the intentions of foreigners and they might be reluctant to provide appropriate information if they do not know you. The simplest way is to introduce yourself and your intentions so that you can establish a relationship. It also helps if you say a little about yourself and some of the things you have learned or found to be interesting in their culture/way of life. If you make yourself too important and too distant, they would avoid you and you might be seen as having a bad personality. If you blend in and make yourself one of them in terms of the activities that they are performing, they would eventually warm up to you.
Privileges and favouritism
In some cases maybe an employee would like special privileges, but it is best to treat everyone equally and not give anyone any special privileges.
As time progresses, colleagues with whom you developed a personal relationship might expect special privileges. There are circumstances when such privileges might be expected and they could include giving him/her a higher position or pay increase if opportunity is open, or give someone they know employment when a position becomes available. Increased pay or promotion is not always expected but if there is vacant position, co-workers would recommend a family, friend, or clan member to be consider for the job because most Somalis are unemployed and meaningful employment is hard to come across.
Conflicts in the workplace
If someone is having problems with an employee at work, one should approach that employee directly and in private. However, if that does not succeed, one should approach the situation formally by seeking the involvement of the manager or supervisor.
If you have a problem with a colleague it is best to talk to them directly and in private to show respect and avoid further escalation of the problem. However, if the problem persists, then the supervisor or manager or other colleagues need to informed and a private meeting held. This should be help and it is best to stay away from confronting a person in public if there is a disagreement or problem.
In most cases, you would know if a colleague is having a problem with you or if you offended him/her because Somalis are very open about their dislikes and in most cases will tell you directly either in private or in public. If this does not occur, they would most likely tell another colleague and sooner or later word will get to you.
Motivating local colleagues
Like any other workplace, the local colleagues would perform well at work if they have a good pay, job satisfaction, friendly environment, good working conditions, and also if they are notified in advance that there will be consequences for repeated negative behaviour. I cannot underestimate the importance of consistency and impartiality.
The biggest motivation to get workers to perform better is to let them know that they are appreciated and valued by the company/organization. Somalis are very proud people and they do not take insults or disrespect lightly, even if you are paying them well. Pride plays a great role in one's self-worth and many people go great lengths to maintain it. Another motivation is obviously money and better working conditions, which can produce a good environment and less stress.
Recommended books, films & foods
If a person would like to learn more about the Somali culture, he or she can do so by visiting libraries and accessing relevant information through the books that are available there. Also, one can go to local Somali stores, talk to Somali people and ask them for input. Further, you can also visit websites such as:
There are not a lot of good materials on the Somali culture out there. The Somali culture is very rich and fascinating but it is also mostly misunderstood. There is not much written about it except for poetry, which is very popular and very wonderfully written. However, you can find good literature from SCANSOM Publishers and an acclaimed author by the name of Nuruddin Farah.
If the an individual is in Somalia, he or she can learn about the culture by reading books, talking one on one to others, watching television shows, listening to the radio, reading the newspapers, watching soccer since Somali's love to play soccer, and also attending Somali concerts.
If you want to learn more about the culture while you are in Somalia, the best way to go about it is to observe the people and their interactions. The Somali culture is very rich and it is also an oral tradition which means that not much is written down. Men and women are separated when it comes to the social scene. You would learn more if you observe them in their social setting because they act differently when they are just with their own genders.
Somali national heroes are Mohamed Abdulla Hassan who fought against British Colonization in Northern Somalia from 1886 to 1921. Ahmed Gran (Guray) who was Somali leader in the 1500s. Other Heroes are 13 youths who founded SYL (Somali Youth League) that led the creation of Somali nation that we know today.
Most of the Somali heroes have the same story in a sense that they become heroes for being anti-colonial and freedom fighters. The two most popular heroes are:
The Sayid (or Mad Mullah as revered to by non-Somalis). His real name was Mohamed Abdullah and he caused a great deal of problems for the administrators in British Somaliland from 1899 to 1920. He was the first African to fight by the colonial powers using airplane bombing. The Sayid is held in great respect by most Somalis and he was seen as great man.
Hawo Tako; she was a regular young woman who joined the Somali Youth League (SYL) in 1950's. She inspired the anti-colonial movement when she started throwing stones at Italian Somaliland soldiers in Mogadishu. She was killed for her defiance of authorities and attacking colonial soldiers but her legacy lives on strong still today. She is symbolized by carrying a child on her back, throwing stones and an arrow piercing through her heart ( She was killed by a poison arrow).
Shared historical events with Canada
Somalia and Canada can relate because they have struggled for freedom for a long time, and also Canada is a country that promotes freedom and the right to express oneself and that is what Somali people love about Canada.
Many Somalis do not see Canadians in a positive light. This is due to an incident back in 1993 during a UN operation in Somalia where two Canadian soldiers brutally beat a Somali teenager by the name of Shidane Arone. Shidane was accused of stealing from the Canadian soldiers but later reports indicated that he was only curious about their equipment and the fancy things they had. Despite the conflicting report as why he was targeted by the Canadians soldiers, the end result was the death of Shidane who was only 16 years of age. Somalis all over the world were even more outraged when the investigation reported that top Canadian officials where trying to cover up the incident. However, pictures emerged on the internet of a Canadian soldier posing with what looked to be a badly injured Somali boy. Many Somalis still get very emotional about this issue, especially when a Canadian talks about it. Because of this and other reasons, Canada has basically the same reputations as the United States and many Somalis do not bother to distinguish between the two countries.
Somali people think that Canadians are somewhat liberal in their relationships and that they display intimate affection publicly on certain occasions; so it is strongly encouraged to stay away from being intimate in front of others in the Somali culture.
Some stereotypes that Canadians have about the Somali culture might include oppressed Somali women or unreasonable people and culture. The usual stereotype of Islam is also another thing to be aware off. These stereotypes could be harmful because they are not true. The Somali culture, like other cultures, has many layers and it will take time before you can figure it out. Somalis are very friendly people and they are very welcoming once they realize that you are not a treat to them, their culture and way of life.
About the cultural interpreters
Your Cultural Interpreter was born in Somalia the second youngest of 21 children. He was raised in Garowe until the age of 3 in the northeast of "Somalia". He moved to Mogadishu to continue his studies. He graduated with BA, Honor in African History from Somali National University, LAFOLE. Afterwards, he immigrated to Canada. He is currently living Ottawa and working as a Youth Program Coordinator with Somali Centre for Family Services and studying at Carleton University in Social Work program. He's married and has two children.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Somali, the 2nd eldest of seven children, but was raised in Toronto, Canada. She studied International Development Studies and Political Science in Toronto at York University. Her studies sent her abroad for the first time to her native land of Somalia for an internship where she worked as Program Assistant with International NGO, Horn Relief, and as part of the Marketing/Human Resource team for Eastern Television Network (ETN) in Bosaso. Although her work was based in Sanaag and Bari regions only, she visited other cities including Las Qorey, Garowe, Galkacio, Mogadishu, Hargeysa, Burao, Barbara, Erigavo, and many others throughout Somalia. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter went to Kenya, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the United States to experience different cultures and practices. She is currently living in Canada, in Toronto where she is pursuing her Masters Degree. She is fluent in Arabic, English and Somali
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.