In the course of a 2 minute greeting with a Malawian, the Chitonga word for “Thank you,” or “yewu,” will be said an average of 72 times. They will thank you, thank God, thank the universe, thank themselves, thank you again, and on and on until the conversation ends because you have walked half a mile away from them and can no longer hear their “Yewu” cries. And that’s just your run of the mill morning greeting.
Now, my parents were very thorough when it came to teaching manners. My sisters and I didn’t get anything without a “please” first and a “thank you” after. We were jabbed in the forearm with a fork when our elbows were on the table and taught to give kindness and consideration to everyone. But none of those things prepared me for Malawian manners. Or lack of manners. Or whatever confusing mixture of the two they practice.
Let’s try a little practice test. I’ll describe a situation in Malawi and you select which answer you think is correct:
- You are boarding a bus. It is very crowded and there aren’t enough seats for everyone. Do you:
- Force your way through the crowd and cling to the first seat you find
- Wait your turn to board the bus and occupy whatever space is still available
- Make sure anyone old or pregnant has a seat before you take yours
- You arrive at someone’s house unannounced (we’ll ignore for a moment that “unannounced” is impolite in the first place right?) and they have just finished cooking and are getting ready to eat breakfast. Do you:
- Tell them you will come back in 30 minutes when they have finished so you can speak with them
- Wait patiently in the general area until they call you in
- Take a seat on their front porch and engage them in a slow 20 minute conversation with lots of awkward silences
- You arrive at someone’s house unannounced (again? man are you rude!) and they are not outside. Do you:
- Walk into the house and look around for them
- Quietly call for them to see if they are around and able to speak with you
- Come back later when they might be outside
Pencils down! Let’s see how you did.
1. If you answered “A” you are correct! If you wait your turn in Malawi, there’s a good chance you’ll continue getting pushed to the back of the line until the bus is so full that it takes off without you. And everyone is either old or pregnant, so they get no special consideration. Seriously. Get on that bus as fast as you can, take a seat and keep it.
2. The correct answer is: C! This actually happened to Russ and I one morning. A kid and his mom came by right as the eggs were finished cooking on the charcoal stove. So naturally, they sat down, engaged in the 72 thank you greetings, and asked a series of slow questions. And once they were done asking questions, everyone just sat around in silence pretending like eggs weren’t getting cold.
3. B is the correct answer! And this is why manners in Malawi are confusing! Sometimes you have to be super rude by American standards and that’s totally normal in Malawi and sometimes you have to be super polite and follow strict rules. It’s complicated.
I never did get the hang of Malawian manners and ended up feeling like a big jerk no matter what I did. If I followed Malawian rules and pushed a pregnant lady with two small children out of the way (Yea, that happened. I was getting on that bus.), then I felt like a terrible person. If I followed my American manners and let Russ have a private conversation with someone while I stayed inside, then I was being rude by not sitting outside enduring the awkward silences of Malawian conversation.
Despite the lesson in worldly culture, I am pleased to be surrounded by Americans at home where rude is rude and polite is polite and both are sometimes equally alarming.