“Hakuna matata”, or, “no problem”, is a popular phrase and perhaps the biggest indication that Kenya is a liberal country where you are unlikely to rub locals the wrong way. In addition to the usual please, sorry and thank you, there are various things that are customary to Kenyans that you will be expected to know.
Greetings among Kenyans are not only used as a polite gesture but also set the ground for subsequent communication. When greeting a Kenyan, give them a handshake. Handshaking is customary and often prolonged when you already share a personal relationship. In any case, however, failure to shake hands is not taken kindly.
- Avoid hugging women, especially if you are a man and you don’t share a close relationship because this will be met with disapproval.
- To show respect to an elder or a person with higher status: using your left hand, clasp your right wrist when shaking hands and give a short nod.
- Shaking of hands is accompanied by words of greetings, the most common being “Jambo?” meaning, “How are you?” The response is, “Si Jambo” for, “Am well”
- Common practice is to carry on a casual conversation after the greetings that include questions about family and work. Avoiding this part of greeting process is considered rude and evasive.
- When addressing someone, use their honorific status before their surname e.g., Mr. X, Dr. Y and Miss Z, etc. For married women, refer to them as “Mama’. For older men, address them as “Mzee”.
- Despite having no familial relations, children will always address you as Aunt or Uncle if you are an adult. It’s a sign of respect.
Often, a person with soiled hands will politely offer you their wrists or clasp your hand at the elbow for courteousness, so don’t be offended.
Style of communication
Even in formal settings, conversations begin with a casual tone where involved parties ask personal questions about how you and your family are doing.
- Kenyans are non-confrontational when communicating and as a result they are not direct in their communication approach. However, they do use direct eye contact.
- To avoid confrontation and to save face, they often use metaphors and stories to express their true opinions and feelings.
- Public displays of affection are often frowned upon although modern social influences have made it more acceptable.
- Patting the shoulder, touching the arm and laughing loudly is acceptable among close acquaintances although this should be avoided in business/formal settings.
- Having been raised in crowded households, a majority of Kenyans have little concern for other people’s space. As a result, they will easily squeeze themselves in a full bus or train, and even push and shove to get into already crowded places without minding personal spaces of other people!
- Offer gifts and receive them using the right hand or both hands.
Element of time
There is a saying that there is no hurry in Africa and Kenyans seems diligent in living up to this expectation. Kenyans are among the worst timekeepers; so if you have a meeting with them, especially casual ones, don’t hold your breath! You might actually die waiting.
You are expected to remove your shoes before you enter the house unless told otherwise and accept tea if invited in even when full!
- Allow the host to begin eating before you do.
- Kenyans are hospitable in nature and therefore be sure to serve your plate knowing that you will be given second helping.
- It is polite to eat everything on the plate.
When interacting with Kenyans, you do not need to check your every move. They easily accommodate other people so long as they are not being disrespected.