Sunday, October 22, 2006

Comportment 101

I sat watching with a bizarre mixture of fascination and shame as she carried out a very thorough grooming of first one foot and then the other. I was sitting in the departure lounge of CDG airport in France on my first trip back to Nigeria in several years and the subject of my study sat across from me. This lack of inhibition, to place your bare feet on your laps in the middle of one of the busiest airports in the world, pinching and poking between your toes to get out whatever stinking dirt particle is lodged there, got me thinking on one of the issues which bother me a lot - general rules of conduct, carriage and manners.

While the average Nigerian does not go about inspecting their feet in public, there are a lot of behavioural attitudes, which could prevent career success and which contribute to a generally bad opinion of Nigerians. Why does everyone have to listen to your conversation, how come other people can have quiet phone conversations, apart from us? I cannot count the number of times I and countless others have had to listen to a phone call from someone to their relatives in Nigeria. If you want to make a phone call, why not stay in the peace and quiet of your home, where you don’t have to shout above the sound of moving traffic? Why do we fidget and stand askew in our clothes as if they are ill fitting; wearing your clothes like you just started wearing clothes yesterday has nothing to do with not being educated does it? Men are especially at fault in this area. No one wants to see your singlet, and why do you walk like there is something wrong with the balance function of your ears. During my trip to Nigeria I went to Shoprite, just out of curiosity, and was greatly impressed by the building, the only thing was, my hand was itching to dress the maintenance staff properly. It’s not that difficult to tuck in one's shirt properly is it? Just the other day on my way into town, I saw a nicely dressed African woman walking along, talking to a friend and lifting up her blouse to play with her stomach. No one wants to see your top up and you stroking your bare stomach in public.
These are just little things that show refinement and which a lot of people lack. I was at an interview in England where there was another Nigeria guy. He boasted loudly about another interview where he had been the best, but where according to him "because of racism" a white guy had gotten the job instead of him. I had plenty of opportunity to observe him and came to the conclusion that I would not have hired him either, and it had nothing to do with racism. I do not claim to have been able to judge how good he was in his subject area, but I know I sure would not want him to represent my company. Even in an interview situation where people strive to put their best foot forward, he was loud. A poor command of the English language, not being able to use cutlery properly, talking with the mouth full, talking even more than the recruiter, sitting at a dinner table like in his sitting room at home, putting his feet up on the seat next to him, in a restaurant during an interview process, leaving the table before those that invited, I definitely would not have hired him. That is not to say that racism is not present in western society, it is, but sometimes we need to look deeper than racism to find the reason behind some of the problems we have integrating. A degree and a suit are not enough; there are also issues of comportment, which tend to influence the way people look at one.
Now, I expect that there will be a few people who will say that I have been brainwashed by living in Europe too long. I beg to disagree; I can still remember the dirty looks I got from my mother anytime I talked with a full mouth at the dining table. And that was while eating eba with my hands. I remember time and again the reprimand of our principal, at a girl’s secondary school in Abeokuta, to stop fidgeting. A lot of the rules of good behaviour are global, you do not need to be Oyinbo to be disgusted by people scratching their privates in public or picking their noses. Being courteous is a traditional value in our society, which is being erased. Some people emulate everything in their new surroundings, not remembering that unless you are lucky and belong to a very restricted circle and come from an affluent background, it is very likely that the people you have around you are not the best that society has to offer.
It is not enough to say we are Nigerians; that is how we are. In one’s quest to successfully and happily live in the Diaspora, good comportment can only be of help. For Nigeria as a nation, being more disciplined will only bring us forward as a people. Our pseudo- modernism, which discards the good in our traditional behavioural rules with the bad, is one of our greatest problems as a society in my opinion. We must also learn to sift the good out of the cocktail of "Oyinbo behaviour" which are so popular in Nigeria nowadays. For the younger generation, it is so not cool to wear "I shit in my pants jeans" (like my husband calls it) which are thrice your size.
If this article makes one less person scratch his crotch in public, I will feel like I have achieved something.


Baba Alaye said...

Hi there, I think you need to loosen up a little. Cut the average Naija some slack.I'm not making excuses for bad behaviour but a lot of these quirks are unconscious.

My mom had a finishing school in Naija in the early 90's and i realised that people really wanted to change but as you rightly said there are no role models to be found. Now multiply that by 100 million Nigerians, and you get the picture.

Marin said...

Thank you for your comment. It not the bad behaviour that upsets me, but the ready excuse of "I'm Nigerian, that is how we are" that gets to me. And I do not correct people even if my flesh is cringing, because I know most likely, they will just laugh and say, pele oyinbo o.

A bad impression can be long lasting and difficult to erase!

Anonymous said...

i agree with your points on this one. its amazing how poorly behaved we can be, from the woman talking at the top of her voice on a bus (in yoruba of course) on a bus, to the brash, loud dude at the dinner table, we seem to atract attention to ourselves for the wrong wrong reasons.

maybe our schools are failing us (they are), and maybe our parents are failing their children (they are) because somewhere, somehow the finer points of etiquette and decorum are not being passed along to the present generation.

@ marin: i agree. i find that saying "thats the way we are" is an excuse for refusing to change bad behaviour.

i loved reading ur blog, i'll beback

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