Cultural Clues & Cues: Tips for Dealing with Diversity

African Americans

African Countries: Eritrea and Ethiopia
Culture: Eritrean
Language: Tigrigna
Culture: Ethiopian
Language: Amharic

Eritrea existed inside Ethiopian political boundaries for decades before gaining independence in 1993. These two peoples have fought a long war, including an armed conflict over borders until the cease fire in 2000. People of different ethnic groups live in these countries making the cultures within the two countries a composite of different groups. Eritreans may prefer not to be equated with Ethiopians and commonly request Tigrigna interpreters.

Body Language: Eye contact by a child with an adult or with the person in charge is considered disrespectful. Looking down is considered respectful. But it is OK for the person in charge to request eye contact while giving instruction. Speech should be soft and is thought to be polite even when giving instruction. It is considered rude and aggressive to speak loudly.

Social situations: An Eritrean child’s parents were called to the school because the teacher complained that the six year old was touching other students on their shoulders, backs and hands.

Explanation: The child making body contact with another of the same gender, such as hugging or putting an arm around the shoulders is expressing friendship, affection and closeness. Acceptable levels of touching should be explained to children who are new to the US.

A child who seems quiet in class may be perceived as shy. When in fact children are raised with the expectation that they listen to elders, and are taught not to talk back.

Dating is a cause of concern. Parents are offended that there is talk of dating in the school or neighborhood. In their culture, marriage is usually arranged by parents. Dating is rare.

Communication with these families can be tricky. They may not read or write English. Parents expect schools to take immediate action, and to notify them if there is a problem as soon as possible. They are not used to initiating communication with he school or community center. Parents may not understand that participation is valued, and assume that it is the school or community center’s responsibility to deal with the students.

Countries: Ethiopia, Kenya (East Africa)

Culture: Oromo

Language: Oromiffa

Some African cultures may be very old and have remained distinct, with members residing in more than one country. We must remember that political borders in some parts of the world have been redrawn more than once, frequently forming new boundaries that split areas where members of a culture live. The Oromo are an example of a group who seek to retain their identity and language and would prefer Americans to refer to them as Oromos rather than Ethiopian.

Body Language: Touching a person on the head signals a negative intention or insult.

Eye Contact: Eye contact with an adult or authority figure while being disciplined is considered disrespectful. But it is appropriate for the boss or teacher to request it.

Scenario: An adult summons a child with her finger indicating “Come Here”. The child responds with an angry expression and mumbles something in his language which seems to the adult like a lack of respect.

Explanation: From the child’s point of view, the disrespect is in the adult’s hand gesture. The student refuses to be belittled, and expresses concern.

Food and Eating: Pork and pork products are not allowed. Food is eaten with the fingers of the right hand. Western utensils may be used in homes in America.

Giving Gifts: Gift giving is accepted, and reciprocating with a gift of similar value is appreciated. Supporting others with help in time of need is encouraged.

Names: Male and female children are given their father’s first name as their surname, and keep this name throughout their lives.

Social Interaction: It is customary to yield to a person of higher authority. A group that doesn’t accept a higher authority may risk condemnation or punishment.

Respect for adults and elders is expected. But the elders and adults must maintain their status by being model citizens, worthy of respect.

Formality is expected. An adult or authority figure may confuse others by being too informal and causing disrespectful behavior.

Dating without parental consent or promise of marriage is not allowed.

Health Practice: It is customary to see a doctor only if one is seriously ill, since clinics here will not prescribe medicines for minor illnesses such as colds and flu.

Religious Practices: The majority of Oromo in the U.S. are followers of Islam, reflecting a Muslim majority within Ethiopia. Other Oromos have adopted Christianity. Members of the two faiths co-mingle peacefully. Holidays such as Ramadan and Eid al Fitr, a feast day at the end of Ramadan, are observed here by Muslims.

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