Cultural Differences


One of my coworkers, Victor, is very interesting in learning about the United States from me. His English is only somewhat better than my Fante, so we communicate using hand gestures and broken sentences. One day he asked me, “How is America’s culture different than Ghana’s?” I was stumped. How could I simply explain the vast differences between the countries? Besides, I know that my experience being raised in the Midwest is unique from someone located in the South or West Coast. Then there are the differences that arise strictly from the countries’ economies and differences in infrastructure. Technically those differences aren’t cultural, but they sure are significant. Lastly, I’ve only experienced the southern part of Ghana. I am aware that Ghanaian culture is not homogenous and differs by community and region.

Victor asks me about cultural differences at least once a week. I answer him with short examples of differences that I’ve noticed rather than sweeping generalizations. Here’s a list of some of the cultural differences that I came up with:

1.  Don’t Use Your Left Hand!

Traditionally the right hand was used for eating and the left hand was used for bathroom activities. Consequently, it is rude to use the left hand in interactions such as giving or receiving an item, or gesturing for directions. I am fairly ambidextrous and have a difficult time limiting the use of my left hand. Ghanaians visibly cringe when I slip up and hand them money with the wrong hand. Usually a quick “Sorry,” remedies the situation and lets them know you are aware of the cultural etiquette. I think that I’ve finally got the hang of handing money to a vendor while receiving my purchase only using my right hand. It’s trickier that you would expect!

2.  No Smelling Your Food

Another quirky etiquette rule is that it is considered rude to smell your food before you eat it. Once I was buying a pineapple and sniffed the bottom to check if it was ripe. The vendor yelled at me and I hastily bought the pineapple. I’m now more discreet with my fruit-sniffing.

3.  Importance of Greetings

For me, this is one of the biggest cultural differences between Ghana and the U.S. It is very important to greet people properly (Good Morning/Afternoon/Evening).This is starkly different from my train rides to work where I never talked to anyone despite seeing the same commuters everyday.  At first, it is tricky figuring out who you actually have to greet when you walk past and who you can ignore. There are certain people who live or work near my house that I greet every time and I pass, and the rest I just use the eye contact rule: if you make eye contact, say hello. Most of the time I really enjoy this custom as people sincerely care about your well being. However, some days I just want to walk to work without being asked for my phone number.

4.  Excuse Me? No, Hiss….

Back at home if I wanted to catch a stranger’s attention, I would politely say, “Excuse me.” That doesn’t work so well here. Ghanaians hiss at people who they don’t know to gain their attention. At first, this seemed very rude. Now the hissing doesn’t faze me, and is actually quite useful in trotros or markets.

5.  Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, Except in Public Spaces

Ghanaians like to keep their personal spaces very neat. My homestay mother, for example, sweeps and mops the floor every day around 5AM.  She then spends most of the evening picking up after her son, doing laundry, and cleaning the kitchen. After my cleaning proved not to be up to her standards, Auntie Alice even offered to clean my room. I’ve talked to my coworkers and other ProWorld participants and the general consensus is that it is important to Ghanaians to have a clean home. However, this cleanliness does not carry over to public areas. Unlike the U.S., municipalities are not responsible for trash collection. Instead, Ghana has one waste management company, Zoomlion, to manage trash. Zoomlion is known to be ineffective and has recently been accused of fraud and bribery. Because of the lack of public garbage cans, Ghanaians throw their trash anywhere and everywhere. Streets are littered with garbage and the open sewers often get clogged with waste. Also open defecation is still prevalent, especially in rural areas. This is leading to the contamination of water sources and the spreading illnesses. I believe that a combination of education and improvement in sanitation infrastructure is necessary to limit diseases and ensure water is clean.

6.  Speaking of God…

After attending Catholic school for twelve years, I thought I would be prepared for working and living in a religious environment. I was wrong. I am overwhelmed daily by the fervor in which Ghanaians worship. Though I realize some areas in the U.S. are more religious than others, I doubt that any U.S. community has a liquor store called “Blood of Christ Spirits.” It seems to me that almost every business is named using a biblical reference, which can create some hilarious results. You can hear religious services on the radio and watch them at all hours. The most interesting is this Nigerian broadcast on Sundays that shows exorcisms. My Auntie Alice laughed at my reaction when we watched it together. Religion permeates every aspect of Ghanaians’ lives. For example, when inquiring about someone’s well being, a common response is, “By God’s grace.” At my work, we pray everyday and even fast on the second Tuesday of the month. As someone who is unreligious, this is probably the most difficult cultural difference to adjust to. Though dealing with the prevalence of religion here has increased my patience, understanding, and tolerance.

7. Bargaining to Avoid the “Obruni Levy”

In Ghana, very few things have set prices, especially if you are white. It is very common for vendors and taxi drivers to steeply increase their prices for an obruni because they assume that white people don’t know the fair price. Besides, Ghanaians think that all white people, especially Americans, are rich. Thus, I’ve learned that it is very important to know the estimated price of an item before you go buy it. I’ve really relied on the other ProWorld participants to figure out prices for everything. I’ve learned that the trick to bargaining is to appear as though you don’t care for the item in question. Usually if you mention that you will come back later or go somewhere else, the vendor will lower the price in order to make a sale. At first I felt guilty over haggling over a few cedi. However, it isn’t fair for me to keep paying extra just because I look like an easy target. Besides, vendors know the cost of their wares and will not sell anything at a loss.

8. Gender Dynamics

This is by far the most difficult topic to write about as the issue is so complex. It seems to me that there are very different expectations for men and women. Women are absolutely expected to cook, clean, and take care of the children. On top of this, more and more women are getting jobs outside the home, increasing their workload. Women are encouraged to be modest and are thought to be “fast” if they happen to go out at night. Men, on the other hand, are expected to provide for their families fiscally. Outside of work, men can go out drinking with their friends or can relax at home. There are even unequal expectations in marriages. If the man is unfaithful in a marriage, the wife is just needs to accept it. However if the roles are reversed, the husband should divorce his wife.

The difference in gender roles can be seen even in early childhood. Young girls are responsible for helping their mothers cook, do laundry and take care of their younger siblings. Little boys seem to be babied here and allowed to spend all their free time playing. My homestay brother, Papi Kofi, is eight years old and still doesn’t get dressed by himself. Auntie Alice has to dress him, brush his hair, etc before school.

Here’s another anecdote: my friend Mary goes to small villages to host outreaches about health issues. She was giving a discussion on the importance of washing your hands before you eat, as most Ghanaians eat with their hands. A man asked her, “Sometimes my wife doesn’t give me soap and water to wash my hands. What should I do then?” Mary was baffled by the question and had her male Ghanaian coworker answer. John pretty much told him to grow up and get his own soap and water.

An issue I’ve had here is that men won’t even listen to women. When we were on our trip to Volta, Abby and I notice that we took the wrong turn to go to the monkey sanctuary. We told the trotro driver and his two friend and they just blew us off. A few minutes later, they realize we were indeed going the wrong direction and turned around. When we relayed the story to a ProWorld staff, she confirmed that they didn’t listen to us because we are females. We should have had Max or Jason tell them.

I am often disturbed by the gender dynamics in Ghana. While I realize that complete equality has yet to be reached in the U.S, I am grateful to live in a culture where such extreme double standards and expectations don’t dictate my behavior. Part of CRAN’s mission is to encourage women’s empowerment. I hope that I can get involved in this aspect of work while I’m in Ghana.


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