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Cultural Information - Haiti

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Cultural Information

Answers to your intercultural questions from a Canadian and a local point of view.

Cultural Information - Conversations

Question:

I am meeting someone for the first time and I want to make a good impression. What would be good discussion topics?

Local Perspective:

When you meet someone for the first time, if you ask him where he comes from, he will quickly reply that he comes from the North, Cap-Haïtien; the South, Jacmel, Port-au-Prince; the Artibonite, Gonaïves, or St-Marc.

Subjects to be avoided are politics—there you are walking on hot coals. Hygiene and poor sanitation in the city are also very delicate subjects. You can show that you have a sense of humour, and a touch of comedy is welcome so long as it relates to the behaviour or feelings of the person with whom you are speaking.

Canadian Perspective:

When introducing yourself to someone for the first time, a good choice of conversation is always family. Having a small picture readily available to show people who your family is also a good conversation starter. Much like conversation in Canada a normal conversation with someone you did not know would centre on where you live, what you do, or where you work. These are all acceptable topics of conversation.

It is best to avoid conversation surrounding the topic of politics without having a good understanding of the issues as well as the people with whom you are discussing it. President Aristide’s policies and principles are generally opposed by the lower classes but it could be dangerous to express these opinions to the wrong people, therefore to stay neutral on this issue is certainly wise.

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Cultural Information - Communication Styles

Question:

What do I need to know about verbal and non-verbal communications?

Local Perspective:

If you are in a position of authority, it is best to keep a formal distance. Standing too close could be misinterpreted by the person to whom you are speaking, unless you are in a tap tap (a privately owned pickup truck used for public transport) or in a taxi.

Eye contact makes conversation more congenial and gestures reinforce it, especially if you are trying to locate a place or figure out where you are or when first meeting someone. Do not be arrogant or overly reserved.

Canadian Perspective:

Greetings and communication with people is very important in Haiti. Speaking distance is comparable to that of North America. It is expected that if you are the individual entering a room or gathering of people that you be the first to greet by saying "bonjou or bonswa" depending on the time of day. Men and strangers will usually greet with a handshake. Women or youth greeting elders and friends will often kiss them on one cheek upon meeting. If you are greeted by someone else, even passing on the street, it is expected that you respond to the greeting appropriately.

A derogatory form of calling to people on the street (especially women) is to make kissing noises. These calls are usually best ignored or answered by a quick hello to avoid confrontation.

Humour and laughter is a large part of Haitian culture. Making an appropriate joke or smile will add a lot to conversations with strangers and will often make people more willing to help (for example in the market). An outbreak of loud verbal arguments in public places such as markets over food prices etc. may occur. These arguments will rarely turn to violence, however it is best to avoid getting involved in such settings.

Whistling and pointing are both considered disrespectful and should definitely not be done in the presence of elders.

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Cultural Information - Display of Emotion

Question:

Are public displays of affection, anger or other emotions acceptable?

Local Perspective:

A good handshake in order to express that you are fond of someone is a common practice in public; however, it is best to hide certain emotions such as anger or fear so as not to be a source of amusement or to become a laughing stock.

Canadian Perspective:

Most often emotion is not expressed in public, unless it is through a ceremony such as a funeral or wedding in which case many people will be involved in mourning through wailing or singing. Crying is not usually seen as a public display of sadness or anger. Anger is expressed in verbal outbreaks which may occur in public. Sexual displays of affection i.e. kissing or hugging is never seen in public, however, holding hands between members of any sex is very common and is a sign of friendship.

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Cultural Information - Dress, Punctuality & Formality

Question:

What should I know about the workplace environment (deadlines, dress, formality, etc.)?

Local Perspective:

Haiti is a tropical country. The dress code takes this into account: light, clean, often designer clothing. On the beach you can take more liberties.

The country’s official language is French. In that respect, French Canadians will not have many problems. Both Canadians and Haitians may experience some difficulty understanding each other’s accents, but these fade with time. More and more, people speak English. The golden rule is to speak respectfully, whether to a supervisor or to a colleague, in the most natural way possible.

With respect to punctuality, you must think about distance between your workplace and home, while taking into account delays that traffic jams might cause. These can seriously impact upon deadlines, punctuality, absenteeism, and productivity. Heat, dust, potholed roads may be stronger than even the best of intentions.

Canadian Perspective:

Take your fashion cues from other Haitians and expats working in the same place. Business fashion is formal in comparison to North American standards. Women generally wear skirts, although pantsuits are becoming much more acceptable especially in offices and establishments. Shorts are not worn by women, and only casually by men and boys. Personal grooming, hair, nails, shoes etc. are also important particulars. In a formal office French will be the language of business but most often Creole will be spoken between colleagues and friends. Speaking or addressing a superior in Creole may be considered rude as it assumes that he/she is uneducated.

In rural communities, dress is casual but women always wear skirts.

In rural areas, time is definitely not high priority. Many people will show up late, or not at all, for events that have been planned well in advance. Remain flexible and learn to reschedule.

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Cultural Information - Preferred Managerial Qualities

Question:

What qualities are most highly regarded in a local superior/manager? How will I know how my staff view me?

Local Perspective:

In general, people put a lot of importance on education and consider that if you have paid your academic dues, you should have a good side to you. However, other qualities should not be given short shrift. Employees respect a supervisor’s ability to communicate, his open mindedness, his availability, his leadership and his ability to appreciate employees’ work through motivation and reinforcement.

You should treat everyone equally in order to avoid making some staff members jealous of others. You should also avoid commenting that things work a certain way abroad. People hate imported methods. However, it is possible to implement new ways without imposing them and without bragging that they are superior to the local system.

In general, Canadians working as administrators in NGOs or in other companies are very well regarded, as opposed to Americans who are linked to authoritarianism, hardline capitalism, exploitation, and arrogance.

I will know how my staff view me when it comes time for them to show their loyalty toward me, either by standing up against someone who is being uncooperative or by assisting me in a delicate situation.

Canadian Perspective:

Most of my experience in Haiti was rural, so I will speak from this point of view regarding workplace questions. Please keep in mind that urban and rural culture is very different, and therefore some answers may not apply to urban workplace settings.

Leaders in rural communities are often the most educated people who are now able to find regular employment as school teachers, ministers in local churches or through NGO’s as agriculturalists, health workers etc. These individuals are usually hard working and have become creative in establishing contacts and gaining employment outside of farming and selling produce. The community values characteristics of fairness, honesty, and willingness to help others. Haitians will often gossip about other people, especially people in higher positions, however this knowledge may be difficult to access. Haitians will generally be unwilling to confront you directly about what others may be thinking or saying. You are best to take cues from the way people act around you, and relate to you. This will be your best gauge of how people view you. Often children may be a good resource and are much more willing to talk honestly about how people perceive you and the work that you are doing.

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Cultural Information - Hierarchy and Decision-making

Question:

In the workplace, how are decisions taken and by whom? Is it acceptable to go to my immediate supervisor for answers or feedback?

Local Perspective:

In general, in the workplace, it is the person at the top of the hierarchy who makes decisions. He is the one who develops ideas and notifies employees about them. However, more and more, working relations are becoming democratic and superiors organize consultative meetings and focus groups with employees with a view to sharing innovative ideas with the staff that might help the company advance and ensure stability for everyone’s benefit, employers and employees. There is nothing preventing employees from consulting their direct supervisor to obtain answers or feedback, as long as everything is done with mutual respect.

Canadian Perspective:

A supervisor or manager usually makes decisions. The North American system of gathering people together for group decision-making and brainstorming sessions is beginning to be introduced through NGO’s influences. However many people are still unsure how to use this process to its full potential and often tend to take a sideline role while facilitators and a few key members lead discussion.

The idea of rank and authority is very important in Haitian culture. Therefore when dealing with "people of power" it is necessary to work with, rather than against this cultural value. When speaking, suggesting ideas and making criticisms, use tact, and be culturally sensitive. Do not put people on the defensive; this is not the way to accomplish your goals.

I think it is usually appropriate to go to a supervisor for answers and feedback. People are generally reluctant to give negative feedback, therefore it may be easier to have a couple of specific questions ready rather than ask for general comments. The opposite is also true, criticism is generally not asked for and can, therefore, be especially sensitive.

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Cultural Information - Religion, Class, Ethnicity, & Gender

Question:

Briefly describe the local culture’s attitudes regarding the following: Gender, Class, Religion and Ethnicity. What impact would the above attitudes have on the workplace?

Local Perspective:

Just like money, gender provokes strong reactions. It is an important factor in the country’s social dynamics. After having been dominated and relegated to second place in the social, economic, and political arena, women are now becoming aware of their skills. Aided in this quest for liberation by television and other media, they know what they are worth and are clearly negotiating for their place in the social strata. They are now more educated, but above all, they are more ambitious and more open. They will not shy away from attaining their goals.

Religion is more important for the lower classes and the poor who are looking for hope and God’s mercy. Providence, according to popular belief, can help people live through difficult times. The loas or voodoo Gods bring luck, power and prosperity. If we ask them with faith, their grace will be with us. They bring health, work, money and all kinds of goods, just as they can punish and cast evil spells on those who do not honour their commitments to them.

Social classes exist and are the basis of many prejudices that divide into the Elite and the working class or proletariat. The elite are the rich who restrict themselves to heights of Péton-ville, Laoule, etc. They have money and they alone possess 90% of the country’s wealth and economy.

The large majority represents the working class, which is confronted by problems like poverty, illiteracy, sickness and lack of hygiene, without any social assistance program to help them. Between the two, the middle class struggles to not join the ranks of the poor. Education is recognized as an important factor on a social level since it can help provide access to political power.

One cannot speak about class without referring to the question of colour, which is the heritage of an oppressive colonial past. After a long domination of mulattos, black politics established by Duvalier allowed Blacks to take control of certain economic sectors as well as the political power so highly coveted in the struggle between the classes.

In the workplace, these attitudes could be harmful when combined with feelings of frustration and unhealthy behaviour. Be wary of people who are too forward and too bothersome or too mischievous. They can be superstitious, temperamental, quick-tempered, and suspicious. Money, gender, magic, skin colour, social rank are factors that many people count on to climb the hierarchy of work, power and wealth.

Canadian Perspective:


Gender:
Men and women in Haiti in general have traditional gender roles. In rural areas, women are responsible for child rearing, cooking, cleaning and going to the market to either buy or sell goods. Men spend most of their time working the family farm. Normally, men will be the leaders in the community and women still tend to be submissive to their husbands.

Religion:
Haitian religion is an interesting mix of Catholic, Christian and tradition voodoo witchcraft. Often superstitions, traditional beliefs and rituals are rooted in witchcraft but are still practised by people of Catholic and Christian faiths. Religion is an open topic of conversation and foreigners may be asked with which faith they are associated.

Class:
Class and wealth are both very important in Haitian culture. Both of these characteristics are easily established through dress, language and skin colour. All middle class families will have had good education enabling them to speak and write fluently in the French language. This is an advantage in communicating with the business world which only functions in French. However the common language of all Haitians is Creole, a form of French, which is generally unwritten. People are often "looked down upon" for dressing inappropriately or not being able to speak French in particular settings and situations. As a foreigner, one will automatically be granted privilege and respect in many situations no matter what dress or language, purely on the basis of skin colour. This however can often be a detriment in trying to "fit-in" to Haitian culture.

Ethnicity:
In Haitian language there are only two types of people in the world: "Haitians and blanc" However, "blanc" (a French word that literally translates as "white") in this terminology does not necessarily refer solely to people of Caucasian descent. Rather the term "blanc" is used universally for anyone who is not Haitian. Foreigners are given respect in most situations, but the term "blanc" can also be used as a form of mockery especially when one has little understanding of Haitian culture and language. Another significant population group in Haiti’s capital is essentially Haitian, but has strong roots from Middle Eastern countries. Syrians, along with "light-skinned" Haitians, (called "grimmel" in Creole) hold a lot of business and land in Haiti’s capital and forms a significant part of Haiti’s middle class. Another separate class of Haitians are the diaspora, Haitians who live abroad, usually in the U.S. or major cities in Canada and have attained foreign citizenship. All of these populations in Haiti are part of the wealthier classes and are generally held in higher esteem and carry most of the political power in Haiti. The general population that makes up the other 90-95% should certainly not be left out of discussion. If one is visiting Haiti outside of the capital city these are the people who typify true Haitian culture.

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Cultural Information - Relationship-building

Question:

How important is it to establish a personal relationship with a colleague or client before getting to business?

Local Perspective:

Familiarizing yourself with a business partner by going out to eat or having a drink together shows an open mind and gains the person’s trust. It is a sign of respect that is very much appreciated. The relationship can start quite naturally by a simple invitation or a tap on the shoulder following the handshake.

Men and women are greeted in the same way. At work, junior employees generally greet their superior by nodding their head. A formal distance is required with employees, male or female, in order to maintain the integrity of the relationship of authority in work relations and to avoid any kind of gossip that might spoil someone’s reputation. The first meeting is crucial in establishing future relations. You can be kind and warm, but you should also be firm and distant in order to maintain control of the situation.

Canadian Perspective:

When greeting a colleague or friend on business, it is very important that one asks after the family and health of the family. The family unit (including cousins, friends, aunts, grandparents...etc.) is valued highly in Haitian culture. Concern and interest about one’s life and family is important in establishing rapport in any situation.

In developing a relationship with a business partner or acquaintance (at least in rural areas) the act of visiting their home is a big step in establishing trust. As North Americans we may wait to be invited over, however Haitian culture is much more open and to drop by at appropriate times just to sit on the porch and ask after the family will mean a great deal. Often when visiting it is common practice to bring an item of food, i.e. mangoes, or grapefruits, or whatever is in season.

A building of trust and friendship between working partners will make the acceptance of new ideas, and exchange of information a much easier process. The desire to "change things" especially to new visitors is often difficult to deal with. If working for a limited time in Haiti, it is easy to become overwhelmed with the extent of physical, financial and social "needs" evident in the community. Realizing that building relationships will be one of the best ways to connect with people and make an impact on a personal level will help you reflect on how you view your idea of success during your time in Haiti.

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Cultural Information - Privileges and Favouritism

Question:

Would a colleague or employee expect special privileges or considerations given our personal relationship or friendship

Local Perspective:

Depending on the relationship, whether it is friendly or romantic, it can always play a part in negotiations. In the case of hiring relatives, remember that there is no recruitment infrastructure as in Canada where there are local employment centres, youth employment centres, and private agencies’ human resource centres. You must rely on family to find a job, and as long as the country is not a part of the industrial and modern age, these practices are there to stay.

Canadian Perspective:

Yes, definitely special privileges will be expected in both business and personal relationships. Especially as a foreigner you will be seen as rich and obviously able to help people out. I would advise against setting any sort of precedent by granting privileges unless you are willing to grant the same privileges to others who ask.

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Cultural Information - Conflicts in the Workplace

Question:

I have a work-related problem with a colleague. Do I confront him or her directly? Privately or publicly?

Local Perspective:

People do not like to be confronted or criticized in public. The rule of confidentiality in handling certain files or settling employer-employee disputes or grievances may be important in resolving conflicts.

Canadian Perspective:

Confrontation is generally not appreciated and should certainly be done in private discussion not as a public spectacle. Because of this it would be rare for a Haitian to confront you regarding any problem he/she is having with you. Make use of physical, emotional and verbal cues to realize whether or not someone is offended. Haitians do love to talk, therefore asking a discreet second-hand source why a colleague or friend is acting strangely will often solve the mystery. If a misunderstanding has occurred it can then be dealt with.

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Cultural Information - Motivating Local Colleagues

Question:

What motivates my local colleagues to perform well on the job?

Local Perspective:

Good working conditions and professional satisfaction are important factors in on-the-job performance and achieving optimum productivity. Cordial employer-employee relations may contribute toward motivating people and having them act as though they belong to the same family, with devotion and loyalty.

Canadian Perspective:

Work ethic and people’s desire to perform well in a particular job is generally related to what sort of reward or self-gain they will receive from performing a task. The same motivating factors of money, social respect and success that everyone strives for exist. However, I didn’t get this sense that people worked because they enjoyed it, or drew their identity from what they did. Rather, work was completed solely for the sake of survival. There was not the feeling that people took pride in the work that they did. So that nothing was done over and above what was asked of them. Or alternatively, work was done for reward, not because people got a sense of accomplishment or feeling of "helping others" through an altruistic act.

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Cultural Information - Recommended Books, Films & Foods

Question:

To help me learn more about the local culture(s), please recommend: books, films, television shows, foods and web sites.

Local Perspective:

I recommend reading newspapers of the country and watching films and especially documentaries that represent all political affiliations. Some television channels and radio shows are often on the air and it is easy to develop friendships and find a guide to visit interesting places and restaurants where the food is good and if you prefer to prepare dishes of your choice your own way, the markets sell almost everything.

Canadian Perspective:

A popular Haitian/Canadian musician from Montreal named Emeline Michel plays an interesting mix of jazz/ konpa (Haitian music) and world sounds.

If you find a Haitian restaurant make sure you have the traditional dish of diri kole (rice and beans) or diri ak sos poua (rice and bean sauce) and banan peze (fried plantain); these it will be a standard part of your diet in Haiti.

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Cultural Information - In-country Activities

Question:

When in this country, I want to learn more about the culture(s) and people. What activities can you recommend?

Local Perspective:

There are bars (some are more recommendable than others); orchestras that play at evening dances, or weekend concerts; movie theatres; news vendors in the busiest streets; soccer, volleyball, basketball games; plays; variety or comedy shows; and cafés where you can have a drink and dance to Haitian, Afro-Cuban and Latin American music.

There are museums for painting, sculpture, handicrafts and artwork, institutes of language, literary art and poetry. Every Haitian is a spokesman for his culture. In his own way he will help you discover the simple art and spirit of a people who know how to keep smiling and be happy even when they are hungry.

Canadian Perspective:

A good start is the Lonely Planet guide to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This book highlights major places to visit, hotels and restaurants. However, most of the cultural events are not advertised or marketed except through word of mouth. The best advice is to become involved in some community (i.e. school, business or church) to meet people and join them in less well-known adventures. There are concerts of Haitian musicians advertised at local hotels in Port-au-Prince, which are posted on billboards in prominent locations around the city.

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Cultural Information - National Heroes

Question:

Who are this country's national heroes?

Local Perspective:

Toussaint Louverture is the most important figure in Haiti’s history next to heroes of the Independence who are Dessalines, Pétion, Christophe, Gapois la mort. They have all, in their bravery, contributed to the creation of a free and independent country, called Haiti.

Canadian Perspective:

Don’t know.

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Cultural Information - Shared Historical Events with Canada

Question:

Are there shared historical events between this country and Canada that could affect work or social relations?

Local Perspective:

No! Canada has never played a role on the political scene that could endanger Haiti’s social and economic development. The presence is rather subtle and in my opinion Haitians would very much like them to become more involved in democratizing institutions and committing to a genuine industrial development process.

Canadian Perspective:

Not that I am aware of.

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Cultural Information - Stereotypes

Question:

What stereotypes do Canadians have about the local culture that might be harmful to effective relations?

Local Perspective:

You must understand that, from the outset, there is not one culture that is superior to the others and that cooperation strengthens all. Poverty as well, is relative and it is not overnight that we can change peoples’ attitudes. When there are no tools, it is impossible to be as efficient as those that have them. Stereotypes develop out of prejudice. He who works in terrible heat may be considered lazy, because of his slowness, by he who sips tropical punch in the shade.

As for the people from the area, in order for relations between collaborators, assistants and assisted, to be healthy, effective and efficient, they should not see cooperation in the image of colonization.

Canadian Perspective:

In general, I think Canadians know very little about Haiti or its culture. A common stereotype of Haiti is that everyone practices voodoo. Although voodoo does exist, it is not nearly as evident as people may expect. Another stereotype may be that all Haitians want to emigrate to Canada or the U.S. While a good number of Haitians would probably express this sentiment, this does not mean that Haitians do not love their country. In fact, most Haitians are very proud of their nation and their independence.

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Cultural Information - About the Cultural Interpreters

Local Interpreter:

Your Cultural Interpreter was born in Haiti and is the second of four children in his family. He grew up in Cap-Haïtien, his birthplace. He studied at the Collège Notre-Dame du perpetual secours and at the Université du Québec à Montréal. His work and studies first took him abroad to Canada in 1970. As part of his job as Director of a community centre that assists new immigrants, your Informant has written a number of texts on immigrants' integration in Canada and on Canadians settling in Haiti. He currently lives in Laval, a suburb of Montreal. He is married with two children.

Canadian Interpreter:

Your Cultural Informant was born and raised in Orangeville, Ontario the eldest of three children. Her Mother is Dutch American and her father is Canadian. She studied Biology in Hamilton at the McMaster University. Her family went him abroad for the first time in 1990 when she volunteered for a period of two months in a local hospital. Afterwards, Your Cultural Informant went to Haiti, where she lived for 11months and worked as a health and development worker. Her work was based out of Port-au-Prince but most of her time was spent in a small village working and teaching local health agents. Since returning she has worked in Brampton, Ontario as a laboratory technologist for a year and now is currently living Hamilton where she studies Medicine at McMaster University.

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Disclaimer

Country Insights - Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.

You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.

The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.