Negotiation Practices and Etiquette in Cameroon
The west African state of Cameroon is located between the nations of Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea. It has a population of around 18.5 million and 230 languages are used across the country.
The ethnic make up of the country is widespread amongst many African groups or tribes with less than 1% of the population originating from outside the continent. 20% of Cameroonians are Muslim, double that number Christian and the remaining 40% are of various indigenous religious beliefs.
English and French are both the official languages used, a relic of the country’s colonial past up until its independence in the middle of the 20th century. The government wants to remain with using both languages and promotes bilingualism amongst its people although in reality very few speak both. The majority of the population particularly outside the major cities speak neither of the official languages keeping to using their traditional or tribal ones although Kamtok or Pidgin English is more widely spoken.
Amongst the 230 languages used across the country there are also many variations of this Kamtok language and is for many the only way of communicating when conducting business and negotiation practices amongst the poorer sections of its society.
The family plays an important part of the culture and etiquette of Cameroon and this includes the extended family with obligations towards the family taking precedence over most other things in life. Recognition and social standing can be achieved through roles within the extended family and the younger family members are expected to look after the older members of their extended family. Sending elderly relatives to be cared for in a retirement home is not a concept that exists within the country.
Within business the family ties are further bonded with hiring family members where possible to further provide for the well being of the family unit. Most Cameroonians prefer to work with families rather than outsiders as they know who they can respect and trust. Even non family members invited into family groups are referred to as sons and daughters within a community, whether it is a social or business group.
There are two associations that handle financial activities for those requiring assistance. Every member pays regularly into a trouble bank. This is then given as financial aid to members that become victims to any financial misfortune. A ‘njangi’ is a form of mutual trust fund which assists hard working members that find themselves unemployed.
The etiquette and customs can vary between Francophile or Anglophile areas, both areas the men will shake hands, while in the mainly Francophile south close friends will embrace and touch cheeks. Men will lower their head and avert their eyes when greeting a superior, both in age and ranking or position. Some males of the Muslim population will not shake hands with women. Elders are always the first to be greeted. Introductions and greetings are not to be rushed, it is considered impolite if you do not ask about the persons family or other areas of interest when meeting them.
The expected etiquette when invited into the home of a Cameroonian is to bring fruit, whisky or wine for your host. Exceptions to the alcohol are for Muslim families. A gift of sweets (candy) or school materials for children are not compulsory but always well received. Always offer gifts with both hands or the right only, never offer them from just the left hand, the gifts may not be opened upon being received as this can be considered to be impolite.
It is considered polite to be well dressed when invited into a home as this shows respect towards your hosts. You should shake hands with each guest beginning with the person that is the most senior. If it is a social function it is impolite to discuss business. Good table manners are considered important and show a sign of respect. Traditionally the men eat first, then the women and lastly the children. A foreign woman invited into a home will eat with the men as she is a guest. It is not unusual for soap and water to be brought out before a meal begins so that guest can wash their hands before eating.
The food is usually taken from a communal bowl, each guest will have an individual bowl which food is placed into from the communal bowl before eating. The eldest person is the first to take their food from the communal bowl. Many Cameroonians will eat with their hands, if you have to do this only use your right hand to avoid offending your host. Foreign guests may be offered cutlery to use. As an honored guest you may be given such delicacies as chicken gizzards, if you are unable to eat them thank your host for the honour but request they are given to the eldest person.
The normal etiquette and protocol for conducting business involves not using first names until invited to do so. Business cards are distributed without involving any formalities, and they should be presented with both hands or the right hand only, they should be offered in a fashion so they are readable by the recipient. Any cards you receive you should make a point of studying the card to avoid offending the person giving out the cards.
Business meetings can be held in very public places and even have many separate meetings being held at the same time. They can have people joining mid way through a meeting and interrupting proceedings, this is not considered disrespectful and the meeting will reconvene once the interruption has ended. Although a business meeting may appear casual in its surroundings you should not remove the jacket of your suit until invited to do so. The rules of etiquette in business meetings require that you do not turn your back on your seniors even if it is only to reply to someone behind you.
Despite the formalities of a business meeting your conversation may be interrupted if Cameroonians believe they know what you are about to say. They will interrupt you to agree with you, disagree or even abruptly change the subject, these practices are not considered to be of poor etiquette.