Nearly every day during break, the housekeeping team stayed a few minutes passed the end of break. We would be sitting around the dining room tables talking and our supervisor, a Sierra Leonian, would come over, tapping his watch and say, “Cold culture, warm culture. Come on guys, time to go back to work.”
African culture is warm culture. Time is not of the essence and relationships trump productivity. Cold culture is all of the West. We focus on punctuality, productivity and numbers and if we all happen to get along, that’s great, but not essential.
When I came on the ship, I brought my cold culture disposition with me. I approached work with a divide-and-conquer attitude and approached social situations with as much social anxiety and hesitation as I do back at home.
But my housekeeping team of 13 Malagasy people taught me to be different and we became dear friends in the process.
They taught me that we work together in pairs even if it’s clearly more efficient to split up and meet up later and even if it seems ridiculous to squeeze two bodies in the same five-square-foot bathroom to clean at the same time.
They taught me to work at a reasonable pace without stressing about checklists. It will all get done somehow and if not, that’s OK.
They taught me that it’s a thing to buy a gift for someone in order to thank that person for attending a party you were throwing.
They taught me to say hello to everyone I walk by on the ship. The tunnel-visioned big-city mindset is quite offensive.
They taught me not to seclude myself because everyone is always welcome and anyone is allowed to talk to anyone. Cold culture allows social anxiety to thrive, but in warm culture, it quickly becomes obsolete.
They taught me to shake hands with and say, “Hi,” “Salama,” “Bonjour,” or “How did you sleep?” to each person on our team in the morning, even if it takes a while, even if you hardly speak the same language, even if it seems awkward. For me, I got to start the day not lonely and not isolated, which is important because I feel lonely almost all of the time. Can you even imagine what that might look like in the States if everyone walked over to each person’s desk in the office at the start of the day, shook hands and said good morning? How inefficient. How wonderful.