01 February 2014

let's talk tanzanian culture - non-verbal communication.

Every Wednesday at the Makoko Language School, we have a session on culture with our Tanzanian teachers ("walimu"). I thought it'd be fun to share some of the direct comments from our teachers to give some insight into how life works in this part of the world (the only commentary I added or changed is in parentheses). Enjoy!

Welcome & Greetings
The first thing Tanzanians do each morning is greet their neighbor. Literally go to your neighbor's house, knock on their door and yell "hodi!" to see if they are alive.

Eat food and hand items to another person using only your right hand. Your left hand is reserved for the toilet.

Tanzanians love guests ("wageni") for meals, especially because they generally eat better food when guests are over (e.g. meat and/or fish in addition to the standard ugali "power").

After the meal, Tanzanians will escort you out their door and walk ~50 meters from their home before leaving you and saying the final goodbye.

they don't say speak english in tanzania nor have i seen a camel, so this image is really not relevant.

Non-Verbal Communication
If you are part of a conversation that you are no longer interested in, simply turn your back to the group or outright walk away without saying a word.

If you are angry with someone, contort your face and make a clicking sound with your mouth.

It's okay to directly call someone fat. In fact, it can be seen as a compliment (e.g. you are getting enough to eat). To indicate someone is fat, simply hold your arms out to your side and move them out continuously wider.

It is generally frowned upon, particularly among the elderly ("wazee"), for a husband and wife to hold hands in public. Kissing is completely inappropriate.

Do not blow your nose while people are eating because those around you may vomit.

Do not smell the food on the table as this indicates you are not pleased with the meal.

Do not lick your arm at the table if soup or gravy trickles down (note: the Tanzanian spoon is one's hand).

If you enter a home and wish to speak with the father of the family ("baba"), simply clap your hands, stroke your goatee area, and open your hands.

If you wish to speak with the mother ("mama"), follow the above except instead of stroking your goatee area, knock your elbows against your breast.

It is not acceptable to break wind around other people. You know, pollute the air from poo poo. However, if someone does break wind near you, do not be afraid. This is a normal bodily function.

When people are in love, they indicate so by laughing at everything the other says, always passing by, and sending gifts.

If you wish to hitchhike, wave your hand downward. Holding your hand/fingers in the air and moving your arm forward just tells the motorist to continue driving.

he seems to be very engaged in this conversation.

Like I said, all of the above cultural notes were passed along by our Tanzanian teachers at the KiSwahili language school, so we cannot vouch for all of them from firsthand experience yet.

As we learn more about Tanzanian culture, we'll be back with more updates, so stay tuned!


  1. You might ask then, how do they communicate with blind people who cannot see all these nonverbal messages and body language?

    1. From what I can gather in our short time here, assistance for the physically handicapped (blind, deaf, mute, disabled, etc.) is quite lacking. A couple of our fellow Maryknoll Lay Missioners here in Tanzania are specifically working with this segment of the population to provide needed services and education.


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