Business in Uganda is relationship-based so take plenty of time to establish trust with Ugandan partners. Enquire politely after a counterpart’s family and health but keep questions general. Several meetings will be necessary before any business is done. Always dress smartly and always exhibit good manners. Ugandans are formal and polite and observing correct etiquette is important. Their body language and physical taboos are different from what an American or an Asian visitor might expect; handshakes may go on a very long time and a Ugandan man may take the hand of another man in a gesture of friendship or simply during conversation.
Do not discuss politics, religion, polygamy or the tribal system. Pregnancy is a sensitive subject as the infant mortality rate is high. Ugandans may throw nicknames at one another reflecting tribal issues but visitors should not. Stay away from the issue of homosexuality, which is illegal in Uganda and is a taboo subject.
Hygiene in Uganda may be of a different standard from what you are used to. Toilet facilities are often lacking and the streets away from the main thoroughfares of the cities are dirty. Carry hand sanitizer for personal use by all means but use it quietly and discreetly so as to avoid offending your Ugandan counterparts.
Ugandans can be quite dramatic in the way they put a person in context. If, for example, you return to Uganda after an absence, a local might say ‘You have been lost!’, in which case the appropriate answer is ‘And now I am found!’. Even if you don’t learn any of the local language, understanding how Ugandans express themselves in English, or Uglish, or Uganglish, as it’s known, will help you interact better.
Top 10 essentials when working with Ugandans
- Ugandans are friendly and hospitable and will make visitors feel very welcome. Relationship building is important and must take place before business can be discussed.
- Ugandans are formal and polite, and are indirect communicators, but can be surprisingly blunt. It’s not unusual for someone to make personal remarks about another person’s appearance, for example.
- Hierarchy must always be respected. Ugandans will put a person in context by working out how they fit into the structure: where they were educated, their rank in their company, the social standing of their family.
- Although English is the language of business, pay attention to the way Ugandans speak. There are many idioms and phrases that will be unfamiliar, as well as inflections that may be difficult to recognise.
- Although haggling is part of the national culture and is fully expected in and outside the workplace, bear in mind that in everyday life, haggling a poor market vendor down to their lowest limit is not the same as trying to get the best possible business deal.
- Business entertaining is an important part of working life and will help to cement relationships.
- Ugandans dress smartly for work. Men wear neatly pressed suits and women will usually be very well groomed. Making an effort without being ostentatious gives the right impression.
- Ugandans have a relaxed attitude to time so adjust your own expectations when it comes to deadlines and punctuality.
- Ugandan society is extremely conservative. Public displays of affection are considered impolite, although people will stand close to one another when queuing, or chatting to friends and men will hold hands with other men. Homosexuality is illegal and is not tolerated; nor is drug use.
- Try to get a sense of perspective regarding wealth. Giving gifts to a Ugandan contact’s children, for example, may create a culture of expectation and what is a small expense for you may dramatically eclipse any gift the parents can afford to give their children.
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