Before you begin work in Kenya, you should know a bit about local etiquette. Of course, a few tips on polite behavior cannot replace thorough intercultural training. But, as with many places around the world, a little “thank you” and a friendly smile go a long way in Kenya. To make things run smoothly with your Kenyan colleagues and business contacts, here are some rules of thumb to keep in mind.
As you meet someone for the first time, take the time to greet everyone in the larger group individually, with the most senior person coming first. If you don’t shake hands with everybody, this could be perceived as stand-offish or rude. Men shaking hands often make sure that this greeting is extra firm and prolonged, while greetings between men and women are often more careful and reserved.
If you know some Kiswahili, this often serves as an ice-breaker. Jambo or hujambo is a generic hello, and the reply to “Habari gani?” (“How are you?”) should always be, “nzuri” (“fine”). Address all people with their full name or title at first. As soon as you know them better and the atmosphere becomes more informal, you may switch to a first-name basis. Failing to wait for such tacit permission, though, might come across as disrespectful or condescending.
Don’t be impatient if nobody jumps straight into business matters. Especially if you are new around here, small talk is expected. Enquire after your co-workers’ or business contacts’ families, their kids, their hometown, and be prepared to talk about your own relatives and home country.
However, you should avoid discussing Kenya’s ethnicities (particularly since the inter-ethnic tensions after the 2007 elections, this can be a sensitive topic). And don’t criticize Kenya or talk politics: if you are a mzungu (a white foreigner), this will probably dredge up unpleasant reminiscences of the colonial era.
No matter what you have heard about “Kenyan time”, try to be punctual for appointments and business meetings. In the urban business world, particularly in the private sector, being punctual is more and more appreciated. In government offices and in the countryside, this might still be different.
In any case, you as an expatriate may be expected to be a stickler for punctuality — so don’t be late. In the workplace, it’s important to reserve some time for relationship-building and, for example, to invite your colleagues to dinner in order to get to know them better.
While office hierarchies in Kenya are often vertical, with clearly defined top-down decision-making, the general atmosphere is very cordial. People are generally friendly, and maintaining smooth relationships with everybody is of great importance. Education, professional experience, and expertise are highly valued, and you should also treat your elders — i.e. management or senior staff members — with due respect.
In Kenyan etiquette, it’s essential to remain mild-mannered and polite, and to avoid open conflict or airing dirty laundry in public. Raising your voice and losing your temper in an office environment will only lead to people losing respect for you. If you run into trouble with a co-worker, for instance, try to address your issues discreetly and indirectly, e.g. in a personal conversation over a shared meal.
Co-workers can be fairly close, a sort of “office family”. At times, they even collect harambee to help someone out. A harambee fund is supposed to support a relative or friend in need. Harambee can be roughly translated as “let’s all work together” and is Kenya’s national motto. While expensive business gifts are unusual, you shouldn’t hesitate to chip in with some harambee money. However, better try to stay out of issues like demands for preferential treatment or reciprocal benefits unless you know the working environment very well.
As far as gender is concerned, gender roles in Nairobi’s business world are far less rigid than in rural Kenya. Lots of Kenyan businesswomen make their way with astuteness, determination, and plenty of hard work. However, some older Kenyan men may still have difficulties accepting instructions from female managers or supervisors. If you are an expat women working in Kenya, you should take such aspects into account.
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