Culture-Veiled Mistakes

Malcolm Gladwell in his book, “Outliers”, examined the effects of culture and environment on individuals’ actions, responses, thoughts and mannerisms. He showed that even seemingly mundane matters are influenced by these two factors. In the little time spent in different parts of Nigeria, I have seen that the way mistakes are viewed and handled leans heavily on a cultural support.

While teaching a maths topic to a class of senior students up north, some numbers had to be computed as part of an example. Strangely, in a SS3 science class, there was no calculator present. Hence, I proceeded to do the computation using my mind’s calculator. As I arrived at the answer, and wrote it down, I noticed that a particular student’s face appeared confused. He looked like someone who had something to say, but did not know how to say it, or whether it was appropriate to say it.

“Student X, what is the problem? Do you understand this step?” He looked unsure of himself, and then stuttered, “Sir, it’s like you made a mistake”. Before rechecking my work, I decided to first address his fear. He and the rest of the class were treated to a mini-lecture on handling the issue of a teacher’s mistakes. First, I let them know that teachers, being human, can make mistakes. When students think their teacher “knows it all”, even glaring mistakes go unnoticed. After we settled the truism of teachers making mistakes, we moved to handling the “awkwardness” of telling a teacher that he or she made a mistake.

These students face a cultural dilemma. The culture dictates respect for older persons. This respect is taught from childhood, becoming ingrained in their minds. Just as the Korean co-pilot in Gladwell’s book failed to inform the pilot about the plane’s upcoming crash, these students face a cultural barrier concerning communication. To pull down the barrier, I let them know that with the right manner of approach and speech, they could “respectfully” communicate dissenting views to older persons. Before they can speak freely, the entrenched fear has to be dumped.

While studying in Nigeria’s south-western region, I witnessed similar episodes of fear illustriously packaged as respect. This respect practically translates to older persons being seen as without the capability of making mistakes. Although loyal Yorubas would dispute my previous sentence, I witnessed several episodes where an older person was wrong, and those under such person either did not see the wrong, or choose to conveniently ignore mistakes in the interest of respect. With my south-south background, I thought differently.

Speaking out about an older person’s mistake is relatively easier for the average person in my area, compared to a Yoruba or a northerner. Although people outside this area see this outspokenness as a sign of disrespect, it means that a person born here is less likely to keep silent or cower in fear at the thought of pointing out an elder’s mistakes. The jury is still out on which culture handles mistakes better. With the subjective nature of the respect debate, I doubt that the jury would ever come to an agreement.

What we need is a way to balance the cultural sentiment for respect with the need to ensure that mistakes are fixed before they go out of hand. To achieve this, a form of cultural reorientation is needed. Both the younger and older generation need to understand that a thin line separates respect and fear. For many young persons, the fear is that respect-craving elders would see the pointing out of mistakes as a form of slight. As long as there are people who believe and perpetuate the idea that they are above mistakes, there would be people who would believe that some others are always correct. It’s left to us to adjust the cultural lens.

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