Pictures from Senegal

Sunday, June 6

Phone Etiquette

It’s time to discuss the use of cell phones in Senegal. The device is basically the same. There are different versions of Nokia and Samsung products, with exceptions including the use of French language settings and the ability to utilize two different sim cards, from two different providers, simultaneously attached to the same device. Yes, this means there are two different send buttons when you wish to make a call. Which phone number/ sim card/ stock of credit do you wish to use for this call?

What’s lacking from this picture is the sense of phone etiquette. When someone calls, they barely greet you (in comparison to in person African culture where you will greet someone with no less than 2 minutes of formalities). There is no idle chit chat… conversations are directly to the point- almost insultingly- and then there is an abrupt disconnect and the call is over. Part of this could be the structure of the language, where there is no room for politeness or niceties. Senegalese rarely say please (I actually have no idea how to say that in Wolof) or thank you, and it took me months to learn how to say “you’re welcome” (and again I’m the only person I’ve ever heard use it). But the other reason for the abrupt nature is the cost of credit.

Phone credit is a staple, but not necessarily a cheap one. Where in the states a majority of the population uses calling plans in which we have a specified amount of contracted minutes (rounded up each time we burn them), Africa uses as prepaid method. You purchase the phone and the sim card, then you purchase small cards with which you reload your sim card with credit. CFA is purchased, loaded onto the sim card, and deducted based on seconds used for each phone call or 20 CFA for a text (100 CFA for international texts). Occasionally there is bonus day, where you receive 50% additional value of credit if you refill on that day. But I digress. Back to the issue of etiquette...

There is another whole topic of missed calls. At home, if that person was stored in my contact list, it means our relationship is such that I’d call them back. But if not, I’d just leave it. I’d operate under the guise that if it is important enough to the other party, they will call back. Here, it’s never a matter of importance… it’s about using phone credit. People will call, letting the phone ring once and then immediately hang up. They assume the person receiving the call has more phone credit (and money) and will happily call them back on their own dime (or CFA, if you will). Me, with my pretty white skin that says I’m made of money, I get a lot of these "beeps" as their called.

At first I didn’t want to let anyone down, so I'd call back the people whose numbers were stored in my phone. But generally, I found they were merely demonstrating to a friend or relative that they knew an American who couldn’t speak French or Wolof and was gullible enough to call back. Thus, I adopted the “they’ll call back” mantra. And it seems to work, the beeping has subsided. As time progresses I still get them from time to time, but people I communicate with regularly have had discussions with me about my version of phone etiquette.

First, I chose not to fight the lack long greetings because it’s generally uncomfortable to me anyway. But I did explain that it is rude to make someone else pay when you want to talk, so beeping is out of the question and I will not be responding to them. Ever. And that to call without a purpose is a waste of my time. I explain that if I’m in a meeting my phone is on vibrate so as not to disturb the flow of the meeting… and therefore I will not answer calls during said meeting either. Should my friends need me, but I haven’t answered the phone, they can text me the purpose of their call. I have no problems texting back, provided it does not interrupt the meeting. Or, if needed, I will return their call when I am free again. And lastly, I took the route of saying that it is impolite to abruptly hang up the call without warning. Perhaps the other party had more they wished to communicate… and thus more credit is wasted in calling back than waiting a few seconds to say goodbye. I also may have exaggerated in saying there is bad luck in not saying goodbye to someone. To not wish them a good day is to assure that something bad will happen to them on that day. And while this may not be entirely true, it does seem to have worked.

And now my friends and work partners call when they need something; we discuss it quickly and then say our goodbyes. They text when I am unreachable. And some of them have even caught on to the ease of texting the entire conversation. Say all you need to say in one quick note. Done. The Senegalese seem to respond well to the logic that texting uses less credit than a phone call. And since texting has caught on so well with my family, as a quick means of communicating where I'm going and when I'll be home, it was a huge relief when I was able to take it one step further and notify them of my whereabouts via Skype (Bamm! No credit necessary).

In conclusion, little by little I am leaving my mark on Senegal. Even if it's only one phone call at a time, the majority of my phone interactions have significantly improved in quality. And dare I say cost as well?

No comments:

Post a Comment