A Look at Nigerian Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette
Facts and Statistics
Location: Western Africa, bordering the Gulf of Guinea, between Benin and Cameroon
Population: 177,155,754 (2014 est.)
Ethnic Groups: over 250 ethnic groups including Hausa and Fulani 29%, Yoruba 21%, Igbo (Ibo) 18%, Ijaw 10%, Kanuri 4%, Ibibio 3.5%, Tiv 2.5%
Religions: Muslim 50%, Christian 40%, indigenous beliefs 10%
Language in Nigeria
The number of languages currently estimated and cataloged in Nigeria is 521. This number includes 510 living languages, 2 second languages without native speakers and 9 extinct languages.
The official language of Nigeria, English, was chosen to facilitate the cultural and linguistic unity of the country post-colonization by the British. The major native languages spoken in Nigeria represent three major families of African languages - the majority are Niger-Congo languages, such as Yoruba, Ibo, the Hausa language is Afro-Asiatic; and Kanuri, spoken in the northeast, primarily Borno State, is a member of the Nilo-Saharan family. Even though most ethnic groups prefer to communicate in their own languages, English, being the official language, is widely used for education, business transactions and for official purposes. English as a first language, however, remains an exclusive preserve of a small minority of the country's urban elite, and is not spoken at all in some rural areas.
Nigerian Society and Culture
Many religions are followed in Nigeria. The constitution guarantees religious freedom. Christians predominantly live in the south of the country, whereas Muslims live predominantly in the north. Native religions in which people believe in deities, spirits and ancestor worship, are spread throughout the country. Many Muslims and Christians may also intertwine their beliefs with more unorthodox indigenous ones.
The major Christian celebrations of Christmas and Easter are recognized as national holidays. Muslims observe Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, and the two Eids. Working hours in the north often vary from those in the south so that Muslims do not work on their holy day, which is Friday.
Along with South Africa, Nigeria is considered a super-power in the African continent and consequently Nigerians are generally proud of their country. It has the largest population in Africa and the land is endowed with vast quantities of natural resources. It is the sixth largest oil-producing nation and has a well-educated and industrious society. They are fond of the expression, "When Nigeria sneezes, the rest of the African nations (with the exception of South Africa) catch cold."
Extended families are still the norm and are in fact the backbone of the social system. Grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers and in-laws all work as a unit through life.
Family relationships are guided by hierarchy and seniority. Social standing and recognition is achieved through extended families. Similarly a family's honour is influenced by the actions of its members. Individuals turn to members of the extended family for financial aid and guidance, and the family is expected to provide for the welfare of every member. Although the role of the extended family is diminishing somewhat in urban areas, there remains a strong tradition of mutual caring and responsibility among the members.
Nigeria is a hierarchical society. Age and position earns, even demands, respect. Age is believed to confer wisdom so older people are granted respect. The oldest person in a group is revered and honoured. In a social situation, they are greeted and served first. In return the most senior person has the responsibility to make decisions that are in the best interest of the group.
Etiquette and Customs in Nigeria
Map of Nigeria Meeting People
- The most common greeting is a handshake with a warm, welcoming smile.
- Men may place their left hand on the other person’s shoulder while shaking hands. Smiling and showing sincere pleasure at meeting the person is important.
- As in the rest of Africa, it is rude to rush the greeting process.
- You must take the time to ask about the person’s health, the health of their family, or other social niceties.
- Close friends and family members often kiss and hug when meeting.
- A Nigerian generally waits for the woman to extend her hand.
- Observant Muslims will not generally shake hands with members of the opposite sex.
- Address people initially by their academic, professional or honorific title and their surname.
- Friends may address each other in a variety of ways: the title and the first name, the first name alone, the surname alone, or a nickname.
- Always wait until invited before using someone’s first name.
- When greeting someone who is obviously much older, it is a sign of respect and deference to bow the head.
Gift Giving Etiquette
- If invited to dinner at someone’s home then bring fruit, nuts or chocolates for the host.
- A gift for the children is always a nice touch.
- Gifts should be given using the right hand only or both hands. Never use the left hand only.
- At Ramadan, it is customary for Muslims to give gifts of food and fruit.
- Gifts from a man to a woman must be said to come from the man’s mother, wife, sister, or other female relative, never from the man himself.
- Gifts should be wrapped, although there are no cultural taboos concerning paper colour.
- Gifts are not always opened when received.
Business Etiquette and Protocol
Meeting and Greeting
- Handshakes are the most common greeting.
- Wait for a woman to extend her hand first.
- Shake hands at the beginning and end of meetings.
- To rush a greeting is extremely rude; spend time inquiring about the other person’s general well-being.
- It is a good idea to lower your eyes when meeting someone who is older or more senior.
- Titles are important. Use the honorific title plus any academic or professional title and the surname.
- Wait until invited before moving to a first-name basis. This is not a first name culture, although that may be changing with people under the age of 35.
- Business cards are exchanged without formal ritual.
- Present and receive business cards with two hands or the right hand, never with the left.
- It is a good idea to include any advanced university degree on your business card.
- Make certain that your title is prominently displayed.
- Never write on your business card. If the information has changed, have new cards printed.
- Make a point of studying any business card you receive before putting it into a business card holder.
Nigerian Communication Style
Due to the ethnic make-up of the country, communication styles vary. In the southwest, where the people are from the Yoruba tribe, people’s communication employs proverbs, sayings and even songs to enrich the meaning of what they say. This is especially true when speaking their native language, although many of the same characteristics have been carried into their English language usage. The Yoruba often use humour to prevent boredom during long meetings or serious discussions. They believe that embedding humour in their message guarantees that what they say is not readily forgotten.
Nigerians living in the south of the country tend to speak more directly. You may also find their tone slightly louder than elsewhere. They may raise their voices even more and become emotionally excited when they feel passionately about a topic. At the same time, a harsh tone is considered unwelcoming and even hostile. Nigerians prefer facial expressions that imply empathy and believe an indifferent facial expression indicates that a person is ignorant or obnoxious.
Generally speaking, Nigerians are outgoing and friendly. Communication commences with polite inquiries into the welfare of the person and his family. Such social niceties go a long way since. Therefore, foreigners who take the time to get to know the Nigerian as a person are considered friends and welcomed into a Nigerian’s inner circle of family and close friends.
Nigerian communication can also be indirect and may rely on non-verbal cues. Many use gestures when communicating. They may smile to mask their true feelings, especially when disappointed or confused. Many employ indirect eye contact to demonstrate their respect for the other person. It is common to gaze at the forehead or shoulders of someone they do not know well. Very direct eye contact may be interpreted as being intrusive unless there is a longstanding personal relationship.
At the same time, there are some Nigerians who are extremely direct communicators and have no difficulty stating what is on their minds. Therefore, it is a good idea to observe the situation carefully before determining what behaviour is appropriate.
In general, Nigerians start with the general idea and slowly move into the specific, often using a somewhat circuitous route. Their logic is often contextual. They look for the rationale behind behaviour and attempt to understand the context. They tend to examine behaviour in its total context, not merely what they have observed.
Nigerians prefer to develop personal relationships prior to conducting business. Therefore, if this is the first time you are meeting with a Nigerian company, you should expect to devote a decent period of time to getting to know people on a personal level. This may take as long as two hours for an initial meeting. Any attempt to bypass this protocol will hamper your business success.
Expect the first few meetings to be somewhat formal as your Nigerian counterparts continue to become comfortable with you as a person. It is a good idea to maintain a polite and somewhat reserved manner until the person you are meeting drops some of his formality. Try to avoid using hyperbole or making exaggerated claims when presenting a business case as Nigerians are naturally suspicious of a deal that sounds too good to be true.
Team members should present a united front at meetings. Any disagreement between members will be interpreted as meaning that you are not relaying the entire story and that they should proceed cautiously.
If you plan to work from an agenda, it is a good idea to send it in advance of the meeting. Nigerians will generally follow the agenda point by point and may want to consult with key stakeholders who will not be present prior to the meeting.