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South African Protocols; To Snap or Clap?

South Africa Cultural Protocols for Public Speaking

           I learned a great South African cultural lesson during my visit to Johannesburg, South Africa on public speaking. While finalizing GBC’s Healthy Women Healthy Economies speaking event for International Women’s Day on March 8th (which was wildly successful), we learned quickly that there was a problem.  When speaking in South Africa (symposium, lectures and presentations) there is a need to maintain “protocols” or a “running order” with the prominence of the speakers.

In the U.S., it is normally the custom to have a keynote speaker lead or kick off a session with a motivating and relevant speech.  In South Africa, the most prominent speaker goes last!  This is usually the highest ranking South African government official.  Subordinate government officials must present before senior government officials.  While there is no punitive penalty for speaking out of turn, every South African would notice and it would be a sign of disrespect for not adhering to protocol.  If one accidentally speaks out of turn or in error, if recognition is given that it was not intentional by prefacing the start of your speaking with “all protocols observed”, you are able to save face for yourself and everyone else there.  This saying basically means “as far as I know I am speaking in the proper or agreed upon rotation and I am following protocol to best of knowledge without any disrespect to other speakers.” 

While observing these protocols originally meant we had to spend hours reordering the entire speaker lineup for our South Africa meeting (and some speakers were already on tight schedules), it was pleasing to see our South African colleagues and members so passionate about upholding important traditions.  


One oddly fascinating observation I had while attending a gender equality training class at a school in Soweto, South Africa was the use of “snapping” fingers instead of clapping hands/applause to show appreciation for comments made by another student or teacher.  This might have been in response to keeping the noise level down for adjacent classes due to thin class walls but regardless it was quite a novel technique to show appreciation.  Since gender-based violence is still a major concern for hindering efforts on improving women and girls health, the transition from habitually and violently striking your hands together to produce loud noise to a much less intensive snapping of fingers while still generating the same amount of respect was powerful and profound.

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