Millennials comprise a very large percent of today’s global workforce, across many countries and many different cultures. Regardless of an area’s traditional culture, its Millennials typically have very different tendencies and expectations than older generations. This post is part of a series intended to help global business leaders raise their awareness of continuous shifts in cross-cultural diversity by exploring how Millennials are reshaping cultural attitudes in selected countries.
Sometimes I start to feel a little feisty when I research cultural trends or diversity topics because many sources are bogged down with stereotypes. (I dislike stereotypes.) One, in particular, I keep encountering is the idea that Millennials are too casual and disrespectful. I respectfully (and somewhat feistily) disagree.
These moments remind me why it’s important to discuss cultural differences and diverse identities in a multicultural, global work environment: It helps us challenge our assumptions and break down stereotypes.
This is especially pertinent in the context of West African nations, where many countries only gained enough political autonomy and developed enough infrastructure to compete in the global marketplace within the past few decades. Since Millennials have become such a large part of the workforce, it’s necessary to adjust our expectations to reflect both Millennial cultural influence and the increased integration of West African countries into the global community.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s examine the “casual Millennial” stereotype.
There are many reasons Millennials have an international reputation for being lackadaisical and entitled, one of which is they tend to dress and behave much more casually than previous generations. In terms of the Formality Dimension of the CultureWizard Intercultural Model®, Millennials often have a more Informal Style. This means they may dress more casually for work, call people by their first names quite quickly, or use slang and informal speech with colleagues and supervisors.
It’s important to recognize, however, that these characteristics are not necessarily a sign of disrespect or inattention. Rather, these tendencies represent a broader cultural shift likely rooted in unique aspects of this generation’s upbringing, such as a closer relationship with their parents and exposure to modern technology.
With that in mind, let’s return to West Africa, where the region’s history complexifies this global Millennial shift toward more Informal practices. West Africa (and most of the African continent) was colonized by European powers until the mid-20thcentury, so many people feel a strong sense of national and/or racial identity. Additionally, the region has hundreds of ethnic groups or tribes, and dozens of them (sometimes more) reside in each country, all with their own distinctive practices and subcultures. This is also an important source of identity and cultural orientation.
To return to the CultureWizard Intercultural Model®, West African countries generally have a more Formal Style. This means that style of dress is typically more elegant, and titles or honorifics are often considered important displays of respect. Many of the more formal customs in this region are rooted in ethnic or tribal traditions. For example, a formal traditional ensemble involves the use of certain fabrics with vibrant patterns and distinctive designs. Specific styles vary among countries or communities, but the significance of connecting one’s attire with cultural identity is consistent across West Africa.
As many Millennials embrace a more Informal Style, there can be a tendency to wear more casual and often more Western clothing. However, many young West Africans also feel it is very important to preserve their traditions because they represent their particular country’s fight for independence. This means that although many West African Millennials may adopt more Informal work styles, they may also feel a strong connection to certain formalities and traditions of their countries or tribes.
As a supervisor or manager of Millennials in a cross-cultural environment, anticipate that you may encounter this range of preferences. For example, young employees may be comfortable with nicknames, the use of slang, or wearing sneakers and jeans to the office. More conservative or traditional Millennials, however, might feel most comfortable using honorifics and dressing in formalwear (either Western or more traditional West African styles). As a visitor, it may be helpful to dress more formally but set liberal guidelines regarding dress codes, at least until you have a strong sense of your team’s needs. Also be sure to communicate with associates to establish a clear sense of appropriate conduct that accommodates diverse preferences.
Remember that these observations can’t possibly reflect all Millennials in each West African nation, so it’s best to learn about the country you are working with, as well as the individual ethnic identities and customs of different team members. This will enable you to better understand local norms and the ways in which the needs of Millennials might differ from those of other generations.