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Third example of learning more about my own culture:


Afghans rarely plan what they will do for the day, much less the week, month, or several months from now. (I touched on this in the first Culture post.) For example, there are a lot of holidays, and different holidays have different implications (think Christmas vs Columbus Day). It is very normal for our contract staff to get an email around 3pm the day before the holiday explaining if the day is a holiday for all, day off for specific staff, work from home, or work as usual.

Here’s an example of an email that went out Monday, the 14th, around 11am:

Dear All,

The Afghan Government will be closed for holidays on 15-17 Feb and in consideration of the fact that the majority of our local staff are embedded at XXX and Ministries, the XXX management has determined Tuesday and Thursday are work from home for all local staff.

For your information:

?         Tuesday, 15 Feb is  Liberation Day

?         Wednesday 16 February is Miladul Nabi (S) –  a national paid holiday for XXX local staff in Afghanistan

?         Thursday, 17 Feb is a national holiday

Please note that:


Enjoy a safe and long weekend.



Human Resources Manager

Since Fridays are the weekend, this email effectively informs the staff that they have a 4-day weekend. Each time I see these emails, I balk at the fact that they are only informed of this the day before. I wonder how do they plan, how do they take advantage of their holidays, and why don’t they complain about getting such short notice? But the reality is that they really don’t plan, they don’t have a need to “take advantage” of holidays because they don’t take trips to see family in other parts of the country*, and they don’t see anything to complain about (they are getting holidays after all).

The US is so focused on planning and maximizing that something as great as a 4-day weekend could be frustrating if we aren’t given the time needed to be organized (think sudden snow days).

Note: you may have noticed that the email actually says that 2 days are “work from home” days and I said that they have “a 4-day weekend.” This is because almost no Afghans do office work in their homes. They do not have internet access at their homes. Those who have laptops usually leave them locked in an office at work or they take them home for their kids to play on them (I know because I sit in an IT office, which has to deal with all of the problems that result on the computers). It is a common mindset that if you are not in the office you are not working (it is completely beside the point whether work gets done in the office).

*The majority of Afghans live with extended families in their homes, and it’s rare that they would need to travel to see other parts of their family (because they are in the same city). However, the big exception to this is men who have moved to Kabul to make money for their families, who live in one of the provinces. These men do travel to their home province about once every 2 months, usually around government holidays. If they are flying, it is quite easy to get tickets the day of or the day before because this is such a small group of people.

Bonus Material – We have a guy in our office who changed roles and was provided a new office in another building probably about 2 months ago. He continues to come to our office for part of each day. When people are looking for him, they look in both offices. While I was writing this post, he came into the office for 2 minutes, and as he was walking back out, we teased him that he couldn’t live without seeing us. He responded,

“Change in Afghanistan is usually very slow. You cannot just change jobs or offices suddenly. You must do it slowly. There is only one exception to this kind of change, and that is marriage, where suddenly the girl is no longer in one house and is now in another house.”

The interesting cultural feature is that in the US, most change can be very fast (i.e., change of offices, jobs, or homes), but generally relationships/marriages are a slow change.

Another example of learning more about my own culture:

Showing respect

On my first day in Kabul, I attended a large meeting with government officials, and as certain people came into the room everyone stood up. I didn’t think too much more about it. Then when I was working in my office and someone would enter the room all of the Afghans (usually 8 guys) working in the office would stand and greet the person who entered. When I was sitting in small group meetings with my counterpart or his staff and his boss entered the room, it was the same thing. Everyone stands, and everyone takes a turn to greet the boss. Seriously, this impacts getting work done, staying on task, etc. in an office setting. (I should probably add that for my first week my counterpart’s staff would stand when I entered the room, but I put an end to that pretty quickly.)

I asked the 2 Afghan women that I work with why it is necessary to stop what we are doing to stand and greet the boss, especially because the boss was not coming to see us (he was there to speak to someone else in the room). They said it is to show respect. I told them that in the US there are few people who we would stand up for simply because they enter the room (The President being the only example I could come up with off the top of my head). One of the girls asked me, “What do you do when your father enters the room?” Hmm, my dad, well, I pictured sitting on the couch watching tv and my dad entering the room (back when I was lived at home because these girls live with their parents), and I said “If my father enters the room, I would glance up and say hey.” They were pretty astonished by the lack of respect that I show him. However, what they see as a lack of respect is actually much more a lack of formality in the U.S. This is something I’ve definitely touched on in other posts.

One of the things I really enjoy about being here, or traveling in general, is that I end up learning more about my own culture. It’s often like there is a bright spotlight shining down on my assumptions. The next few posts are going to be examples. (I tried to make this one post, but it became entirely too long.)


Time after time I will ask my translator, counterpart, or staff some question. It doesn’t matter if it is factual, evaluative, or rhetorical – they will provide me with an answer. And the most common answer is “Maybe.” Let me give some examples:

Me: Will Mr. Koshan be back in the office this afternoon?

Translator: Maybe.


Me: The unit has asked me to provide them with [insert topic] training. When will they all be in the office so I can give the training?

Counterpart: Maybe this afternoon.

Me: I know one team has a meeting this afternoon at the ministry. What about tomorrow morning?

Counterpart: Okay.

Me: Is there a projector available tomorrow morning?

Counterpart: Maybe.

Me: I’ll go track one down before the training.


Me: Have you completed translating the flowchart?

Translator: Almost.

Me: So you will be finished by the end of the day?

Translator: Well, maybe tomorrow.

Me (smiling): Do you know the definition of “almost?” (I can ask this sarcastically because we’ve had this discussion numerous time.)

Translater: Well, yeah.


What is obvious from these conversations is that I’m looking for exact information, which I clearly don’t get. There are 2 cultural issues.

First, Afghans cannot say “I don’t know.” It literally is impossible. Saying you don’t know something is like indicating you have a personal failing. To say “I don’t know” implies that you are irresponsible and not to be trusted. (I’ve asked Afghans and Afghan-Americans about this.) In the US, while we are supposed to know a lot, we put a lot of value in understanding the things we don’t know. And in business, we give bonus points to people who not only understand what they don’t know but also have initiative to find the answer. We would expect the response: “I don’t know, but I will go ask/find out.”

Second, what is true or isn’t true is quite fluid in Afghan culture.  Whether you can plan for something (even if you are the boss), is extremely difficult because you never know what will happen to change the situation. When someone goes on vacation, you never get the exact date that they will return to work. There are so many reasons someone could be delayed that it’s best just not to plan. In the US, planning things in advance is extremely important; it’s what keeps things moving forward. And this is probably a large reason why things do keep moving forward even when, for example, the boss is out of town.

Like a lot of things here, I am trying to understand the differences in situations as well as the why behind those differences. I definitely don’t have it all figured out so as always, feel free to comment with your thoughts, especially for my friends who grew up outside the U.S. medical establishment.

I first became aware that the medical profession here is very different from what I’m used to about a month after I arrived in Afghanistan. I was talking with the office IT guy about why I only see him in the afternoons. I learned that he is, in fact, a doctor. Actually, make that the department head of a major division of a hospital. (Wow, really!?) For the past 5 years, he works half the day at the hospital and the other half of the day as the “IT guy” in our government office. It seems like an odd combination to me, but he responded that the IT work pays for him to do the doctoring work. Of course, we all know that IT pays well, but…pays that much more than being the head of a hospital dept??

After this, I started noticing how many of the guys (there are only a few Afghan women that I interact with) I know who are called “Dr.” Afghans are very big on titles and formality so I assumed that these people have a PhD. I later learned that almost all of them actually graduated from a medical program (faculty). They could practice medicine. But instead, they work elsewhere.

In the U.S., you will often find people, from other countries working as taxi drivers, in retail, or in other service industries, who were doctors or other advanced professionals in their home country. That situation is usually the result of the bureaucracy to prove their foreign credentials in the U.S. However, that doesn’t explain why Afghans, who graduated from medical programs here, are working in completely different professions.

I asked one “Dr” I know who works as an assistant to a Deputy Minister. (Note: all of these guys have very good English skills both as a requirement to get into the medical program as well as because of their use of it in the program.) He told me that out of his graduating class, 10% work as doctors. When he was applying for hospital jobs, he was offered a position in one of the provinces  for around $10/month.

Obviously, this is a pittance for a professional job, especially a doctor. But what makes it completely unbearable is the fact that there are so many development organizations in Afghanistan who need translators and professionals to work for them. There is a HUGE discrepency in pay scales because of the amount of money good, well spoken Afghans can make if they work for an NGO, an embassy, the UN, ISAF, etc.

I actually found out that the donor community recognized this was a problem and made an effort to ensure that professions (such as doctors) could get reasonable salaries in their chosen profession. Doctor salaries were increased 3-fold (I don’t know the details of how this was paid for). However, based on the estimates I got for potential salaries, if those doctors instead become translators, compared to the propped up medical salary, they will still make 4 times as much. (I should probably note here that this is for a basic translator position, a job which is generally looked down upon in this culture as not very skilled or resourceful.)

Of course, all of this crazy information about salaries means that very few people will work as doctors; most will instead do various office jobs for donors. It also means that there are very few doctors left to actually practice medicine here (and those few are potentially rather unqualified). So it should come as no surprise that Afghanistan and other countries in this region rival the world for their poor health care and maternal mortality rates. (See this article.)

The pay scale discrepancy that our development dollars has created has huge implications for the quality of care Afghans receive as well as changing the cultural attitudes to even getting this kind of education in the future. These are the things I think about when I pass this:

There are a lot of benefits to working in Kabul right now. A lot of these are personal benefits and other things are nice-to-haves. But of course, there are a lot of drawbacks, as well. Sometimes, I struggle to give a full, balanced picture. While I really don’t care to dwell on the negatives, I have to be sure to talk about these items too. Note: This is not a balanced picture; I have been adding to this post whenever I think of something, not all at one time.

  • Security– might as well put this first because it’s on everyone’s mind, is a huge drawback, and is the overriding issue behind many other items.
  • Missing cultural events – So far there have been three weddings that in normal circumstances (living in Afghanistan) I would have been invited to. However, getting approval (see above point) is so difficult that people know better than to invite me. This makes me sad.
  • Inconsistent rules – for every (potential) rule or policy, there is a complete inconsistency in how they are applied. On 3 separate occasions, I have been denied access to the road that leads to my office because (insert what ever reason you can come up with, or) the guard at the entrance said so. After my driver and shooter argue with the guard and have a little standoff (meanwhile numerous vehicles are driving around us, not having their passes checked), they drive me to the project management office where I get in another vehicle and try again. Second time around, with a salute, a wave, or disregard for the entrance guard, we just drive in (no checking of our pass).  [Of course, I know some level of this happens everywhere.]
  • Wet toilet seats – Ok, seriously, I should simply be thankful for finding a Western toilet, but I have yet to get over being grossed out by finding the toilet seat wet. It makes me prefer squat toilets, but don’t get me started on wet floors.
  • Bully expats – Some of my colleagues see the locals as lesser people whose job it is to serve and clean up after them. While we do have cleaning staff and cooks, I don’t believe that means we should be rude, demanding, or expect them to be our personal servants.
  • Being viewed as a dollar sign – Have you ever looked at my face and thought: “$$” Probably not! My co-worker says her face looks like a computer monitor. Because we are from the West, because we are supported by donors, because we are trying to improve the current situation, because this is what the Afghans have learned, almost every meeting (outside my team) I attend I hear about the need for more money, staff, and technology. I am here to help, but I think a big dose of critical thinking skills would go much further than the items they are asking more.
  • Lack of initiative – The Afghans are so used to having donors throw money at problems that they spend absolutely no time thinking about what they can do to improve things on their own, with their own time, energy, and resources.
  • Work-only-happens-in-the-office mentality – The idea that you’re only working if you’re in the office gets old very fast. It is particularly poignant because the office is often a social scene where very little gets done. Combine that with the fact that when you are in the office you will be pulled into other things (meetings, presentations, social hour, etc) that have absolutely nothing to do with your work and you wonder how anything gets done. I’ve been pulled into a meeting on gender simply because I’m a woman. I’ve been pulled into presentations, which were entirely in Dari when I was without a translator. The list goes on.
  • Training because – There is a lot of training for training sake. Many of the Afghans feel that training will solve the problems of the world. It doesn’t matter that the training may not be relevant to them or their position, that half the team is out on leave, that they fall asleep during the training, that they walk out to talk on the phone or smoke, or that they don’t apply the relevant material to their jobs. They insist on training. Note: coaching, one-on-one, on-the-job, mentoring, or anything else that doesn’t involve a standard lecture with a powerpoint presentation is not considered training.
  • Slow or non-existent internet – Whether it’s trying to skype with friends & family, check out a 30-second youtube clip, or complete online company training, the state of the internet (or electricity) is often a frustration.
  • Personal discussion free-for-all – I can’t count the number of times that some well-meaning Afghan tells me that when I return to the U.S. I should get married and have babies or that I should read the koran to become knowledgeable. There is an assumption of one, right way to live your life AND there is an assumption that anyone can tell you about it. (It really isn’t up for discussion at all.) I am getting better at biting my tongue, but it’s particularly difficult because they always say something like “Don’t you think you should…?” I’m not good at finding a culturally appropriate response.
  • Misunderstanding around germs – In the West, science has come quite far in understanding how germs are involved in illness. But here, even among the very educated, there is a sense that there is nothing you can do to avoid getting sick. If the weather turns cold, you will get sick; germ theory/immune systems are irrelevant. (I’ve also heard stories of hospitals reusing needles because of a lack of supplies. Scary!)
  • Being sick! – I have just completed almost 3 weeks of being sick. I’m worn down (from cold, bronchitis, sinus infection, throat infection, intestinal cramps, diarrhea, and head and neck aches). It’s difficult to maintain a positive outlook while your body is constantly fighting the next issue. And, I worry that these issues will impact my overall health long-term.

Some of the negatives are perceptions and others are physical realities of working here. They are all realities that you have to adjust to mentally.

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