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.