Culture plays a key role in the way we live and interact with others. Understanding our own culture as well as those of others helps bridge gaps and eases efforts to work and socialize well together.
One visible cultural difference between New Mainers from Africa and locals involves our differing approaches to dress. Africans who’ve settled in the U.S. express surprise when they see that many Americans are very relaxed when it comes to dressing. Arriving at common meetings or social occasions, the difference in style is frequently very apparent. The Africans will usually be dressed up and many of the Americans will be dressed down. Americans are seen as prioritizing comfort whereas Africans prioritize style. Recognizing that this cultural difference exists can help everyone feel comfortable together. One approach is not right and the other wrong – they are just a product of culture.
When people from Africa prepare for any social gathering they think ahead about what they are going to wear and pay particular attention to details of matching. Socks, for example, need to match well with shoes. During a wedding, or another ceremonial gathering, people look at each other with admiration and exchange compliments about clothing. It’s very common to hear people talk openly about how they feel about the style of other guests, the brand of the clothing, and the prices. This is also true in the United States, however not to the same extent.
In Africa, people constantly assess each other’s clothing. Sometimes people may even cross the street and approach a stranger if they notice a nice shirt or pair of shoes to ask where they got them. You will hear people without means referencing premium clothing brands, including: Giorgio Arman, Versace, Ralph-Lauren, Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci, just to name a few.
In some countries like DR Congo and Congo Brazzaville, there is a group of people who call themselves Sapeur or la SAP ( Société des Ambianceurs et de personnes élégantes) which means Society of Ambiance–Makers and Elegant people. This group hails from the colonial era when locals wanted to make clear to the colonizers that they also were civilized. The Sapeur movement continues today and has made a significant impact on the value people place on clothing. In fact, some people value dressing up more than anything else. When it comes to a choice between eating and dressing up some people would rather skip a few meals but purchase and wear expensive clothing.
Africans often prefer Italian fashion and here in Maine people from Africa express concern that they can’t find many stores where they can purchase Italian shoes or clothing. They also cannot find African clothing easily. Lack of access partially explains why Africans frequently stop wearing traditional clothing. The other reason is that they don’t see others wearing the buoyant prints and styles from back home, and abandon these styles in order to fit in.