Mastering the art of etiquette in Kenya

Cropped shot of a young woman blowing her nose into a tissue. [Getty Images]

Alvin Toffler said the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and re-learn.

Going by the numerous flaws and embarrassing moments experienced in high-profile situations, one would very much agree with Toffler. With technological advancement, there are new ways of doing things that we must embrace if we are to remain relevant in the modern business world.

We also need to consider good old ways of doing things that we have dropped along the way in the name of civilisation.

A great question to ask ourselves: Could there be old habits that are no longer working for us that we need to unlearn? Bad manners is on the rise, a worrying trend indeed.

My mother got married about 10km from her home. We loved to visit my maternal grandma. Unfortunately, there was no public transport.

Every holiday, we trekked 10km to visit her. In my culture, among the abagusii, when you visited your maternal grandma, your maternal uncles gave you a hen as a gift.

Every holiday, we got a hen as a gift to carry home. What perturbed me was the fact that in addition to the hen, my grandma also gave us a cat to carry home.

So every holiday we carried a hen and a cat after the visit. This was not very interesting as you can imagine.

One holiday I gathered my courage and told her, “grandma, we have enough cats,” she said, “no, your mother has friends, your mother has neighbours”. Knowing we could never question authority, we continued carrying the hens and cats.

One time, as we chatted the night away, I asked, “but grandma, why did you make us carry cats every time we visited you?” her answer sent me dying with laughter but at the same time left me wondering what a genius my grandma was, she asked me in response: “which boy would talk to a girl carrying a cat and a hen on the road?”

It was interesting to learn such was the manner of imparting values. Bringing up a child was a concerted effort of the community. The world has now changed. Would that explain the erosion of basic values in society?

In this issue, I discuss the basics of etiquette, which refers to a set of rules that govern the expectations of social behaviour. Etiquette and decorum are signs that you are a polished and knowledgeable professional.

When you display manners in a work environment, it is an act of kindness and respect. There are general rules of etiquette that work all the time, while there are others that are specific to each situation.

Courtesy words

How easily do words like ‘please, excuse me, thank you, I am sorry, may I’, come out of your mouth? The use of courtesy words is a sign of not only good behaviour but consideration for others.

It is not so much about what you say, but how you say it. Picture someone who goes: ‘If I have wronged you, then I am sorry’, can you consider this to be an apology really?


Punctuality is a mark of leadership. We needn’t take it beyond that. Whenever you are invited to a function, it is a sign of courtesy to the host to keep time. This should apply to both formal and social events.

Sometimes guests arrive so late to the extent that the host is forced to go in and prepare more food. It is a sign of bad manners to be reminded of deadlines. Always be ahead of time, and surprise your boss by turning in the work before time. If for any unavoidable circumstances you are going to be late with an assignment, it is courteous to inform your boss or ask for an extension of the deadline.


Respect your workmates and other people around you for who they are.

Do not respect people because of the car they drive, the kind of neighbourhood they live in or simply because they come from a ‘politically correct environment’. Everyone is important.

Don’t pocket in good company

Gentlemen, never take your hands into the pockets when you are in the company of others. Many times you find people unconsciously taking those hands into unexpected spaces, thereby embarrassing themselves.

Don’t chew gum in good company

Never chew gum when you are in the company of others. If you are in a meeting, in church, or in any formal event, it is not appropriate to chew gum. Many times you find people walking into meetings or church services with gum in their mouths, and when business starts the only place available to lodge the gum is under chairs. This is not right.

No littering

It is irritating to litter. One might be tempted to think the environment has become one big dustbin. Sometimes you are on the road and you see a beautiful car ahead of you and you say to yourself: ‘when I grow up, I would want to buy one like that’, but before you complete the thought, you see a banana peel or soda can thrown out of the window.

That car immediately stops looking beautiful because of the mannerisms of the driver.

No gossiping

Gossip can be so sweet until it is about yourself. People should learn to do unto others what they would like done unto them.

No staring and spitting

Gentlemen this is for you. There is a difference between looking and staring. Do not spit in public. It is distressing sometimes to see how some people just spit in public.

They first fetch it from a distance and then without a care in the world allow it to land anywhere.

No nose picking

Never pick your nose in public. It is unfortunate sometimes to see senior people in serious meetings not just picking their noses but digging so hard and then the next minute they are stretching their hands to greet you.

However, now with the Covid protocols and the stress of no handshakes, people can escape from these particular individuals.

No unpleasant sounds

Never make anybody uncomfortable around you. There are people who believe that to show the host that you have really enjoyed the meal, you sit back and belch, this is quite irritating and should be avoided.

No rearranging

Never re-arrange anything in public. That is why gentlemen are cautioned against taking their hands into their pockets. In the process, they might find themselves arranging and rearranging stuff.

A gentleman was walking down a conference hall to a podium to go make a presentation, as he hurried to the podium, he felt his shirt must have fallen out of place.

Instead of discreetly tucking it in, he opened his trousers slightly (a common habit in some men) to do the job.

Little did he know that he had tucked his shirt in his inner-wear. People kept smiling and laughing but he had no idea what spectacle he had created.

For the same reason, I discourage ladies from carrying handbags they keep across the shoulder because once you quickly settle into the meeting, you might discover things around your shoulders have fallen out of place and so you dip your hands and start adjusting your inner garments. This can be quite embarrassing.

Carry a handbag that you can throw across your arm or hold in your hand.

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are not sure how to behave, just try out any of these three or a combination of the same:

  • Pragmatic thinking
  • Common sense
  • Good manners

The writer is a trainer and consultant in communication, official protocol and etiquette at the Kenya School of Government.