Naming a child in our culture is generally the responsibility of parents. Often times a new born is named after a relative, favorite sports figure or even something totally obscure. In tribal culture there is a naming practice that is given in honor to the man who paid the most money for the child’s mother – yes, the dowry payment that a man pays to the woman’s family. When a man wants to marry a woman, he must negotiate a bride price with the woman’s family. This negotiation process is long and drawn out; seldom does it go smoothly. The price negotiated may include traditional shell money, pigs or modern government currency. At times a portion of the bride price may include a debt to be paid later. When a debt is incurred, the man will typically live in the woman’s village until it is paid off. The groom will seek help to pay the bride price by asking his family and relatives to pitch in and help.

I was given the honor of naming my cousin’s first-born son. It was important to learn the culture around such an honor and here is what I found out: First of all, I would never be able to speak the name I chose before the child his entire life. If the boy was not present, I could use his name, but never was I to speak his name if he was in hearing distance. I was to address the boy as Papou (pah-pouw) his entire life. I don’t have an exact translation for that term; it simply shows that I am the one that named him. Secondly, I was not to touch the boy in any way until he was old enough to climb up and down the later of his house; the equivalent of him being weaned off his mother as a toddler. When the boy reached this age, there would be a simple ceremony where the boy and I would exchange a gift of equal value, shake hands and then from that point on we could touch each other (i.e. carry him, shake hands, sit on my lap or that type of a thing). Thirdly, my Papou and I would always have a close relationship because I gave him his name. So, whenever I would see him, I would be sure call to him and address him as Papou.

So what did I name my first Papou? Well, I wanted to give the boy a traditional name that could also be used as a modern name for when he went to school out to town. I had learned so many names by this time, but what I came up with was the name of a river nearby called Keliepekotu. This is the name I game him and for short he is called Keli! Except by me of course… I still call him Papou to this day.

Several years ago, I was a guest speaker at a PriceWaterHouseCooper conference in Port Moresby, the capital city of Papua New Guinea. I was asked to do a lecture about culture bridging for the accountants attending the conference. PWHC’s accountants were all educated and competent in their professions, but by virtue of the fact they were from western and Melanesian cultures did cause a bit of friction in the work place. Because the group I was addressing was made up of accountants, I wanted to draw attention to how they counted on their fingers. Now that was basic, wasn’t it? It was almost silly to ask the Western accounts to hold up a hand and count to five using their fingers. In our Western we count on our fingers starting with a closed fist and when we get to five, our fingers are extended with an open hand. Go ahead, try it to prove me right. But in Melanesian or Papua New Guinea culture they count opposite from us in Western culture. They start with an open hand and then have a fist when they get to five! So, in the presentation I had the Western hold their open hands up and then proceeded to have the Melanesian or PNG accountants raise a hand and count to five. The roar of laughter was no small thing as all the accountants realized that they got to five in completely opposite ways. The point of this simple exercise was to show that we can be culturally frustrated with a coworker because they are different – not because they did something wrong. Both cultures got to five, but they did it in different ways. One way wasn’t wrong, and one way wasn’t right. That simple little exercise opened the door to helping well educated accountants to stop and think about little stresses that were caused by not taking time to understand a coworker’s cultural upbringing in something as simple as counting on your fingers.