As one of the region’s most active and most awarded event management agencies, we employ many people on contractual basis – mostly visiting the Middle East for the first time. It is impossible not to derive some amusement as their preconceptions come face to face with the progressive reality of Dubai, and when they find themselves pleasantly surprised.
And perhaps it is this city’s welcoming modernity that lulls our short-term staff into thinking they are visiting a western metropolis (a feeling no doubt reinforced by the liberal working environment at Action Impact). Of course we have an orientation programme, but there is usually little time – many of our consultants hit the ground running (having worked during the flights over).
In my experience however, even when we have the opportunity for orientation, it is perhaps wishful thinking to expect people to change lifelong habits and mannerisms overnight. And so, over the years I have observed our visiting staff make all kinds of cultural gaffes in meetings, presentations and while working onsite. Nothing serious fortunately, but troubling nonetheless since we hold ourselves to the highest standards of conduct. Here then is my list of the top five faux pas that seem to linger on despite our best efforts!
There is little chance of anyone attending a meeting or visiting a worksite in beachwear, so we are well-covered on that angle (pun intended). But even in corporate attire, short skirts and plunging necklines can materialise without warning, and we must then ask people to cover up. Skin is not so much a problem with the men (although some of them sport very curious tattoos!); no, their lapse is ultra casual attire – the problem being that no one (including the client) then takes them seriously, thus defeating the entire point of flying over a specialist.
Deliberately offensive gestures are unlikely to make their way into our corporate settings. Instead, our visiting teams find other creative ways to highlight their limited knowledge of Arab culture. A recurring favourite is attempting to initiate handshakes with Arab women – guaranteed to create slight unease that lasts for the rest of the meeting. Another common error is forgetting to use the right hand to give or take things, especially at the boardroom table. And finally, not realising that eating or drinking with the left hand is regarded as unhygienic.
3. Body language
When it comes to body language, by far the most frequent blunder is pointing the soles of shoes towards someone’s face or in their general direction. Purely unintentional of course from the visitor’s perspective, it nonetheless signals disrespect in Arab culture. The lapse is usually a feature of open meeting areas where people may cross their legs as they talk to one another. Such situations become a double gaffe, because it is also considered rude to cross one’s legs when sitting in front of an important personality.
In an environment teeming with multiple cultures and nationalities (and where English language fluency varies widely), it is challenging enough to communicate effectively without the added burden of colourful vocabulary and colloquial turns of phrase. Words and terms deemed offensive are easy to list (and ask our visitors to assiduously avoid), but there is not much we can do about creative idioms and vivid metaphors that spring up in formal conversations without any warning whatsoever. The issue is not so much causing offence (although there is always that risk), but rather the resulting confusion and miscommunication that sometimes requires a concerted effort to untangle and resolve!
Without doubt, the most significant cultural challenge that all our visiting consultants and specialists grapple with is time. The concept of people being late for meetings is alien enough, but when meticulously calculated deadlines and delivery schedules fall apart because someone said “tomorrow” without actually meaning tomorrow, then the frustration becomes tangible – and vocal. We empathise of course, but there is very little we can do about it. This is the way things get done here. The important thing is not to lose one’s cool – especially in front of clients and external contractors. This instantly creates a whole new set of issues to deal with!