Understanding Arabs: 14 hacks to help crack the Middle Eastern Mind

Published December 16th, 2013 - 10:39 GMT

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Since the tragedy of 9/11, the Middle East makes the headlines of Western newspapers at a far greater frequency than ever before. And yet, people in the West fail to understand the workings of the Arab mind. They frequently misinterpret what they see and hear. They perceive the Arab world to be mysterious and incomprehensible, and so different from the West so as to rule out any hopes of future reconciliation between the two people a la Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilisations". Continue reading below »

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Fatalism: When you ask an Arab if they are able to do something, they might frequently say Inshallah, (God willing). Inshallah isn’t a cop out – it’s just a recognition that the world is a large and complex place, and there are many unpredictable factors that can make the best laid plans go awry. Better than making promises they can't keep!
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Image 1 of 14:  1 / 14Fatalism: When you ask an Arab if they are able to do something, they might frequently say Inshallah, (God willing). Inshallah isn’t a cop out – it’s just a recognition that the world is a large and complex place, and there are many unpredictable factors that can make the best laid plans go awry. Better than making promises they can't keep!

Enlarge
Sensitivity: Arabs are a touchy and proud people. They may ignore facts if they find them too hurtful. You can argue facts, like: “Israel has made technological advances” only to get an emotional response, such as: “Sure, by ripping out the heart of Palestine.” This non-objective outlook explains the popularity of conspiracy theories.
Reduce

Image 2 of 14:  2 / 14Sensitivity: Arabs are a touchy and proud people. They may ignore facts if they find them too hurtful. You can argue facts, like: “Israel has made technological advances” only to get an emotional response, such as: “Sure, by ripping out the heart of Palestine.” This non-objective outlook explains the popularity of conspiracy theories.

Enlarge
Names: Like a New York ad agency executive, Arabs know that names influence the way people perceive things. The 1967 war is known as the War of the Setback (not defeat), the 1973 War is the War of Ramadan (not Yom Kippur) and it’s the Arabian Gulf (the Persian Gulf is an imaginary place).
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Image 3 of 14:  3 / 14Names: Like a New York ad agency executive, Arabs know that names influence the way people perceive things. The 1967 war is known as the War of the Setback (not defeat), the 1973 War is the War of Ramadan (not Yom Kippur) and it’s the Arabian Gulf (the Persian Gulf is an imaginary place).

Enlarge
Displaying emotion: If you are speaking to an Arab who is thumping the table while talking to you, it’s not because he is angry (unless he's hitting your head on the table). Arabs believe that a display of emotion shows sincerity - and frequently will hammer the point home! On top of gesticulation, tapping your arm may come with the territory.
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Image 4 of 14:  4 / 14Displaying emotion: If you are speaking to an Arab who is thumping the table while talking to you, it’s not because he is angry (unless he's hitting your head on the table). Arabs believe that a display of emotion shows sincerity - and frequently will hammer the point home! On top of gesticulation, tapping your arm may come with the territory.

Enlarge
Marriage and children: The Beatles were born to make music. Many Arabs believe that the Beatles were also born so that they could get married and have children. Statements like “I don't want to get married” or “I don’t want children” will not be understood - people will assume you are unwell and ply you into submission with sweet tea.
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Image 5 of 14:  5 / 14Marriage and children: The Beatles were born to make music. Many Arabs believe that the Beatles were also born so that they could get married and have children. Statements like “I don't want to get married” or “I don’t want children” will not be understood - people will assume you are unwell and ply you into submission with sweet tea.

Enlarge
Religion: Arab Muslims are proud of Islam - they consider it the perfection of Judaism and Christianity. You may find yourself asked by Muslims if you would convert to Islam - no need to stutter and blush. You can say that you respect Islam, but cannot convert as it would offend your family. They will respect that you are pious and family-centric.
Reduce

Image 6 of 14:  6 / 14Religion: Arab Muslims are proud of Islam - they consider it the perfection of Judaism and Christianity. You may find yourself asked by Muslims if you would convert to Islam - no need to stutter and blush. You can say that you respect Islam, but cannot convert as it would offend your family. They will respect that you are pious and family-centric.

Enlarge
Personal space: Arabs think of the self differently than they do in the West where the self begins at the skin. In Arabia, the self is in the soul. So the person on the bus may touch you -- but in their mind, they are standing far from your real “self.” This does not make it OK for a man to inadvertently jostle into that woman passenger.
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Image 7 of 14:  7 / 14Personal space: Arabs think of the self differently than they do in the West where the self begins at the skin. In Arabia, the self is in the soul. So the person on the bus may touch you -- but in their mind, they are standing far from your real “self.” This does not make it OK for a man to inadvertently jostle into that woman passenger.

Enlarge
Style and substance: The U.S. State of the Union address is all substance and no style. Boring! In the Arab world, how you say something is as important as what you say. For example, King Hussein of Jordan was a leader who people admired for his command over classical Arabic and poetic turns of phrase.  In short, Arabs be styling.
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Image 8 of 14:  8 / 14Style and substance: The U.S. State of the Union address is all substance and no style. Boring! In the Arab world, how you say something is as important as what you say. For example, King Hussein of Jordan was a leader who people admired for his command over classical Arabic and poetic turns of phrase. In short, Arabs be styling.

Enlarge
Individuality: In the West, a person might be offended if you refer to her as “Mother of Ben.” She would say, “I’m much more than a mother,” and point you to her resume or her LinkedIn profile. In the Arab world, it is considered a sign of honor to refer to someone as “Mother of Omar” or “Father of Fatima”.
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Image 9 of 14:  9 / 14Individuality: In the West, a person might be offended if you refer to her as “Mother of Ben.” She would say, “I’m much more than a mother,” and point you to her resume or her LinkedIn profile. In the Arab world, it is considered a sign of honor to refer to someone as “Mother of Omar” or “Father of Fatima”.

Enlarge
Hospitality: Arab hospitality is famous. You can visit someone at the most inconvenient time, and they will welcome you with open arms. In fact, you can compliment someone's shirt and they’ll offer it to you. You don’t have to accept. You can say no - unless it gets awkward, at which point, take their shirt and eat their food.
Reduce

Image 10 of 14:  10 / 14Hospitality: Arab hospitality is famous. You can visit someone at the most inconvenient time, and they will welcome you with open arms. In fact, you can compliment someone's shirt and they’ll offer it to you. You don’t have to accept. You can say no - unless it gets awkward, at which point, take their shirt and eat their food.

Enlarge
Arabic: Many Arabs believe that their language is the most beautiful in the world. They look down upon Muslims from other countries who memorize the Arabic of the Koran but don’t understand it. And indeed, Arabic is a beautiful language. Don’t begrudge the Arabs their pride and don't knock it till you've tried it--  instead, learn Arabic!
Reduce

Image 11 of 14:  11 / 14Arabic: Many Arabs believe that their language is the most beautiful in the world. They look down upon Muslims from other countries who memorize the Arabic of the Koran but don’t understand it. And indeed, Arabic is a beautiful language. Don’t begrudge the Arabs their pride and don't knock it till you've tried it-- instead, learn Arabic!

Enlarge
Middle Man: Arabs often turn to a third person - always someone with influence - to get their tasks done, their visas approved or their Nescafe 3-in-1 stirred correctly. This is known as wasta. Wasta also helps a person save face in case a task is not completed - it was the intermediary who wasn’t up to the task! Shoot the messenger!
Reduce

Image 12 of 14:  12 / 14Middle Man: Arabs often turn to a third person - always someone with influence - to get their tasks done, their visas approved or their Nescafe 3-in-1 stirred correctly. This is known as wasta. Wasta also helps a person save face in case a task is not completed - it was the intermediary who wasn’t up to the task! Shoot the messenger!

Enlarge
Illness: Arabs often feel queasy about referring to illnesses like fever, heart conditions and that ominous c word, cancer. They call off work saying they are “tired' (Taaban)  A colleague told us of her father receiving a phone call saying his mother was 'very tired.” It was only by the tone of voice that he divined his mother had passed.
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Image 13 of 14:  13 / 14Illness: Arabs often feel queasy about referring to illnesses like fever, heart conditions and that ominous c word, cancer. They call off work saying they are “tired" (Taaban) A colleague told us of her father receiving a phone call saying his mother was "very tired.” It was only by the tone of voice that he divined his mother had passed.

Enlarge
Differences: Every Arab is unique, just like everyone else. Their politics, branch of Islam and language may vary across the MENA where the Levant, Gulf and North Africa are as diverse as continental Europe.  Moroccans and Jordanians would struggle to understand each other in a colloquial chat - even though each lay claim to speaking Arabic!
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Image 14 of 14:  14 / 14Differences: Every Arab is unique, just like everyone else. Their politics, branch of Islam and language may vary across the MENA where the Levant, Gulf and North Africa are as diverse as continental Europe. Moroccans and Jordanians would struggle to understand each other in a colloquial chat - even though each lay claim to speaking Arabic!

Enlarge

1

Fatalism: When you ask an Arab if they are able to do something, they might frequently say Inshallah, (God willing). Inshallah isn’t a cop out – it’s just a recognition that the world is a large and complex place, and there are many unpredictable factors that can make the best laid plans go awry. Better than making promises they can't keep!

Image 1 of 14Fatalism: When you ask an Arab if they are able to do something, they might frequently say Inshallah, (God willing). Inshallah isn’t a cop out – it’s just a recognition that the world is a large and complex place, and there are many unpredictable factors that can make the best laid plans go awry. Better than making promises they can't keep!

2

Sensitivity: Arabs are a touchy and proud people. They may ignore facts if they find them too hurtful. You can argue facts, like: “Israel has made technological advances” only to get an emotional response, such as: “Sure, by ripping out the heart of Palestine.” This non-objective outlook explains the popularity of conspiracy theories.

Image 2 of 14Sensitivity: Arabs are a touchy and proud people. They may ignore facts if they find them too hurtful. You can argue facts, like: “Israel has made technological advances” only to get an emotional response, such as: “Sure, by ripping out the heart of Palestine.” This non-objective outlook explains the popularity of conspiracy theories.

3

Names: Like a New York ad agency executive, Arabs know that names influence the way people perceive things. The 1967 war is known as the War of the Setback (not defeat), the 1973 War is the War of Ramadan (not Yom Kippur) and it’s the Arabian Gulf (the Persian Gulf is an imaginary place).

Image 3 of 14Names: Like a New York ad agency executive, Arabs know that names influence the way people perceive things. The 1967 war is known as the War of the Setback (not defeat), the 1973 War is the War of Ramadan (not Yom Kippur) and it’s the Arabian Gulf (the Persian Gulf is an imaginary place).

4

Displaying emotion: If you are speaking to an Arab who is thumping the table while talking to you, it’s not because he is angry (unless he's hitting your head on the table). Arabs believe that a display of emotion shows sincerity - and frequently will hammer the point home! On top of gesticulation, tapping your arm may come with the territory.

Image 4 of 14Displaying emotion: If you are speaking to an Arab who is thumping the table while talking to you, it’s not because he is angry (unless he's hitting your head on the table). Arabs believe that a display of emotion shows sincerity - and frequently will hammer the point home! On top of gesticulation, tapping your arm may come with the territory.

5

Marriage and children: The Beatles were born to make music. Many Arabs believe that the Beatles were also born so that they could get married and have children. Statements like “I don't want to get married” or “I don’t want children” will not be understood - people will assume you are unwell and ply you into submission with sweet tea.

Image 5 of 14Marriage and children: The Beatles were born to make music. Many Arabs believe that the Beatles were also born so that they could get married and have children. Statements like “I don't want to get married” or “I don’t want children” will not be understood - people will assume you are unwell and ply you into submission with sweet tea.

6

Religion: Arab Muslims are proud of Islam - they consider it the perfection of Judaism and Christianity. You may find yourself asked by Muslims if you would convert to Islam - no need to stutter and blush. You can say that you respect Islam, but cannot convert as it would offend your family. They will respect that you are pious and family-centric.

Image 6 of 14Religion: Arab Muslims are proud of Islam - they consider it the perfection of Judaism and Christianity. You may find yourself asked by Muslims if you would convert to Islam - no need to stutter and blush. You can say that you respect Islam, but cannot convert as it would offend your family. They will respect that you are pious and family-centric.

7

Personal space: Arabs think of the self differently than they do in the West where the self begins at the skin. In Arabia, the self is in the soul. So the person on the bus may touch you -- but in their mind, they are standing far from your real “self.” This does not make it OK for a man to inadvertently jostle into that woman passenger.

Image 7 of 14Personal space: Arabs think of the self differently than they do in the West where the self begins at the skin. In Arabia, the self is in the soul. So the person on the bus may touch you -- but in their mind, they are standing far from your real “self.” This does not make it OK for a man to inadvertently jostle into that woman passenger.

8

Style and substance: The U.S. State of the Union address is all substance and no style. Boring! In the Arab world, how you say something is as important as what you say. For example, King Hussein of Jordan was a leader who people admired for his command over classical Arabic and poetic turns of phrase.  In short, Arabs be styling.

Image 8 of 14Style and substance: The U.S. State of the Union address is all substance and no style. Boring! In the Arab world, how you say something is as important as what you say. For example, King Hussein of Jordan was a leader who people admired for his command over classical Arabic and poetic turns of phrase. In short, Arabs be styling.

9

Individuality: In the West, a person might be offended if you refer to her as “Mother of Ben.” She would say, “I’m much more than a mother,” and point you to her resume or her LinkedIn profile. In the Arab world, it is considered a sign of honor to refer to someone as “Mother of Omar” or “Father of Fatima”.

Image 9 of 14Individuality: In the West, a person might be offended if you refer to her as “Mother of Ben.” She would say, “I’m much more than a mother,” and point you to her resume or her LinkedIn profile. In the Arab world, it is considered a sign of honor to refer to someone as “Mother of Omar” or “Father of Fatima”.

10

Hospitality: Arab hospitality is famous. You can visit someone at the most inconvenient time, and they will welcome you with open arms. In fact, you can compliment someone's shirt and they’ll offer it to you. You don’t have to accept. You can say no - unless it gets awkward, at which point, take their shirt and eat their food.

Image 10 of 14Hospitality: Arab hospitality is famous. You can visit someone at the most inconvenient time, and they will welcome you with open arms. In fact, you can compliment someone's shirt and they’ll offer it to you. You don’t have to accept. You can say no - unless it gets awkward, at which point, take their shirt and eat their food.

11

Arabic: Many Arabs believe that their language is the most beautiful in the world. They look down upon Muslims from other countries who memorize the Arabic of the Koran but don’t understand it. And indeed, Arabic is a beautiful language. Don’t begrudge the Arabs their pride and don't knock it till you've tried it--  instead, learn Arabic!

Image 11 of 14Arabic: Many Arabs believe that their language is the most beautiful in the world. They look down upon Muslims from other countries who memorize the Arabic of the Koran but don’t understand it. And indeed, Arabic is a beautiful language. Don’t begrudge the Arabs their pride and don't knock it till you've tried it-- instead, learn Arabic!

12

Middle Man: Arabs often turn to a third person - always someone with influence - to get their tasks done, their visas approved or their Nescafe 3-in-1 stirred correctly. This is known as wasta. Wasta also helps a person save face in case a task is not completed - it was the intermediary who wasn’t up to the task! Shoot the messenger!

Image 12 of 14Middle Man: Arabs often turn to a third person - always someone with influence - to get their tasks done, their visas approved or their Nescafe 3-in-1 stirred correctly. This is known as wasta. Wasta also helps a person save face in case a task is not completed - it was the intermediary who wasn’t up to the task! Shoot the messenger!

13

Illness: Arabs often feel queasy about referring to illnesses like fever, heart conditions and that ominous c word, cancer. They call off work saying they are “tired' (Taaban)  A colleague told us of her father receiving a phone call saying his mother was 'very tired.” It was only by the tone of voice that he divined his mother had passed.

Image 13 of 14Illness: Arabs often feel queasy about referring to illnesses like fever, heart conditions and that ominous c word, cancer. They call off work saying they are “tired" (Taaban) A colleague told us of her father receiving a phone call saying his mother was "very tired.” It was only by the tone of voice that he divined his mother had passed.

14

Differences: Every Arab is unique, just like everyone else. Their politics, branch of Islam and language may vary across the MENA where the Levant, Gulf and North Africa are as diverse as continental Europe.  Moroccans and Jordanians would struggle to understand each other in a colloquial chat - even though each lay claim to speaking Arabic!

Image 14 of 14Differences: Every Arab is unique, just like everyone else. Their politics, branch of Islam and language may vary across the MENA where the Levant, Gulf and North Africa are as diverse as continental Europe. Moroccans and Jordanians would struggle to understand each other in a colloquial chat - even though each lay claim to speaking Arabic!

Reduce

The misunderstandings caused by the cultural differences bring to mind Rudyard Kipling’s poem when he said, “The East is East and the West is West and never shall the twain meet.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Kipling was wrong on two counts:

1. The East (or the Middle East) and the West can meet for a Turkish coffee.

2. He used a pompous word like “twain” when he could have so easily said “two.”

Let’s bring the East and West together!

Read this anthropological eye-opener and gain a deep understanding of the cultural nuances of the Arab world.

After visiting this slideshow, you will finally understand why Middle Eastern politicians thump their hands on podiums and desks while giving flowery speeches. You will learn what your Arab colleagues in the office mean when they say, they are “tired.” And you will compute how to respond to an Arab Muslim who has asked you to convert to Islam.

Finally, you will discover just what is it you said that caused that pleasant looking gentleman to punch you in the face.

Of course, each country in the Middle East is as different from the next as England is from France. Keeping that in mind we’ve resorted to using broad (but useful) strokes to deepen your understanding of the Arab world.  We’ve banked on real life wisdom and Margaret Nydell’s insightful book “Understanding Arabs” to come up with the pearls of wisdom that can be found in each of these slides.

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