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Expert Insight Series: International Intercultural Consulting Firm (iic Firm)

Cultural Guidance & Manners for The Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Written by: Christen Flack Behzadi, MD

2018 July Newsletter iic firm logo-08

Cultural Mindshift: USA to MENA

Our cultural rules in the USA do not generally apply to the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region. If you want to understand how to shift your cultural mindset for success in MENA, it takes at least a half day cultural training session to fill in the pieces of this story. The most important part to understand is below.

When I am working with clients who are having trouble in this region cultural mindset is generally where the intercultural issues begin. Someone on the team has failed to shift their mindset from the way we live, think and relate to each other in the USA to the way people live, think and relate to each other in The Middle East & North Africa (MENA).

Cultural manners and etiquette build goodwill, charm and likability. In MENA – like everywhere in the world – we will forgive, look past and work with those whom we like, who enchant and interest us- this is where cultivating charm is as important as cultural guidance.

Cultural Understanding: MENA & The United States

* Cultural research and literature categorizes all countries in the world based on their dominant cultural traits.

* The major difference between the countries within the MENA region and the United States is the importance of the individual within the society.

The United States:

* The United States is an Individualistic country where the individual reigns supreme. Individual pursuits and interests are dominant. Self- actualization, fulfillment & reaching your individual potential are sought.

* The U.S. is essentially a meritocracy where the mentality is “the best person for the job” gets the job. The “American Dream” is a classic story about hard work and reaching great success based on your merits and work as an individual. This frames our cultural mindset and our way of life is dominated by these cultural practices. The individual provides for their nuclear family (spouse, children) and does not necessarily need to live in immediate proximity to extended family. It is considered unfair and nepotistic in the United States to hire family simply because they are your family.

The Middle East & North Africa:

* Lets now consider The MENA region .The dominant cultural feature of societies within MENA is the group. The countries making up the region are considered Collectivist societies where the interests of the particular groups you belong to reign supreme.

* In collectivist countries the first group people belong to is their family. Every other group is an extension of this group. The family is traditionally extended with members living in close proximity to each other or multiple generations on a single compound. Members depend on each other considerably and share resources with each other. Unwavering loyalty is required. The interests of the entire family are considered and those growing up in these societies begin to think of themselves as “we” early in life.

* What is relevant to westerners in the region is to understand the way in which interests of the group affects daily life, business and mindset. In collectivist societies people are just as talented as any other country but whom one does business with is never solely based on merit in the MENA region or any collectivist society. Group interests are important. Those who invest and work in the UAE are familiar with Emiratization : a required practice which has tones of “advancing the group” not merely the individual mentality.

* Rachel Duran is the Commercial Attaché for the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi. I heard her speak at multiple events during the 2018 Offshore Technology Conference week here in Houston. She brilliantly advised a group of Houston companies and investors looking to gain access and influence in the region to “Come and build relationships. The UAE is a relationship Economy.”

* I would extend that thought by advising that the first order of business in the UAE or any MENA country is friendship. You must become a trusted member of a group.

* In terms of friendship the first order of business is partaking in the regional hospitality. This is the purpose of the large gatherings, family feasts and drinking of the tea together. These are simply vehicles of building friendships and relationships in a way that is traditional to the region. My advice, if someone offers you tea , drink the tea . Consider them offering you friendship. Make sure you are bringing your best manners and charm. Business depends on it.

About IIC Firm:

IIC Firm is a professional cultural etiquette consulting firm based in Houston, Texas. IIC assists western professionals with interests in the Middle East & North Africa region (MENA) to become familiar with good cultural etiquette.

For more information on IIC Firm, please click here.