The majlis: Cultural context is key to communication

While every member of the management team in the UAE was fluent in English, there was an incredible amount of communication that was misunderstood by the consultancy team.

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Half-jokingly, I have always claimed that the greatest job I ever had was when I translated English to English. It happened when I was a member of a transformation team that was hired by a UAE organisation to help them restructure. I was the only locally based team member; the others were part of a team from the United Kingdom. My role was to provide a local perspective and to assist in the communication between the consultancy team and the organisation's management.

While every member of the management team in the UAE was fluent in English, there was an incredible amount of communication that was misunderstood by the consultancy team. What they missed was what was unsaid, what was inferred and what was expected to be understood. At first, it was difficult to explain to the consultants the subtleties that they were missing. With time, they started recognising the intention behind the words and the expected forms of behaviour, speech and presentation.

Many expatriates miss incredible opportunities because they assume that everybody communicates the same way they do “back home”. They mistakenly assume proficiency in a language to be the same as cultural similarity. Everything from subtlety, idioms, humour and style differ vastly from one culture to another, even when sharing the same language.

In an earlier job, I worked for an American manager, who insisted on using American humour, which was completely wasted on his British, Indian and Arab team members. This attempt at developing a rapport invariably resulted in very uncomfortable moments for everybody involved.

While these examples may seem innocuous or just unfortunate, there are times when such challenges can have disastrous consequences.

I knew of a successful company – a partnership between a company in the UK and a prominent Emirati partner in the UAE – where the UK partner started a renegotiation with its local partner. It left the task to its legal team, which wrote a letter that was very exact, demanding and lacking any degree of personal touch or warmth. Towards the end, the letter made clear the consequences of not responding before a certain deadline, which came across as a threat. Sadly, offence was taken and the Emirati partner ignored the deadline and refused to renew the contract. When the licence expired, the company had to shut down, not because the business model had failed, but because there was a complete breakdown in communication based on cultural insensitivity.

The best example of subtlety in communication is when a Muslim says inshallah. The literal translation is “if God wills it”, which is what any Muslim is obliged to say when asked to comment on the future. Even with the most sincere intention to agree to a plan, we are obliged to recognise that only God can determine the future with certainty. The mistake I have seen many expats make is to continue pressing and insisting on a clear yes or no, and to say something like: “What’s God got to do with it?”.

When we hear inshallah, we look for the context and attitude with which it is said. I can claim a 90 per cent accuracy on predicting if it was meant as a yes, a no or a maybe – sadly, 10 per cent of the time it is used to avoid making a commitment.

I strongly urge anybody wanting to do business in an environment as multicultural as the UAE to develop a sense of humility and recognise that their way of communication is not the only one. A starting point would be to at least learn what not to do.

And if everybody starts becoming more aware of other cultures, there will be less scope for conflict, inshallah.

Ammar Shams has a degree in economics and postgraduate degree in law, with a focus in Islamic law. Follow him on Twitter at @hawkeyeuae

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