Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 30 October 2020

Talk of the town: Learning to accept the UAE’s culture of candid chat

From unsolicited advice about family planning to brutally honest comments about one’s appearance, a lack of the little white lie is a testament to the country’s diversity

Taxi drivers in Dubai often enquire into a passenger's personal life. Pawan Singh / The National 
Taxi drivers in Dubai often enquire into a passenger's personal life. Pawan Singh / The National 

I have a medically diagnosed fat neck. It is not an issue that plagues or will plague me health-wise. It is only a concern that will trouble my vanity – oh, and my doctor.

I went to see a GP not long after I first arrived in Dubai in 2016, after developing a little patch of eczema at my nape, a condition I’d never experienced before.

“So, you’re here about your neck,” said the doctor, as I settled in his chair.

“Yes,” I replied, sweeping aside my hair to show him.

“No, your neck,” he emphasised, using his hands to signal just how much its girth perturbed him.

Now, I am under no illusion about my appearance; I do not have a swan-like, graceful, ballerina neck. I am from a family of women who veer towards the jowled, and I made my peace with that years ago.

However, on being told I should immediately go for an ultrasound, I began to wonder, even hope, that this was just a temporary condition; that a month of pills would give me the shoulder-up silhouette of Gwyneth Paltrow.

Then the fear set in – was it something worse? The hypochondriac in me Googled every illness a swollen neck could be a symptom of: Cushing’s syndrome, thyroid goiters, Madelung’s disease.

The doctor, who later told me he was from Russia, had also expressed displeasure at my mottled skin.

“How long has it looked like that?” he sneered, holding my wrist at arm’s length. My reply: “All my life.”

“I don’t like it,” he retorted. Neither do I, but my Welsh genetics seem to overpower even the strongest faux tan.

The wait for the requested ultrasound and blood test was an unsettled, drawn-out week. When the call came, my clammy palms picked up the phone, my heart staccatoing.

The results? There was absolutely nothing wrong with me, apart from a now much-depleted sense of self-esteem.

Alas, this seems to be just one example of a particular nuance of life in the UAE, a country laced with straight-talkers. And it comes as little surprise. After all, it’s a land that’s home to a fusion of hundreds of cultures.

Those who’ve been raised to speak their mind, without filter, walk among those from nations such as mine, where an engrained politeness has reigned longer than Queen Elizabeth II. Only people in the UK will blurt out a series of embarrassed apologies when you bump into them.

Here, however, you will run into strangers on an almost daily basis who won’t hesitate to point out your flaws.

The fact that I am 32 and still without child has drawn shock, awe and advice to not leave it too late from at least 20 taxi drivers in Dubai. The reality that I am an only child has elicited tuts, and the declaration that my mother was selfish to have a small family, from at least three.

The latter I took particular offence to at the time. What if she had suffered miscarriages? What if illness had rendered her unable to have more children? What if she struggled with infertility?

A woman’s ability to bear a child is an incredibly personal, sensitive topic that, to me, shouldn’t necessarily form the basis of in-transit small talk.

Beauty therapists can, at times, make unsolicited suggestions about a client's treatment. Unsplash
Beauty therapists can, at times, make unsolicited suggestions about a client's treatment. Unsplash

And I am certainly not the only person I’ve spoken to here who has been the target of some keen upselling by a beauty therapist (no, I don’t want my apparently hirsute top lip waxed, thank you very much).

Yet, the beauty of moving to a place like the UAE, a melting pot of opinions and approaches, is that it’s forced me to readjust my approach.

This is the Year of Tolerance, after all, and learning to accept and appreciate a cultural difference in (brutal or otherwise) honesty has helped me to develop a slightly thicker skin, a bonus at work and in general life.

I was raised in an environment that believes white lies can be an act of kindness – but the old adage, that honesty is the best policy, also exists for a reason. In the UK, you can go about a full day’s work with no one telling you about the bit of food stuck in your teeth. Here, you won’t go longer than 60 seconds.

While the issue of when straight-talking veers into malice can be subjective, I’ve yet to experience a situation in the UAE where an unsolicited comment truly feels mean-spirited.

Through taxi drivers inquiring into my personal life, I’ve often learnt much in return; what the UAE looked like when they arrived years ago, new towns in countries I’ve yet to visit, what their favourite dish is back home, the shared hardships of making a life away from your family.

Now, I wouldn’t trade those little moments of connection that you rarely find in London, where Underground passengers avoid eye contact at all costs, like a social game of chicken.

One of the greatest – and, admittedly, hardest – lessons I’ve learnt in my three years in the UAE is to see such inquiry not as an insult, but a sign of well-intentioned interest.

Oh, and to invest in enough turtlenecks to hide my fat neck.

Updated: May 23, 2019 12:47 AM

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