Saudi Arabia is the biggest economy in the whole of the Middle East and its lucrative job opportunities attract a multitude of expats each year. In spite of this considerable foreign population, the country remains deeply traditional and the society is marked by strict rules pertaining to religion and culture, which even foreign residents are expected to follow. So just how does one explore the local culture and communicate with people in a country as orthodox as Saudi Arabia? Here are some tips to help you get started.
Arabic is the official language of the country. However English is spoken widely and is also taught as a compulsory language in schools. Other languages that are generally spoken in Saudi Arabia include Urdu, Turkish and Farsi.Communication styles
There is segregation of men and women in Saudi society. However, men and women may be working together or dealing with each other in places such as hospitals, media houses and business companies. But the communication style to be used with men and women is very different. Care should be taken to ensure that you maintain distance when communicating with women. It’s also advisable to avoid shaking hands with them. Women, even in the workplaces, dress conservatively in the traditional attire of hijab or loose clothing and head coverings. Men too wear the Islamic attire of loose white robes. There is no requirement to maintain distance when communicating with individuals of the same gender. Men greet each other with a handshake and maybe even kissing on the cheeks. There is a practice of kissing the shoulder of superiors among people from the central part of Saudi Arabia.
When it comes to the same gender, Saudis are quite comfortable with physical contact and it is common to see close acquaintances of the same gender holding hands while walking. Hand gestures play an important role in communication in Saudi Arabia. They may nod to indicate a ‘yes’ or approval of something. A negative responsive is indicated by a shake of the head from right to left. Maintaining eye contact is essential during a conversation.
When communicating with Saudis, family and work are some of the best topics with which to initiate a conversation. You will find yourself feeling quite comfortable in their company because they are usually friendly people and many Saudi professionals have travelled considerably or have studied abroad.
Questions about their religious and cultural lifestyle should be avoided as Saudis may take offence at these. Therefore avoid bringing up issues such as women’s driving or alcohol consumption in the country. Religion and tradition often merge in Saudi Arabia and being deeply religious and traditional people, they take their values very seriously. However, this doesn’t mean that a conversation with a local has to be stiff and awkward. Saudis do enjoy humor and have a pretty good sense of it themselves. They are happy to talk about a variety of things, as long as it doesn’t touch upon their religious and social sensitivities.
At the workplace
Meeting colleagues or clients at a restaurant or café to discuss work is quite acceptable. But some may prefer to reserve such encounters for the work environment, while some may prefer exchanging home invitations. At the beginning of a business meeting, it’s common for topics like marital status, children and even religious convictions to come up. If such topics create discomfort, plan what you’re going to say ahead of time. Eye contact is especially important during business dealings; therefore make sure to maintain good eye contact during conversations.
Arabic is an expressive language and Saudis like to commend the merits of others and praise them rather overtly. Therefore, they also appreciate it when this is reciprocated, even in business relationships. Commenting kindly on their culture and country, will earn you praises in return and builds amity.
Avoid seeming aloof or embarrassed and instead appreciate the compliments.
Saudis don’t usually appreciate confrontation, so work problems should be discussed in private with the particular individual. Even during heated discussions, Saudis maintain their self-composure. However, emphatic gestures and speaking in a high tone should not always be taken as a sign of emotion, as these are usually typical of their communication style.