In this chapter, an analysis of the communication style of Middle Eastern countries will be provided, with particular focus on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Before analysing our focus countries, it is interesting to provide an overview of the communication style in the Middle East compared to that in the West. Only after understanding the main differences between these two regions, can inner differences be explained.
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Western ventures as well as expat foreign workers that start working in the Middle East face many challenges due to the differences in their communication style. The nature of business communication style is the result of the combination of different factors, such as cultural, political, socio-economical and historical characteristics of a country. Some of the main cultural factors will be therefore analysed in the section.
First of all, Middle East countries are very high context, meaning that people from this region take into consideration all the different aspects of a certain event in order to get the true understanding of it. Hidden meanings can be found by analysing the situation as a whole. This term was coined by Edward Hall (1976) and positioned in contrast to low-context countries, such as USA, in which the meaning of words can be taken directly from the message, without the necessity to analyse the whole context. As can be seen later in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia section, the high context characteristic can also be associated to the characteristic of the Arabic language as an associative language. This statement by Hall (1976, p. 98) effectively gives an effective understand of the meaning of high context “When talking about something that they have on their minds, a high context individual will expect his interlocutor to know what’s bothering him, so that he doesn’t have to be specific. The result is that he will talk around and around the point, in effect putting all the pieces in place except the crucial one. Placing it properly — this keystone — is the role of his interlocutor.
Secondly, Middle Eastern people tend to invest a huge amount of their time establishing personal relationships and getting to better know their negotiating parties before actually initiating the work (Badawy, 1980). Because of this, doing business in the Middle East usually takes longer than in other countries. Personal contacts are considered more important than procedures and standard processes for businesses. For example, creative sales techniques and media advertising are not as effective in these countries as in Western ones. Instead, business in the Middle East relies more on the cultivation of individual customers and on government officials (Badawy, 1980).
Another characteristic that distinguishes Middle Eastern management communication style from that of the West is related to the perception of time and space. Middle Eastern countries have a primarily polychronic work style, they usually engage in multiple activities and goals at the same time. In the Middle East, time is an open-ended concept. It is a mixture of past, present and future. The word “bukra” (literally “tomorrow”) that is often used in this region refers to the fact that what cannot be done today will be done tomorrow and the word “inshallah” (literally “God willing”) underlines that God is in control of time (Martin and Chaney, 2006). Therefore, time is considered to be a flexible concept, being late at meetings and not respecting strictly deadlines is usually not seen as offensive behaviour. Moreover, being late could also be a tactic used by Middle Eastern managers to demonstrate their superiority and power over their subordinates (Martin and Chaney, 2006).
As far as space is concerned, business conversations in Middle Eastern countries usually occur simultaneously among different people and in the same office, similar to a round table discussion (Badawy, 1980).
Having described some of the main features that characterise the communication style of the Middle East, this paper will now focus on the two considered countries, UAE and Saudi Arabia. The aim of the two subsections is to provide an analysis of the two countries in respect to some factors that either distinguish the Emirati or Saudi communication style from the general concept of business communication style in the Middle East or that underline differences between the two regions.
United Arab Emirates
The UAE is a very particular Middle Eastern country as we have seen in the previous sections.
As far as the communication style is involved, studies have shown sound insights. On one hand, the high percentage of expatriate workers and western organisations have been influencing the communication behaviour of Emiratis. Many UAE companies have adapted their norms and communication style to match the Western ones (Willemyns et al., 2011). This has been a progressive process, driven by the fact that today more and more expatriates work in the UAE and that Emiratis employed in large companies can usually speak fluent English. On the other hand, specific patterns of communication style can be found within UAE companies. Our main reference will be the study performed by Willemyns et al. (2011) and described in their research paper “Communication and Social Identity Dynamics in UAE Organizations”. The study was conducted among 192 Emiratis (34 women) who worked in different companies in Dubai and were asked to complete a survey about their interaction with Western expatriate colleagues.
However, before proceeding with the analysis of the findings, a short overview of the theoretical underpinnings behind them will be provided. More specifically, the social identity theory has been considered. This theory proposes that “one’s self-concept is compromised of a personal identity (based on idiosyncratic characteristics such as bodily attributes, abilities and psychological traits) and of social identities, based on groups memberships” (Willemyns et al., 2011). A certain person would thus see themselves as part of a group (ingroup) and would compare their ingroup to an outsider group (outgroup), composed of people that are not part of the ingroup (Williams and Giles, 1996). This theory can therefore be used to understand and explain how the Emiratis interact with their foreign colleagues, whether they relate to them as part of the ingroup or the outgroup.
The study has shown three main communication patterns.
The first category relates to Interpersonal Control, which refers to the interpersonal control adopted in the interaction of Emirati nationals with their foreign colleagues. This study has stressed the importance of the “ingroup” dimension to many Emirati employees. In fact, a high percentage of them feel that they are perceived by their co-workers as belonging to the same group, on an equitable level. Furthermore, Emiratis try to understand the single individual when they interact with their co-workers rather than classifying them as part of a stereotypical cultural outgroup. Examples of this perception are related to non-work and friendship role relationship, similar values and interpersonal similarities. In a broader sense of the individualization process just described, Condon and Yousef (1975) have highlighted the difference between individualism, which indicates independence from the group, and individuality, which relates to the freedom of an individual to act, “individuality refers to the person’s freedom to act differently within the limits set by the social structure” (Condon and Yousef,1975). Thus, in this specific case, the study refers more to individuality than to individualism of Emiratis. This sense of individuality can also be traced in the Quran where an individual (a prophet) would go against his group in order to proclaim his faith and belief in God. Therefore, for Arab people and in this specific case, for Emiratis, individual dignity and honour are extremely important. (Ayish, 2003). Therefore, if on one hand the belonging to ingroup is an essential part for Emiratis, on the other hand, the individual as a unique person is highly respected. This fact shows that it is probably too simplistic considering Emiratis as a collectivistic culture (Zaharna, 2009).
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The second category analysed is discourse management, which refers to the ability of a person in creating written and oral texts. In the specific case, we consider discourse management in relation to conversations held at work between Emiratis and their Western counterparts. As far as discourse management is concerned, the ingroup and outgroup sides seem to be balanced. More specifically, if on one hand, some Emiratis perceive high cultural difference with their colleagues, for example they feel their ideas are not listened to nor understood, on the other hand, some other Emiratis express an open, transparent and efficient communication process. Significant examples of this aspect are related to the willingness or unwillingness of colleagues to listen and communicate or to participate in small talk and self-disclosure. Small talks are defined by DeVito (2001) as short conversations typically used to “break the ice” between people. They are also defined pathic communication, term that was coined by the anthropologist Malinowsky (1923) and refers to short discussions of low information content that are used to build and maintain relationships, to “saving face” issues.
Finally, a balance can also be found in the last category, face issues. Emiratis value face-to-face communication as an important feature. Face-to-face communication could lead to both positive effects, for example a foreign colleague expressing explicit praise, congratulations and encouragement and negative consequences, for instance by embarrassing in public an Emirati, through criticism and negative feedback and by asking inappropriate questions such as questions related to wives and or sisters.
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
In this section, an analysis of some interesting factors that shape the business communication style in Saudi Arabia will be provided.
First of all, the environment highly influences the communication style of Arab countries. In particular, Ali (1990) underlines how Arab people are subjected to behave in different ways depending on the characteristics of the environment in which they are and have relationship with. More specifically, in an authoritarian environment, an Arab tends to be conservative, dependent on authorities and on higher status people and refrains from debate and discussions (Ali and Hayward, 1993). In Saudi Arabia, the communication style is more indirect and conservative compared to the communication style of other Mideastern such as the Emiratis due to their stricter environment. Moreover, Saudis show a higher avoidance of public conflict and criticism, preferring personal to impersonal procedures to resolve conflict and one-to-one business communication (Ali, 1995).
Saudi Arabia is the place of birth both of Islam and Arabic. As Arabic is the language of the Quran, the spread of Islam to non-Arabic countries, such as part of South Asia, Europe and North Africa, has also implied the diffusion of Arabic language in them (Hitti, 1970; Hourani, 1992; Chejne, 1965). However, even though all countries in the Middle East have a common heritage in the Arabic language, not all of them have employed Arabic as official first language.
Arabic is therefore one of the most important factors that influence the communication style in Saudi Arabia. According to Kabasakal and Bodur (2002), the Arabic language has a very strong influence on the identity of an Arabic person as well as on their communication style. Arabic manages to develop a feeling of identity among Arab people that also has crucial consequences on the communication style. In particular, the Arabic language is very associative, different examples of association can be found within the Arabic language and in the Quran (Zaharna, 2009). Therefore, in order to get the true understanding of a text written in Arabic, the ability to read Arabic is not sufficient; it is instead necessary to understand the different associations among words within a certain context. Likewise, Saudis use an indirect business communication style, where single words will not probably be of significant meaning. According to Katz (2006), a simple word like “yes” might mean “possibly” and it will be very rare that a Saudi would answer with a direct “no”. Instead, Saudis value beautiful, elegant rhetoric over concise and accurate communication. Eloquent people are considered to be more worthy of trust and respect and so they will often use extremely descriptive, emotive and even poetic language to communicate their point indirectly. This can often make it difficult for Westerners to decipher the intended message. Furthermore, body language and eye contact is very important in the Middle East, however in Saudi Arabia it is more restricted and controlled.
The final aspect that will be analysed in this section refers to the interaction of Saudis with the foreign corporations and colleagues. Unlike UAE, as seen in section 1.2 where Emiratis have shown a more open, transparent and positive behaviour, Saudi Arabia is a much more conservative and closed society that also regulates the way Saudis work with expatriates (Mackey, 1987). Having a local intermediary can therefore be extremely important for a foreigner to initiate a business relationship with local people. The intermediary will help providing the contacts and leveraging on existing relationships. (Katz, 2006). In fact, as described previously, personal relationships are crucial in Middle East and in this particular case, in Saudi Arabia.
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