“You should not be saying these things to foreigners.” The problem I have explaining my own culture.

By Dr Jehad Al-Omari

Some time ago I was one of a team training people working for a Europe-wide electronics retailing company. The subject was Global Leadership and Intercultural Management. The location was a hotel somewhere in Suffolk, UK. The trainees were shop managers from Britain, Germany, France and Italy. Most of them had not met each other before. The training was conducted ahead of an ambitious expansion programme catapulting the company from a regional one into a multi-national one.


On the first day of the course and following an extensive induction lecture, the trainees were given a questionnaire on national cultures consisting of 120 questions. The time given to answer this was 4 hours - 2 hours before lunch and 2 hours after it. The trainees were divided into their four respective national groups. The British and the Germans were the two biggest groups with roughly 15 trainees each. There were about 6 French people but only 3 Italians; so we asked a Brit to join the Italians. No instructions were given to the groups on how to tackle the questionnaire and each group was assigned a trainer to oversee the process and to answer any questions.


I was assigned to the German group. As we settled down the suggestion was made that since there were 120 questions and 240 minutes, and so only 2 minutes per question, it would be best to start immediately, take a vote on the answers to each question and round up or average the answers of the participants. The process went flawlessly. Someone was appointed to receive the scores and calculate the average score for each question, and so it went on like clockwork in a most democratic and civilized manner. No discussions or disagreements took place.


The trainers had agreed beforehand to switch rooms after the first hour. I went to observe the British. They had appointed a chairperson at the start to oversee the discussion and record the scores. As time went on they discovered they needed a moderator to aid the chairperson and they duly appointed one. Most fascinating to me was the humour and boisterous atmosphere present in the room, particularly when discussing embarrassing and soul-searching questions.


After lunch I joined the French group. The first thing that struck me was the fact that they were not paying much attention to the scoring of each question. They were more interested in the philosophy behind the questionnaire and each individual question. I witnessed some very lively discussion in which everyone was engaged but no one was in charge or keeping an eye on the clock or trying to make progress with the questionnaire.


I went to the Italian room last. With one hour left, the Brit was almost tearing his hair out, reminding the Italians that there was a task to complete. They were relaxed and jovial, telling him that one important component of the training was team-building, for everyone to get to know one another, and this is what they were doing.


The Germans were the only group who actually finished answering the questionnaire. They had interesting and credible results on German culture but had had zero discussion of the nuances that make the study of culture both controversial and interesting. The British finished about 80% of the questionnaire. They had been the most fun to be with. Their approach had been to deal with difficult questions by showing British reserve and diffidence punctuated by explosions of humour. The French camp showed a deep understanding of culture and how it impacts organizational behaviour. There were heated debates because of the polarization within the group. They answered about 70% of the questions. The Italians completed about 50% of the questionnaire or perhaps less. But undeniably, as the 5-day course progressed, they were the most cohesive and creative of the four teams. We reached a point in the training programme where everyone recognized that there was merit in each approach. There were times when we needed to do it the German way and other times the British way, and times when we needed to relax a bit more and do it the Italian way or take it to a deeper level and approach it the French way.


As an Arab observing this exercise, I could not but help ask myself how an Arab team would have behaved. Definitely not the time-conscious, task-oriented German way and most likely not the “let’s have a committee” and elect a chairperson British way. Rather a cross between the Italians and the French but leaning towards the Italians: what a friend of mine calls the “Olive Oil Factor”, or what I would call “the Mediterranean way”.


This brings me to another incident relating to how different cultures learn. I was asked by a global communications company to look into their approach to training at their campus in the south of England. I was particularly advised to listen to a veteran American trainer who had been with them longer than anyone else so that I might benefit from his wisdom and experience. I asked him simply to tell me how different cultures learn. He said “Well, we can start with the Chinese people. They don’t ask many questions and as long as there are one or two people who understand what you are talking about, you are OK. You know they will help and teach the others. As for the Indians, again you have to be prepared for few questions, but unlike the Chinese, it has nothing to do with Face. They don’t like to ask you questions for which the answers might benefit others. They are fiercely competitive, and therefore they will ask the questions afterwards in the corridor and one-to-one.” I asked him who asked the most questions. His answer was immediate: “The Israelis; you have to be prepared for challenging questions and long discussions and you can forget about saving face”. I then asked him about the Arabs, to which he answered with a big grin: “I have not trained many Arabs but I would group them with the Africans. They like to learn by reverse osmosis”. I asked him what he meant: “African students expect lots of handouts and manuals which are unnecessary sometimes but which they put under their armpits and hope that somehow the information will get to their brains by reverse osmosis”.


I still don’t understand why the osmosis had to be reversed. Maybe Americans like two words where one will do. I have noticed though that Arabs do indeed like and expect lots of handouts, irrespective of the type of training and its duration. However, they are not as demanding as the German students I taught when working at a Dutch university for several years. In the Netherlands I could get away with showing slides that I had recently designed – to show new data perhaps - but which were not included in the official handouts. In Germany this was unforgivable; everything I taught had to be documented. I’m glad to say that my Arab students align with the Dutch on this matter.


However, my worst nightmare with Arab participants on MBA and in-company cross-cultural courses is when I start talking about the Arab culture itself. The problem was perfectly expressed by a Korean delegate attending a lecture on Korean culture given by a friend of mine: “You have made me feel naked”.


Some 20 years ago I was working alongside a British professor of management when training a group of top-level oil executives in an Arab country. They all worked for the same company: Danes, Norwegians, Finns, French, British and Arabs. I was there, in part, to explain to the Europeans the Arab way of doing business and managing staff. But from the start, the Arabs were especially hostile towards me and kept contradicting much of what I said. I did in fact have prior warning from the French human resources manager to expect this, but it was worse than I had thought. The company’s chairman, a Finn, was aware of it too. At dinner that evening he deliberately placed me between the two most important and antagonistic members of the Arab group. Perhaps revealing the Finnish way of solving such problems, he openly asked them to challenge my thesis on Arab culture. I turned to the most hostile of the two and asked him, in English, to spell out what exactly was wrong with what I was saying about our shared culture. He answered in Arabic: “Nothing, but you should not be saying these things to foreigners”.


The Arab culture is still driven by Shame and Face (on my lecture slides I start each with a capital letter in English to show Westerners just how important these concepts are). This is much like many oriental cultures. The very worst thing that one can do is criticize someone in front of their peers, irrespective of whether this criticism is justified or not. I guess with those Arab oilmen I was exposing the Arab culture in front of outsiders when, in their opinion, it should be kept in the (Arab) family.


Keeping it in the family is another fundamental aspect of Arab and Mediterranean cultures - another manifestation of the “Olive Oil Factor”. Irrespective of the numerous socio-cultural changes that have taken place in the Arab world over the last 20 years, and despite the advent of the internet and social media, the family must remain screened from prying outsiders. An Arab man next to you on an airplane will volunteer all kinds of information – his age, job, wealth, his hobbies, his political opinions. He’ll happily tell you how many children he has, how they are doing at school or university or where they work. But if you dig deeper about his family, especially its women members, he will clam up. Don’t ask for a photo of his wife, for example. Some of the questions he will ask you will no doubt seem far too intrusive if you are British: “How much money do you earn?” Money generally is not a private matter to Arabs but almost a way of bragging.


From my perspective as a cultural observer and living in Britain in the 90s, it was interesting to begin to see TV talk shows where people where prepared to expose themselves and their families to public scrutiny. I felt then as I feel now that such programmes were alien to British culture. But maybe Meghan Markle’s recent remarks about the British Royal Family to Oprah Winfrey indicate that this American habit has become the norm in the UK and other cultures, including even the Arab one. Whether this change is positive or negative only time will tell but suffice to say that people will only change when they feel it is time to do so and not for the sake of change.



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