According to Edward T. Hall, in a normal conversation between two persons, less than 15% of the social meanings are transmitted by words. That leaves 85% for non-verbal communication!
When interacting with people from other cultures it is important to understand the body language of your business colleague and not to project your own cultural meaning onto a gesture, facial expression, or vocal inflection. What you think it means may, in fact, be quite different from what is intended.
In the UAE, every part of your body has meaning when communicating with your potential business partners.
What does your smile say about you?
There are cultures that encourage smiling in a business setting as a lack of a smile may even convey aggressiveness. In the UAE you need to find a balance between the two. Smiling too much might be perceived as untrustworthy, what usually works is a genuine smile that conveys confidence and authenticity.
In the U.S. if you do not look into a person’s eyes, you are perceived as dishonest, in Japan, staring is considered impolite. In the UAE, you need to pay careful attention as some prefer strong eye contact as a show of respect, while others prefer that you politely avert your gaze when speaking tit io them.
If you can, observe how other people around you use eye contact. Are they looking down or directly into another’s eyes?
UAE, and especially Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the international business hubs of the regions, and as such English is a common business language.
The Emiratis speak Modern Standard Arabic. If you are planning on building business relationships in the region, you will do well to learn several phrases in Arabic, as this conveys respect for their culture and language.
My recommendation for conversing with your Arab business partners is to avoid dominating the conversation. In much the same way as decisions take longer to reach, they also take their time to think before articulating an answer.
Be careful crossing the line between a business relationship and a personal friendship. In the UAE relationships are more formal than in Israel and take longer to cross the threshold, so, until told differently, address people by using their official titles (Professor, Dr., Sheikh, etc.) and their full name. Furthermore, the title Your Highness must be used for members of the Royal family and Excellency for government ministers.
In western cultures, it is not common for men to be affectionate towards each other. Physical space between people In the UAE is much more reduced than in the West and there is more contact between men. Shows of affection such as men holding hands, wrapping arms and shoulders, and clapping each other on the back, are signs of friendship, not a sexual connotation. You, as a foreigner, are not expected to act in the same fashion.
The form of a greeting is a short and soft handshake when introducing yourself and when leaving. A firm handshake, as in Western countries, can come off as aggressive.
If the meeting is held in an office you should greet first the older person, even if he is not the host, but if the meeting is held outside the office in a “majlis (sit down) or in a “diwan”, someone’s private residence, you should shake everyone’s hands counterclockwise. You do not have to offer your business card at the beginning of the meeting, wait for them to give theirs.
Regarding women, men should avoid offering Muslim women handshakes or any other physical contact, a gesture of courtesy suffices. According to Muslim culture, men are expected to respect a woman’s comfort zone, and this takes the form of refraining from all forms of physical contact.
An especially important cultural faux pas to avoid: Never give your left hand as a greeting. In the UAE, as in many Muslim cultures, it is considered rude to greet another and offer things with the left hand. The left hand is considered impure as it is used for cleaning after using the bathroom.
Business cards – Different cultures have different etiquette for exchanging business cards. In the East as well as in the UAE, business card exchange follows a specific protocol. You should take the other person’s card with both hands and examine it carefully before putting it away. In return, offer your own card with your right hand and make sure that the Arabic side is facing up.
The rest of your body
In the UAE, it is all about portraying confidence. You want them to see you as a confident businessperson. Stand straight, with your feet slightly apart to project an image of confidence but without intimidation. Avoid slouching in a business meeting, in the formal business culture of the UAE it is perceived as lazy or have something to hide. On the other hand, by leaning back in your chair and placing your hands behind your head, you will be perceived as being too casual. The best and the most professional posture is leaning slightly forward over the desk. You want to appear respectful by focusing on what the other person is saying.
Furthermore, avoid sitting cross-legged with your shoe pointing out towards your UAE business colleague or showing the soles of your shoes, as this is also perceived as an insulting gesture.
Lastly, in a negotiation meeting, try to avoid clenching your fists, crossing your arms tightly, jiggling your feet or fiddling with your clothes. Do the exact opposite, adopt a relaxed yet upright pose with your right hand holding your left wrist.
I am aware that there is a lot to remember and I am certain that the Emirates will be forgiving if you make mistakes due to cultural differences.
That said, being culturally competent means being aware of the differences, keeping an open mind, and understanding that what we see as the norm of behavior in our culture can be quite different in other cultures.