Arona Maskil: Communication, Posture and Business in the UAE
By ARONA MASKIL
According to Edward T. Hall, in a normal conversation between two persons, less
than 15% of the social meanings is transmitted by words.That leaves 85% for non-
verbal communication and when you are interacting with people from another
culture, even your body language has a different meaning.
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
What does your smile say about you?
There are cultures which encourage smiling in a business setting as it conceived as
unprofessional, and yet in other cultures, lack of a smile conveys 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 to 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 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 a 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
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 a friendship, not sexual connotations. 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
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 counter
clockwise. 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 on 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, 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.
Arona Maskil is a Cross-Cultural Business Development Consultant and Virtual Leadership and Multi-cultural Team Trainer at TrainingCQ.com.
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