As a women engaging with the Middle East for the first time, I had many advisors, some knowledgeable others not but all well- meaning, about what I could expect, in what was described as a “moslem, misogynistic society”, thereby stereotyping & generalising; threatening to give me negative preconceptions that could lay the foundations of conflict.
As part of my preparation for the trip, I attended a day workshop on international cultural norms, which included the Middle – East. For example, we were taught how to hand over business cards in China (with both hands and to look interested and read the card). I also attended a briefing session on business culture & trade negotiations/ engagement with Arab businesses. Before my trip, based on my learning but also a person who is naturally culturally sensitive and from an ethnic community in UK, I decided to go the extra mile to integrate and communicate respect and understanding. However, this was not simply altruistic, since it made sense to do this to promote the likelihood of my success. My business cards were also updated to be bilingual and I had company gifts, to accompany any introductory engagement. I invested in numerous long items of clothing and trousers. I bought several Abayas, which I later took a liking to and bought as souvenirs to wear in UK. Here, I adapted to local customs, at a surface level of culture.
The timeframe for large corporations, was not much different to UK, given the processes that have to be taken to initiate & begin a contract. The problem was largely with medium and small companies. In these instances, I had to make a decision about pursuing negotiations with these companies or bringing matters to a close, because I could foresee the chances of severe problems and failure, due to a gap that could not be bridged, in terms of working practice. This meant resource time and money could be saved and outputs concentrated more effectively & efficiently.
On reflection, I could have understood the decision- making process within the individualism & collectivism paradigm. Another key concept that could have enhanced my engagement is understanding high versus low power contexts. While in UK decision making tends to the high, that is hierarchical; it appears more distributed, or low in medium/ small businesses. This understanding would certainly have enhanced business results, as I would have had the benefit of a wider range of businesses with whom to engage and therefore enhanced my prospects.
Given some of the apprehension and misconceptions I had come across before my trip to the Middle East; I discovered that the courses and briefings helped prepare a foundational support, for my engagements, communication & inter- cultural relationships. Unlike the rumours of a misogynistic society I found men and women overwhelmingly welcoming and pleasant, even if business culture was a little out of sync.
Investing in understanding, appreciating and accepting different cultures brings benefits to the individual mind, by opening it up to new stimulus and possibilities. While I was in the Middle East, I did still come across negative stereotypes and generalizations, from ‘Westerners’ but was able to make a robust defence of the culture and people and hope that it initiated a new way of thinking for such individuals. It helped to start off a clean slate and not descend into stereotyping. This will certainly inform my future preparation when engaging in intercultural business dealings.