To Learn Arabic, You Have to Walk the Walk

Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

May 31, 2012

I have been asked several times at my university in Oman to do a brief "cultural introduction" to native speakers of English from North America and Europe who have come to improve their Arabic. I start by mentioning that there is a large difference between learning how to speak a language and learning how to navigate a culture. Then I segue into a discussion of how to dress appropriately. My watchwords are: no knees or elbows on display in public. Usually, at this point, several of the listeners look angry, disbelieving and/or bored, especially the men wearing tight, casual T-shirts and women in spaghetti-strap underwear shirts.

I say what I have to say and leave, wondering why people bother learning Arabic if they are so clearly uninterested in aligning themselves with cultural expectations. Most Arab women around the Persian Gulf leave their houses in large, black, shapeless cloaks with scarves that cover all or some of their hair. Most Arab men here appear in public in spotless, ironed dishdashas.

Oman is fairly conservative in dress, especially where I live; all local women cover their hair. At the university, most male expat professors wear suits and ties for the first day of class, then switch to clean, pressed, fitted pants and ironed, button-down shirts, with the sleeves rolled up, for the rest of the semester. But when I speak with Western students who are studying Arabic, most of them are dressed casually: sloppy flannel shirts, ripped jeans, shorts, bra straps, and sometimes underwear on display. As Christina Paulston, a sociologist who has written about language education, says, it is "possible to become bilingual without becoming bicultural."

My attempts to make Westerners understand that they will need to make adjustments to fit into Omani society have not gone well. The most common response is, "But I am me. They will just have to accept me as I am." The problem with the "I need to be me" response is that most Westerners do not realize that the consequences of "being me" are not the same as in the West. Omanis rarely use direct confrontation and will simply avoid a person who they feel is violating cultural norms.

The trick is to find a balance between integration and self-integrity while learning not just the language but also how to use it in a culturally appropriate manner. For example, most Gulf Arabs use an indirect communication style. They will rarely make a negative comment in public and never convey negative information that they do not want to share. For example, if there is a specific need to convey a warning or bad news, Omanis will often recruit an intermediary to deliver it. That is why I, a non-Omani, have been asked to give the "dress and act politely" lecture to Western students.

When Westerners are offered an invitation for coffee or dinner at a Gulf Arab's home or at a restaurant, they need to understand that "What would you like to eat?" is a filler question—the person who asked is not expecting a specific or detailed answer. A good host or hostess gives the guests everything without having to be asked; tea is served with sugar added, and the menu is already decided. In addition, it is an Omani host's responsibility to stuff all guests until they burst. If the host tells a guest to eat, the only defense is small bites and changing the subject. Explaining (even in fluent Arabic) that one is not hungry or prefers another dish shows that the person is working within a Western, not Arab, cultural framework.

It surprises me that most Westerners who come to Oman to improve their Arabic chafe at these sorts of basic adjustments. Many times I have heard, "I want to learn the language; I don't care about the culture." Yet if a student learns Arabic in the hope of a government or business career in the Gulf and cannot act politely, he or she will never succeed. Any book about doing business in the Middle East is full of examples of Westerners who lose the deal by putting their feet on the table, stretching their arms in a meeting, showing up casually dressed, asking personal questions, scratching themselves, revealing personal details. They had not carefully practiced how to control themselves in formal situations.

Things happen in the Middle East because of interpersonal connections. To succeed, a person needs to show that she or he is one who can be trusted to represent other people. On the level of daily life, an Omani will give me the name of a good tailor only if they can trust that I will behave well with the tailor and not, say, argue bitterly about the price. It is the same principle writ large in the business and government world: If a person cannot be trusted to be act politely, she or he will not be invited or (more important) given necessary information.

The other answer I get when Westerners refuse to, say, comb their hair, smile when greeting an Omani, or stand up to shake hands, is that "I don't need to talk to people—I just need the language." As a literature professor, I find this bewildering. Imagine a person who visited Britain having read all major political-theory textbooks but never having seen Monty Python, read Wordsworth, tasted tea, or been to a soccer game. Could that person cope with references to the "Beeb," "Oxbridge," "Beckham," "twee," or "pillock"? Words such as "slamming," "in the dumps," "bummed," or "shambolic" don't show up in vocabulary lists. So much of daily language is slang and metaphors that if a person is not speaking often with native speakers, she or he will never be able to carry on a normal conversation in that country. The last response I often get from Arabic language learners, is "I don't plan to live in this country, so I don't need to fit in here." While it is true that the people who say this may never live in Oman, if they have careers that involve familiarity with the Arabic language, literature, politics, or business, they will probably meet some Omanis down the line. Imagine the icebreaker or dealmaker comments that a person will have at hand if she or he can greet an Omani with a local expression or a local joke.

At a meeting, I once saw a Westerner announce, "I lived in Jordan for six months." When a Jordanian asked, "And how did you like it?," the Westerner could make only the blandest and most general of comments—clearly someone who had spent the whole time studying in classrooms and playing billiards, never actually interacting with Jordanians. There was a silence as everyone realized that the person had nothing to say. When the conversation resumed, the Westerner was left stranded.

As in most of the world, information is gold in the Middle East, and if Westerners do not appear to be culturally well-informed, they will not be given the information and, hence, never be equal and effective parts of their organizations.

The people I have met who are learning Arabic plan to use the language as part of their careers, and it doesn't make sense to spend all the time and effort to learn Arabic only to have no one want to speak it with you.

Marielle R. Risse teaches literature in Oman.