Who d’a thought it? As a British man I like some personal space. But as a sportsman and team player I welcome a warm embrace after a titanic struggle on the sports field. Yesterday, at the close of play of our two-day Negotiation Skills training course in Jeddah, I was suddenly forced to flip from ‘British man’ to ‘a member of the team’ – delegate and trainer united. It was a beautiful moment. All of the cultural and personal barriers came down when a delegate leaped in for a genuine, heart felt embrace. This is not the first time an Arabic man has felt so uplifted by our training that I end up in a bear hug.
During the same training course my colleague Billy Milton was explaining how your face, body and vocal intonation must match your words if you want people to truly believe your message. Role playing an employment review with Mohamed, Billy delivered some good news with a broken voice, closed body language and no eye contact. The group then suggested how Billy could make his message more believable. Add some eye contact, open your body to the employee and smile. Any more? Use a positive tone of voice. Any more? “You could have hugged me”, said Mohamed. In a performance review in the UK…….not on your life! But in the Middle East such an embrace is not so strange.
Arabic men are comfortable with such touch. Walid, a client who became a good friend, likes a handshake to linger; until you are just two men holding hands. If you want to succeed in Saudi you may need to embrace this physical contact. It is a sign of acceptance; a sign that you are forging a strong relationship; a sign that you are valued. From here you can build trust and friendship.
So I say, embrace the embrace if it is hard earned, as mine certainly was after two days of intense Negotiation Skills training. It was worth every ounce of effort.
Women on the other hand are not permitted to touch or shake hands, unless they are married to the man or an immediate family member. You have been warned. I nearly broke this rule when I ran a simple energiser during a training course for GlaxoSmithKline. The energizer requires delegates, in a circle, to stand on one leg and then, on the count of three, try to grab the finger of the person to their left. [Don’t ask.] The single lady in the group took her place in the circle but politely declined to play the game. I had to take responsibility for the error and quickly apologised for my faux pas.
This is an important lesson for the immediate future. As women slowly gain a voice in the Middle East it can be difficult to remember that they must abide by cultural expectations………and so must you. I recently trained women at Olayan Financing Company. They were powerful and outspoken in the work place. They behave like any other strong woman would in the West and it is easy to forget that they are still Saudi women.
It is a great pleasure to work with people in Saudi Arabia. They keep you on your toes because they are so keen to engage, learn and challenge.
A message to my many Arabic friends; you may not understand some of my colloquial phrases. They are intended to entertain while I try to educate. I do not wish to offend.