Cultural Clues… Do’s & Taboos
A series of cultural tips for countries from A to Z
Communication Guidelines for Egypt
Appointments with traditional Arab businesspeople are rarely private occasions. Interruptions in the form of phone calls and visits from your counterpart’s friends and family are to be expected. Moreover, you may find other businesspeople present and several meetings occurring simultaneously. Westerners frequently find these distractions frustrating, but it’s important to remain calm and understanding.
Business hours vary widely. In the winter, many businesses close for much of the afternoon and reopen for a few hours in late afternoon. A typical business schedule would be 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. in the summer; 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. in the winter.
The Islamic calendar uses lunar months of 28 days, so an Islamic year of 12 months is only 354 days long. Consequently, holidays will be on different dates by the Western calendar every year. Any listed Muslim holiday dates are approximations since they depend upon actual lunar observations.
Paperwork should include two dates: the Gregorian (Western) date and the Hijrah (Arabic) date. Be aware that Coptics, that is, Christian Egyptians, have yet another calendar, different from both of the above.
Egyptians tend to speak at a much closer distance than do many countries. Even if you are unaccustomed to this level of contact, do not back up or shy away. If you keep your distance, the perception might be that you find your counterpart’s physical presence distasteful or that you are a very cold, unfeeling person. Moreover, conversations usually involve touching.
Women constitute considerably less of the Egyptian workforce. Most are employed in the professional and service sectors. While there are numerous female secretaries and physicians, few female executives are to be found. If you encounter a woman decision-maker in business, she will probably be very Western-oriented in her behavior.
Arabic men often walk hand in hand, but Westernized Egyptians rarely do this. If an Egyptian holds your hand, accept this gesture of friendship.
The left hand is considered unclean in the Arab world. Unless you are handling something considered unclean, always use the right hand. Moreover, avoid gesturing with the left hand.
When you remove your shoes, as when entering a mosque, the soles of the shoes are placed together, preventing the sole from being pointed at anyone.
When sitting, keep both feet on the ground, since Arabs do not cross their legs when sitting. Moreover, exposing the bottom of your foot is considered offensive.
The “thumbs up” sign is thought to be offensive throughout the Arab world.
The Egyptians will accept information that does not contradict Islamic values. Nevertheless, compared to other Arabic cultures, they are more open to Western ideas. It should also be noted that many Egyptians are not practicing Muslims.
Be aware that Arabic is a language of hyperbole. For example, when an Egyptian says “yes”, he may actually mean “possibly.” Although you should feel encouraged by these positive responses, it would be wrong to assume that agreement has been reached.
In accordance with tradition, an Egyptian will welcome you several times at your first meeting.
Egyptian names are written in Arabic. Because short vowels are not written in Arabic, translating from Arabic to other alphabets is not an “exact science.” Egyptian names may be spelled several different ways in English.
Business will not proceed until your counterpart knows and decides that he likes you. Consequently, the social side of the deal is just as important as the work-related one.
- Egyptians may joke around and make fun of themselves. For example, Egyptian bureaucracy is a favorite target. Nevertheless, no matter how self-deprecating their humor gets, you should not try to make fun of Egypt or the Egyptians.
- Egyptian achievements, both the ancient wonders and modern advances
- The positive reputation of Egyptian leaders around the world
- Egyptian cotton, gold and other elements of their economy
- Sports, especially soccer (football), basketball, boxing (in which Egypt has won several medals), horse racing, tennis, and all water-related sports (especially sailing and swimming)
Topics to Avoid
- Women in general, especially inquiring about female members of your counterpart’s family.
- Israeli or Palestinian affairs.
- Avoid initiating discussions about your private life or religion.
- Comparison of Egypt in relationship to more westernized countries.
- Never talk about anyone in terms in inequality.
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