x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Culture shock is an issue for Emiratis as well as expatriates

Getting used to a different culture can take an effort. Idly criticising a different culture may be easy, but it can do more harm than good.

Having lived much of our lives with friends, colleagues and even family members who are expatriates, many Emiratis have become experts on the various cycles of adjustment to our culture that visitors experience.

No matter how prepared people thinks they are, or how patient and tolerant, when they arrive in a foreign country for work, study or a long visit, they undoubtedly end up stumbling over the cross-cultural speed bumps.

Human beings all share the same basic emotions, which tricks many of us into believing that becoming part of a new culture simply requires a good heart and a patient mind. However, for each of us, our cultures have a unique way of expressing these emotions that can take months or even a lifetime to understand, depending on how much time we are willing to dedicate to learning and, more importantly, how much we are prepared to change.

Depending on how you look at it, the UAE can be a relatively easy place to adjust to - or a nightmare. On one hand, because of the rich mix of cultures and nationalities, most expatriates can find a group with a similar, if not exactly the same, culture and traditions, allowing for an easy transition into society and everyday life. On the other hand, having to deal with so many different people from different backgrounds can be an exhausting, although rewarding, learning experience.

Emiratis have seen the range: expatriates who pack up and leave after as little as three weeks and others who have been here for over 30 years and have made the UAE home for their families and their children. Neither decision is right or wrong, but simply a matter of preference. Each person will have a different experience of adjustment based on many factors, including the work and living environment that they land in.

Many will go through the honeymoon period when everything is new and exciting, an unbelievable adventure into Arabia. Next, the cultural shock kicks in and things can go downhill from there. There can be other stages, but eventually there is the choice to either give up and return home or continue to the final stage of adjustment: acceptance.

Arriving at that point can be an exhausting experience, not only for expatriates, but also for many Emiratis. Expatriates who choose to stay in the UAE despite the culture shock should take pride in their decision. But unfortunately one way in which many people choose to cope with that culture shock is by taking refuge in the belief that UAE society needs to be moulded and "improved" to match the culture of their own country.

Emiratis understand the importance of benefiting from the knowledge and experience of every expatriate who lives within our borders. The country has come far by accepting the many nationalities that live side by side in the UAE.

But that is not the same as conforming to principles that are imposed from abroad by misled individuals who cannot see that there is a reason for the original ideas that exist here - they work better for this country. There are jaded expatriates in every country who search each other out, create groups based on their prejudices and generally love to sit around and complain about the situation they live in.

Along with other expatriates who take every opportunity to explore the country and the culture, we have all met these cynics, some of whom will go out of their way to recruit newcomers to their way of thinking. But of course people who are in a constant battle to prove that there is a problem with everything and promote stereotypes are wasting time for the rest of us. That kind of close-minded view blocks us from the interactions that are part of the UAE's strength, and prevents expatriates not only from learning about Emirati culture, but about each others' as well.

However, it is never too late. For newcomers to the country there is a unique opportunity to interact and learn about the many cultures that live side by side in our everyday lives. Families will find that their children's entire lives are shaped by these experiences.

To overcome cultural difficulties, we all have to be willing to look at the world through the eyes of those around us. For some, this might not be as easy to do as for others, yet taking that first step is only a matter of admitting that there is more to learn about than just the culture from which we come.


Taryam Al Subaihi is an Emirati political and social commentator specialising in corporate communications