x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Integration and conversation bring out the best in us all

The UAE is developing its social identity whilst maintaining its cultural and religious ones. But this can only happen if we continue to communicate openly with each other.

For anyone I've met recently, it might come as a shock that I wasn't very social as a child. My mother says that until I turned six, I threw tantrums when guests came over, waiting until they left to come out of my room.

Being the eldest child, there was no one to socialise with until my brother learned to formulate words into sentences. Most of my cousins were also younger. Interaction with kids was limited since adults were my usual company.

One thing that helped in developing my social skills was that as I became older, I was in the company of the boys in our family, going to parks and beaches and hanging out. This complimented the exposure I had to others my age at school and, later, when I attended university in the US.

The time spent with the boys in my family helped break down those barriers that still existed in this country during the 1980s and 1990s, when interaction with members of the opposite gender was not encouraged.

Today, with social media and integrated events that bring people of all age groups, nationalities and genders together, young people in the Arab world can still suffer from a lack of social skills. We still have young men who use Bluetooth to contact young women or whisper their numbers in their ears. We still have girls who are too shy to ask a man a work-related question. Women often give encouragement to their Bluetooth-using suitors by responding to their messages. This creates a vicious cycle, reinforcing bad habits of communication. Language barriers can also lead to lack of confidence.

Many boys and girls are segregated by the time they become adolescents. This was less common in our parents' day. Mixed gatherings and socialisation were a part of everyday life. Speaking to a member of the opposite gender didn't necessarily lead to an inappropriate relationship unless you were taught otherwise. Our parents used to organise group outings while they were in university. Recently, there has been a revival of this type of social interaction though some people still practise caution. Many still won't speak to others unless they are spoken to first.

At university, I took courses in ethics, public speaking and psychology. They proved to be very useful, developing my understanding of how humans feel, communicate and act, and leaving me with insights long after I graduated. Coupled with my family's encouragement to be verbally proactive, they significantly enhanced my social skills. Today, I not only participate in events that bring people together, I'm actually an organiser of these events.

Through "Promise of a Generation" (POAG), three friends and I started more than two years ago what we describe as an "accidental majlis". The point of POAG is to foster living-room style discussions on social issues that promote awareness and educate people on different subjects. A mix of well known and regular people are asked to speak, ensuring that the dialogue is ongoing. We look to people to not only listen to one another, but to develop relationships and networks that are long lasting and beneficial.

There are many other initiatives around the UAE which use similar concepts. They encourage us to reach out to our various networks of family and friends to engage in open and insightful discussion. Despite the rise of these groups and campaigns, reaching out to many people is still hard as many of these events only take place in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and to a lesser degree Sharjah. Places like Fujairah and Al Ain often end up being left out.

Fostering a vibrant community goes beyond simply reaching out to those who share a neighbourhood or workplace. It involves continuous dialogue.

Conversations are key to developing people's perceptions and enhancing their knowledge of certain topics. Such initiatives, if not self or family motivated, need to be encouraged in schools and by groups or people who are active in the community.

The UAE is developing its social identity whilst maintaining its cultural and religious ones. This can only happen if we continue to communicate openly with each other. So this week, get to know five new people by striking up a conversation with them. Who knows, you might end up helping someone come out of their shell.


Aida al Busaidy is a communications professional based in Dubai