x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Self-Emiratisation: Cultures are poles apart on personal space

The traditional physicality of Arab communication between men makes westerners - even close friends - extremely uncomfortable.

"Can you please not talk so close to me, and quit touching me all the time, bro!" a close American friend remarked as I engaged him in harmless conversation.

I had moved to the United States for school from the UAE a scant four months prior to the comment, and this was the first time I realised that the way I had communicated with Emiratis was not appreciated by even the closest of my American friends. I had already overstepped the boundaries of his comfort zone on more than one occasion and quickly deduced that this instance of intrusion had been the last straw. Although I was no stranger to the difference in communication protocols between the US and the UAE because of an upbringing in both countries, it still took me aback when a dear friend bluntly told me to back off. This illustrated that the basic physical communication protocols of Arabs and Americans differ in accepted and expected levels of contact, animation and vicinity, leading to gross misinterpretations by one another.

The most significant of these differences, I had noticed, was the contrasting male-to-male physical communication. While in the Arab culture, and others of close geographic proximity, it was a common occurrence for male friends or relatives to hold each other's hands while talking, sitting or walking down the street, one would be hard pressed to find two heterosexual men in the US doing the same in any situation. By contrast, this act in the US would automatically be interpreted as a sign of deep intimacy between the hand-holders.

I first realised the different meanings of this action while on a visit to Cairo from the US as a teenager. Noticing two men walking down the streets hand in hand, I communicated to my cousin my surprise in seeing public displays of homosexuality in a predominantly Muslim society. Only after five minutes of continuous laughter could he catch his breath to tell me how common this was in Arab society and how shocked he was to hear it appear as anything but friendship in the States.

Another example of the discrepancies between the different peoples' body language is the contrasting levels of animation while communicating. In the US, minor hand-gesturing and subtle facial expression can be found during some conversations. More pronounced expressions could be interpreted as aggression, anger or even as a sign of instability. However, Arab communication tends to be considerably more animated, with flailing of arms, wide-eyed and open-mouthed facial expressions and involvement of the entire body all being the norm.

The common lack of enthusiastic body language displayed in the US, conversely, could be mistaken for indifference, lack of passion, illness or even depression. Because of my time spent in the US, I am prone to the use of this more fixed form of communication and my family regularly reminds me of my apparent disengagement in family conversations. Although this is not the case, it is difficult for me to express my participation through more body language, the way they would like to witness it.

Lastly, the issue of personal space clearly illustrates how Arabs and Americans do not see physical communication in the same light. There can be no doubt many Americans want and expect distance from others, especially strangers. This notion of personal space is easily observed when, for example, using public transport, driving a car, or talking face to face with another.

In buses and trains, Americans usually take the seats furthest from anyone else to be sure they are firstly, not bothering anyone and, secondly, have the greatest freedom of space for themselves. In the Middle East, by contrast, it is not uncommon to see close grouping of persons on public transport in the Middle East while sections of the vehicle remain entirely empty.

Driving habits also illustrate this different perception of space. Compare driving on a US highway, where safe spacing in between cars is kept and respected, with that in the Emirates, where being harassed to change lanes by a driver who is constantly high beaming you while positioned no more than half a metre from your rear bumper at speeds above 140 kph occurs every time you're on the road. And, as demonstrated by the situation I described at the start, with my American friend, talking in proximity is reserved for secrets and significant others in the US, while leaning in to speak and keeping close is widely accepted in everyday Arab communication.

Although knowledge of other cultures and customs is more readily available and common currency in this information age, many people still find fundamental differences, such as that of physical communication, shocking. So western readers should try not to be too surprised if an Arab says: "Why are you sitting so far away? Come closer so we can really talk."


Thamer Al Subaihi is a reporter for The National and a returning Emirati who grew up largely in the US



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