To Learn Arabic, You Have to Walk the Walk

Risse, M. “To Learn Arabic, You Have to Talk the Talk,” The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 31, 2012.


I have been asked several times at my university to do a brief ‘cultural introduction’ to native speakers of English from North America and Europe who have come to improve their Arabic. I start by mentioning that there is a large difference between learning how to speak a language and learning how to navigate a culture, then segue into a discussion of how to dress appropriately. My watchwords are: no knees or elbows on display in public. Usually at this point several of the listeners look angry, disbelieving and/ or bored, especially the men wearing tight, casual t-shirts and women in spaghetti-strap underwear shirts.

I say what I have to say and leave – wondering why people bother learning Arabic if they are so clearly uninterested in aligning themselves with cultural expectations. Most Gulf Arab women leave their houses in large black shapeless cloaks with scarves that cover all or some of their hair. Most Gulf Arab men appear in public in spotless, ironed dishdashes.

Oman is fairly conservative in dress, especially where I live; all local women cover their hair. At the university, most male ex-pat professors wear suit and ties for the first day of class, then they will often wear clean, pressed, fitted pants and an ironed, button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up for the rest of the semester. But when I speak to Western students who are studying Arabic, most of them are dressed casually: sloppy flannel shirts, ripped jeans, shorts, bra straps and sometimes underwear on display. As Christina Paulson says,  it is “possible to become bilingual without becoming bicultural.”

My attempts to make Westerners understand that they will need make adjustments to fit into Omani society have not gone well. The most common response is “But I am me, they will just have to accept me as I am.” The problem with the “I need to be me” response is that most Westerners do not realize that the consequences of “being me” are not the same as in the West. Omanis rarely use direct confrontation and will simply avoid a person who they feel is violating cultural norms.

The trick is to find a balance between integration and self-integrity while learning not just the language but how to use the language in a culturally appropriate manner. For example, most Gulf Arabs use an indirect communication style. They will very rarely make a negative comment in public and never convey negative information that they do not want to share. For example, if there is a specific need to convey a warning or bad news, Omanis will often recruit an intermediary to deliver it. That is why I, a non-Omani, have been asked to give the ‘dress and act politely’ lecture to Western students.

Another example, is that when Westerners are offered an invitation for coffee/ dinner at a Gulf Arab’s home or at a restaurant they need to understand that “What would you like to eat?” is a filler question – the person who asked is not expecting a specific or detailed answer. A good host/ hostess gives the guests everything without having to be asked, i.e. tea is served with sugar already added and the menu is already decided. In addition, it is an Omani host’s responsibility to stuff all guests until they burst. If the host tells a guest to eat, the only defense is small bites and changing the subject. Explaining (even in fluent Arabic) that one is not hungry or prefers another dish shows that the person is working within a Western, not Arabic, cultural framework.

It surprises me that most Westerners who come to Oman to improve their Arabic chaff at these sorts of basic adjustments. Many times I have heard “I want to learn the language; I don’t care about the culture.” Yet, if a student learns Arabic in the hopes of a government or business career in the Gulf and cannot act politely, s/he will never succeed. Any book about doing business in the Middle East is full of examples of Westerners who lose the deal by putting their feet on the table, stretching their arms in a meeting, showing up casually dressed, asking personal questions, scratching themselves, reveling personal details, i.e. they did not carefully practice how to control themselves in formal situations.

Things happen in the Middle East because of interpersonal connections; to succeed a person needs to show that s/he is a person who can be trusted to ‘represent’ other people. On the level of daily life, an Omani will only give me the name of a good tailor if they can trust that I will ‘behave well’ with the tailor, i.e. not argue bitterly about the price. It is the same principle writ large in the business/ government world – if a person cannot be trusted to be act politely, s/he will not be invited or (more importantly) given necessary information.

The other answer I get when a Westerner refuses to, for example, comb their hair, smile when greeting an Omani or stand up to shake hands, is that “I don’t need to talk to people – I just need the language.” As a literature professor this is bewildering. Image a person who visited Great Britain having read all major political theory textbooks but had never seen Monty Python, read Wordsworth, tasted tea or seen a football game. Could that kind of person cope with references to the ‘Beeb,’ ‘Oxbridge,’ ‘Beckham,’ ‘twee,’ or ‘pillock’? Words such as “slamming,” “in the dumps,” “bummed,” or “shambolic” don’t show up in vocabulary lists. So much of daily language is slang and metaphors that if a person is not speaking often with native speakers – s/he will never be able to carry on a normal conversation.

The last response I often get from Arabic language learners is “I don’t plan to live in this country so I don’t need to fit in here.” While it is true that the person may never live in Oman but if s/he has a career in Arabic language, literature, politics or business, s/he will probably meet some Omanis down the line. Imagine the ice-breaker or deal-maker comments a person will have at hand if s/he can greet an Omani with a local expression or reference a local joke.

At a meeting, I once saw a Westerner announce “I lived in Jordan for six months.” When a Jordanian asked, “And how did you like it?” The person could only say the most bland and general of comments – clearly someone who spent the whole time studying in classrooms and playing billiards, never actually interacting with Jordanians. There was a silence as everyone decided the person had nothing to say, then the conversation resumed leaving the Westerner stranded and ‘outside the talk.’

Information is gold in Middle Eastern exchanges and if the Westerners do not appear to be culturally au fait, they will not be given the information and, hence, never be an equal and effective part of their organization. The people I have met who are learning Arabic plan to use the language as part of their career and it doesn’t make sense to spend all the time and effort to learn Arabic only to have no one want to speak it with you.