The culture chasm: On the wrong side of the law

Common gestures speak louder than words — but many expatriates aren’t aware their acts cause deep offence

On the wrong side of the law
Image Credit: Supplied
An expatriate who considers the middle finger as a commonplace gesture in his country, now findshimself in an uncommon position — in front of a judge for the very act.
24 Gulf News

Dubai: Expatriates have found themselves on the wrong side of the law — jail terms followed by deportation for public indecency and obscene gestures. Alarming, worrying, yet true. The accused have been guilty of acts ranging from flashing a finger at someone to consensual sex in public.

The recent court cases reported by Gulf News not only illustrate this, but point to a far more insidious subtext — cultural misunderstanding.

An expatriate who considers the middle finger as a commonplace gesture in his country, now finds himself in an uncommon position — in front of a judge for the very act. He may also not realise — until it is too late — that apart from obscene acts, certain overt physical gestures overlooked in his home country are punishable in his host country.

Would you call this a case of misunderstanding? Or would it be fair to label expatriates as culturally ignorant?

The British Embassy in Dubai even published a booklet last year titled UAE Advice for British Nationals, a tool for the British expat community to help understand the traditions and laws of the UAE.

Gulf News asked Ruzina Hassan, Political Media Officer, British Embassy, Dubai, whether the Embassy has been able to gauge the effectiveness of the initiative. She said, "The booklet contains advice that the Embassy has been giving for years in a concise and easy-to-carry format. In the past two years, we have seen a drop in the number of arrests and detentions of British nationals in Dubai and the northern emirates. We are confident that our outreach activities have a positive effect."

The Embassy is currently working with Dubai Police, the Shaikh Mohammad Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) and local schools on a new outreach activity on cultural awareness that will take place in May. Hassan said, "The Embassy believes that it's important to raise awareness, in particular, about the differences in the laws and traditions between the UK and UAE."

So would it be safe to assume that these differences are the basis of cultural misunderstanding?

Social mores

This question is best answered by two experts who bridge the gap, affording their trainees a better grasp of the nuances that define UAE's cultural and social mores.

Gulf News approached Pamela Eyring, the president and director of US-based The Protocol School of Washington (PSOW), which trains government officials and business leaders in international protocol. She was invited three times by the Protocol Department of The Ruler's Court which manages protocol for His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and members of the ruling family. The PSOW's Mena regional office in Dubai will open next month to conduct workshops on Emirati etiquette for expatriates.

Gulf News also contacted Donna Marsh, an internationally renowned author and former resident of Dubai, who will be conducting two workshops in May through Kwintessential Arabia, specialists in cross-cultural communication in Dubai. Through the workshops — ‘Living and Working in Dubai: Cultural Considerations' and ‘Working in a Multicultural team' — people will learn to apply practical, cultural knowledge to improve their working environment as well as their daily life.

With globalisation one would believe that the exposure — to different cultures — has afforded them first-hand knowledge of cultural dos and don'ts, yet this doesn't seem to be the case. Why?

Eyring said, "In many ways, the world has become a smaller and more diverse place. However, some people tend to be more comfortable living in their own cultural bubble, which can prevent them from learning about the diverse world around them. Paradoxically, people can retreat into a world that simply reinforces damaging stereotypes or misinformation."

Referring to our perception as a cultural lens, she said, "We wear different ‘cultural lenses' in our own country. But when we travel, we should look at our surroundings through their ‘cultural lenses', not just our own. Religion, history and traditions influence a culture and are reflected in collective behaviour."


Marsh explained that cultural misunderstanding is the result of a person's perception as well as his lack of awareness. "These are both contributing factors. Some people suffer from a lack of awareness. If you are not exposed to other cultures, you may react to a cultural situation in the same way you do ‘back home' because that's all you know. Lack of cultural sensitivity can cause all sorts of misunderstandings, often leaving the visitor perplexed and the host offended," she said. She also reiterated Eyring's insight on how people perceive the world through their ‘own cultural lens'.

"They interpret their world through this lens. For example, someone from a culture which emphasises the importance of tasks and deadlines can be frustrated when working with people from relationship cultures. They may be in a hurry to ‘get down to business'; their counterpart may engage in small talk, delaying business conversation until a rapport has been established. Attitudes to time and punctuality can also lead to culture clashes," she said.

Given that permissible conduct in one's country is unacceptable — or worse, punishable by law — in the residing country, one needs to make sense of the disparity. Eyring suggests that new residents should visit local heritage museums to get a deeper understanding of local culture. "This suggestion has helped me build many new friendships in the UAE as well as new business for our school. I feel more confident and enjoy each trip better because I am self-aware and prepared before I travel. Today, the UAE feels like my second home and I enjoy sharing my amazing experiences with my friends and colleagues in the US."

Eyring visited Dubai for the first time in 2008, and has since returned for several training sessions including her recent workshop for a client in Abu Dhabi. Before her first visit, she said she researched the UAE's culture.

"I learned a few basics responses in Arabic so I could greet others or thank them. I didn't stare or try to take pictures of the locals even though their attire was fascinating to me. When my husband visited with me, I would not hold his hand in public even though I'm comfortable doing this in the US," she said.


Eyring added, "Travellers and expats need to do their homework before they travel to another country. They must be respectful of the other country's culture and laws or they will embarrass their own country."

Of legal cases involving expatriates who have been penalised for misconduct, Marsh's advice is geared towards organisations. She said, "Any company involved with corporate relocations should, at a minimum, provide information about the host country that employees and business visitors need to know that could land them in trouble. This information should include an explanation of the cultural dynamics behind the difficulty. Understanding other cultures' attitudes, values, behaviours and points of view can be a positive experience for all."


Marsh highlighted the need for cross-cultural programmes. She said, "While cultural dos and don'ts and business etiquette have their place in a learning environment, successful cross-cultural programmes tend to teach people how to see cultural values, behaviours and attitudes from different points of view. Ideally, people moving to a host country should receive a briefing that is more comprehensive than simply listing cultural dos and don'ts. The Middle East is a complex place with regional variations and generational differences. There are also cultural variations reflective of diverse expatriates. Hence it is a good idea to understand the reasons behind those cultural dos and don'ts, which should help widen the view from your own cultural lens," she said.

In pictures



Latest Comment

How can the law simply determine if a middle finger was actually raised during an argument based on one person's statement? It could be that the other person has actually raised a whole hand in a gesture of annoyance and not just the middle finger. Anyone can simply call the authorities and complain that so and so raised the middle finger at them in an act of revenge. where do the authorities draw the line? I would like to know.


23 April 2012 16:46jump to comments