Speaking the same language doesn’t mean you can communicate

A jewellery shop in Luxor.   An American tourist has decided on a ring he would like to buy and all is going wellUntil he asks if it is possible for the jeweller to cover the ring in gold, it’s a silver ring.  He wants a silver/gold ring that has been made in Egypt for himself.  Apparently there is some special significance for him to have the two metals combined.  The jeweller, even though he speaks good english is getting more upset and defensive by the minute.  He thinks the customer is accusing him of trying to pawn off silver as white gold.  At the same time the American is getting increasingly frustrated at his own inability to make the jeweller understand what he wants.  He is also bewildered by the emotional behavior of the man behind the counter.  They had been getting along so well until now!

The conversation gets more intense and heated by the second.  Neither is aware that the conversation has taken a turn for the worse, and become two different conversations.  Each man is so intent on getting his own point of view across that neither one is REALLY listening to the other!

The jeweller is an acquaintance of mine so I decided to intervene.  When I pointed out what was happening everyone had a good laugh about it.

You don’t have to be two different nationalites for this to happen but in Egypt this is what happens most of the time.   I used to get personally involved in verbal battles of my own at least 10 times a day.  I have had more misunderstandings with my staff, Egyptian tradesmen, Egyptian professionals, (not to mention my neighbrs and government officials) than there are debates in the United Nations Assembly.  Now I appreciate, and can make allowances for, how much our cultural differences are responsible for misunderstandings between tourists and the locals.  It is amazing how tolerant and forgiving the Egyptians are towards us at all in the face of so much cultural diversity. 

Communication is not just about conversation

Visitors to Egypt should be aware (if they want to enjoy an easy passage) that they are now coming up against more than one culture which is new to them.  There is the

  • Muslim Religious Culture
  • Coptic Christian Religious Culture
  • Egyptian National Culture and
  • for those coming to Luxor and Aswan there is the “Upper Egypt” Culture. 

Just because there are five star hotels, nice shops and Egyptians dressing in western style clothes who APPARENTLY speak English, French and even Japanese does not mean the Egyptians and the foreign visitors are going to understand each other to any great degree.  However, for the most part both sides are usually blissfully unaware that they are neither listening nor responding to each other despite the verbal exchanges taking place.

Differences in business methods.

Foreign visitors find it difficult to understand the Egyptian mentality when it comes to business.  This surfaces usually only when a problem develops.  We (foreigners) can’t understand why the Egyptians don’t conduct their business the way we do.  We don’t understand that our laws are different, we cannot for the most part comprehend the Egyptian legal system at all!   We don’t understand how our attitudes differ in regards to food (and I don’t mean the menu!), sex, love, marriage, children, life, death and morality.

75% of Egyptians in Upper Egypt do not REALLY speak or understand English.  I am assuming it is the same for other languages.  Add that to the cultural differences and the ‘not really listening to each other’ aspect – you can see how situations and conversations can be confusing.   The language problem is generally overcome by the friendliness of the Egyptians anyway so not much to worry about for the visitor.

However, there is one area that may not only concern, but lead to a lot of upset for the visitor.  That area is the planning of their visit to Egypt.  It is advisable for visitors to have all their arrangements regarding accommodation and tours in writing.  It is extremely important to go into the finer details that relate to what is included and not included.  It is a drastic mistake to assume expected things like entrance tickets are included in a tour.  Be warned, they may not be for every site.  This is typical of the kind of difference in business cultures that upsets tourists.

4 TIPS for CLEAR COMMUNICATION while in EGYPT – seriously

  1. Ask the question 3 times – second and third time…look intently into the eyes of the person you are speaking with. – I am not trying to be smart or funny here!
  2. LISTEN very carefully to the answer.
  3. Repeat the answer you got just to be sure you understood it.
  4. Be patient, friendly and smile……the Egyptians are always smiling.  Remember – “you catch more bees with honey than with vinegar”.  In Egypt a smile in the face of adversity can move mountains.

One Comment

  1. This advice is most helpful. Especially the smile. That and walking like an Egyptian. Reserach modern egyptian cultural norms, have a few handy phrases in arabic, smile, be interested, smile, try a joke, ask for help from the Mara house team smell the roses, smile!

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