View of part of the Fujairah Corniche and the Hajar Mountains in the Background

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Sounds of Silence in the Emirates

I wrote in an earlier post about my visit to the Fujairah Islamic Guidance Centre—the welcome, the tour, the literature, the sumptuous dates, the Arabic coffee and the talk with the Director.

There is another memory that I didn’t write about then but it has been triggered by the reading of Jeremy William’s valuable book, ‘Don’t They Know It’s Friday?’

The man giving my wife and I the tour couldn’t have been more hospitable. He called on the phone and then reported that the Director of the Centre would be arriving soon to have refreshments together.

We met with seven or eight others in the Director’s office waiting for his arrival. There were lots of ‘Salaams’ to begin with and questions about where we were from and how we were finding the UAE.

Then I noticed that the conversation petered out. People were just sitting and waiting. I thought this was a language thing—in Arabic and in English we had exhausted our vocabularies and did not have any more words with which to make conversation. Looking back, I remember thinking up more questions, not so much out of curiosity but to fill in the silence. I am part of a culture that has grown up being awkward in the silence.

Among all his cross-cultural considerations about business and life in the UAE and the Gulf, Jeremy Williams offers these pertinent comments:

“Most Westerners find silence embarrassing and will seek to fill a gap in conversation. Many Arabs are wholly unembarrassed by silence and are content, usually, simply to be ‘together with friends’, savoring companionship by being in another’s company. Speech is not always essential on such occasions, and there can be long periods of silence, intermingled with periods of good gossip and story-telling.”

“Many Arabs are aware of, and are perhaps amused by, the stress which silence can cause Westerners, and it is not unknown for an Arab deliberately to create an embarrassing period of silence when bargaining, perhaps to encourage a concession from the other side. The solution is to be ready to fall silent, and to remain silent.”

Source: Jeremy Williams, Don’t they know it’s Friday? Cross-cultural Considerations for Business and Life in the Gulf (Dubai: Motivate Publishing, 1998, 2008), 71.

This book is reviewed at Reviewing Books and Movies.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: “content, usually, simply to be ‘together with friends.’”