I would like to share with you this blog that was written by Rebecca Byrne
Navigating Through Compromise and Flexibility
I wish someone had given 19-year old me a copy of Rana Nejem’s When in the Arab World before I first set off to study abroad in Egypt—or prior to any of my subsequent journeys to the Middle East for study, research, and work. Rarely has a book resonated so much with my own experiences. Packed full of tips, the book is functionally a cross-cultural training program and an intercultural business communication workshop rolled into one.
Reflecting on my time working in Jordan, I would say that one of—if not the—most important takeaways from this book is the lesson about compromise and flexibility. Nejem provides invaluable guidance for walking the fine line between honoring your hosts’ culture and finding ways to creatively adhere to practices you consider indispensable. That’s what is so refreshing about this book; it doesn’t advocate completely subsuming your own customs into local ones, but neither does it advise trying to strong-arm people into doing things your way.
I found adjusting to the way things are run in Egypt and in Jordan to be both thrilling and challenging. I was born and raised in the United States, as were my mother and father, but one of my grandmothers is from Japan and the other is from Germany. American, Japanese, and German workplaces are quite schedule-oriented, and punctuality is non-negotiable. However, I quickly realized that if I got upset whenever there was a deviation from the schedule, I would be in a constant state of stress and frustration.
Among the things that I most enjoyed about When in the Arab World are the interviews woven throughout the book, many of which parallel my own experiences. Nejem explains why nurturing personal connections with business associates is paramount—Arabs are hesitant to do business with strangers. If they need to be late to one meeting in order to squeeze in a long conversation with a potential partner, they will do so.
I myself have repeatedly observed this phenomenon. Recently, I was working at an NGO which had just signed a contract to teach English to the Jordanian girls in a remote school in the north of the country. Coming straight out of a fast-paced law firm in the U.S., I wanted to dive into teaching as soon as we had a schedule and curriculum set. Instead, the academic head, program supervisor, and I spent several meetings sipping coffee, getting to know one another and discussing what I considered at the time to be trivial details that could have been handled in an email message.
During the third meeting, I realized what was really happening—my suitability as a teacher was being evaluated. The supervisors wanted to ensure that they could entrust me with the students. They felt a responsibility to the families of the girls who had agreed to send their daughters away to study.
I came to appreciate this. After all, there’s no better way to evaluate someone than a face-to-face encounter. My time teaching these girls equipped me with valuable skills I later used in interactions with other clients. To stop stressing about time, I recalibrated my point of view such that I began to consider these coffee chats as a kind of extended interview or performance review. Nevertheless, I found a compromise so that my own goals could be met. Before these meetings, I would type up information (like schedules) that I considered to be important. I’d arrive and enjoy the coffee and company. When things seemed to be winding up, I would offer the papers to whoever was in charge, leaving it up to him or her to decide whether we should discuss it now or mull it over. More often than not, the group would ask the necessary questions, and we could proceed to the next step. In this way, I came across as prepared, conveyed the necessary information, and simultaneously demonstrated that I valued establishing a good rapport.
That willingness to be flexible and to seek out innovative solutions is why I found When in the Arab World so compelling. Nejem rightly points out that people appreciate it when foreigners make an effort to take local customs into account without being fake. Combining the best of both worlds is not just good advice for those working in the MENA region; it’s the future in our increasingly globalized world and will soon be the default expectation in business culture.