One thing that every foreigner visiting the Arab world will agree on is how warm, welcoming, and hospitable the culture is. Hospitality is an Arab tradition that is deeply ingrained in the culture. Visitors are treated like royalty and must always be fed and looked after. A Bedouin tradition actually instructs that someone is allowed to stay in your home for three days and three nights before you can question why they are visiting and when they will leave!! So an invitation to someone’s home is a great honour that you should do your best not to turn down.
An Arab’s table is lavish with plenty of food – something which many westerners feel is unnecessary wastefulness. However, rest assured that food is never thrown away; there are always plenty of people around that need to be fed.
Many foreign visitors are overwhelmed by their Arab hosts’ generosity and warmth and don’t know what to do and how to return the favour. “As lovely as this custom is, I really struggled with it, because it is difficult to do enough to repay your hosts’ kindness.” Rebecca, who has been working in Jordan for a number of years, told me how she struggled aligning this custom with her own cultural beliefs. “Growing up, my father’s side of the family instilled in me some Japanese cultural norms, and one of the most important was this: keep your relationships with others balanced by reciprocating gifts and favours with gifts and favours of equal value.” As a foreigner here in the Arab world, Rebecca discovered that this is easier said than done.
While Arabs expect their relationships with established close friends and family to be characterised by equal reciprocity, they have a different standard when it comes to visiting guests and foreigners. Arabs will lavish time, food, and affection on visitors knowing full well that there will probably not be an opportunity to travel to said visitors’ country and have the favor returned.
All of this leads to an interesting dynamic when the invitation is in a restaurant. Unless it is a group of friends who regularly go out together, the concept of splitting the bill in the Arab world is generally not the norm, not even within the context of business culture. This issue causes a considerable amount of stress for foreigners who don’t want to feel like they are exploiting their host’s largess.
Dan found this aspect very stressful: ‘The more I went out socially with my Arab friends, I found I was getting more stressed about the issue of paying the bill. I would be driving to a restaurant and I would have this apprehension – the bill is going to come, I want to pay, but then we all get into this whole debate and fight over the bill and the winner is the one who is able to snatch the bill and pay first. And I am always conscious of appearing to be miserly and not fighting hard enough to pay the bill.” Eventually Dan, and many of his other expat friends, learned a time-honoured trick; when it was his turn to pay and he didn’t want to argue over the bill, he would slip away for an ostensible bathroom break and use that opportunity to settle up with the cashier. If you do this, your Arab companions might feign indignation, but they’ll actually be grateful and impressed that you have caught onto their culture.
It almost goes without saying that if your Arab clients, coworkers, and friends ever visit you in your home country, you should be prepared to welcome them with the same generosity they showed you. I’ve heard many Arabs who have travelled for work in the U.S. or Europe express surprise at their hosts’ expectation that they split the bill. Take the time to be magnanimous and reflect some social intelligence —it will make an unforgettable positive impression on your guest, which can serve as the foundation for a long and wonderful friendship.