Once upon a time, while working in Saudi Arabia, there was an expat manager who we will call John.
John had a miscommunication with a team member who we will call Mohammed.
One day Mohammed was absent from work.
While Mohammed was absent, there was a goodbye party for a colleague who was leaving.
When Mohammed returned to work, John said to him, “It’s a shame you weren’t here…”
John said this because he knew Mohammed would have enjoyed the office party.
The phrase “it’s a shame you weren’t here” is like saying “It’s a pity you weren’t here, we missed you, we wish you could have been here.”
It is not saying “shame on you” in a negative way.
However, Mohammed thought John was saying he should feel ashamed for not being part of the festivities.
Mohammed reported this to John’s boss.
John had to apologize to Mohammed, and the incident affected his appraisal that year.
In Saudi society, “shame“ can negatively affect someone’s image, and Saudis don’t appreciate being accused of shameful behavior.
The moral of the story:
When working in other cultures, and working with people whose first language is not English, be careful about using idiomatic expressions which could be misinterpreted.
This article can help:
On another occasion, there was an expat called Heather working in Saudi Arabia.
Heather’s desk was in a high traffic area, and it was common for people to borrow small office supplies like pens and highlighters when passing by.
At one point during a meeting, Heather said, “I wish people would stop stealing things from my desk.”
In American English, we sometimes use the word “steal” to say “take / borrow” and we do not mean it in the sense of actual “theft.”
After all, Heather was referring to office supplies like pens and highlighters, which were readily available to everyone in the office.
One of the Saudi team members thought Heather was accusing the team of theft and complained to the manager.
As a result, Heather had to then apologize to the team. This negatively affected her promotion the following year.
Misunderstandings can happen when working abroad, so it’s important to study and understand the culture of your host country. That way, you will know how to be respectful and avoid inadvertently offending them.
Once upon a time, I needed a report from one of my colleagues, who I will call Amir.
I asked Amir for this report many times, verbally and in emails.
Ten days passed, but he still had not sent it to me.
Then I thought about it: We were friends, but I had been busy in that period and had not spent much time with him.
I needed another strategy. I decided to spend some time with Amir and rekindle our friendship. I went into his office and spent about half an hour chatting about other things besides work, catching up with him on a personal level. We talked about his family, his upcoming travels, and his gym workouts.
On the way out, I casually reminded him to send me the report. By the time I reached my desk, the report was in my inbox!
So what’s the best way to get things done when working in the Middle East?
The way to achieve success is to nurture and build relationships with your colleagues.
Success at work sometimes means to relax, show your human side, and spend time with people. When you establish strong connections with people, it’s much easier to collaborate with them. Since Saudi is a highly relationship-oriented society, relationships are key at work, and should be your first priority.
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