- Indirect Communication: Iraqis generally communicate in an indirect fashion. One’s express point is generally reached in a long, roundabout way. This has the purpose of avoiding embarrassment or offence and respecting the other person in the conversation. The best way of reaching an understanding is to ask open-ended questions that allow them to reach their answer in their own time and give agreeable and accepting responses that do not directly disrupt the speaker’s discussion.
- Implicit Meanings: The polite way for an Iraqi to say no is to say “I’ll see what I can do”, or something to that effect no matter how impossible the task may be. After the Arab has been queried several times concerning his success, an answer such as, “I’m still checking” or something similar means no. Such an indirect response also means “I am still your friend/ally—I tried”. Therefore, remember that when speaking to Iraqis, the “yes” you hear does not always actually mean yes.
- Raised Voices: In Iraq, a raised voice is not always interpreted to be a sign of anger. It is often seen as a signifier of sincerity in the expression of genuine feeling.
- Honourifics: Arab-speaking Iraqis tend to use a lot of honorifics in their speech, especially when talking to superiors (e.g. managers, religious leaders). When translated into English, these can sound very formal—“al-ḥaḍra aš-šari:fa” (The Honourable), “al-ḥaḍra al-muc aẓẓama” (The Supreme). However, such titles can also be used in daily interaction with people of the same social status. It is very common to address people one is not related to with family titles to convey friendly affection and familiarity. For example, a man may call a young woman “il-ikhit” (my sister).
- Physical Contact: When in the privacy of their home, friends and family may touch in a friendly way (such as backslapping). However, in accordance with the public separation of men and women in Islam, it is inappropriate to be tactile with any person of the opposite gender outside of the house or in the company of those one does not know well. After an initial handshake (if there is one), there is usually no contact between genders. Public physical affection between men is permissible and it is more normal to see male friends walking whilst holding each other’s hands, but women do not generally display physical affection towards anyone unless they are out of the public eye. Christian Iraqis are likely to be less strict about this, but it still applies as a general public norm.
- Personal Space: Iraqis usually give people of the opposite gender a respectful amount of personal space (usually about an arm’s length). This varies when interacting with people of the same gender; some Iraqis may sit or stand at proximities that are uncomfortable to you or within your personal space.
- Hands: Religious Iraqis observe a separation between the functions of the hands. This custom is tied to Islamic principles that prescribe the left hand should be used for removal of dirt and for cleaning. It should not be used for functions such as waving, eating or offering items. Therefore, one should gesture, touch people, or offer items using both hands together. Using the one hand alone can seem too informal, but if doing so, use the right.
- Eye Contact: In accordance to Islamic principles, males and females are expected to lower their gaze and avoid sustained eye contact with each other. This is considered respectful and observant of the partition between genders. Younger people may also lower their gaze when speaking to elders out of respect. However, Christian Iraqis and Iraqi expatriates may be more relaxed about this rule of respect.
- Obscene Gestures: Some older Iraqis consider the ‘thumbs-up’ gesture to be obscene, but the younger generation has taken up the Western understanding of it. Hitting one’s right fist into the open palm of the left hand can indicate obscenity or contempt.
- Indications: The right hand placed on the chest can indicates sincerity. It can be used to politely decline things, meaning the equivalent of ‘thank you, but no thank you’.
- Feet: Displaying the soles of one’s feet to another person is improper. Similarly, placing one’s feet on top of the table is not acceptable.
- Beckoning: In Iraq, people beckon by putting their hand out with the palm facing the ground and curling their fingers back towards themselves. It is considered rude to point or beckon with one’s index finger.