North Sudanese Culture

Communication

Verbal

  • Indirect Communication: People generally rely on indirect communication in Sudan. It is common for Sudanese to understate their opinion in an effort to remain polite and harmonious. For example, people often respond with “Inshallah” – Arabic for "If God wills it”. This phrase is a polite way of remaining non-committal. For example, if you ask someone to do something and they respond with “Inshallah”, it generally means they are unprepared to say ‘yes’ and are indirectly declining. Due to their indirect communication style, it may not always be immediately evident when a Sudanese person has been offended. Therefore, one often has to rely on reading non-verbal cues to draw further meaning. 
  • Hierarchy: The language people use to address one another varies depending on their age difference, status and relationship. For example, men that are of the same age bracket generally refer to each other as “brother” and act quite informally. Meanwhile, those who are clearly older than oneself are treated with utmost respect.
  • Formality: It is important to use respectful and formal language whenever in public. If one is perceived to be rude in their speech (i.e. using informal language, slang, or addressing them inappropriately), they can be quickly looked down upon for not having ‘adab’ (manners and politeness). People speak more casually when only surrounded by their family in the confines of their home, but a general standard of respect is still expected.
  • Swearing: Swearing is uncommon and inappropriate in almost all situations. Such behaviour is considered to be uncivilised, and may affect a Sudanese person’s impression of your character. For example, if a taxi driver heard his passengers swearing, he may mutter “O ask the forgiveness of god to force them to clean up their act”. 
  • Blesses and Curses: Blesses and curses are said on a daily basis in Sudan. These are short Arabic expressions that wish for God’s intervention depending on the situation (e.g. “May God give you health” or “May God curse your soul”). Blessings are often said instead of a ‘Thank you’. 
  • Humour: Sudanese joke by making fun of situations. You can indulge in gentle humour to soften difficult conversations. Sarcasm and wit are admired as an indication of intelligence. However, be aware that this humour may not translate across cultures and languages. Avoid making jokes that have sexual or rude undertones with anyone you do not have a very close relationship with.
  • Arabic: There are two varieties of Arabic spoken in Sudan. ‘Fus-ha’ is the formal form that is similar to classical Arabic. This is only used in formal contexts, such as public speeches, emails, government addresses, etc. In everyday communication, people speak ‘Ammiyya’, which is the colloquial form of Arabic.
  • Honorifics: The Sudanese do not use as many honorifics as other Arabic-speaking countries. They may address someone as ‘my dear’. However, people do not call each other ‘my love’ (habibi) as much as Arabic speakers in surrounding countries.

 

Non-Verbal

  • Physical Contact: People are usually comfortable hugging and touching friends of the same gender. However, physical contact between two people of opposite genders is generally limited in Sudan. Some may shake hands or tap the shoulder, but after that first point of contact, men and women keep their distance from one another.
  • Personal Space: A Sudanese person’s standard of personal space may differ depending on their relationship with the other person. If the person is a friend of the same gender, the distance is often smaller than what an Australian is used to. For example, two friends may nestle together when sitting. However, it may be bigger in instances when there is a difference of authority or when the other person is from the opposite gender. It is best to keep at least one metre distance between you and a Sudanese person to respect the modesty of the other person if you do not know them well.
  • Eye Contact: Direct eye contact is important, but it should not be prolonged. It is best to make short, infrequent eye-to-eye contact and avoid steady gazes. Staring is considered an act of intimidation. It is also a sign of respect to avert one’s gaze. Therefore, it is polite to look in the direction of someone of status without directly meeting their eyes. 
  • Hands: There is a separation between the functions of the hands in Sudanese culture. This custom is tied to Islamic principles that prescribe the left hand should be used for hygiene purposes. Therefore, it is considered more unclean and should not be used for functions such as waving, eating or offering items. Always use the right hand to gesture, touch people or offer items.
  • Pointing: Pointing at someone with a single index finger can come across as accusing or intimidating. It is best to gesture at people with the whole hand. The Sudanese may also gesture with their head.
  • Facial Expressions: It is not always customary for people to smile when passing strangers in Sudan. This may give people the wrong impression that the Sudanese are overly serious.
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