Saudi Arabian Culture

Communication

Verbal

  • Indirect Communication: Saudi Arabians generally have an indirect communication style. It is common for people to understate their opinion in an effort to save face and remain polite. You may have to make assumptions about what is not said. For example, if you offend a Saudi person, you may not be made aware that you have done so in the moment. They may become silent or cold towards you later on (e.g. perhaps becoming hard to contact or disagreeing with more of your ideas). Other communicative cues, such as body language and eye contact, often convey meaning. As a broad generalisation, Saudi women tend to be more indirect and reserved communicators than Saudi men. 
  • Conversation Style: When conversing with one another, Saudis generally strive to maintain group harmony by avoiding individual attention or singling out a specific person. It is common for Saudis to range from subject to subject while conversing, taking a long time before getting to the point. They may make their point in a long, roundabout way to avoid embarrassment or offence. For example, a conversation may begin at descriptions of the weather and move onto a discussion of business. To some, this may appear to indicate that the conversation is going ‘off-topic’. However, appreciate that there is a more relaxed attitude to time that allows conversation to unfold more slowly in Saudi culture. The best way of reaching an understanding is to ask open-ended questions that allow a Saudi to reach their answer in their own time whilst giving agreeable responses as they talk. 
  • Hierarchy: People’s communication patterns can differ depending on the context. Generally, when speaking in a business setting or with someone who is more familiar to the person, it is common to speak in a more direct manner (e.g. openly disagreeing with others). However, people tend to be very indirect and respectful to their seniors, such as elders or professionals. When the eldest person speaks, everybody is expected to listen and pay their full attention as a sign of respect.
  • Requests: If you ask a Saudi to do something for you that is within their means, they will often respond with “I’ll see what I can do”, “perhaps” or something to that effect. If the task is not a high priority or is dependent on their availability, Saudis often reply with “Inshallah”, meaning ‘if God wills it’ (i.e. perhaps, but it is the fate of God if it doesn’t happen). This could mean that they may not complete it for some time (or at all) unless prompted. It is best to follow up several times to check on their progress if the matter is urgent.
  • Criticism: Personal criticism or advice should always be approached sensitively and privately. It can quite easily be mistaken for mild personal offence unless presented in an indirect way. Therefore, try to offer any suggestion of improvement with praise at the same time.
  • Volume: Saudi men may speak loudly with a rising tone. This is seen as a positive characteristic rather than a negative one. Indeed, ‘shouting’ can indicate sincerity and engagement in the conversation, not necessarily anger or hostility. Saudi women are expected to be quieter and more reserved.
  • Language Style: Poetry is a regular feature of Saudi communication, most commonly used for deep praise or insults. People use poetic citations for preaching, greetings and speeches. Saudi/Arabic expressions and language can be very emotive. The structure of the language encourages repetition and exaggeration.
  • Humour: Saudi Arabians tend to have quite self-deprecating humour. People are often comfortable poking fun at themselves. However, some may be sensitive about being embarrassed and laughed at. It is inadvisable to tease another person and/or poke fun at things. It is very offensive to make a joke that involves a man’s female family members, the government or sexuality. Be aware that blasphemy is punishable in Saudi Arabia. Therefore, all jokes about religion are strictly prohibited.
  • Blessings: Blessings are said on a daily basis in Saudi Arabia. These are short Arabic expressions that wish for God’s intervention depending on the situation (e.g. “May God give you health”). Blessings are often said instead of a ‘Thank you’.
  • Swearing: Swearing is very uncommon in Saudi culture and thought to indicate a lack of decorum. If someone does swear, it is usually said in the form of a curse (e.g. “May God curse your family”).

 

Non-Verbal

  • Physical Contact: People are usually comfortable hugging and touching friends of the same gender. It is common for two men to hold hands in public when they are sitting or walking somewhere as a gesture of friendship. However, physical contact between people of the opposite gender should be avoided altogether out of respect and politeness (unless they are family).
  • Personal Space: Saudi standards of personal space differ depending on the context. If the person is a friend of the same gender, the distance is often smaller than what Westerners are used to in public. 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 a metre distance between you and a Saudi person to respect the modesty of the other person if you do not know them well.
  • Eye Contact: When talking to people of the same age, gender or status, direct eye contact is expected. Strong eye contact indicates sincerity and trust, especially in business. However, males and females are expected to lower their gaze and avoid sustained eye contact with each other. Some men may look at the ground to avoid observing a female altogether. 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.
  • Beckoning: It is impolite to beckon with a single index finger or the left hand. Instead, place the right palm downwards and use a clawing motion with fingers to indicate a “come here” request.
  • Pointing: It is considered very rude to point with the index finger. Instead, Saudis raise their chin and look in the general direction of the object they wish to “point out”.
  • Feet: It is considered insulting to show or expose the soles of your feet to other people. Avoid pointing your feet towards other people when sitting down or crossing your legs around elders.

 

Gestures

There is a saying that “to tie an Arab’s hands while he is speaking is tantamount to tying his tongue”. Saudi Arabians tend to use a range of motions and many gestures whilst speaking. These emphasise, exaggerate and/or demonstrate the point of their words, and also give further meaning when little is said. Some common gestures are listed below:

  • Disagreement: People may indicate “no” by shaking their head or disagreement/disapproval by quickly tilting their head back whilst clicking their tongue.
  • Patience: If a Saudi person needs someone to wait, they may touch their thumb, forefinger and middle finger together and motion to the person they wish to ask to be patient. For example, this action may be performed by someone who is speaking on the phone to another person approaching them.
  • Sincerity: Placing the palm of the right hand on one’s chest shows respect or sincerity when saying something earnest (such as an apology).
  • Agreement: To touch the other’s shoulder with one’s right hand can indicate agreement.
  • Obscenity: Hitting one’s right fist into the left hand and lightly rubbing it in the open palm indicates obscenity or contempt. The symbol for ‘Okay’ (with the forefinger and the top of the thumb meeting to form a circle, with the other fingers stretched out) has an offensive meaning, although the Western meaning is becoming more common. Holding the hand up (as if to say ‘stop’) with the middle finger down is the equivalent of giving someone ‘the finger’ in Western culture.
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