Language Differences Between the East and West

cultural intelligence
Cultural Intelligence
The Importance of Cultural Intelligence

It is 4pm, my kind Emirati neighbor knocks on my door. I open the door and smile at Layla. Her 4-year-old daughter and my 4-year-old son are friends and often play together. Layla and I have been neighbors for years. We are both women and both well-educated.

Me: “Hi Layla. Would you like to come in?”
Layla: “No, it’s OK. I’m just coming to pick up Nouf”.
Me: “Oh, Ok. Nouf…, your Mum is here.

Nouf comes running down the stairs and hugs her Mum. We both smile at each other. I finally say, “Well, it was nice to see you, Layla. Have a lovely day. Nouf, come play again tomorrow. Bye!”.

I close the door gently behind them. I also accidentally close the door on a friendship. Layla and I never become friends. Why?

In today’s increasingly inter-connected world, it is crucial to understand the importance of cultural intelligence, particularly when it comes to the use of language in different cultures. While the West places a high value on words and their meanings, the situation and context are more important in the Middle East, especially in GCC countries.

This is a textbook case of common blunders when it comes to the use of language. We were both speaking English, so we assumed we understood each other. We were wrong.

What went wrong?

I focused on Layla’s words. When she said, “No, it’s OK. I’m just coming to pick up Nouf”, I took those words to mean exactly what she said. I understood she did not want to come inside to visit. I did not ask her again because I understood her words. Unfortunately, I did not read the situation and context, so I misunderstood her meaning. Layla came over because she was hoping to establish a better connection with me. She likely expected me to insist she come in to sit together and talk. Relationships are so important in the UAE and other GCC countries.

When I tell my university students this story, they are shocked by my behavior. “Why didn’t you ask her again? Why didn’t you tell her that you had coffee or tea ready? Why didn’t you insist she come in?”
Because, she said “No”.

How to prevent miscommunication

It has taken me years to learn the intricacies of what is said and what is simply understood by the context or situation. I’m still learning. One thing I have learned for sure is to slow down. Taking the time to build relationships is crucial in the GCC region.

Cultural intelligence is vital for anyone who wants to navigate the differences in language and communication styles between the Middle East and the West. By understanding these differences, individuals can avoid misunderstandings and build stronger relationships across cultural boundaries.