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Communications in the Middle East – Am I Getting Through?

November 15, 2014

Philae

As I read updates on the progress of poor little Philae, the lander perched on a comet millions of  miles from home, its batteries fading and its messages taking 28 minutes to reach us on earth, I can’t help thinking of my struggle to communicate in a place much closer than Comet 67P – the Middle East.

Forget about all the cultural nuances that get lost in translation. Most people who travel to the region – except possibly for libidinous estate agents from Essex – are aware of the potential faux pas that can leave you cast into the outer darkness. I’m talking about the more basic forms of communication. The kind of stuff for which the Arab world is well equipped and yet sometimes seems incapable of using in a way that connects with western expectations.

Business people here have the same plethora of devices as we have in the west: desktops, laptops, tablets and smart phones. Reliable telecoms systems and passable broadband. Smart phones are pervasive. No self-respecting business person in the Gulf will have less than two phones. Some have more – a phone for every occasion.

So that being the case, why do messages from west to east seem so often to fall into a black hole – somewhere in the Mediterranean perhaps, or bouncing off the stratosphere and heading off into deep space?

I can only speak for myself, but if someone from the Arab world with whom I have a business relationship sends me an email or an SMS, I respond. Maybe not always immediately. There are times when I might pause to reflect for a day or two. And if that’s necessary I usually send a holding message: I hear you, and I’ll get back to you shortly.

Yet at the other end, I’ve lost count of the number of times when I send an email in response to an urgent request and hear precisely nothing. Not a thank you, nor any acknowledgement whatsoever. Eventually, when it suits the other person, I might hear something back. Or not. I’m starting to get into the habit of routinely sending every important email twice. The first time to all available email addresses. After three days I send the same message again, suggesting that perhaps the person didn’t get my first effort. This is an opportunity for the other party to excuse themselves for not replying earlier on the basis that the problem was with the transmission rather than any failure on their part to respond.

It would be insulting to suggest that this dilatoriness is down to “Arab time” – the so-called Inshallah Factor. No, there’s something else at play here. Could it be that my humble communications are far too trivial to warrant the courtesy of a fast response? Possibly. Could it be that the recipient is so busy that a large queue of emails sits waiting for their attention, and your chance of a response depends on whether your message is near the top of the stack at the moment when the person has five minutes to sit down in peace? Also possible. Or could it be that many people are still wedded to the paper document, and discount the seriousness of any other form of communication? Unlikely, though paper still holds sway more than in most regions.

I mostly put it down to a tendency to live and think in the present, and to respond to things when they rear up at you – like someone coming at you on the wrong side of a highway. So if my present doesn’t correspond to your present there’s a gap into which ill-timed communications fall, never to be seen again.

Another dynamic that comes into play is power distance. To quote from Geert Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions theory, this is “the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally”. Middle East cultures are generally quite high on the scale of power distance; the boss, the father and the ruler do not expect to be challenged or contradicted, and the timing of communications tend to be at their discretion rather than yours if you happen not to fall into one of those categories.

In my case the inequality is not one of hierarchy – more the power gap between buyer and seller. If I’m buying from you, I have the money, and therefore the power, at least in your mind. The prospect that I, the seller, might decline to supply if not treated with what I see as due respect often doesn’t occur to you, the buyer, until I come to the conclusion that you are too difficult to deal with and start making noises about walking away. Which is where the car bombing towards you on the wrong side of the highway comes in.

It’s best to avoid that kind of situation, especially as there’s rarely any malevolent intent behind the failure to communicate. So if I really need to get through to the person, I will resort to combination tactics – follow-up email, phone calls and SMS.

SMS is generally the most effective tactic. If you call, you might catch the person at the wrong time and you’re back to square one. An SMS is like an arrow to the heart, which is where at least one of the person’s smart phones resides. Short, sweet and hard to ignore because most phone users in the Arab world check text messages far more often than email, and therefore the queue is much shorter.

I would not advise spam-like techniques to attract the attention of the target, though. Messages that begin with “if you value your grandmother’s life, read this” do not fall within the wide radius of the average Middle Easterner’s sense of humour. Nor should you let slip your irritation at your correspondent’s comatose approach to communications. There are subtler ways to induce shame than to mention that this is your fifth attempt to get in touch, though sometimes I struggle to find them.

Life can be even more complicated if you’re dealing with the kind of person whom I would describe as old school. He (for it is usually he) might have a laptop or a gargantuan monitor on his desk, but that’s mainly for show. He never uses it. Instead he relies on his secretary to select emails for his attention, print them out and lay them on his desk for further action. The panjandrum duly annotates the printout – eventually – and the secretary reverts to the sender – in due course. Due course can mean several days, especially if the secretary has not inquired of his master as to the urgency with which he should treat the missive. The default is not urgent. In that situation an SMS direct to the panjandrum is usually the only option, since being an important person he will rarely be available to speak to you.

There have been moments when I’ve considered less conventional means of getting my message across. Gift-wrapped premium dates perhaps, or maybe a box of his favourite cigars with the message appended. Or maybe even an impressive-looking Rolex watch (bought for $10 at the local souk but without an indication of its origin) with the message “Because you’re worth it”. But I’ve yet to encounter a life-or-death situation in which such extreme tactics might be justified.

The odd thing is that 90% of situations that one considers urgent become less so with time. Once a deadline’s gone it’s gone, and with luck you can resurrect it. Therefore in the end the wisest approach is often to go with the flow. If the matter isn’t urgent in your correspondent’s mind, then downgrade it in yours. Save your brain cells and accept what you can’t change.

In case you’re wondering whether I have specific people in mind as I write this, well yes, I do. Gentlemen, you know who you are. Much as I respect and admire you, there are moments when you make me feel like a box the size of a washing machine sitting on a frozen lump of rock a long way away, with my batteries of enthusiasm for your cause fading away as each day goes past without a precious word from you.

So now you know.

From → Business, Middle East

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