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A Handshake is Worth 1000 Words: Body Language in Dubai Business Culture

Body Language in Dubai Business Culture

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Nelson Mandela gave some solid advice. Your words, and the language they’re spoken in, can make a powerful impact.

But what about what you’re not saying?

What are you communicating without even realizing it?

Is your message, “I’m confident, trustworthy, and capable,” or something more like “Watch out!”?

In this article, we’re going to take a holistic look at the nonverbal signals you might be giving your business partner.

When you’re in another culture, you can’t expect your body language to stay the same. In Dubai, you might accidentally be sending messages that tip the scales in the other guy’s favor—and not even know it!

Everything from your head to your feet matters in the business culture of Dubai, where personal relationships are the foundation of any successful venture.

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1. Your Face and Eyes

1- Smile Like You Mean It

A lot of people tend to go one of two ways when it comes to smiles.

They might avoid it entirely in the hopes that they’ll be taken seriously. Or they go too far, grinning like mad even past the point of burning cheeks.

Neither of these options flies particularly well in most countries in the world.

And in Dubai, you’ll need to tone it down even more.

Laughing too much at others’ jokes or always smiling without good reason makes you come off as an oddball at best—and untrustworthy at worst. If nobody understands what’s so funny, they’ll wonder what you know about the situation that they don’t.

If you’re at a trade show, for instance, you’ll see people on both ends of the spectrum trying to get your attention.

Watch and see—the ones in the middle, giving gentle and authentic smiles, are the ones who make the most connections.

Eye Contact

2- Eye Contact

Eye contact is the type of thing that really differs from person to person.

Some people in Dubai prefer strong eye contact as a show of respect, while others would prefer that you politely avert your gaze when speaking to them.

If you can, take a look at how other people around you—especially the successful ones—use eye contact.

Are they looking down into their teacups, over their partner’s shoulder, or directly into their eyes?

Follow their cues, and remember not to overthink things.

As a foreigner, you will be given a certain amount of leeway on these subtle issues. Just remember to stay focused and respectful when spoken to; don’t let your attention wander.

One more thing to note here: Men shouldn’t make prolonged eye contact with women, especially in public. It comes across as leery or even threatening and makes both parties uncomfortable before long.

3- Speech

Language

Dubai is an incredibly cosmopolitan city already, and becoming more international by the day.

You’re likely to hear a dozen languages on the street every time you go out.

Many firms even prefer to do business in English rather than hire an interpreter. If you’re experienced in international business, you’ll already know that English is widely spoken all around the world already.

Be that as it may, the fact is that Arabic is the de facto and de jure language of the UAE.

Native Emiratis speak Gulf Arabic from childhood and learn to read and write in the formal written language.

This Modern Standard Arabic differs in several key ways from the Gulf Arabic of the street. Pronouns are different, the grammar rules are more complex, and the written language preserves more classical vocabulary.

That means that learning to speak, read, and write in Arabic is a pretty big task. The U.S. Foreign Service Institute rates it as one of the hardest languages to learn for English speakers.

With that effort, though, comes great reward.

By law, all contracts and regulations in Dubai must be in Modern Standard Arabic.

Knowing the language will make you more confident that what you’re signing matches the translation you’re given.

And it also gives you an enormous status boost.

Even by learning a few polite phrases you’ll separate yourself from the foreign expats who couldn’t care less about the local culture. You wouldn’t believe how many people live for years in a foreign country, expecting everyone to speak English whenever they go out.

People will notice the effort you’ve made to connect with them, and it won’t be forgotten.

Etiquette

No matter what language you speak, there are a couple of notes you should pay attention to for conversation etiquette as well.

Whenever you’re meeting with a local, you should avoid dominating the conversation.

Give them time to think, and don’t interpret short silences as awkward. In the negotiation-laden Arabian Gulf, people often take a while to think things over.

It may take quite a few sips of tea or scratches of the chin before the time comes to give an answer.

In addition, steer away from rude language and asking about a man’s wife.

Bawdy language in the some countries can be a mark of camaraderie, but in the Arab world it’s far too forward for a formal meeting.

And though it’s important to pay attention to business partners’ personal lives, it’s also a little bit out of bounds to ask directly about a man’s wife—so ask about his family as a whole instead.

4- Out to Lunch

Dining etiquette and table manners are complicated enough to deserve an entire article on their own.

Fortunately, a lot of the things that are polite or rude in other countries have the same connotation in Dubai.

And that’s great! When you’re looking at an array of amazing al-machboos, shawarma, and al-harees, you don’t want to have to think too hard before you eat!

The basic rules are easy to remember. Don’t talk with your mouth full, don’t gorge yourself, don’t make loud eating noises—the usual stuff.

However, you should also make sure that you’re one of the last to begin eating unless invited otherwise. This shows great respect for all present.

If bread is a part of the meal—and it’s likely to be—don’t cut it with a knife. Instead, tear it with your hands and eat small pieces.

Lastly, don’t order any alcohol when you’re out at a restaurant.

Most Muslims don’t drink alcohol, and you don’t want to be the only one at the table drinking, even if nobody says anything.

If you happen to be dining with someone who does drink alcohol, wait for them to suggest it.

Hand and Shoulder

2. Your Shoulders and Hands

1- Physical Affection

Physical affection between male friends is more common in Dubai than in some other countries.

For example, you might see two men holding hands in the street—think nothing of it. In the same vein, don’t be surprised if a local friend of yours holds onto your handshake longer than you’re expecting him to.

In many countries, it’s not particularly common for men to show each other much, if any, physical affection.

Emirati men, in contrast, are used to clapping each other on the back or throwing their arms around each other’s shoulders to physically express their close friendship.

If this makes you uncomfortable, then you do have the right to hold back a little.

This is another thing that foreigners aren’t expected to master straight away. In fact, anyone used to dealing with business people in other countries is likely aware of the preference for less physical contact.

But again, the more you approach this cultural gap with an open mind, the less of an obstacle you’ll find it to be.

Handshake

2- Handshakes

In the Arab world, handshakes are often less firm than you may be used to.

How many ‘80s business seminars went over the importance of a firm, manly handshake? Something about showing your dominance in the room or your physical strength?

Forget it. In rapidly-advancing Dubai, that ideal is far behind.

A powerful handshake can come off as pugnacious and aggressive—far from your intended effect.

Don’t take offense if you’re offered a “limp” handshake at a meeting or introduction. The handshake in Dubai is more of a show of respect than power.

Speaking of respect, it’s important to greet people by using their official titles.

If you’re meeting someone with a PhD, call them Doctor. If you have the opportunity to meet a sheikh, use Sheikh as the title and then their full name.

By the way, just as with eye contact, men should also avoid offering Muslim women handshakes.

The opportunity may never even come up, but you should keep it in mind. If a woman offers her hand to you, don’t refuse and instead give the same light but respectful handshake discussed above.

Women should be prepared for Emirati men to refuse a handshake on religious grounds.

If this happens, don’t take it as a snub and instead place your right hand over your heart with a small nod of your head and a smile.

The reasoning behind this is simple.

In conservative Muslim cultures, men are expected to respect a woman’s comfort zone. In Dubai, this takes the form of refraining from all forms of physical contact.

3- Hand Etiquette & More

It’s the age-old question in any new situation: “What am I supposed to do with my hands?”

The same tactics that work in other countries work in Dubai too.

Don’t clench your fists, don’t cross your arms tightly, don’t fiddle with your clothes. If you’re nervous, adopt a relaxed yet upright posture with your right hand holding your left wrist.

There’s just one extra general rule to remember:

In Dubai, as in many Muslim cultures, it’s considered rude to offer things with the left hand.

Traditionally, the left hand is used for cleaning after using the bathroom. That may or may not be the case for you, but keep in mind the cultural association.

That’s what native Emiratis think of when you offer them your left hand. Is that where you want their mind to go in a business meeting?

Whether you’re a lefty or a righty, you need to shake hands with your right hand, open doors for people with your right hand, and hand things to others with—you guessed it—your right hand.

And what’s one of the most important handoffs you’re going to make?

The business card.

When you exchange business cards, take the other person’s with both hands and examine it carefully before putting it away.

Hand over your own card with your right hand, naturally, and make sure that the Arabic side is facing up.

Surely you remembered to have your cards printed in Arabic and English, right?

One more thing to note:

During a meeting, you may notice that people look down at their phones more often than you’d like.

But this isn’t seen as rude or intrusive in Dubai.

Rather—depending on whom you’re meeting, of course—a meeting is more of an extension of someone’s regular work day instead of special time set aside to connect one-on-one.

Unfortunately, as a foreigner you may be held to a bit of a higher standard here.

You’re expected to show a very high degree of respect to your hosts, and that may mean sacrificing the freedom of checking your emails while someone else is talking.

Smile Like You Mean It

3. Your Legs and Feet

1- Confident Posture

When your business associate comes into the room, they want to see a confident businessperson.

And you want to control the room as much as you can from your own position.

You can achieve this, in part, by widening your frame slightly and simply taking up a little more space in the room.

Stand with your feet slightly apart to project an image of powerful confidence without intimidation.

Slouching is frowned upon in most cultures already, but in the stricter and more formal business culture of Dubai, it’s seen as even more negative.

Slouching when sitting or walking implies that you’re either lazy, uncomfortable, or have something to hide.

In contrast, if you pull the old trick of leaning back in your chair with your hands behind your head to intimidate others, you’ll come off as trying way too hard.

Avoid this outdated tactic, and instead go for a friendly, genuine slight lean forward over the desk. You’ll appear eager to listen to what the other party has to say, which can only lead to a smoother relationship.

2- Bottom of the Feet

Be sure not to step on anyone’s toes—literally or figuratively!

Similar to the left hand, many more conservative people in Dubai find the bottom of the feet unclean.

Resting with your feet pointed at someone else or accidentally kicking someone under the table might not get you in trouble directly, but it sends a subconscious message that you don’t respect them.

Pay attention to how you’re crossing your legs and feet in a meeting. Are your feet pointed toward somebody you’re trying to impress, or worse yet, toward someone with higher status than you? They’d better not be.

Don’t jiggle your legs when you’re sitting down, either.

It’s a sign of nervousness, and it shows your conversation partner that something else is on your mind. And at a business lunch, there’s the added danger of knocking over the tea!

After reading this list, you might be thinking, “Are these little things really what’s going to make or break my business deal?”

But put yourself in the other person’s shoes. (As an expat, that’s an exercise you should be doing daily anyway.)

Suppose someone came into your office with a sullen look on his face, gave you a sweaty, limp handshake, fiddled with his phone during your conversation, and slammed the door behind him on the way out.

Each of these things individually could be explained away with the context or easily brushed aside.

But together, they’re practically unforgivable. You probably hate that guy just from the description!

That’s the same kind of cultural friction that can happen when you hold on to all your previous body language norms in a new environment.

In doing business in a different culture, you’ve made an unspoken commitment to respect the local people and their way of life. If you can’t back that up with your actions, you’re not going to meet with a whole lot of success.

4. Conclusion

Dubai is a rapidly growing cosmopolitan city. Local businesspeople are used to dealing with foreigners from all over the world.

It’s completely natural that they’ll have dealt with cultural misunderstandings before.

That high tolerance, however, only makes it that much more valuable to be aware of and respectful of the local culture.

If you’re used to people making mistakes, someone who’s sensitive to what you find offensive is going to be a breath of fresh air.

Your task is simple and yet endless. Culture runs far deeper than can be described in a simple article. These simple outward differences between body language in other countries and body language in Dubai are rooted in millennia of tradition.

All you have to do to conquer this is to see the world with an open mind.

You have to understand that what you find offensive or grating might not matter at all to others. Conversely, they might find themselves subconsciously annoyed because of something you don’t even think about.

You just need to keep one basic principle in mind. If you can pay attention to how others act and react, you’ll be on the right track to mastering your body language no matter where you go.

And Dubai is waiting for you to take that first step.

Author: Yassir Sahnoun is a HubSpot certified content strategist, copywriter and polyglot who works with language learning companies. He helps companies attract sales using content strategy, copywriting, blogging, email marketing & more.

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