Learning how to speak the local language is always a good thing to do when you move to a new country. Personally, I’d recommend learning the basics first. Learn how to greet people and say please and thank you, and really work on your pronunciation, especially when learning people’s names.

Many languages have sounds which are unfamiliar to English speakers and learning how to pronounce your colleague’s name correctly will show that you respect them as a person and a colleague. Have fun with it and encourage everyone to take part in your learning!

Use words in the proper context

The first word I became familiar with was ‘inshallah’, which literally means God willing. When making plans, confirming a meeting or deciding on a deadline, you will hear this added to the sentence most of the time.

In its truest form, ‘inshallah’ means that the action being discussed will take place unless some twist of fate prevents it.There are some people that use the phrase ‘inshallah’ knowing that they are unable to deliver on the promise. Rather than disappoint and/or lose face they will say ‘inshallah’, meaning that it was fate that prevented them from delivering. Learning when this word is being used correctly can take a bit of time.

Cultural values reflected in lingo

‘Shway shway’ means slowly. Time has its own pace in the Middle East. Why rush when the job will be there tomorrow, as will the person requesting it? However, it is important to note that this is not an invitation for you to do the same. ‘When in Rome’ does not apply to this situation!

Western expats have a reputation for delivering and performing in a timely fashion and this is to be expected. Hearing ‘shway shway’ can be extremely frustrating, especially when dealing with government authorities like immigration. When things start moving, however, be prepared to act fast. In one situation, I waited 6 weeks for news about my work visa to allow me into Qatar, then on a Wednesday morning I received an email and flight details for that Saturday.

Be aware of subtleties in language

‘Wasta’ is another commonly misunderstood word. Initially, I took this to mean: “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” The meaning is similar to what I thought, but it’s worth knowing its subtleties. Wasta is all about your personal recommendations. When someone uses their ‘wasta’ to do you a favour, they are using their personal connections to help you out. If someone who is very well connected is not pulling strings to help you, then chances are they are not wholly committed to whatever it is that you’re selling.

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Written by Sarah Keast, General Manager, People & Organisational Development

I’m a people developer through and through. From watching a ‘lightbulb’ moment in a workshop to seeing a person’s face when they get promoted. That’s what it’s all about for me!

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3 Responses to “Learning the lingo in the Middle East”

  1. Radhia says:

    I’m originally Algerian, lived for many years in Canada, and my Lebanese connection is my husband. I agree that the lingo in the Middle-East matters, and I had to learn a lot before I could be comfortable in society.

    Now some info about “Shway shway”: It usually means “gently, please!”. You also say it to a child who’s running around, someone yelling at you, or someone giving out instructions too fast.

    Happy Learning :)

  2. Sarah Keast says:

    Thanks Radhia!
    Isn’t it interesting how words get translated – thank you for the fresh insight and for kneading my blog!

  3. Micah Walker says:

    Having lived in the Middle East (Dubai) for 3 years I have to agree with you Sarah, language and “learning lingo” is key.

    Radhia has made a great point about phrasing and not being an arabic speaker I have no value to add there!

    I once learned that the sound of a person’s name is the sweetest word they can hear… Well that may be true but more a more important learning for me was that pronoucing a persons name correctly, particularly in the Middle East was key to building trust and productive relationships.

    Meeting an associate called Ahmed, and knowing the difference between Ahmed, Ahmad, Ahmet (and pronunciation) was something I really focused on and found it so effective just to rememeber their name correctly, and pronouce it the right way!

    Not only the name but a persons standing in the community or system with which you are operating is key when using lingo. For example, no matter how many times I corrected my team, I was always Mr. Micah to middle management and Sir Micah to front line team members. At first I was uncomfortable and thought this was degrading to them! because I believe in treating everyone equally, but over time I came to understand they were actually showing me a great deal of respect and for me not to acknoledge that was culturally inappropriate. Likewise for me to address another business associate at a senior level as Sir Abdul-Rahim would NOT be the right way to use this as it communicates that I’m submitting to his level of authority.

    Easy to understand and get this right once you’ve given it the proper attention. I alwasy found that trying to “be” a local isn’t effective beccause you are not local. I believe the right approach when learning the lingo is to be cultural aware, show you care to address people and issues appropriately but always “be you”and be authentic.