There is a mistake that almost everybody makes when learning a language. We tend to forget that another language always means a different culture and way of life. Our own cultural quirks are embedded so deep within us that we never even suspect that things might work differently elsewhere.
Does it mean you are forced to learn from your mistakes? Not if you can avoid it. When you learn a language, you should also learn the non-verbal ways of communication between the native speakers. This is particularly relevant for Arabic. Knowing what Arabs consider to be polite and how they react in particular social settings is essential to everyone who doesn’t want to make a fool of themselves.
All such customs and conventions are collectively called a culture. And a big part of any culture is body language. Arabs are particular because their body language is unusually developed. There is a hidden message in almost every gesture. And there is the issue of right timing, too.
We will start with the most common cultural form: greetings.
In the English world and beyond, the syllable “hi” accompanied by a smile is quite enough to greet someone and engage in a conversation. Using an equivalent of “hi” is common practice all over Europe. But the Arab world has many nuances of greetings, which never rely on words only. Of course, a smile will be taken well anywhere you go. But greeting formulas, expressions and ceremonies vary across different Arab regions.
The most general Arab form of greeting, more or less equivalent to “hi”, is the word “Salam” (“سلام”), meaning simply “peace”. It is the basis of different greeting styles, such as the second most common greeting in the Arab world: “assalamu alaikum” (“السلام عليكم”), meaning “the peace be upon you”. In fact, it is used not only when meeting someone, but also when saying farewell. Wishing peace upon strangers is a wonderful thing when you think about it.
When greeted in this way, the other person reciprocates with “walaikum assalam” (“وعليكم السلام”), meaning “and peace upon you”. It can be followed up with the phrase “kaif h’aluk” (“كيف حالك”), meaning “how are you”. The usual response is “bekhair” (“بخير”), which means “great” or “fine”.
Such simple verbal formulas can be found in all languages. But now we move to the more sensitive area of body language. In the cultural area of the Arabian Peninsula, when people meet for the first time and don’t expect to become friends on the long term, they usually just shake hands. However, when you meet someone you know well or you haven’t seen for a while, it is common practice to shake hands and kiss one another on the cheek.
It is important to remember that you should always start by kissing the right cheek. What follows after that depends on the area you’re in. In the east of the Arabian Peninsula, people kiss the right cheek several times, never touching the left cheek. On the other hand, people in the center of the peninsula kiss the right cheek only once and the left cheek three or more times. There is more: the countries of Egypt and Sudan have a tradition of hugging people you know well and shaking hands with strangers.
These are the most common practices in the Arab world. If you stick to them, you can’t go wrong. Of course, some areas will have their own traditional greetings which might surprise or dismay even other Arabs. One of the more extreme examples is the custom of some Saudi Arabian tribes where people greet each other by rubbing noses. It is a very rare occurrence, but we mention it on the off chance that you bump into such people… and their noses.
A very important thing to bear in mind is that men are not allowed to greet women and vice versa. Gender segregation is a prominent feature of Arab culture. While such conservative traditions have been strengthened by Islam, they are older than the Muslim religion. Even before Mohammed, segregation of the sexes was a point of honor for Bedouin Arab tribes.
On the other hand, you should not forget that the Arab world is not only the world of Islam. Many Arabs are not conservative or even Muslim. Finally, the mosaic of nations and faiths in the Arab world includes large groups of Christians, such as Copts in Egypt and Maronite Catholics in Lebanon.