by Carol Fleming (American Bedu) - 01/09/2010
"This article provides guidance on simple gestures such as smiles and handshakes which if given in the wrong context or setting could be misinterpreted as an aggressive instead of friendly gesture."
Some practices such as smiling naturally or shaking hands are standard cultural practices in most parts of the Western world. However in a country like Saudi Arabia which is a private and conservative culture, these practices can be misinterpreted. As a result, some misperceptions may arise on both sides but can be easily resolved.
The western woman who arrives in Saudi Arabia for employment will likely be excited about her new venture and location. She will probably want to please and fit in and perhaps will smile spontaneously when making eye contact with a veiled woman while out shopping. Or the western woman may be in a checkout line behind a Saudi family at the grocery store and choose to smile or chat with their baby in the grocery cart. These are natural practices in the western world and the expected response would be for the recipient of the smile to smile back in return. Sometimes a short conversation would evolve. However in Saudi Arabia there is a high likelihood such gestures from a Westerner to a Saudi would go unreturned or ignored. It is not that the Saudi is purposely being rude but simply unsure of the gesture.
Many traditional Saudis are raised in a culture where a smile is interpreted as being forward. They may interpret a smile by a Westerner and particularly by a western woman as inappropriate. The smile could be seen as a western woman wanting contact and friendship in an inappropriate manner. Yes, American television dramas and ways which women are portrayed have influenced perceptions among some Saudis and especially those who have not traveled outside of the Kingdom.
So how can the western woman indicate her awareness of the culture and in a way which would not offend yet reach out to a Saudi woman if eye contact is made? The simplest way is to look the Saudi woman in the eyes and without smiling but sincerity in her voice say “Salam Alaikum.” It is accepted and appreciated to exchange the traditional greeting “Peace be with you” when eye contact has been made. This also indicates to the Saudi that the Westerner (foreigner) has taken time to learn the most traditional greeting exchanged in the Kingdom.
Secondly if a western woman finds herself in a situation of meeting someone new or perhaps in a business meeting and being introduced the tendency may be to automatically extend the hand for a handshake. Depending on the backgrounds and exposure of the Saudis this could be viewed as an aggressive or inappropriate gesture. There are a number of Saudi (and other muslim men) who will not shake hands with a woman. In addition, Saudi women are more likely to exchange greetings by kisses on both cheeks. In such circumstances the western woman is advised to let those to whom she is being introduced take the initiative on the manner of greeting. If a man does not extend his hand the woman could clasp both her hands and hold them close to her chest and respond “nice to meet you.” This gesture indicates greeting while understanding shaking hands with a woman is not appropriate within the culture and beliefs of the man. On the other hand, when meeting a Saudi woman it could go either way depending on her background on whether she would initiate greetings with either a handshake or kisses on the cheek. Again, the recommendation is to follow her lead.