An Arab participant in one of my seminars in Dubai last month suddenly put up her hand and blurted out, “I recognise this so well in my family!” when I was describing Japanese group orientation and non-verbal communication and concepts such as “ishindenshin” and “omoiyari”.
I asked in what way she thought Arab people and Japanese people were similar, and she told me that three generations of her family live together, just as traditional Japanese families used to. One evening, her grandmother asked her “what are you thinking of eating this evening?” The young woman was actually about to go and get a McDonalds hamburger, but recognising that her grandmother was hungry, asked her what she would like to eat. Her grandmother said “oh I am not hungry. I don’t need anything.”
So the young women went to buy a take away traditional Arab meal. When she offered it to her grandmother, her grandmother refused it. So they started to eat, leaving a portion with her grandmother, who then finally started to eat it.
This is not the first time I have been told by an Arab person that Japanese and Arab cultures have a lot of similarities. When I ask why, they mention a mix of family orientation, a strong relationship orientation in business, respect for seniors, and, as the young woman’s story about her grandmother illustrated, being very indirect in expressing needs.
So you would think it might be easy for a Japanese person to fit into the Arab business culture, but actually there are two issues for the many Japanese expatriates working in Dubai that make this less easy. One is that Dubai itself is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. 88% of the population are not Emirati. Almost everyone is a guest worker rather than having permanent residency. So Japanese expatriates in my workshop had to cope with many nationalities on their team, ranging from Europeans to Indians to Lebanese.
Secondly, group orientation means that there is a clear sense of in-group and out-group. Expatriates in Dubai find it very hard to become an “insider” in Dubai society. For example, amongst Arab business people, during Ramadan, it is customary to visit customers’ houses in the evening for the meal which breaks the fast. Hospitality is another very strong cultural value in Arab culture. Nonetheless, I can imagine you would have to be a very brave person to turn up at a customer’s house if you weren’t an Arab yourself.
So Japanese companies have done the sensible thing, which is to hire young local Arab graduates, offering them training and a career paths. However, there is huge diversity even amongst Arabs. Sitting next to the headscarf wearing woman who told me about her grandmother was the other graduate recruit, another young woman, wearing an abaya (traditional Arab dress), but with her long hair uncovered. She had been educated at an international school, and felt more close to the American cultural values I described.
This article appears in Pernille Rudlin’s latest book “Shinrai: Japanese Corporate Integrity in a Disintegrating Europe” available as a paperback and Kindle ebook on Amazon.
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