Etiquette in Public Places in Kuwait
By Dr. Teresa Lesher
Like it or not, every person is an ambassador of his race, his country, his culture, his religion, his town and his family. For example, when we meet a kind and generous person from Brazil, we subconsciously think of Brazilians as kind and generous, until a different personality contradicts that characterization. Unfortunately the reverse is true as well – when we meet a nasty individual, we are automatically suspicious of the people that he represents. Although it is our natural tendency to perceive others as ambassadors, we have to make a conscious effort to remember that another person’s actions do not necessarily represent the character or principles of his country, his culture or his religion. Having said that, the fact remains that each person is an ambassador, so good public etiquette will have lasting positive effects.
For perfect etiquette in the Arab and Muslim world – actually, for anyplace on the planet – three principles can guide you: formality, modesty and generosity. These three principles are easy to remember and when applied to various situations such as dress, speech, gestures and social relations, they increase one’s chances of acceptance, respect, friendship and success.
Dress: People in the Middle East generally value formal dress over casual dress. So if you can’t decide what to wear for an event – for example, jeans or slacks – opt for the more formal choice.
Speech: While colloquial expressions and slang are very much a part of our conversation with family and friends, they should be avoided in public speech. You should generally use Standard English, keeping in mind that most Arabs learn English from textbooks. Avoid sarcasm and irony because you are likely to be misunderstood. Avoid foul language as well, which will either evoke a strong aversion or lead to imitation due to ignorance of the meaning and/or distastefulness of the word. Finally, mild humor is encouraged except for three types: that which is of sexual nature, that which is deceptive in order to amuse, and that which provokes or frightens another person.
Gestures: Formal gestures will come naturally when you dress and speak with formality: your feet will be on the floor rather than on your knee or a nearby table, and you will be less likely to lean or lie down in a social gathering. Other observations of formality in gestures includes offering a greeting (eg, salaam alaikom) before asking a passerby for the time or directions, for example, and greeting again at the end of the conversation. When approaching a stranger for something is necessary, it is recommended to approach someone of the same gender if possible. An important consideration related to gesturing is to use your right hand to serve food and drink or hand an item to a person, since the left hand is commonly used for personal hygiene.
Taking pictures: Three rules will make picture taking in Kuwait successful: First, if you want to photograph a person, ask permission first. Second, if you want to photograph a place, consider how a citizen might react if he saw you (I was both insulted and ashamed when I saw some foreigners taking pictures of cats on a garbage dump). Third, respect sensitive areas such as government buildings, which are usually marked if photography is not allowed.
Modesty is the second principle that, if applied, can enhance your etiquette in Kuwait. Four issues warrant discussion: dress, voice, gestures and affection.
Dress: Like the preference for formality, people in the Middle East generally value modest dress. Men should avoid showing their thighs and their stomach below the naval. It is extremely rare to see men wearing shorts or going shirtless, while it is common to see them wearing longer, looser clothing even in hot weather. Women should avoid tight clothes altogether, as well as revealing their shoulders, cleavage, stomach, lower back and thighs. Modest clothing is highly valued for women especially, as it raises respect for her and her perceived sense of self-worth. Keep in mind that there is a difference between displaying femininity and sexuality. The former is encouraged, the latter discouraged.
Voice: In private gatherings among family and close friends, it is common to hear many people talking at once and sometimes at quite high volumes. However, in public the opposite is true. When in public, interrupting or talking at the same time is considered impolite, and one can barely hear the voices of others near him – it is not only a matter of privacy, but one of perceived decency as well. The Muslim highly regards the advice of the prophet Luqman to his son, which is mentioned in the Quran: “Lower your voice; indeed, the most disagreeable of sounds is the braying of a donkey.” (31:19)
Gestures: Arab culture is highly contextual, so meaning is extracted not only from direct speech but also, and perhaps more so, from the setting and body language. If you consider that an Arab may “hear” your body language louder than he hears your words, you will naturally adopt a more modest and thoughtful way of gesturing. To apply this principle, avoid suggestive walking an sitting as well as loud or exaggerated laughing. Also avoid exaggerated or over-energetic gesturing, adopting instead more subtle movements when pointing, greeting or walking. As for eye contact, you can indulge if you are speaking with someone of the same gender; however, when speaking with someone of the opposite sex, it is acceptable to restrict eye contact. Repeated or prolonged eye contact between genders is not recommended.
Affection: The public display of affection is common in many parts of the world, and also in Kuwait if it is between adults and children or between people of the same gender. There are norms for cross-gender displays of affection, however. If you are a married couple, restrict public affection to holding hands. If you are not married, even holding hands is unacceptable by the generally conservative Muslim population. While greeting a friend or colleague of the opposite sex, it is recommended to offer only a verbal greeting, restricting physical greetings to a handshake upon the initiation of the female. A polite man should not offer his hand to a Muslim woman who is not closely related to him, although she may permit a handshake and extend her hand first. Cross-gender kissing (even on the cheek) is extremely provocative and not acceptable to the vast majority of Muslims.
The third guiding principle to successful etiquette in Kuwait is generosity. Arabs are renowned for their hospitality and generosity, which is a reflection of the principles of charity, brotherhood and goodwill in Islam. You can demonstrate generosity in your thoughts, speech and gestures when dealing with others.
Thoughts: Firstly, while in the Middle East, be a student of culture and religion, not a teacher (although others will learn from your good example as well). This will take a degree of humility as you listen attentively and resist the desire to save the people from themselves. Remember that the local culture works for the locals. Secondly, work for integration and avoid isolation. You should accept invitations as often as possible and show your solidarity with your host culture with acceptance, kindness and involvement. Thirdly, adopt a tolerant and forgiving attitude. The prophet Muhammad told his followers to allow 70 excuses for the behavior of another. After thinking of even seven excuses, one would see that blaming another is blameworthy! As the well-known adage goes, “Don’t judge me until you’ve walked a mile in my moccasins.”
Speech: Greetings before and after a conversation are essential, and in the middle of conversation common. For example, during a silent moment in conversation with an acquaintance, s/he may welcome you or compliment you in a way similar to initial greetings. It is highly recommended to learn some common greetings and phrases in Arabic as a sign of respect. Such efforts, even if minimal, will be received with great pleasure and admiration. If you receive a compliment from someone, respond with a related compliment; for example, for "You did a good job" – reply, "Your encouragement means a lot to me." When visiting, it is highly recommended to offer your compliments to your host or hostess, but with certain considerations. You should commend one’s good qualities and traits or offer a general compliment on one’s home or family, but you should not focus your compliment on something particular like a man commenting on the beauty of his host’s wife or daughter, or to admire a particular item in the house (which may be seen as an indirect request for it or, even worse, envy). Finally, gossip is frowned upon, and is seen as a negative reflection of the gossiper rather than the subject of gossip.
Gestures: Smiling is a highly valued and generous gesture, especially among colleagues and acquaintances; prophet Muhammad said that a smile to another is regarded a charity. As a cautionary note, however, be careful about cross-gender attention. Other gestures that can enhance etiquette is sharing. If you take a candy from your bag in a public place, it is common to offer the person/s closest to you. If you receive some food in your neighbor’s or colleagues’ dish, you should return it with something, even if fresh fruit or chocolates. If you receive a gift, it is appropriate to reciprocate, but not necessary.
Applying these general principles of formality, modesty and generosity will serve you well in the Arab or Muslim world. While in Kuwait, you should be aware of two considerations that will affect the degree to which these principles should be applied for the greatest success. The first is nationality. Kuwaitis are generally more conservative than other Arab nationalities like Egyptians and Lebanese. You must use visual cues before deciding the degree of physical interaction that would be comfortable for others. The second consideration is locality. People who live in urban areas are more accepting of interaction and ambiguities. When visiting suburban areas (in Kuwait that would be south of the 5th Ring Road or west of Highway 50), be more conservative and restrictive in interaction with residents.
If all of this information seems daunting and you are worried that you will blunder your way to embarrassing or insulting situations, just internalize the three principles – formality, modesty and generosity – and remember that you are an ambassador of everything that you hold dear. With this approach, you are certain to succeed.