United States Security Cooperation in the Middle East Cross-Cultural Considerations and Customer Relations

Article excerpt

Key points in establishing and nurturing an effective "relationship" with Middle Eastern military representatives

All people are the same; it is only their habits that are different. Confucius

In a practical sense, cultural adjustment to different habits suggests adjustment not to culture but to behavior. Culture is an abstraction that can be appreciated intellectually, but behavior is the key manifestation of culture that we encounter, experience, and deal with. (1) In this ongoing series of articles on cross-cultural communications in the Middle East context, (2) we will offer succinct guidance to become more effective in nurturing a professional relationship with Middle Eastern representatives.

The United States Department of Defense professionals who engage with our Middle Eastern partners are generally well prepared to deal with the obvious cultural differences. U.S. service members and particularly those involved in implementing security cooperation activities in the Middle East receive effective "cultural awareness" training, but the scope and depth is primarily to avoid embarrassing social offenses. U.S. security cooperation implementers are sensitized to Islamic practices and traditional Middle East norms. The aim is to demonstrate our respect for fundamental values in the region so that we can establish credible relationships that support our mutual interests. American personnel in the region generally know about: inappropriate use of the left hand, are sensitive to avoid compromising situations among mixed genders, adjust well to the enhanced restrictions during Ramadan, and understand what is going on when hearing the calls to prayer five times per day, etc.

In working to improve our knowledge, skills and abilities to better understand the various nuanced meanings in Middle Eastern cultural contexts, we first need to become more attuned to what is meant, rather than just what is said. Progress towards improved cross-cultural communications, requires factoring in new considerations while interpreting meaning in interpersonal engagements. We also need to realize that it takes ongoing practice and experience to improve cross-cultural communication skills.

The following bullet statements are offered for guidance in defining meaning and establishing expectations of behavior of Middle Eastern representatives:

* Recognize that, what for Americans seems to be extraordinary hospitality and politeness from host nation (HN) counterparts--are standard obligations, not indicators of "hitting it off".

* Present a calm, patient, even tempered persona. Avoid expressing classic type A traits. Expect to eventually reach your objectives by effective "influence" upon your Middle Eastern counterpart. Influence by demonstration on your part is more effective than lectures. Influence will be accomplished by first gaining respect and trust. This takes time and effort--meaning investing in frequent encounters--even if there is no particular outcome expected other than a pleasant time with a colleague/friend.

* Initial relationships will be characterized by discussions involving the pertinent work issues at hand preceded, interspersed, and concluded with considerable chats on personal, non-work related subjects--including politics and religion. Family (children), sports, travel, and cuisine are safe subjects to use as vehicles to get to know one another.

* Eventually, politics and religion will be addressed however obliquely or subtly, and one must be sensitive to those opportunities. Revealing personal attributes about oneself is key to advancing the relationship towards increased effectiveness on the job. Belief in God, no matter what faith or denomination is considered a positive aspect of one's upbringing and moral character. No need to be shy about expressing one's religiosity provided it is a part of the Abrahamic faiths (Judeo-Christian). Avoid theological debates aimed at countering, disputing, or arguing. …