We had the privilege of interviewing former broadcast journalist and author Rana Nejem. We spoke to her about her quest to promote understanding between Western cultures and the Middle East, her consultancy, Yarnu; and her book When in the Arab World, out today, May 20.
1. You started your career as a broadcast journalist in Jordan, later working with CNN to cover the First Gulf War. Did this spark your interest in cross-cultural communications?
Working with CNN during the first Gulf war was indeed the first time I actually experienced the cultural differences first hand. During those tense and difficult days of the Gulf War, I started to clearly see the impact that culture has on communications – not only in terms of style, but also the meanings of words and even concepts that we take for granted as “universal”.
Daily we were faced with so many issues that were the result of simple misunderstandings or misinterpretations of culturally motivated behaviour. My colleagues took a lot of things for granted and applied, what they believed to be, universal standards of “normal” and “right”. It was as if we were looking at one of those pictures that had two images in them. I could see only one image while they were baffled and confused and could not see what I was talking about. I was so frustrated that I ended up taking a career-changing decision.
2. Your book, When in the Arab World, is a guide to living and working within an Arab culture. Your positions as head of the late King Hussein’s International Media Department and in communications for Jordan’s British Embassy uniquely qualifies you to impart advice. In which situations did you observe the bulk of the cultural misunderstandings that inspired your book?
It started when I was at the Royal Court speaking to foreign journalists trying to convince them that their interpretation of certain decisions or events was totally off because they could not see the cultural context and significance of it. Again I realised that we may be using the same words but those same words hold completely different meanings and values to each of us.
And then of course working with the British Foreign Office and the British Embassy, cultural intelligence became even more important. Every single thing that we did at the Embassy had to pass through a cultural intelligence lens. Whether we were announcing a joint venture, or planning the programme for a government minister, or writing a press release or even just hosting a social event at the Ambassador’s residence, we had to think about the cultural ramifications and whether anything could be misconstrued or possibly cause offence. Going through that thinking process helped us avert a lot of pitfalls.
Let me share with you one very simple story. We were planning the visit of a British Government Minister who was stopping in Jordan for one day as part of a regional tour. The Minister was scheduled to open a British funded project in the North of Jordan, meet with the Governor of that region and then have another meeting with another senior Jordanian official in the neighbouring town. As British civil servants, they wanted to be efficient and wanted quick meetings one after the other. No frills or fanfare. Now the meeting with the Governor was set for 1:00 p.m. which was very close to lunch time (which is around 2 p.m in this part of the world). We knew that the rules of hospitality in Jordan dictated that the Governor had to invite his foreign guest for a lunch – which had to be the traditional dish called “Mansaf”. We communicated that to the people in the Minister’s office and their response was “no thank you, no time for lunch, we can just have a sandwich in the car on our way to the next appointment.” We had to explain to them that we were not actually worried about them not going hungry, it wasn’t about the food, it was about their host honouring them and them honouring their host in front of all his people. Refusing such an invitation would have left a sour note in the relationship. They were smart enough to accept our advice and the Minister sat through the protocol of a formal “Mansaf” lunch and all was well.
3. Your company, Yarnu, is a consultancy that helps clients to develop social skills and protocol that results in confident business interactions in Middle Eastern countries. What made you decide to record your knowledge in the form of a book?
The work that we do at Yarnu comes under two main programmes; one is Social Intelligence – and that focuses mostly on helping businesses and government organisations align their staff’s behaviour, attitude, appearance and communication style with that organisation’s personality, values and public image. Which simply put is the soft side of corporate culture.
The other main programme we offer at Yarnu is Cultural Intelligence with specific focus on non-Arabs who work with the Arab culture and also vice versa – Arabs who work with the West – Europe and the United States.
All our programmes are bespoke and we are flexible in that we can go to wherever the client is. Still, it was very important for me to get this kind of information to as many people around the world as possible. Putting it all together in a book that is written in an easy to read, informative yet also entertaining style was the answer.
- You have a formal education in everything from International Communications and Negotiations to International Protocol Management. In what measure does your book draw from your education and in what measure from your experience?
That is a very interesting question that I haven’t thought about before. I would have to say that most of it comes from my practical experience throughout my career. My work has given me the opportunity to be exposed to so many varied situations with people from very different backgrounds and cultures. This is what has been so enriching for me. But I must add that it also depends a lot on a person’s approach and intention. Some may go through the same experiences and end up simply more frustrated and entrenched in their own world view and beliefs. Observing with a sense of curiosity and a genuine desire to learn makes all the difference.
5. Can you share a lesson from your book that may come as a surprise to readers?
I actually learned a lot myself about my own culture. It was eye-opening for me to see what I consider to be totally normal, through a foreigner’s eyes. There were quite a few aha moments for me when I thought to myself “that is why they react this way!”
There are so many lessons in the book that come from simple realisations that then have a much bigger and wider impact on behaviour and relationships. It does require us to challenge our own beliefs and viewpoints and to accept that our way is not necessarily the right way and it is certainly not the only way.
One of the practical things that frustrates a lot of people is how different cultures view “time”. In Western Europe and the US, time is money and everything is about keeping to the schedule and the time allotted for each meeting. In the Arab culture it is more about the people rather than the schedule. It is quite common to be in a meeting with the senior person in the company and suddenly there is a knock at the door and another person pops his head in to say good morning. Your host might get up and exchange a few niceties with the unannounced guest and then go back to his meeting with you. Do not be offended and the last thing you want to do is complain about the interruption. Simply stay calm and wait for the meeting to resume where you left off.
“Acceptance doesn’t mean agreeing with the other person’s behaviour; it simply means accepting without judgment that it is just different – neither good nor bad – just different.”