Everything I’ve ever tried to say about my life

Posted on January 3, 2006


This is an article I found on the website of the Canadian International Development Agency to guide Canadians in living in Egypt. I depart from my usual light frivolous posts here because this article has articulated in quite a scholarly way everything I’ve been mumbling incoherently for years. That said, there were a few comments I had to make on the contents. These are in a blue font.
Apologies for the length and non-personal-authorship (this is aimed at you, Mo).

Culture, as defined by anthropologist Edward Hall, is “The way of life of a people. The sum of their learned behavior patterns, attitudes and material things… It is not innate, but learned; the various facts of a culture are interrelated.”
With this definition in mind, it follows that the entire environment of a people and their experiences within this environment throughout an extension of time outlines the basis of their culture. For example, the need for the early Canadian settlers to survive very difficult conditions and to individually try to ensure their own security was perhaps one of the causes for Canada being an ‘individualistic’ society. On the other hand the geography of Egypt particularly its Nile and its moderate climate allowed the first Egyptian nomadic hunters to gather and form early settlements along the fertile River valley perhaps was a reason for Egypt being a ‘collectivist’ society. This sounds like bullshit. My thought is that this dichotomy emerged more recently after the industrial revolution; there’s less time for other humans.
Edward Hall has developed a concept that is useful in understanding differences among cultures. He places cultures along a continuum. One end of the continuum he called High Context or more Collectivist cultures and the other end Low Context or more Individualistic cultures. Hall has identified a number of dimensions of human activity that can be used to conceptualize patterns of behavior for cultural groups:

  1. Association – relationship with others.
  2. Interaction – verbal and non-verbal communication.
  3. Territoriality – use of space.
  4. Temporality – concept and use of time.
  5. Learning – how knowledge and skills are developed.

A Basic Framework for Cultural-Context Characteristics:

Higher-Context Cultures(More Collectivist Societies)
Association and Territoriality

  • Relationships depend on trust, build up slowly and are stable. One distinguishes between people inside and people outside one’s circle.
  • Things get done through relationships with people and paying attention to group processes.
  • Ones identity is rooted in-groups such as family, friends, and work.
  • Social structure and authority is centralized. Responsibility is at the top.
  • Space is communal. People are closer together sharing the same space.


  • High use of non-verbal elements such as voice tone, facial expressions, gestures and eye movement. Non-verbal elements carry a significant part of a conversation.
  • Verbal message is implicit. Context such as situation, people, non-verbal elements is more important than words.
  • Verbal message is indirect. One talks around the point.
  • Communication is seen as a form of art and a way of engaging people.
  • Disagreement is personalized. One is sensitive to conflict with others. Conflict either must be solved before work can progress, or must be avoided.


  • Time is not easily scheduled. Needs of people may interfere with keeping to a set time. What is important is that the activity gets done taking its own time.
  • Change is slow. Things are rooted in the past, stable and slow to change.
  • Time is a process. It belongs to others and to nature.


  • Knowledge is embedded in the situation. Things are connected, synthesized and global. Multiple sources of information are used. Thinking is deductive and proceeds from general to specific.
  • Learning occurs by first acknowledging theory then practicing.
  • Groups are preferred for learning and problem solving.
  • Accuracy is valued. How well something is learned is important.

Lower-Context Cultures (More Individualistic Societies)
Association and Territoriality

  • Relationships begin and end quickly. Boundary of people inside and people outside one’s circle is not clear.
  • Things get done through following procedures and paying attention to a goal.
  • One’s identity is rooted in oneself and one’s accomplishments.
  • Social structure is decentralized. Responsibility goes further down.
  • Space is compartmentalized and privacy is important so people are farther apart.


  • Low use of non-verbal elements. Message is carried more by words than by non-verbal means.
  • Verbal message is explicit. Context is less important than words.
  • Verbal message is direct. One spells things out.
  • Communication is seen as a way of exchanging information, ideas and opinions.
  • Disagreement is depersonalized. One withdraws from conflict with another and gets on with the task. Focus is on rational solutions and not on personal ones. One can be explicit about another’s behavior.


  • Things are scheduled to be done at particular times, one thing at a time. What is important is that the activity is done efficiently.
  • Change is fast. One can make change and see immediate results.
  • Time is a commodity to be spent or saved. One’s time is one’s own.


  • Reality is fragmented and compartmentalized. Single sources of information are used. Thinking is inductive and proceeds from specific to general. Focus is on detail.
  • Learning occurs by following explicit directions.
  • An individual orientation is preferred for learning and problem solving.
  • Speed is valued. How efficiently something is learned is important

This is all spot on. Good stuff.

It should be emphasized that when comparing cultures, there is no ‘bad or good’ nor ‘better or worse’; there are just differences that ‘make more sense’ to different people. Aww! So Canadian! But read on – it’s not all as value free as they would have you believe.

Fundamental Beliefs, Values and Attitudes:
Despite individual and group differences, Egyptians share basic beliefs and values that transcend class boundaries. Religion, i.e. Christianity and particularly Islam influence these beliefs and values although some practices go back as far as early pharaonic eras.Egyptians profoundly believe in God and that most things in life are ultimately controlled by God’s will (fate). They value a person’s dignity, reputation, family, friends and social class.Some basic Egyptian attitudes include:

  • that everyone acknowledges God and has a religious affiliation;
  • that many things depend on God’s will and therefore people have limited control over events;
  • that being religious is an important and worthy attribute;
  • That Islam is the all encompassing religion; a religion that is just and humane and not barbaric as many Westerners think it is.
  • that religion and government are not separate and should compliment each other;
  • that a person’s behavior should have a good impression on others; I don’t know why this is an “attitude” – it’s common freaking sense. Somewhere people want their behaviour to repulse and alienate others (apart from rebellious teens)?
  • that a person’s honor or shame also concerns his/her family; this is some fucked up shit, yes.
  • that loyalty to one’s family should precede personal needs and that one should do the best they can to help friends;
  • That social class and family background determine a person’s status followed by his/her individual characteristics, achievements and personal connections.

Most Egyptians think that:

  • Egypt is ‘the mother of the world’ (Misr om al donia). Egyptians are a people with rich cultural heritage that has enhanced the development of the whole world in many fields such as architecture, medicine, mathematics, philosophy, literature and religion. This is all true. Just cos you ain’t heard…This heritage is firstly Egyptian and then Arab (the added value of the Arabs is Islam and the Arabic language).
  • Egypt although still part of the Arab world, is a distinct and distinguished culture that is more advanced in many ways than the rest of the Arab nations. This distinction is unknown to many Western societies.
  • Many Western people are anti-Arab and anti-Muslim and this influences their perception of Egyptians. This isn’t so much a perception as concrete fact.
  • Egypt could have been one of the leading countries of the world has it not been exploited by the West as well as by corrupt local governments over lengthy periods of time. This isn’t some quaint fucking belief; it’s COLONIALISM.
  • It is very difficult for Egypt to recapture what was lost over time and to become the great nation that it used to be. Laziness and defeatism; India is doing just fine.
  • Blind mimicry of certain aspects of Western cultures will result in negative implications on the Egyptian society. Dubious indeed – Egyptian society is ultimately more fucked up, in terms of rights and freedoms.
  • Egyptians are emotional people. Emotional is being loving, sensitive and feeling and not impatient and irrational as many Westerners think. Damn straight!

Introductions and Self-Disclosure:
Egyptians will usually give more information about themselves during introductions than Canadians do. Besides title, name and educational or professional status, introductions are likely to include family and/or relatives, social standing, connections and personal or professional achievements. This should not be perceived as immaterial self-praise. Privacy is all very well, but it leaves you with very little to talk about.

Friends, Associates and Reciprocal Favours:
Egyptians are friendly and it is easy to start relationships with them. Relationships start by liking and when they grow stronger, friendships develop. Close friendships are based on trust and loyalty. They build-up slowly over time but once mature, they are stable. Friends are expected to help and do favors for each other. An Egyptian does not refuse a request from a friend and reciprocal favors are expected. I simply don’t understand why this needs phrasing; what else is friendship, then? Standing around silently in bars admiring the opposite sex, high fiving periodically? No.
If the demand cannot be met, he/she suggests other options but never openly declines assistance. Reciprocal favors do not only demonstrate loyalty of friends but are also expected from associates and colleagues. Giving and receiving favors is culturally accepted as part of a relationship and should not be mistaken as calculated or self-serving.
Differences in expectations between you and your Egyptian partner, who considers you a friend, can lead to misunderstanding and may result in collapse of the relationship. In a de-briefing session of engineers coming back from a three-week training in Canada, an Egyptian trainee protested, “When they come to Egypt we show them around, invite them at our homes and help them do and get everything they need. When we arrived in Canada, they just dropped us at a hotel alone for the whole weekend – not one phone call! They did not show us around the city or take us shopping. We were never invited once at Mr.”X’s” home. At the office, we even had to pay for our own coffee.” Another engineer said, “I asked Mr.’Y’ if he can help me apply for a scholarship for my son at the Canadian University just around the corner. He said that he ‘frankly’ cannot do that.” These aren’t “cultural differences” – it’s ill breeding and lack of social graces. Emulation rather than “understanding” is the appropriate response. Being a cad isn’t a cultural thing.
Listen to your partner’s inquiry and do what you can to help. If you cannot, do not bluntly say no. A non-commitant but positive response to a request is not taken as a promise yet demonstrates good intentions. Mr.’Y’ could have explained that although he does not know about university procedures, he will try to inquire. The Egyptian will always understand and appreciate your efforts even if they are modest.

Invitations, Visiting and Privacy:
Egyptians contact and visit each other a lot more than Canadians do. Close friends see or call one another as often as once a day or more. It is common practice that they ‘drop in’ without invitation or calling ahead of time. In Egypt people enjoy long discussions over shared meals and drinks (tea or coffee) and over the telephone. In addition, it is a cultural obligation that family, relatives, friends, colleagues and acquaintances regularly inquire about each other. Again, this is just niceness. I wish I had received this memo before going to Canada where people call their friends once in a blue moon. Negligence in socializing can be interpreted as ‘something wrong’ such as being sick or feeling offended. Privacy or ‘space’ as known in Canada is ‘loneliness’ or ‘antisocial behavior’ in the Egyptian dictionary. It is fucking loneliness! If you feel lonely, then what do you know, you are. In this respect Egyptians will not expect you to keep pace with them. However, they will expect that you try to be more lenient. Egyptian friends are generous with their time and effort and will go to great lengths in caring for your welfare and in being loyal and dependable.

Business, Friendship and Office Colleagues:
For Egyptians, all acquaintances are potential friends. The differentiation ‘business friend’, ‘tennis friend’ or ‘boss-employee role’ where no socializing is expected or personal concerns discussed is uncommon in Egypt.
Try not to appear in a hurry to talk business with your partner. Be relaxed and begin with a brief inquiry about how he/she is doing health-wise and otherwise. Mere politeness, again. If your partner is the host, let him/her start the conversation and when he/she is ready bring up the purpose of your visit. In the office, greetings such as ‘good morning’ when you arrive and ‘have a good evening’ when you depart are important everyday. (!!!!!!!) Always remember to ask about people on sick leave. Jesus Christ. From time to time ask about your colleagues’ personal concerns. Egyptians like compliments and praise for a job well done greatly motivates them. Remember to cheer people up with a light compliment. Acknowledge and thank your colleagues for the work they’ve done. Everyone likes their work acknowledged.
Egyptians are generally polite and hospitable. Be ‘culturally sensitive’ and do the things that are commonly considered in Egypt as part of ‘good manners’ and ‘generosity’. It is a good idea that people eat lunch together at the office. If not, offer to share your food or drink with others. This will be appreciated although they will politely refuse seeing that what you have is just enough for you alone. La ya sheikh!

Criticism and Saving Face:
Pride, self-esteem and saving face are very important for Egyptians. Criticism is generally not well received and can easily be taken personally. If it cannot be avoided, criticism should be indirect, discreet, never in public and preceded by the individual’s good points first. For example, a better way of telling your partner that what he wrote “Was not good” would be “Thank you for the hard work you put into this report. Because … I think it would be better if you could add … and delete … How about going through the notes I put in the margins to see how we can make it even more articulate and acceptable by all parties?” Well yeah, this is tedious, but it works well with all people.

Facts and Feelings:
Detached and Attached Reasoning:
Feelings play a significant role in Egyptians’ view of events and consequently in their subsequent behavior. In analyzing a situation, facts are considered but feelings also have a considerable influence. Expression of emotions is not only common in the Egyptian culture but also valued. The word ’emotional’ in Egyptian terminology carries one of the following undertones: ‘feeling, concerned, enthusiastic, passionate, sympathetic, etc.’ On the other hand, the same word to Westerners has a negative connotation such as ‘immaturity, unreasoning or lacking judgement’. Freaks. To Westerners the examination of facts without the intrusion of emotional bias is the constructive approach to human affairs. Quite true, it is. Egyptians could certainly use some objectivity in business matters. It is not uncommon therefore that some Canadians may feel that Egyptians are ‘too sensitive and emotionally immature’ while some Egyptians may feel that Canadians are ‘too aloof, indifferent and impenetrable’.

This is another cultural controversy between Canadians and Egyptians. For Egyptians, fatalism is based on the belief that people do not have absolute command over all what happens because God has ultimate control of events. In general, ‘fatalism’ amongst Arabs has been overemphasized by Westerners. Educated Egyptians (and Arabs) believe that people should first ensure that they have done everything possible to manage a situation before they justify results to the Will of God. The common phrase ‘In shaa Allah (God willing)’ does not necessarily mean ‘We have no control’.
A Canadian spouse once told me, “I hate it when ‘they’ say ‘In shaa Allah’. It means that the job will not be done.” The plumber, whom I had referred her to, explained, “Of course, I’ll fix it tomorrow – if I don’t get hit by a car today!” This is intensely annoying. You just have to plough through and yell more loudly. People sometimes actually used inshallah to refer to things they’ve already done and said.

Reality and Perception:
If you believe something exists, to you it is real. Although the particulars of a reality may be the same, perception plays an important role in how people see things. No shit? This hardly needs explaining, it just is. Different realities exist to different people because they select to reorganize data differently.The cultural difference between Canadians and Egyptians arises not from the fact that this selection takes place, but from how each makes the selection. Egyptians are more likely to allow subjective or meditative perception to determine what is real and hence direct their actions. Canadians, on the other hand, tend to use objective or material perception. This is not to say that Egyptians cannot be objective. They can; however, sometimes they reorganize data in a way that may be different from how Canadians would. For example many Egyptians see the 1967 Arab-Israeli war a ‘setback’ rather than a ‘defeat’. Another example in ‘Palestine/Israel’ is ‘freedom fighters or martyrs’ versus ‘suicide bombers’. Hah! That is called a difference of opinion. There’s no need to use lofty psycho-social language to describe this phenomenon. We’re not a different species.
Another way of influencing the perception of reality is by the choice of descriptive names, words and phrases. These can have powerful effects on perception and therefore reality. People already know about this. This is why lawyers exist. Slogans are popular and provide an insight into how differently political events are viewed. Egyptians often use caricature, jokes and aphorisms to satirize some government personalities and presentations that may not be seen factual or ‘real’ by the public. This whole subheading seems to be trying to say, in some sort of Oprah like way, that people from different parts of the world feel differently about political events. What assholes, acting like it’s some sort of sociological insight.

Human Factors and Regulations:
In general, Egyptians place more emphasis on human factors when they analyze events and make decisions. For example, an employee who does not meet the standards of a position could be accepted into an organization if the proper contact can be made. A traffic officer may not seriously consider all regulations in a car accident because the ‘offensive’ driver is a poor man who could not afford fixing the other car and at least ‘Alhamdu LELLAH’ (thanks to God) that no one was hurt!

Negotiation and Persuasion:
During negotiation or persuasion, Egyptians place more value than Canadians do on personalized elements of the discussion such as reference to mutual friendships or emphasis on the effect the action will have on other people. Feelings also play a good role in such arguments. To Egyptians, negotiation and persuasion is an art where language is cleverly selected and entwined to appeal to sentiments. So? I’ve taken negotiation classes that told me the same thing. What you’re saying isn’t that important.
In this context, foreigners often miss the emotional dimension in their intercultural transactions with Egyptians. A Canadian overhearing a discussion (particularly if in Arabic) may wrongly conclude that it is a ‘quarrel’ and people are ‘angry’. The displays of emotions often imply deep and sincere concern for the substance of the discussion rather than hostility and anger.

Privacy and Space:
The concept of ‘space’ and ‘privacy’ is culturally determined. In general, Egyptians are closer together than Canadians in space or social distance as well as in their personal behavior towards each other.

Personal and Sensitive Subjects:
Egyptians often discuss together personal issues including money matters such as how much was paid for an item, salaries and salary increases. Other subjects that may be considered private by Canadians but not Egyptians include: age, whether a person is married and for how long and why someone has not married, is divorced or does not have children. This strikes me as being untrue; in fact, Egyptians are reluctant to talk about money or age. It’s Canadians that do so openly. Egyptians tend to talk more freely about family concerns that Canadians often reserve for very close relationships. If one does not want to respond, it is common to speak in general terms evading straight answers. For example, one may say that, ‘the item was not inexpensive’, ‘he/she has not yet found the right person to marry’, ‘there were irresolvable problems in the marriage that ended in divorce’ or ‘there are no children because it has not happened or is not God’s will yet’. Such responses are acceptable and usually give a clue that one does not want to get into detail. Haughty replies as “really it is non of your business” even if said in jest or “I’d rather be free and not committed by marriage to any one man/woman”, or “I/we do not like children” can be offensive (Egyptians like children and assume that everyone does. In Islamic and Coptic religions children are described as ‘God’s beloved’). Yeah it does get on one’s nerves.
While Canadians prefer not to discuss work or business after ‘office hours’ (‘talking shop’), Egyptians find this a good topic for social conversation especially amongst colleagues. Bullshit. Everyone talks shop. Particularly people who work demanding jobs.
Religion and politics are two other favorite subjects that are often discussed socially; however, they can be risky when foreigners are involved. If you believe in God and are committed to a religion, people would be impressed. Many Egyptians assume that Westerners are not religious. Moslems and Copts are confident about the wholeness and righteousness of their religion. It is a way of life and therefore it is a subject that often occurs in conversations. Moslems, in particular, feel that it is their obligation to educate others about what they do not know in Islam. If you ask questions, you will get answers and explanations and this may lead to discussions and often different opinions. In this respect, a Canadian should be cautious about two things: i) asking people who are not knowledgeable enough about the subject may result in incorrect or distorted information; ii) statements/arguments that may be perceived as disrespectful to Islam harm personal and in many cases business relationships as well. I don’t see how you can offend people on a personal level and then expect them to be cool. However, it should be noted that if you are a Copt you are expected to sustain deep personal insult and just suck it up. Being a minority in Egypt is not very pleasant. It is advisable to considerately discuss religion and only with educated and well read individuals.Egyptians readily bring up current political issues in their conversation particularly those relevant to the Middle East such as the 11th of September WTC incident, the war on Afghanistan, the Palestine problem and the Iraq/American conflict. Yet they are not prepared for frank statements of disagreement that are in support of the opposing side of the argument. Yes, this is a distressing tendency. But how can an Arab take well the opinion that killing vast numbers of Arabs is justified? No, we can’t be expected to do so.
A two-sided open discussion on political and emotionally sensitive issues is not recommended. Egyptians see Canada as a neutral country that genuinely supports peace and has no hidden political agendas. If your views are sufficiently different from those of your Egyptian partner, it is better to avoid discussion, try to change the subject or assume a nonaligned position.

Social Distance:
Egyptians and Canadians differ in the ‘physical distance’ they maintain when conversing as well as in the amount of ‘touching’ they feel comfortable with in interpersonal relations.In general, Egyptians tend to stand and sit closer together and touch others (of the same sex) more than Canadians do.

Of course, it is hardly to be expected that the government website should publish a guide full of personal opinions and urging people to emulate salutary Egyptian behaviour. Yet, I don’t think expressing the obvious like it is a unique cultural tendency is the right approach either. A quick, “be politer than you would be in Canada” should suffice.
It should be noted that I’m probably more miserable in Canada than I would otherwise be because law students are socially handicapped nerds, including myself. The point is that my social handicap was accepted when I lived in Egypt 🙂