DEARBORN – While reaching out to shake hands is an automatic gesture in the United States, that’s not the case in Saudi Arabia if the two people are different genders.
That’s just one of the business tips Ford Export and Growth (E&G) employees were given during a recent lunch-and-learn cultural seminar.
The seminar was conducted by facilitator Mary Beauregard and subject matter expert Wafa Hassan, who cited that as just one example of the country’s preference for complete separation of the sexes – something Americans need to be aware of when doing business in Saudi Arabia.
While it is acceptable to extend one’s hand toward a person of the same gender, women should wait for a Saudi male to extend his hand – he may place it over his heart instead. American men should make the same gesture when meeting a female Saudi business associate. However, Hassan says most Saudi businesspeople realize Americans are not aware of all of the religious restrictions and will overlook small missteps.
Saudi Arabia is the largest market within E&G, which supports emerging markets in the Middle East, Caribbean and Central America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia Pacific. Although much of the seminar focused on in-person meetings, a significant amount of business is conducted via e-mail and over the telephone. Even people who don’t travel to Saudi Arabia need to be sensitive to cultural and language differences, says Hassan.
“Hierarchy is important,” says Hassan. “The oldest or most senior person should be addressed first during a conference call or in person. In e-mails, Americans should use clear and concise language, avoid acronyms and slang, and be a bit more formal than what they may be accustomed to. They also should not expect a quick turnaround, but allow time for an appropriate response.”
During telephone conversations or teleconferences, it’s helpful to pause and talk more slowly than normal to give the listener time to process the language.
Business and personal lives tend to overlap in Saudi Arabia, so Hassan advises developing a polite and personal relationship, as relationships are paramount, even more important than tasks.
Running late is the norm, unlike in the United States where promptness is expected. However, Americans should not plan to run late, as the people they are meeting with may be on time in order to accommodate them.
Americans also have to recognize the importance of religion in the country, where people stop to pray five times a day. Because the Muslim holy day is Friday, the work week runs on a different schedule than in the United States and other western countries.
The lunch and learn seminars are a regular occurrence within E&G and are designed to help employees in Allen Park learn about cultures, social norms and business practices around the world.