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Key Cultural and Social Values in the Middle East

There are major differences between the Western and Middle Eastern cultures. Understanding these differences is essential for building bridges between the two cultures, but also to improve business, diplomatic, and humanitarian relationships.

While generalizations of Middle Eastern culture are readily apparent, some variation and extremes are found within the geographical area known as the Middle East.

There are several characteristics of culture impacting the interactions between Middle Eastern and Western peoples. This includes Collectivist vs. Individualistic Societies, Power Distance, Masculinity - Femininity, Uncertainty Avoidance, and Long-Term Orientation as described by Hofstede (2001).

A good place to initially focus is on the characteristics of Collectivist vs. Individualist Societies. The West may be described as characterized generally as an Individualist Society, and the Middle East characterized as generally more of a Collectivist type of society.

Western Individualist Society tends toward:

• People live in nuclear or one-parent families
• "Others" are classified as individuals
• Children are supposed to take care of themselves as soon as possible
• Weak family ties, rare contacts (as compared to Collectivist societies
• More divorces
• Child learns to think in terms of "I"
• family vs. nonfamily distinction is irrelevant
• Aged relatives care for themselves
• Choosing not to have children in a marriage is socially acceptable
• Businesspersons live separately
• Privacy is normal
• Personal opinions expected
• Speaking one's mind is characteristic of an honest person
• Lasting friendships are difficult to achieve

So how do Middle Eastern Collectivist Societies compare to Individualist Societies? Many Asian cultures share similar general characteristics with the list below:

• People live with close relatives
• "Others" are classified as in-group or out-group
• Family provides protection in exchange for lifelong loyalty
• Strong family ties, frequent contacts
• Fewer divorces
• Children learn to think in terms of "we"
• Nonfamily, unrelated persons can be adopted into the family
• Care for the aged in the family environment, as a family
• A marriage without children is not complete
• Businesspersons live with parents
• Nobody is ever alone
• Opinions predetermined by the in-group
• Harmony should always be maintained
• Family relationships can be oppressive

So the next time you meet with your Middle Eastern friend (if you are western) or your Western friend (if you are Middle Eastern), keep in mind these differences. Learn to value the positive side of the other’s culture, and be patient with those characteristics less enjoyable.

Heightened sensitivity to the opposite culture’s values will be invaluable as you seek to build relationships in the host culture. Recognize that none of these differences are necessarily right or wrong...they just are.


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