Negotiate Like an Egyptian


When in Egypt, you had better negotiate like an Egyptian. Be sure to leave your cowboy hat at home since the rules are very different in the Middle East.

Egyptian culture has five thousand years of recorded history, so I will not be giving a history lesson today. Let's just say that every aspect of life in Egypt has a special meaning and a reason why they do things as they do. If asked because something is done a certain way, they will likely recite history from thousands of years ago.

Egypt is a high context culture which means that a lot what is communicated is transferred implicitly with body language, silence, eye contact, and oblique words or phrases. For example, it is considered impolite to deny a wish to someone. Instead of saying "no", other phrases are used to describe an inconvenience, which implies that the answer is no. When an Egyptian says "yes", he or she may actually mean "possibly". Communication can include intense eye contact and frequent gestures for emphasis.

The official language of Egypt is Standard Arabic and is used in most written communications. Egyptians tend to speak at a much closer distance than Americans. This close contact can be awkward for Americans, but do not back away. Moving away could make you seem cold or disinterested. Egyptians tend to be emotional and tend to use emphatic language; They also tend to exaggerate. When making a point they will speak loudly and repeat themselves for emphasis. They will often interrupt each other and will speak over other speakers.

Egyptians touch when speaking with good friends and established business associates, but until they know you well usually know physical contact to handshakes. However, after they trust you, expect close contact including hugging and kissing. It's good thing. You made the team.

Non-verbal communication is huge in Egypt. Never point since it is rude. A "thumbs up" gesture is very similar to our middle finger salute. They remove their shoes often in meetings, but never show the bottoms of their feet.

Relationships are very important and gifts are often given. When a gift is needed you might want to consider an exquisitely made compass; This enables a devout Muslim to always know where Mecca is (even when traveling). When offered coffee always accept it, since it is considered very rude to do otherwise.

The Islamic religion dominates Egyptian life. They believe that many solutions to current problems are to be found in the orthodox practice of an Islamic life. Egypt is a fatalistic culture which believes that the hands of God will define their destiny. There is a pervasive collectivist thinking because of the centuries old battle with the harsh climate and deprivation; To survice they have had to share with others. The individual is always subordinate to the family, the tribe, or the collective. It is a male dominated society.

Business meetings tend to be very formal affairs. They usually begin with coffee and conversation even in situations when the issues are important or time is limited. The business day is similar to American business, but with longer lunches and frequent breaks for coffee. The pace of business is much slower in Egypt than it is in the West, so you will need to be very patient.

Time is relative in the Egyptian culture and punctuality is not important, although they expect you to be on time. It is common for visitors to be kept waiting; For example, if your meeting is scheduled at 10 am it may not start until 11 am. Once started, expect interruptions such as phone calls, memo signals, and, yes, blackberry messages. There is no need to rush in Egypt.

Decisions will seem to take forever and will almost never happen in the meeting. They also do not understand the American need to close the deal on the spot and will resist it. When negotiating, you can expect raised voices and arm waiving; This is normal even when they agree with you. Egyptians negotiate as teams and it may not be clear in the meeting who is in charge. Often the most powerful Egyptian in the meeting will just listen. They like to stall and tease the other side; Since time is one their side, they figure that they can wear you down and get what they want. They often do.

Relationships are more important than contracts or signed documents. In Egyptian culture, "Kalima", the verbal pledge to carry out what has been agreed upon, is more binding than a contract; This commitment is a matter of honor. Yet, it remains very important to agree on the next steps, along with the time table to meet again.

A few more things:
– Business cards should be printed in English on one side and in Arabic on the reverse. When presented a card, pause and reflect upon it.

– Orthodox Muslims will not drink alcohol or eat pork.

– Adding salt to your food is rude.

– Most eating is done without utensils. Get used to it.

– When in meetings, sit with both feet on the floor; Do not cross your legs.

– Expect heavy and prolonged eye contact. This can feel a little creepy by American standards, but this is the behavior of an honest man in Egypt.

– Avoid eye contact, speaking with, or touching Egyptian women at all costs. You will find few women in positions of authority in Egypt. The Islamic culture has very strict rules about women and morality. Avoidance is key.

– Dress formally in western attire at all times; Do not even try to look like a local.

Special thanks to Chuong Thai-Lazaro, Veronica Tsang, and Brian Weiss of California State University, Long Beach, for assisting me with this research.

John Bradley Jackson
© Copyright 2006
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