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Grown in your cultural awareness when interacting with Arabs in Jordan and the Levant.

Engaging with different cultures can be both rewarding and challenging. For those who desire to honor Arabs in their interactions, it is essential to recognize that well-meaning actions may sometimes have unintended negative impact. This podcast episode explores the intricacies of cultural sensitivity, emphasizing the difference between intent and impact through personal anecdotes and practical insights.

The Importance of Cultural Sensitivity

When interacting with people from diverse cultural backgrounds, understanding the potential differences in social norms and expectations is crucial. A seemingly innocuous question or gesture in one culture might be perceived very differently in another. For instance, asking a friend, “How is your wife?” is a thoughtful sentiment in many Western cultures, often met with appreciation. However, in Jordan, this question could be perceived as intrusive and disrespectful. In many Arab cultures, it is generally inappropriate for men to inquire specifically about female members of another man’s family. Instead, one might ask about the family in general, without mentioning any women specifically.

I personally became aware of the difference between intent and impact while living in Indonesia after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. While residing in a small village on the island of Sumatra, I once offered to help an injured elderly neighbor by sweeping the leaves in her yard. Another neighbor, Leila, urgently advised against it, explaining that such an action could embarrass all the other neighbors by implying they were neglectful. This incident highlighted how actions intended to be helpful can sometimes cause embarrassment or offense due to differing cultural expectations.

Avoiding Common Cultural Missteps

For those living in or visiting Arab countries, it is essential to be mindful of several cultural norms to avoid unintentional offense. Here are some key points to consider:

  1. Respect for Religion: Making negative comments about the Qur’an, the Prophet Mohammed, or the call to prayer can severely damage relationships. These elements are deeply revered, and any disrespect can be highly offensive.
  2. Political Sensitivities: Discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are particularly sensitive. It is advisable for Westerners to listen first and avoid sharing opinions on this topic, as they are often perceived as uninformed and can evoke strong emotions.
  3. Body Language: Be aware of non-verbal cues which can communicate disrespect. A dismissive snicker or an eye-roll can convey judgment or disdain, even when no words are spoken. It is crucial to remain mindful of one’s body language and facial expressions.

Recognizing Cultural Differences

Western customs can appear strange or even inappropriate to those from other cultures. For example, the Western practices of encouraging 18-year-olds to live independently, placing older family members in care facilities, and conducting elaborate funerals days after the deceased has passed can be bewildering to Arabs. In Arab culture, family ties are typically much closer, family members often live together until marriage, and the care of older relatives is considered a familial duty.

Listening and Learning

An essential aspect of growing in cultural awareness is the willingness to listen and learn. Arabs are known for their hospitality and may listen to differing opinions without immediately expressing disagreement. This does not necessarily indicate agreement; rather, it reflects a cultural tendency to prioritize relationships over debate. Westerners, particularly Americans, often feel compelled to voice dissenting opinions, but in Arab cultures, it is sometimes more respectful to listen without challenging the speaker.


Growing in cultural awareness and sensitivity is vital for anyone interacting with Arab communities. By understanding the difference between intent and impact, and by listening and adapting to local norms, you can foster positive and respectful relationships. What’s more, by embracing the opportunity to learn from different cultures, you can enrich your own understanding of the world.

Shababeek Podcast

We cover frequently asked questions, important matters of language learning, and engage in vital Arabic acquisition and cross-cultural relational issues.