Recently we all sat around the debating table and thrashed out some thoughts on manners in the UAE. I regaled you all with a recent
scenario about a bell boy, me, a tip and subsequently pinning 200 years of the British Empire down to a simple misinterpretation of bad manners. The key thing to remember about blog 14 was that the two protagonists – both he and I – were foreigners in the UAE.
Now I want you to think back to when you first landed here. Think about when the plane was taxiing to the terminal, were you handed a pamphlet on the do’s and the don’ts? No I thought not, neither was I. There are many customs in the UAE. To spread the blog out a bit so I can save some material for another day we will try our best to go through them. We’ll begin today with hands and general hand usage.
In London, when you meet someone whilst out, or if you just fancy acknowledging somebody’s existence, you nod your head, quickly raise and lower your eyebrows and say “mrh”. It is the commoner’s way. Of course these days there are other ways, such as saying “alright mate can I borrow your phone” before you knife your new acquaintance, or “what you looking at you p****?!” but these are modern and aren’t considered quite as proper. Over here the simple task of greeting someone is a minefield of manners, handshakes and tea and can last for days on end.
Before we go any further, we must understand that the left hand is traditionally used for – how do say this politely – sanitising ones crevasse. It is the dirty servant of man and to extend it to your guest is unthinkably rude. Even when passing condiments and coffee mugs the left hand must remain at ease. Its only purpose is to make you look symmetrical.
I learnt this to my cost a few years ago. I was introduced to an Emirati man – he was, I would find out later a very important chap – and we shook hands, right hands of course since that is normal, no problems there. We then began batting greetings between one another, asking each other if we were both fine a good 6-7 times. It was going swimmingly, eye contact remained and the smiles lit up the room.
My buoyancy however was to become my undoing. I offered to put the kettle on, tea for 4 it would be. Once I was armed with two mugs of boiling hot water in both of my hands I proceeded to the rest of the party. My fingers were melting against the ceramic vessels and time was running out. I thought it polite to offer the guest his tea first, which – yep you guessed it – was in my left hand.
The look I received back was hotter than the boiling magma melting through my fingers. Honestly it would have been more polite of me to rest my genitals on his shoulder and then to have stolen his Rolex, car, house and wife. And then poured the tea over his head. My associate who was chairing the gathering looked humiliated. I was sympathetically asked to leave. Slightly perplexed I left genuinely not knowing what I had done wrong.
Later that day I was debriefed and after some grunts and some “oh c’mon’s” from my side, I had to accept the fact that I had learnt my first lesson on UAE manners the hard way. I did ask if there was a website that I could visit to bone up on these customs and sure enough I found one in the end. It’s about 651,984 pages long so that should keep the blog ticking over nicely for a while.
So my advice to you when greetings are to be made? Check the internet before you ever meet anyone, staple your left hand to your trousers and never, ever offer to make the tea.