21. Compliments

The blog returns today after a technical-issue-caused hiatus with a query: what is the most difficult custom to get your head around here in the UAE?  In typical fashion I shall dictate…it’s the art of the compliment.

Back home in the motherland when you are invited into somebody’s house for the first time it is polite to compliment it.  You express your desire for the kitchen cabinets and how elegantly they match your host’s choice of floor tiles.  You go on to pay tribute to the curtains and of course the curtain rails.  It’s the same with cars.  Last year my friend from home purchased a Mazda MX5 and when I saw it for the first time I flattered him with approval.

So where am I going with this?  Well, did you know that complimenting someone’s possessions over here is a risky and borderline insulting act that will cause you a great deal of confusion?  Well it’s true.  A few years ago I read in the paper that someone had gone to the trouble of getting Audi to make them a car made of solid silver for a sum of money that was too big for the page.  I’m not joking, it was in fact made of pure silver and to this day I cant decide whether it looked like something classy out of The Godfather or was a tacky monstrosity better suited to those orange folk in The only way is Staffordshire…anyway the point is a friend of his accidentally complimented it and in keeping with tradition he is now its owner…

Now to you and me, if we saw someone turn up in a fancy car we would naturally say “nice motor mate” and would simply expect our target to smile and respond with thanks, not chuck us the keys and say “then it’s yours”.  It goes further, what if you accidentally find yourself in a persons house and say “what a marvellous house you have”?  Will he sign the deed over to you?  Hells bells what if you said he had a great wife, or worse, great kids?  It’s a veritable nightmare.

So what is to be done?  We can’t stop being nice and complimenting our host’s material goods because otherwise conversation would dry up overnight.  I fear we must have a think about syntax and come up with a set of vague sentences that compliment without complimenting.  Altering the structure of discourse isn’t going to be easy so let’s come up with some templates…

First let’s look at the smaller things.  If you happen to meet Johnny Nicestuff when he is playing with his new iPhone, don’t say “oh yeah I

"Your wife is most hospitable. Huh?! What do you mean she's mine now?!"

want to get that” because he will try to give it you immediately.  Say “I have a Blackberry and it’s much better”.  Then you notice his watch, don’t say “Oh my God is that a real Tag Heuer?  That’s well nice” because again he will try to give it to you and you’ll insult him by not wanting to accept it.  Let’s agree we simply ask him for the time.  Some things are going to be tricky like complimenting his hair-do; I doubt very much that he will be willing to scalp himself purely to keep up appearances…

Let’s also address the bigger things.  So now Johnny Nicestuff has turned up in the new Mercedes AMG:  We can’t say “I like your car” so lets agree that we say “Sensible choice of vehicle”.  Next, you’re invited into the summer mansion, do not say “What a nice house you have”, I think we should say something like “Your house has a great deal of character”.  Next we must move on to the wife.  I can imagine it being a bit of a social faux pas to say that “she’s fit”, so maybe we’re best just avoiding the topic altogether.  Gun against your head?  “Your wife has been most hospitable”.  If we take this vague approach then hopefully we can all stay out of trouble.

The point is a lot of people aren’t like you and I.  They won’t feel guilty about accepting gifts from strangers because they’re moochers with the IQ of a turnip, but they will have the luxury of the fact that they will not have insulted our hosts.  It’s important to remember that some people think that this dynamic of “compliment and give” works both ways.

So if you’re told that you’re good looking, run.  Run away fast…

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