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September 29, 2013, Sunday

Three golden rules

You will quickly realize that when doing business in the Middle East or Central Asia, giving recognition and showing respect is important. Over the years I have come to learn that certain things are more important than being right and that it is all about how we communicate.

Numerous Western expats have come and gone. Their downfall was not fully understanding the communication style and the process of decision-making in local cultures. When I was studying anthropology at university, I remember wondering why decision-making processes needed to be so complicated. Socio-cultural changes affect the process of individual and community decision-making. In Middle Eastern societies, certain individuals assume a special position that is more superior to others. In a traditional workplace, for an individual to take any initiative and make decisions without consulting their superior could cause problems. The idea of honor and respect takes on a whole new dimension here. Here is a question from a foreign teacher who has been working at a private school for a short time.

Dear Charlotte, I am new to İstanbul and started my teaching position about a month ago. I was I under the impression that the school hired me because they wanted new ideas and advice on how to improve their English language department. It seems like when I make suggestions, they are seen as criticisms. I am not sure if I can last a whole academic year in an environment where my opinions and advice are not really heard. I do not mean to be critical, but it is being received that way. Help! From: Kate (İstanbul)

Dear Kate, you have to be aware that the person you are working with may be insecure. It is prestigious for a school to have a token foreigner on staff or foreign staff. Hiring a Westerner does not always mean that they want you to bring change and reform. They generally just prefer you to fit in.

Perhaps if you had the opportunity to meet the person you are referring to before you accepted the job, you may have had second thoughts and would not have accepted. However, if you have signed a contract, you are locked in to the contract and need to find ways to make it through to the end of the year. I am sure you have always tried to find a positive point to mention before making suggestions for change. Many foreigners make suggestions and changes quickly. Generally, change does not happen that way here! Even if the person you are referring to is open to change, they have superiors whom they must convince.

You will find there is quite a hierarchy. Particularly in the educational structure, a degree of full loyalty and labor is expected. The employer or manager is seen as the master and acts accordingly, with the expectation that the employees and staff are loyal and do as they are told. You'll find that even though local staff may like your ideas and genuinely agree with you, when you want someone to side with you, they won't. Loyalty comes into play at this point. Foreigners come and go as they like but the local staff can't. In such cases you will observe that people will pass the buck. The local staff will be careful to avoid any action that could appear as being disloyal. For those of us who value our freedom and independence, it almost seems like an unspoken manipulative approach to us.

Having lived here now for many years, when I think back about some of the things I said or did in my early days when I first came, I giggle. In a culture where it is common for a large request to be made indirectly by a third party, I must have really ruffled some feathers. I was much too direct and expressed my thoughts with such openness and directness to my Turkish superiors. I did not mean to be disrespectful. Here are three golden rules I have learned over the years:

-- When making a recommendation it is always wise to put the blame on an outside cause.

-- When asking for something, it is best to do so in a way that removes any embarrassment from both the one asking and the one replying.

-- When refusing a request, do it in a manner that avoids personal offense.

Most Westerners are not comfortable with this type of relationship. We actually find the use of a third party when making a request to be manipulative. Valuing frankness and directness, we interpret polite and indirect answers as being dishonest.

“Decisions are the spice and bane of life.” -- Paul G. Hiebert

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