I’m in a cultural exchange program as part of my Teaching English as a Second Language Certificate. I got assigned to an English learning student from Kuwait, T (as I will call him). Here’s what I learned:
I had proposed we meet at the Union Foodcourt and that we both cook dinner and swap meals. “I can cook vegetarian, too!” I offered. Instead, he just texted back, “I just know how to cook an egg :p.”
I let out a hearty chuckle before realizing I looked like a klutz laughing by myself – at a cellphone screen – in the middle of campus.
But this was also the moment I had a feeling T and I would get along just fine. Meeting T opened my eyes to a Kuwait as a resource-abundant country, its current status as a melting pot, and its rich, high-context culture.
Kuwait is the hottest place on the entire planet in the summer, according to T.
My country, Panama is in the tropics. It’s very hot in Panama, but it wasn’t as hot as he described Kuwait.
When he said that, I imagined Kuwaitis sliding their palms across their red-hot faces to wipe down the sweat caused by walking under a scorching sun.
He corrected me, explaining most people don’t walk but rather drive (I imagine the transportation system is unreliable? Or maybe everybody has a car?). It makes sense, though, since oil, I hypothesize, must be so abundant and cheap since their whole economy relies on it.
He continued to describe Kuwait. T explained that a misconception is that Kuwait is filled with a gray blanket of smog that covers the city.
At least, that is, not in the place where T is from.
The oil brings many advantages to people in Kuwait. Kuwaitis, as they are called. Kuwaitis do not have to pay taxes, do not have to pay for health care, nor they have to pay for school.
This is because the oil is government-owned and it is also what has attracted so many people from the United States, India, and Bangladesh, to Kuwait.
I asked if this influx of foreigners has created cultural animosity among the Kuwaiti population, as I remember in Panama, some people are increasingly resentful for the increased competitiveness in the job market due to the presence of new, hardworking, skilled, foreign laborers.
Yet, according to T’s personal opinion, they have good relations with people from the United States, as even some of the children attend school with locals.
Hence, it seems that in his opinion, Kuwaitis have become accustomed to dealing with people of different customs and cultures than their own.
Actually, their attitude towards strangers completely amazed me.
One of the most interesting things he said was that Kuwaitis are extremely hospitable.
They will welcome you, a complete foreigner and stranger, into their house. Simple as that.
If you are left stranded without a hotel, you can knock on some family’s door and say “Hey, I am a Panamanian… I’m lost and I have nowhere to stay,” and they will give you a place to sleep for three days, with meals included.
T said they will even withstand your cultural ignorance.
As I interpreted from our conversation, Kuwaitis are used to foreigners and therefore, the unknowingness of Kuwaiti customs.
You can do something that they consider strange or rude, like rejecting a cup of coffee (if you go to Kuwait someday don’t ever reject a cup of coffee!), and they will try their best to not be offended because they “know you don’t know”.
“So what’s so wrong about rejecting a cup of coffee?,” I wondered aloud.
T explained that generations ago when their grandparents were having personal troubles, whether work, family, or anything else, they would go to a store/restaurant/cafeteria.
Then, the server would offer them a cup of coffee, and due to the grandfather’s current issues, he would reject the cup of coffee.
This would serve as a signal to the server that there was something wrong, and then the server would ask if everything was ok.
To this generation, rejecting a cup of coffee is just a behavior that seems odd.
The proper procedure, if you didn’t want the coffee, would be to accept it and put it in front of you. Even if your lips didn’t touch the cup, you still had to accept it.
This and many other unspoken rules discussed made me understand more in-depth how this is a high-context culture.
In high-context cultures, communication depends much more on the context rather than on what is actually said. For example… In Panama, if you say you will meet at 7 pm, everybody knows that the meeting will actually take place at 7:30ish. So in T’s case,
Not accepting coffee ≠ I do not want coffee.
Not accepting coffee = There’s something wrong.
Not accepting coffee = This person is being weird and impolite.
Would I have known this and really realized how high-context culture this is had I never spoken to T?
This, I think, is one of the reasons why I was excited to meet with someone from Kuwait, as I haven’t had much interaction with this culture.
I found it fascinating to learn about a new perspective on the Middle East that wasn’t brought by media or Hollywood.
Unfortunately, it seems that most of what we learn about foreign cultures, in general, is through the media, partly because it’s the only thing we have been exposed to!
But rather, why don’t we learn from sharing experiences with new people, getting to know their values, cultures, and beliefs?