Culture Translation

“He never even looked at me in the rear view mirror!” The back of a truck crossing the desert in Oman might be the last place you expect a culture lesson from, but for a couple my parents are friends with, that’s exactly what happened.

Sitting in the back of a jeep rattling through dunes of sand towards a Bedouin camp, the lady of the house asked their driver some questions. “How big is the area? How long have you been doing this?” That sort of thing.

The driver was friendly, and yet, she never received any answers — only her husband did. He didn’t look at her. He didn’t talk to her. “Always go through the guy” seemed to be his motto. “What a jerk!” the wife thought, and if that had been the end of it, this incident would have made for a rather poor lesson.

Thankfully, while killing some time in one of Dubai’s giant malls later during their trip, they received the second half. A salesman in a watch shop happened to have lived in Germany, like the couple, for two years. He spoke decent German, and when the wife relayed her strange Uber ride, he said: “Oh! You don’t understand our culture. Let me translate for you.”

The salesman explained that, in the Arab world, the number one value is respect. “When a man engages with a couple or even a mother and her son, the motto is in fact ‘always go through the guy’ — not because women are considered to be stupid or inferior, but because they are divine.”

If a woman has chosen to be part of another man’s family, it is an act of respect to not ogle her while she’s shopping. It is an act of respect to not touch her, which is why a watch salesman will always give the husband the watch his wife might want to try on — it is for him to put it on her, not another man. And it is even an act of respect to not address another man’s wife, strange as it may seem to Westerners.

“That really opened my eyes,” our acquaintance said. “In principle, it’s not a bad idea, is it?” At the very least, it is anything but the slight she perceived it to be. All it took was a little bit of culture translation.

We don’t always get these cultural translations right when we need them. Often, we don’t get them at all. And while it’s great that we can read a 30,000-word Wikipedia article about the status of women in Islam, secondary sources can lack the nuance a simple conversation with a salesman in a watch shop might surprisingly provide.

Look for culture translators. Don’t ask “What the hell?!” Ask “Why?” And if someone does something you don’t understand, don’t presume they are following rules you already know. Assume it’s a little bit of culture, lost in translation. That’s not something our phones can untangle for us just yet, but if you wait and see, you might get the second half of the lesson sooner than you think.