The fact of the matter is that we should always judge individuals and not generalize or stereotype. The truth also is that a culture identifies itself from others by its distinctive culture’s customs and habits. There is no perfect culture, even though we believe our culture is better than others. Every culture has its good and its bad habits. One cultural difference between Arabs and Americans has to do with being “nosy” or “curious.”
Compared with Arabs, especially Jordanians, Americans have no curiosity to ask personal questions. And their curiosity rate reaches ZERO level in the first meeting. An American you meet for the first time will not ask you where are you from? How old are you? Why you are not married? Where are you going? Mind your own business mantra is as holy as one’s prayer in their culture and I LOVE IT. Okay, maybe sometimes but not all the times.
Now, let me explain what kind of questions you might be asked in Jordan, and I am not exaggerating if I said these questions might be asked by total strangers in the first meeting (e.g., between a taxi driver and his passenger). Are you married? Why you are not married? Why are you going to the court? How old are you? What do you do? Where do you work? How much is your salary? Yes, in Jordan we ask each others about salaries. If curiosity is close to zero in America it is close to 100% in Jordan.
Last week, I meet an Arab man who had just moved to the US with his family. I invited him to my apartment to drink tea. He is a nice person but he couldn’t hide his Arab intense desire to know gene. During our chat with other friends, he asked me “What is this, this, and this?” Pointing his finger with every “this” to one of the electronic devices I have beside the TV. I admit these devices are not the normal electronic devices you see near the TV but he felt the urge to investigate and ask questions. In his second visit, he saw on the coffee table a box with a picture of children in an inflatable swimming pool, knowing that I am single he couldn’t not ask “Why did you buy this?” Nosiness is in our gene! Luckily, my ten years in America taught me to tone it down to a very low level. Something I am very thankful for.
But to be fair let me explain why this extreme nosiness exists in the Arab culture. Two things we don’t value isolation and individualism. Being nosy is a manifestation for being social. The more we know about you the more we can chat and the more we can be friends. We take our socializing habit to extreme. That is why we don’t appreciate queues. In queues, people stand in line one after another. Queue is a system invented by people who value time and individualism. We value neither. When we are waiting for something we wait as a one big family so we can see and chat with everyone. And because time means nothing serving a person before another means that the person served earlier is better than the one served afterward. We like all of us to be served at the same time regardless of who came first. There is no difference between 7 am and 11 am in our culture.
So if you are ever to visit the Middle East be prepared to be asked personal questions. And please make sure that you never answer “it is not your business.” This is considered very rude and WILL offend the person asking questions. Asking questions is our way to socialize with others and refusing to answer means you don’t want to socialize with people. In Arabia, refusing to socialize with people is taken as you feel you are better than them. Therefore, in the Middle East you have to answer personal questions. Now, my first recommendation is NEVER say “it is not your business.” Second, to escape embarrassing yourself and others lie but never refuse to answer. No one really wants to know the truth they just need an answer, any reasonable answer will work. Sometimes answering wisely will keep you away from more nosy questions.
But it is not always that Americans mind their own business, they don’t when it is necessary. In the very popular American TV show “What Would You Do?“ some actors stage a problem inside a store or in the street to see how people will react. For example, would anyone stop a drunken man from driving? Or would someone tell the store manager that they saw a woman shoplifting? The show also stages controversial and hot issues like Islamophobia for example. The episode about a Muslim woman wearing hijab who was denied service by the store salesperson was by far a viral video among Muslims worldwide.
Something I found interesting while living in the U.S. is that American women are more confrontational than American men. This is of course my humble opinion and is not based on any research or statistics. I think it might also be the case in Arab countries. And in the cases were the man is confronting it is because his wife nagged him to do something about it. If you watch ABC’s show “What Would You Do?”, this happens a lot. The wife tells her husband we should do something and the husband usually says it is not our business. I think this is an interesting subject to read about. Why women are more confrontational than men?
Two days ago, I went to Starbucks early morning. I decided to sit outside. The tables were still not wiped since the day before. I got couple of napkins and started cleaning my table. Suddenly, I hear a 20 something young lady sitting on the other table saying “you don’t have to do that.” She went inside and asked someone to come and clean the tables. An Arab or an American man will not do that. Women always claim they are the weaker sex but I doubt that. They are way stronger than men but they are not taught how to make use of their potentials when they are young.
In short, if you are an Arab in America don’t think that Americans are uncaring or uninterested in you if they don’t ask you personal questions. They believe it is not their business if you don’t want to share your personal life. Also, if you are an American in Arabia don’t feel that Arabs are rude because they are asking you personal questions they just want to mingle and socialize. They are more interested in the time you spend together than the content of the chat.
Isn’t life more beautiful when we understand others’ culture?
Bonus culture difference trivia: If I would ever write a book in English about culture similarities and differences between Arabs and Americans I can name it “American and Arab Culture for Dummies” or “Complete Idiot’s Guide to American and Arab Culture.” If it is in Arabic, I can never ever write “for dummies” or “idiot’s” on the book’s cover. The Arabic version of the show “The biggest Loser” is translated to “The Biggest Winner.”