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Minding Your Ps and Qs (and Cultural Cues): Effective Business Communication In The MENA When it comes to closing business deals in the MENA, always think about craftsmanship, as constructing professional bonds works the same way.

By Maryam A. Hassani

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You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.


Negotiations can sometimes resemble designing your preferred desk setup. Standardized pen pots and office chairs might function, yet the chair's ergonomics might be better suited to someone else.

When it comes to closing business deals in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), always think about craftsmanship, as constructing professional bonds works the same way. You draw inspiration from other setups, surf the internet for the latest updates in the field, and choose the perfect setup for you. It takes time, but the result is a comfortable, stylish desk setup that inspires productivity.

Businesses in the MENA thrive on crafting strong personal connections. This relationship-first mindset fosters a collaborative environment built on mutual trust. So, what may seem like casual conversation is -for your MENA counterpart- an opportunity to explore potential, and create a foundation for success together. And your communication style, etiquette, and time management are your accessories, chair, and desk.

Here's an exploration of how embracing MENA's cultural nuances can lead to collaboration and growth:

1. DO YOUR HOMEWORK A more accurate perspective would not be to assume -as a fully functioning outside business looking to expand in the MENA- that all you need is to access the land, local connections, and local banking. It would be to appreciate that there's a lot you might not know about the local players.

People typically talk about the Middle East as a whole, when, really, it's made up of several distinct components, which makes this region complex. Local knowledge is extremely important. Rather than simply sending your top talent, consider partnering with local institutions or family-owned businesses to understand the behavior, the consumers, and the way of doing business first.

Still, it's not as simple as researching successful local firms, and striking a deal. It's important to find common ground, building rapport before starting negotiations. Trust is paramount in the MENA region: business is often seen as "people doing business with people," rather than just companies interacting.

LinkedIn is a good place to start to get an idea of the executives working at your prospective partner firms. Try to gain clarity on intentions and topics of mutual interest based on their posts- don't open a chat with a pitch if you expect a response. Perhaps you see they are going to a local event that you are considering attending; ask them if they've been before, or if they'd like to chat in person once you are there.

Related: Navigating Success Through The MENA's Entrepreneurial Networks

2. COMMUNICATION STYLES AND ETIQUETTE Once you connect with someone, to build trusted relationships, your new acquaintance must feel heard. Active listening, nonverbal cues like eye contact, and avoidance of potentially sensitive topics such as extreme religious or political views will help you on your way to making a good first impression.

However, it helps to have an understanding of how the language itself differs too. While English is widely understood, nuances and subtleties are often lost in translation. For instance, your American associate says: "We need to circle back, and touch base with the team." While "circle back" and "touch base" are euphemisms for delaying a decision, and they are considered polite in the US, they could be misunderstood or interpreted as a lack of decisiveness in the MENA region.

Besides the fact that Arabic opens doors to a broader audience, language is a core part of someone's identity, and communicating in your MENA correspondent's native tongue, or using familiar euphemisms acknowledges and respects that. Due to its complexities, consider partnering with Arabic-speaking friends or local experts to ensure your message resonates effectively. Their insights will be invaluable in tailoring your communication for maximum impact.

3. TIME MANAGEMENT AND ATTENTION TO DETAIL It's not always about what you say, but when and how you say it. Perhaps your new acquaintance had a birthday coming up? Or they were anxious about preparing the perfect party for their daughter. You could drop them a text, "Hope all goes smoothly for your daughter's party today!" Or why not get a thoughtful gift for their daughter at the next meeting?

In the MENA, it's the thoughtful details that cultivate a flourishing relationship. And these kinds of interactions are what will get you remembered; the trick is remembering them in the first place.

All it takes is a little organization. Whether it's extensive Excel sheets listing every contact and interaction, or customer relationship management (CRM) tools that file notes in a more user-friendly format, the more automation you can get the better. For example, our company, Zealous, offers a professional networking platform where you can find connections based on geolocation and aligned intentions, store private notes, and receive automated reminders and suggestions to reconnect.

The MENA region presents a unique opportunity for businesses seeking growth and collaboration. By understanding the cultural nuances and prioritizing relationship building, you can navigate the complexities and forge enduring connections. Remember, communication style, etiquette, and time management are your tools- use them thoughtfully to craft connections as enhancing and personalized as that desk setup.

Related: Five Steps To Build Your Entrepreneurial Community In The MENA

Maryam A. Hassani is the co-founder and CEO of Zealous, an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered networking tool for goal-driven individuals to find, meet, and stay connected with their professional network at their preferred time and place.
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