Everyone gets instantly surprised when he/she digs a bit deeper into the wealth of another culture. In many ways, Westerners may find Egyptian values and customs shocking or even inacceptable. After first impression with this unique culture, however, we understand that well-established Egyptian traditions are deeply rooted in the long country’s history. The uniqueness of the Egyptian culture is incomparable to any other cultural norms, customs, values and beliefs. Thus, it is much easier to find differences with any Western culture than spot similarities. The roots of the culture and communication patterns date back to the unknown times that mark powerful symbolic representation.
Egypt is a country located in North East Africa with almost 87 000 population. The country’s ethnic make-up is rather diverse, including Egyptians, Bedouins, and Berbers that altogether comprise 99% of the population, while mere 1% covers Greeks, Nubians, Armenians and some Europeans (Jacq, 1998). Both the Egyptian Muslims and Christians have been speaking and writing Arabic for nearly thirteen centuries. Most (94%) Egyptians are Muslims (mainly Sunni), the rest 6% are Coptic Christians and others (Nicholson and Shaw, 2009).
Egyptian traditions in architecture have received major inspiration from afterlife religious beliefs. Ancient Egyptians held that the mummified body symbolized the soul’s living in an afterlife world. While ‘Ka’ symbolized the soul living forever, Egyptian rulers of all times have surrounded themselves with the items that symbolized eternity. Famous Egyptian pyramids are vivid evidence of these traditions in Egyptian architecture and art (Strouhal, 1992).
Ancient Egyptians invented the cult of mummification to secure the soul’s afterlife in the body. The Egyptian funerary rituals promoted the idea of a deceased soul eternal existence. Hierarchically, the ‘Ka’ of a king was to live the most comfortable afterlife. The tradition of tomb structures built over royal tombs is much in the Egyptian architecture that allowed mourners to please the spirit of the deceased members of royal families. The tradition of pyramid building came from the belief that human soul would preserve in a sculpture (Manley, 2003). At that, with complex funerary practices Egyptians meant to safeguard a soul in the afterlife. Over time, the tradition of burying the deceased kings in well-elaborated homes turned in constructing great pyramids we still enjoy today (Traunecker, 2001).
Representation of human figure in ancient Egypt
Over the centuries, the established afterlife beliefs have much influenced the Egyptian art. The Egyptians associated the world with one’s eternal life; therefore, they depicted human body from different perspectives. They did much to make human body recognizable, and mostly emphasize the might of Egyptian rulers. Egyptian artists focused on royal figures of the time to highlight their power (Traunecker, 2001). While overemphasizing parts of human body, they underlined maturity, assertiveness, and power of the Egyptian rulers. Those portrayals and statues proved power and idealism of the Egyptian royalty. The artistic exaggerations followed the conventions of the time of depicting high social statues of Egyptian rulers as well as their higher rank within the society. These are the roots of social class division, hierarchy and supremacy in Egypt (Bulliet, 1990).
The overwhelming majority of Egyptians is practicing Islam fundamentally based on the Quran. Muslims are praying five times a day, while the local newspaper announces the exact time for prayers. Muslims take Friday as the holy day when everything is closed. Some companies close even on Thursday meaning a two-day weekend. During the Ramadan (which is the holy month in Egypt), all Muslims are fasting throughout a daytime while a working day lasts no longer than six hours. The custom of fasting involves one’s complete refraining from eating, drinking and smoking. At sunsets during the Ramadan, Egyptian families get together to celebrate the breaking of the fast and arrange the festivities until the late night. Naturally, businesses in Egypt operate slower during Ramadan while many shops are closed. These are unique customs one would hardly find in any of the Western civilizations (Oakes, 2003).
Unlike most Americans who are mostly prioritizing on careers and business priorities, the Egyptians place emphasis on family that is the focal unit of the Egyptian society. In other words, kinship and extended family relationships determine all social relations. Contrary to Western societies, family values overtop individual concerns making an individual subordinate to group (collective) values. Egyptians favor nepotism that secures patronage of one’s family (Manley, 2003).
Interpersonal relationships in Egypt ground on honor. This means that Egyptians are rather respectful and considerate about esteem of other people. This behavioral norm is rather the obligation than the right. Honor much determines one’s name and reputation within a family and the society. The first indication of honorable treatment you receive in Egypt is hospitality. Egyptians primarily demonstrate genuine hospitality to their friends and guests. The second indication of honor is respect to the elders and people in authority. In addition, Egyptians follow distinct dress code especially in particular (business) environments. Another distinct feature is an ultimate emphasis on one’s word. Egyptians disrespect anyone going back on their word (Manley, 2003). This indicates that you should mean what you say in Egypt while the consequences of what one says are far more serious than in the Western world.
Since the ancient times, social class has determined one’s position and power within the Egyptian society. The ultimate importance of belonging to a particular social class consists in one’s lifestyle and opportunities. Today’s Egyptians are broadly making up upper, middle, and lower social classes. Interestingly, family background is much more important in determining one’s social status than absolute wealth. Contrary to the western cultures, such fundamental division into classes makes the Egyptian society rather conservative and socially immobile (Nicholson and Shaw, 2009).
Etiquette in Egypt
There are clearly defined customs indicating behavioral etiquette in Egypt. One should be careful about the etiquette norms in Egypt for they are rather strict. For instance, the way people greet one another in Egypt depends on their class and religious belongingness. Egyptians normally shake hands with those who belong to the same sex. Handshakes are usually continuous followed by a direct eye contact and hearty smile. Once Egyptians develop a friendly relationship, they commonly exchange kisses on cheeks while they are shaking hands. This custom concerns both men and women. If a woman does not extend her hand first while greeting a man, the latter should bow his head to greet her.
Along with the greeting etiquette go gift-giving customs. Egyptians expect guests to bring sweets, chocolates or pastries to the hosts. Unlike in the West, Egyptians do not give flowers. Egyptians present flowers at weddings and when they visit patients. If you want to show affection, bring a small gift for the children. Egyptians present gifts only with the right hand or both hands. Recipients in Egypt never open the gifts.
The Eastern etiquette is also about dining. Hosts expect their guests to take off their shoes before entering. Egyptians normally dress conservatively and are well looking for appearances have strategic cultural value. Hosts are appreciating compliment from the guests in Egypt such as appreciating the meal with taking second helpings. Egyptians eat only with the right hand and rarely salt the food. Egyptians consider leaving a small amount of food on one’s plate after finishing eating as a good tone. In other case, hosts will keep filling the food up (Nicholson and Shaw, 2009). Overall, the etiquette norms are stricter in Egypt compared to the ones we follow in the United States.
Prior to doing business with someone, Egyptians prefer to get to know their partners well and develop trustworthy relationships and sound communication with them. Egyptians are mostly precise about their business partners and prefer to do business with people they trust and respect. This means that prior to developing any business relationships Egyptians invest certain amount of time in cultivating interpersonal relationships. Business relationship grounds on not what a person knows or does but on who they are. This is the fundamental part of networking and cultivating business contracts in Egypt. Business partnerships with Egyptians usually start with tea or coffee offerings while a partner should always accept such an offer even without making a sip. This is a genuine demonstration of hospitality. Egyptians consider the rejection of a beverage as rejecting the person. Egyptians judge people on appearances and expect their partners to wear fine conservative clothes and present oneself well. Further, Egyptians emphasize on a direct eye contact as a genuine indication of one’s sincerity and honesty. In times of excitement, Egyptians get rather emotive and apply body language (mainly hand gestures). Egyptians normally use soft voice, however they may get over emotional while stressing on their point. They also expect to show respect to the seniors and those in authority. This is because Egyptian traditions historically ground on hierarchy (subordination) and social ranking (class belongingness). In addition, it is rather important for Egyptians to know how their partners do business. Overall, personal relationships make up the basis for long-term business.
Egyptians also hold high expectations to business meeting etiquette. They make appointments at least one week in advance. Formal confirmations come in writing or on the phone. Except for the reasons of confidentiality, Egyptians do not arrange meetings in private. This means that Egyptians are transparent and follow an open-door policy while doing business. Conversely, high- level government officials often refer to western business practices of holding private meetings in private to disable any interruptions.
Egyptians take decisions after long-lasting deliberation. Considering slow pace of decision-making, business in Egypt develops slowly. Given the hierarchical and conservative nature of doing business in Egypt, much also depends on bureaucratic procedures. Egyptians usually do not say ‘no’ to their partners, though the lack of response indicates rejection of a partnership or an offer. Egyptians await persuasive evidence from their business partners including research and documentation in support of their claims. They are tough negotiators that disfavor high-pressure tactics (Bulliet, 1990).
While digging into the roots and origins of the Egyptian traditions and customs, I have learned much about the unique spirit of the country that has much determined the cultural development of the Eastern civilization. Apart from the well-known artifacts, I was pleased to investigate the peculiarities of the Egyptian customs in daily and business life. As to the Westerner, many seem odd to me, still I think that I would manage to adapt to the life in Egypt over time. Spotting similarities with the American culture and customs has turned much more difficult than finding differences. This means that every culture is unique while we should respect rich cultural and ethnical diversity no matter where we are.
- Bulliet, R. (1990). The Camel and the Wheel. Morningside Book Series. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Jacq, C. (1998). Magic and Mystery in Ancient Egypt. London: Souvenir Press.
- Manley, B. (2003). The Seventy Great Mysteries of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson.
- Nicholson, P., & Shaw, I. (2009). Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology. Cambridge University Press.
- Oakes, L. (2003). Ancient Egypt: An Illustrated Reference to the Myths, Religions, Pyramids and Temples of the Land of the Pharaohs. Barnes & Noble.
- Strouhal, E. (1992). Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Traunecker, C. (2001). The Gods of Egypt. Lorton. Cornell University Press.