Should you give up yourself to accommodate the culture you’re visiting?
Yesterday I went to see the new Sex and the City film and this question was subliminally raised. The film is set largely in Abu Dhabi and the cultural clash that four women from New York City encounter brings up some interesting cultural issues. For those who haven’t seen the film, spoilers ahead.
In the film, the women are invited to spend a week in Abu Dhabi, all expenses paid by a hotel owner who is considering hiring Samantha to do PR for the hotel. Samantha insists upon bringing her three friends along for a much needed holiday. Samantha approached the trip as a holiday, not a business opportunity. Although she’s usually portrayed as a savvy businesswoman, in this film she threw caution to the wind. She didn’t attempt to research the company, the country, the culture, etc. If she really wanted to land such a lucrative client I would have thought she would have taken the trip a bit more seriously.
Instead, it was Samantha’s friend Miranda who brought along guide books and attempted to speak Arabic. She supplied a lot of information about the culture as she informed her friends about local fashions: abaya and niqab. She was also constantly reminding her friends to cover up because it was offensive to show too much skin.
Before visiting a souk (market), a member of the hotel staff warns two of the girls not to pay attention to men selling knockout watches who will try to lure them into a building to buy even more things. The lack of this knowledge is what gets the other two girls into trouble later in the film.
The climax of their adventure comes when Samantha is arrested for kissing on a beach. Shortly before that she is seen on a date where she seductively smokes a hookah and puts her hand on her date’s thigh, much to the outrage of a nearby man. While Samantha’s devious behaviour elicited laughs from the audience in the cinema, it was obvious that she was about to have a problem. As she and her date walk away to walk on the beach, her date unties her dress from behind and the same man is seen complaining about their lewdness.
Later, at the hotel, it is reported that the many who saw them is very conservative and wants to press charges. Samantha is later released but she loses her potential client and the girls must leave immediately because they can’t afford to stay.
During one of the final scenes in Abu Dhabi, the contents of Samantha’s purse spill on the ground and the men around are outraged to see condoms lying on the ground. Samantha takes the opportunity to stand up for herself, proclaiming her love of sex and giving the middle finger. The film was accurate in that the women hurried away and showed concern that they might be arrested.
The film seemed to insinuate that Abu Dhabi and the conservative people there were the antagonists. Of course the point of the film wasn’t to lecture on the proper behaviour of tourists abroad and did only show the perspective of its four main characters. However it would be valid to say that their behaviour was culturally insensitive and audience of this film can learn from their missteps.
According to Wikipedia, “etiquette is an important aspect of UAE culture and tradition, to which visitors are expected to conform” and “the UAE has maintained a strict policy of protecting highly public spaces from cultural insensitivity.” When we visit another country we must respect and follow the rules of that country. They may clash with our own values and beliefs and it can be difficult when the differences are so drastic and we are forced to change what some may consider basic aspects of our selves.
In an article from The Hollywood Reporter Cynthia Nixon, who plays Miranda, quoted that the character “Samantha is disrespectful, but Samantha is disrespectful in New York and she is disrespectful in the Middle East and she just really doesn’t care.” Some may argue that she’s just being herself even if that self is a disrespectful one. In that case, should she have to give up who she is? The answer varies depending on your values. If you feel that you shouldn’t have to give that up, awareness of your beliefs is the first step toward a successful intercultural transaction. But, in the film, Samantha’s very unwillingness to forego her own desires cost her a client, cut short her holiday and got her arrested.
The bottom line: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Or, when in Rome, do as the Romans do, and get intercultural training to find out how the Romans do it!
Resources on UAE culture and doing business there: