An American supervisor in Tunisia reprimands a local employee for habitually arriving late for work, and does so in front of the Tunisian's subordinates. To which the employee replies in anger, "I am from a good family! I know myself and my position in society!" To which, no doubt, most Americans would respond with incredulity: who's talking about family or social status? But to Nydell, an Arabic language specialist with long experience in the Middle East, there's no mystery: the Tunisian "felt his honor had been threatened and was not at all concerned with addressing the issue at hand."
Much in this fine survey of Arab mores will surprise the novice; old hands might find explanations for recognizable but somewhat inscrutable patterns. Some highlights: Doing favors is much more a part of friendship among Arabs than Westerners. A good personal relationship "is the most important single factor in doing business successfully with Arabs." "To Arabs, honor is more important than facts." "People are more important than rules." Good manners are "the most salient factor" in evaluating character. Nydell rightly points out that Westerners resident in Arab countries automatically belong to the upper class, with all the benefits (social prestige) and obligations (good grooming, no manual work in public) that that implies. "Family loyalty and obligations take precedence over loyalty to friends or the demands of a job." Nothing path-breaking here, but true and useful insights.