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The body language clinic: International etiquette pt2


Following on from the very popular piece on European body language, resident expert Peter Clayton takes the community on a tour of the Middle East, periodically stopping off to give us some essential do's and don'ts of etiquette.

Understanding a little about etiquette in different countries can create a good impression and improve confidence on both sides of the table. This article gives a brief insight to some of the countries you may visit in the Middle East and the Arab world.

I'm hoping that TZ readers will add to the content and when finished I will combine the additions with each article so members can download it for future use.


There are a number of helpful rules for etiquette in Arabic countries. These are listed here and specific advice for each country is listed in separate sections.

The standard greeting in Islamic and Arab-speaking countries is the salaam.  This is done by touching your heart with your right palm, then sweeping your forearm up and outward, with the words 'Essalam ëalaikum', ('peace be with you'). An abbreviated salaam is made by moving your forehead forward slightly and touching it with your fingertips.

Arab men do a lot of touching. Handshaking is often prolonged, and men who know one another well may clasp elbows.

The personal zone is smaller than in the West. Men will stand much closer to other men when holding a conversation than is usual in the West. To move away during a conversation is considered rude.

Men and women stand farther apart than in the West, and there are no public displays of affection. Visiting men should wait for an Arabic woman to offer her hand.

A man greeting another man who he does not know well will shake hands, whereas a man greeting a woman who he does not know well will touch his heart with his right palm.

Avoid pointing directly at another person.

Remember to remove your shoes before entering a house or a mosque.

The sole of the shoe or foot is the lowest and dirtiest part of the body, and it is an insult to show it to or point it at someone.

Use only the right hand for eating, and for presenting or receiving gifts. The left hand is used solely for hygiene purposes in any Islamic country. At meal times, Arabs will serve plenty of strong, thick, syrupy coffee in small cups. To indicate that you have had enough, tip the cup back and forth with your fingers.


Although Egyptians are used to Westerners, you should dress modestly. Men should wear long trousers. Women should wear long skirts or loose-fitting trousers, loose tops with high necklines and sleeves that cover the elbows. A lot of people in Egypt smoke and doing so in public is not frowned on.


Handshakes are customary and shaking hands with children indicates respect for their parents. Women should wear a loose ankle-length skirt with a big, baggy, long-sleeved shirt or shirt and loose-fitting mid-thigh-length jacket. Make-up and any jewellery apart from plain rings such as a wedding ring should be avoided in order not to cause offence and provoke strong reactions. Men should wear full-length trousers, and keep their arms covered.


Jordan is relatively westernised, but immodest dress may upset people. Women should wear at least knee-length dresses or trousers and cover their shoulders. In Jordan, politeness is an elaborate art. For example, at dinner if you are offered additional food, you should refuse twice, and only accept on the third time of offering. It is polite to leave small portions uneaten. Although Jordan is one of the few Arabic countries where alcohol is readily available, drinking anything more than modest amounts is frowned upon.


Hebrew is a very expressive language, and is accompanied by much touching and hand-holding between friends. Visiting women should wait for an Israeli man to offer to shake hands. Women should avoid smiling at strangers, who might get the wrong impression. Orthodox Jews do not touch hands casually or shake hands between genders, even when passing business cards.

Saudi Arabia

At gatherings, you might see men greeting dignitaries and elders by kissing the right shoulder front to show their respect. Saudis may host joint business meetings in one room, with the host moving from one group to the next and back again. If your host interrupts a meeting and is gone for 20 minutes without explanation, it is for prayers. Saudis find crossing your legs disrespectful. Don't expect to be introduced to a veiled woman in the company of a Saudi man. Women should keep their legs, shoulders and arms covered at all times, in loose clothing. You may also need to cover your head with a scarf. Smoking in public is not common. Alcohol and pork are illegal. Don't smoke, drink or eat in public during the holy month of Ramadan or you risk being sent to prison, possibly until the fast is over.


In addition to the normal handshakes, friends may put their hands over yours, or even embrace you. At an office or formal gathering, shake everyone's hand. A much younger person may kiss your hand and press it to his head as a sign of respect. Smoking and eating on the street are considered impolite. Show particular respect to elders, who are valued there. When talking, don't cross your arms or put your hands in your pockets. 'No' is indicated by raising the head a little, tipping it back and closing the eyes, or opening the eyes wide and raising the eyebrows.


Children are taught not to talk unless addressed by a visitor. A nod means 'Yes', while a sharp upward motion of head and raised eyebrows means 'No'. In urban areas the Lebanese are quite tolerant of Western ways and dress, but in rural areas people are more traditional. Outside cities and the larger towns, Western women should take care to dress modestly.

As I mentioned in my previous article, I became increasingly aware that I could have written a great deal more, with comments on negotiating, seating plans, the appropriate percentage of eye contact and so on. I decided, because of the length of the article, to cut it down and try to give a brief overview. If there are TZ members who can add to the final article I will include them and compile the series into a download.

Countries and areas in the next articles:
  • Africa
  • Australasia
  • The Indian Subcontinent
  • China and the Far East
  • Central and South America
  • North America

Peter Clayton is a leading body language expert, speaker and trainer as well as a consultant for the BBC and ITV. He writes for a wide range of national papers and magazines and is a specialist consultant to other speakers, leading businesses, celebrities and politicians. For more information, visit his website:

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Peter Clayton

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