A few years ago I was invited to speak about cultural intelligence at a global women’s leadership conference in the United Arab Emirates. Like any country I am traveling to, I made the efforts to learn about the area of the world that I was going to visit. To prepare for my trip I found books that spoke about the cultural history and background of the country. I bought language CDs and watched documentaries about that region of the world. I also visited websites and blogs to explore what other travelers had done and experienced. I know I spent hours finding information and learning about the culture and the people including what gestures to use and how to address someone in a business meeting–all the etiquettes I thought I would need in the country.
As a petite-sized woman traveling alone, late at night in an unfamiliar country, I was anxious to get to my hotel as soon as possible. Upon my arrival in the United Arab Emirates, I went through passport control like every passenger. When it was my turn, I handed my passport and plane ticket to the man behind the counter. He nodded at me and I responded with an enthusiastic “Hello.” Then, the man looked at me for a few seconds and then looked away. In the seconds that he looked away, I looked toward the direction he was facing. I was not sure what drew his attention away, but his attention never came back to me and my passport.
I did not know what to do. Several thoughts were going through my head at that time. Perhaps I was in the wrong line? Did I do something wrong? Why is he not taking my passport? Was I supposed to get another form of documentation? Could something happen to me? Would I be able to call my peers at their hotel to let them know I arrived? Would someone be willing to come and pick me up?
I was the last person in my line going through passport control, and every line other than my own seemed to be moving. As I watched traveler after traveler go through passport control, I remember feeling very self-conscious and a bit worried. As I watched his attention focused on something else, I tried to draw it back by saying, “Hi!” hoping I would have his attention this time. No luck.
I felt my anxiety rising, mostly because of the worse-case scenario thinking I was doing. I kept telling myself “everything is going to be okay” although I had no idea if it was. I was not clear why the man in front of me was not taking my passport. I looked around for the non-verbal cues, but all I could tell was that he was acting as if he did not see me. Then, I thought I would check to see if there was something wrong with my passport, and I proceeded to say, “Is anything wrong?” No response.
I nudged the passport forward, and he turned his attention back on me. He still did not pick up the passport or acknowledge me. I began to shift the backpack I was carrying on my right shoulder to move the weight off, and then it dawned on me that maybe I should pass the passport to him with my right hand. I had read in the literature and online that in the Arab world, the left hand is considered unclean. Did I hand him the passport with my left hand? I may have since my right hand was grabbing the handles of my backpack.
I nudged the passport with my right hand toward him.
The Emirati responded by taking the passport! He stamped it and then said, “Have a good stay in our country.”
When I reached my hotel, I could not go to sleep. My mind was replaying the scenario of the Emirati man and myself. How did I know what to do? What if I nudged the passport with my right hand and he still did not take it? What emotions were coming up for me? What more could I have done to understand the situation? Was this really a part of Muslim culture I was experiencing or was it the Emirati man’s individual preferences and culture?
I will never forget this experience because it was my own cultural intelligence in action. I was trying to be culturally intelligent without having all the information and knowing only the details that were in front of me. The frustration of not knowing if what I said or did was offensive bothered me because I see myself as adaptable and respectful. And perhaps the man’s reaction had nothing to do with me and all to do with how he was feeling in that moment. Although I sought to learn different parts about the culture before traveling to the Emirates, I gained from this experience the knowledge that one can never be prepared for what cultural interactions could bring in any given moment. This is why cultural intelligence is incredibly vital and useful as a tool; it is there to help you understand each play-by-play action in cultural interactions. CI helps you to break down your cognitive, emotional, and physical reactions, helping you to understand more about yourself so that in future interactions, you make different choices in how you react.