Saudi Arabia: The Smile or Even the Hug…


Growing up American a young girl does not think twice about her smile, her laugh or even a spontaneous hug.  After all, most of us were raised to be friendly, polite, welcoming.  But in Saudi Arabia a young woman is not to draw attention to herself or if she is speaking it is generally through her brown eyes with the rest of the face obscured.  As a result, there can be major albeit innocent misunderstanding and miscommunication between the male Saudi student and the American girl.


The American girl wants to make the “foreigner,” the newcomer, feel welcomed.  She may walk up to him with a smile on her face and take his hand in hers as she gives him her name.  She’ll encourage him to call her by her first name and without a second thought volunteer her cell phone number too.  After all, she is just being American.  Yet to the newly arrived Saudi student he may be receiving confirmation that all he heard or read about American women were true.  They are easy!  They like me!  They may not be too ‘clean’ or worried about being clean because she is talking to me and touching me.  She smiled at me!


I don’t know if I have an answer on how to easily clear up this misunderstanding that too often takes place.  One can only talk about the distinctions in culture and upbringing in the hopes that these nuances become better known.  More Saudi students will be coming to America.  More American students will be going to KAUST too.


Perhaps international students association should begin writing their own experiences and tips on how to avoid miscommunications.  International student life is a great experience for all involved but it is imperative to start these new relationships with the right foot forward.


What experiences or situations have YOU found yourself in which involved a foreign student or newcomer with differing traditions?  How do you clear any cultural misunderstandings?  What are the best tips to have the new friendship cement into a lasting one?

17 Responses

  1. I don’t know where to start on this one….I had 3 almost-stalkers in England, not including a misunderstanding between me and the owner of a shisha cafe place. On top of this, there were some guys who practically propositioned me with marriage and some others who practically propositioned me with sex. All this, even though I tended to cover up more of my body than I would at home, wore my hair up most of the time, and tried to maintain a physical distance. And this happened in England, not some other place where women have less rights. I don’t even consider myself that beautiful compared with all the other women in the world.

    Things to know would be that:

    1) Belly dancing in public can be perceived as very sexual among certain cultures much like pole dancing can be perceived in the US as far as performing live goes. It doesn’t matter if you are practically covered from head to toe. I learned this the hard way.

    2) If you feel uneasy in a given situation, trust your instincts. Try to stick with people you trust to look out for you.

    3) No two people from the same country are alike. Out of all the guys that harassed me, they came from different parts of the world.

    4) Try and learn the customs of the people you are hanging out with. Know what they perceive to be acceptable and unacceptable from a cultural viewpoint.

    5) Stay away from the crazies AND the ones that are truly crazy where you’re concerned! LOL. I know this one sounds like a “duh” thing, but I made the mistake of going over to a friend’s house. He had an obsession with me and said something to the effect that he “loved me from the moment [he] saw me” and “we could have something special together” even though we both had other significant others AND I had already told him to quit flirting with me. Let’s just say that in the end, nothing horrifying happened and I was able to get out of the situation without either of us being physically injured. He felt badly later, but I really didn’t care. I just hope he doesn’t do it again to some other girl. I do tend to attract the crazies, though.

    6) Use common sense. Stay in well-lit areas and all that.

    These are the ones that stick out in my mind because they are the ones that caused me the most trouble.

  2. I tend to think that the onus should be on the ‘guest’ to know the social norms of the country that they are going to. Isn’t that what you say about people who are visiting KSA? There should be an orientation of sorts BEFORE the student goes to go to the foreign country. Why should a friendly, normal American college student have to educate herself on all the different cultures of all the different people that might be attending school in HER country just to help HIM avoid a cultural boo boo? There is no way I would believe that KAUST is going to accept foreign students without first making sure that they know what they can and can’t do in KSA.

  3. Lynn,
    There are some cultural nuances that aren’t noticeable at first. Sure, as a foreigner you should know the laws and general practices within a country. However, some things aren’t noticeable at first. For example, how to ask someone if they want to go somewhere. In the US, we’d just say “Hey do you want to go to… with me later?” However, a Saudi may say things like, “I was thinking of going to….what do you think?” This translates as “Would you like to go with me to….(wherever)?” This is an example of things that are not necessarily noticeable on the surface. However, other things such as appropriate dress attire are more easily noted.

  4. I don’t think things like how someone asks you out is an important thing to know. If he wants you to go with him and he doesn’t make himself clear then he WILL learn or he won’t go out with anyone. I thought we were talking about important things like ‘your smile will make him think you want to sleep with him so don’t smile at him’.

  5. When I went to Syria, I asked Samer what rules I should follow there. I didn’t want to – God forbid! – use my left hand in the wrong situation and totally offend everyone I saw! 🙂 He only gave me one rule. He told me not to offer to shake hands with any man unless he offered first and told me to convey the same rule to my husband in regard to women. So I kept my hand to myself unless men offered to shake my hand. A few did. Many did not, but I was prepared. One rule wasn’t so hard to follow.

    Funnily enough a couple guys wanted to shake my hand, but they didn’t offer so I didn’t either. But they told Samer – in Arabic – “you must have told her not to shake our hands” as if I had been ruined of my western cultural way of welcoming people. Ha! Since then those guys have told me they wouldn’t have minded shaking my hand and I just laughed and said I’ll keep it in mind next time I visit Syria.

    I hope there is a next time. That country is a mess right now. I really loved that place … *sigh*

    Interesting post! I love going places and smiling at people. If they think I’m easy because of it, oh well. I don’t think I’m going to change now. I prefer smiling to going around downcast like I’m a miserable old soul. Too much of that in life..smiles are good!

  6. Again…why is this saudi man/ american girl…is that the only combo that is possible? I didnt particularly agree with this post. Too many generalities. My parents didnt raise me to smile, hug and make strangers feel welcome….as a girl…I was raised to be careful and cautious around strangers…which I still do to this day.

  7. As an American, I was raised to smile, say “Good morning!”, and thank people when they did things for me. I learned in Saudi Arabia that this common behavior in my country was equivalent to flirting in Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. Men completely misunderstood a simple smile with eye contact. Readjusting my behavior was difficult at first, but necessary to avoid unwanted attention – including phone numbers written on scraps of paper, stalking, and marriage proposals. All Western Christian women are thought to be sexually promiscuous by many people in this part of the world, primarily because of years watching television shows like Bay Watch, etc.

  8. ‘All Western Christian women are thought to be sexually promiscuous by many people in this part of the world, primarily because of years watching television shows like Bay Watch, etc.’

    Which is why I say THEY should have to learn that they are WRONG. It is hard to imagine a person that is intelligent enough to be accepted to a foreign university yet still doesn’t understand that TV isn’t real. Wait a minute, Bay Watch? We know what religion those people were? When did that come up? And what are they doing watching something like that with all the half naked people on it? They need to learn that just because someone may be ‘naked’ does NOT mean that they are promiscuous and even if they ARE it does not mean that they want THEM! lol

  9. When I studied abroad in Italy, we were warned that smiling at men would be taken to mean that we were sexually interested in them. It was difficult to get used not smiling when passing someone in the hall or not smiling when greeting someone but I did and things were fine. So this isn’t just an East vs. West thing.

    I think that a Saudi student first arriving here may perceive smiles and handshakes that way, but in my experience, those that have been living here for over a year know that women are just being friendly and that it’s part of our culture.

  10. I wouldn’t alter my behaviour in MY OWN country so that a random person would feel more comfortable. They came over out of free will, they can leave if they feel terribly distraught. And if a random ignorant person would believe me to be “easy” because I say hello with a smile then who cares? People think stuff about others all the time. Some might think my dress sense is terrible, some may think I’m oppressed, some may think I’m stupid, some may think I’m easy. Their thoughts – their issues. I say, as long as they respect the law, they may believe whatever they want to. It’s a free country 😉

  11. I’d love to be a consultant to the Ministry of Culture or Ministry of Higher Education! I know students receive briefings but it doesn’t hurt for International students club to form their own tips and experiences too…that would be part of the cultural exchange experience.

    I write more on US/Saudi boy-girl relationships for that is what I’ve been most exposed to within and outside Saudi. Of course there are many many more combinations that have come together which I’ve written about in the past on articles of children of mixed unions and heritages and in the interview series.

  12. Why would I alter my behavior? 2 main reasons:
    1) Safety
    2) To Blend In

    If I’m in the ghetto/”the ‘hood”, I will dress and act accordingly. If I’m in Pleasantville, so to speak, I”ll dress and act accordingly. I will dress and act differently at a professional dinner than I would at a dinner among friends. These are the same reasons I alter my behavior slightly when around different cultures/sub-cultures. However, I do my best not to lose my personality in the process, which can sometimes be hard.

    When part of your survival/defensive mechanism is knowing how to blend in enough that people respect you, then changing according to what you are doing just kinda happens on its own.

  13. ‘ I do my best not to lose my personality in the process, which can sometimes be hard.’

    Then just be yourself, at all times. If your personality doesn’t fit then don’t go there (around them) again.

    I can honestly say that I do do not act or speak any differently in the ‘hood’ or in ‘Pleasantville’ and I’m certainly not going to do it for foreigners in my own country.
    I mean come on, what;s next, we are going to excuse a foreigner raping me because well, it WAS my fault, I did smile at him and shake his hand and I’ve since learned that in HIS culture that means it’s a YES. See what I mean. NO similarities, what so ever between a casual dinner with friends and a formal dinner with your bosses.

  14. Lynn,
    I do my best to be myself at all times. Part of me being myself is doing my best to understand other people, who they are, and why they are the way they are.

    I dress differently in safe neighborhoods because the truth is that there is a smaller chance of me getting raped, mugged, etc. I can wear short shorts and tank tops without getting leered at by every guy in the immediate area. Where I grew up as a child, I wouldn’t feel safe being out at night because people DID get raped, murdered, caught in gang-related violence, etc. Where I lived as a child, murders were an expected weekly occurrence. Where I’m at now, they’re an unexpected annual occurrence. Some war zones are safer than where I grew up- and I’m not exaggerating. So yes, I can and do choose to change my behavior based on where I live. And it wasn’t like I could just up and leave when I was still under age and living with my parents (who actually were very reasonable and safe in how they protected me from the crime going on around me).

    And for the record, yes, it’s the guy’s (or girl’s) fault when he (she) sexually assaults someone, but why open yourself up to the possibility if you don’t have to?

  15. OMG Lori, you’ll be wearing that burqa in no time! LOL

  16. Lynn,
    Whatever helps me blend in! LOL I don’t like extra attention. Of course, guys tend to stare either way if they like you, but if you are dressed in what looks like “slut” attire to them then some of them will treat you as such.

  17. LOL! Smiling at American men makes them think you are sexually interested in them! It is the rare man of maturity who doesn’t take female attention as encouragement that , maybe, just maybe, he might get laid!
    double LOL! Showing consideration to the feelings of
    others is called politeness. Foreigners count as others and politeness to foreigners often means temporarily adjusting social norms.

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