I was recently sitting with the owner of a large PR firm that was working on a project with a well-known client in the Middle East. The project was encountering difficulties that required some serious PR work to counter certain allegations being made on social media against this client and his family. From his western European cultural worldview the plan of action was clear – go out and speak about the issue, even though it is personal, openness is the best route. He was bewildered by his client’s complete refusal to even contemplate the idea, “We just don’t talk about these things!”
Every culture has its own set of taboos. That line that separates appropriate topics of conversation from topics that you would do well to avoid, is not easy to maneuver and sometimes very difficult to comprehend. Yet crossing that line can spell the end of a relationship or much worse.
One such topic is money. Asking someone from the US or the UK how much money they make at their job or how much they paid for a new car or coat would draw quite a strong reaction of: “this is private! No one asks those sort of questions!” However, for Arabs among each other, it is perfectly normal to ask those sort of questions. Yet on the other hand, in most countries in the Arab world, ask a man about his wife and you have crossed a line into offensive territory.
Mental illness is another one of those major topics that we just don’t talk about. If you recall that the main motivator of behaviour in Arab culture is to safeguard my honour and avoid shame, then of course, this makes absolute sense. The stigma of shame and general lack of awareness around mental illness in the Arab world has added to the struggle of those who must suffer behind closed doors.
Remember that in this culture a person does not represent only themselves, they represent everyone in their extended family and in their community. And everything they do or say affects everyone and can bring shame to the entire tribe. So speaking openly about illness would affect the prospects of marriage for everyone related to that person. A totally bizarre concept when viewed from a different worldview.
Today, this is completely at odds with the younger generation that has grown up on the public platforms of social media. Their eagerness to open up and share everything freely is constantly clashing with the traditions of their parents who are horrified by the notion of exposing their taboos thinking about the honour of the entire family.
Many of the things that we are openly discussing today were at one point in time taboos. As with everything else in this universe – the only constant is change.