Tactical Affability: How to Accomplish Tasks in the Middle East

Was talking to a dear friend about how to get our insurance cards – her strategy: be annoying. Sit in the office and comment on everything, attract the clerk’s attention constantly, i.e. make the person work fast to want to get rid of you.

No. This is not the way. Allow me to elucidate.

  • most importantly – bring a book. This is your key to success in the Middle East. I know, people say, “well if I have to wait I will just play *&#%$^ game on my phone.” This is why it took you three times and four hours to get your insurance card and it took me twenty minutes. BRING A BOOK. (electronic book is ok, but physical book is best). Think about this – you are searching through 500 little pieces of plastic and someone is sitting there fussing with their phone which pings/ squeaks/ buzzes as the person mutters under their breath. Is this fun? No. So what will you do: work harder to find their card or get them out of your office?

Now image a person sitting utterly silently, deeply absorbed in their book – Are they ruining your chi? Are they bothering you? Interrupting your concentration? No.

If you are waiting, don’t talk, don’t send messages, don’t use earphones – sit and read as if volcanos/ earthquakes/ swarms of locusts/ lightning bolts could not move you. You will emerge victorious and long to send me elaborate bouquets of jonquils to thank me.

  • be bland, be nice – channel that inner Des Moines and Worcester
  • be prepared, no matter what it is you are trying to do from opening a bank account to getting a driver’s license to picking up a FedEx package to buying kumquats to vaccinating your wombat: have cash in small denominations, cash available on a debit card, all your IDs (including passport), and a few passport-sized photos
  • think of yourself as a kindergartner going on a field trip: bring a drink and a snack, pee before you go into the building
  • don’t get emotional, looking teary-eyed is fine, but if you are feel like you are losing it – leave. Ugly-crying may get what you want this time, but it will probably mean you will be studiously avoided in the future. People in the Middle East remember faces much better than most people from North America and Europe. If you have a crying fit in the bank, you will return after two months thinking everyone has forgotten. No one has forgotten and no one will want to help you.
  • don’t accept tea – one dear friend fell for this. Tres amusant! She was offered tea, accepted, was politely escorted to another office, tea was brought… but the person ‘helping’ her disappeared and when she went back to the office where she had been, the door was locked. Another friend accepted the offer and the clerk got up, said “I will just go ask for it,” left the room and never came back.
  • don’t get into conversations – stay pleasant and answer anything that has to do with the matter at hand and anything general (what’s your job, how long have you been in country, etc.). If you are asked ‘how do you like this country,’ say ONLY vague and positive things (‘such nice people!’ ‘such lovely scenery’). If it gets into ‘are you married,’ ‘what’s your salary’ then open your eyes slightly and smile. Don’t answer. Don’t engage.

Now this behavior is for getting things done – of course if you are buying a carpet, then accept the tea. If you are getting your hair done, then chat away. But remember – starting personal conversations with people you don’t know often means 1) you are going to get proselytized or propositioned, 2) your country’s political system is going to get flambed, or 3) the person you are talking to knows other people you know and will repeat your words, with or without embellishment.

Tactical affability. Full metal jacket geniality. Hard-core unrufflable amiability. Some trolls think that being nice means weakness (or that it is easy). NO. You need to wear congeniality like armor and emerge, in mere moments, with your driver’s license, victorious and virtuous.