Make new friends and learn about new cultures in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Last week I traveled to Saudi Arabia for the first time. I landed at King Khalid International Airport on Monday evening, spoke to a group of bankers on Tuesday afternoon and then flew to Dublin late in the evening. It’s been a whirlwind adventure and a very long journey of learning work and life skills. But instead of a green and white Saudi World Cup soccer jersey bought at the airport, I like to bring lessons and now I’m sharing them with you, dear readers.

I have been providing communications coaching to a number of Riyadh Bank executives for almost a year. (In case you’re wondering, they don’t spell it with the “h” at the end of the word, which distinguishes it from the spelling of the kingdom’s capital.) But up until last week, each of their training sessions were held in London. I decided to travel to the bank’s headquarters in Riyadh when my learning and development partner, Abeer, asked me to give a personal presentation on targeted communication for positive impact.

I told her: “Yes. I will make the journey”. Because you have to leave often to grow.

I have had many more uplifting and encouraging encounters in my short journey than this column gives me the space to write about, but please join me as I describe a few and the lessons we can all apply.

1 Put aside preconceptions

I’ve written before about the benefits of cultivating curiosity. It helps us to enrich relationships with companions, colleagues and companies.

An important aspect of this requires that we eliminate any irrational stereotypes or assumptions we hold or are told. For example, although I knew that there are many Irish organizations already doing successful business in Saudi Arabia, I will admit that comments from well-meaning friends and acquaintances to ‘be extra careful’ and ‘stay safe’ occasionally scared me Trip a fluttered apprehension about my decision to travel alone.

But there is a connection between openness and success. So I pushed my hesitation aside as I marched forward on the passenger boarding bridge and took my seat on the plane.

2 Explore and respect culture

To be honest, I personally feel more comfortable in clothes. But earlier, when I submitted a photo of the knee-length dress I was planning to wear for my presentation, Abeer politely suggested that I try pants as the hem would fall past my ankles.

I felt a bit like Hillary Clinton and bought my first pantsuit in practically ages. In fact, I bought a trio of these in three different cuts and colors and put them up for a vote on social media. The cream rose quickly, so to speak, and Abeer also gave a thumbs up. It went in the suitcase. I wanted to make dress choices that promote professionalism, credibility, and trustworthiness.

My next wardrobe consideration was whether I should pack a scarf to cover my hair. Abeer said it was no longer necessary for western women to do this, but I borrowed a black scarf and matching abaya from a friend, just in case.

There were only four other western women that caught my eye as I walked through the immigration line at the airport arrival gate. Only one of them wore a scarf and he was draped casually and loosely, showing lots of hair. Nobody objected.

When preparing for an interview with a potential employer, you research the company’s dress code culture, right? If you’re visiting someone’s home and they ask you to take off your shoes before you come in, you’re going to comply, right? For me it’s the same. I am a guest and how I dress shows respect for my host. I decided to wear the scarf and abaya Tuesday night when I met Abeer and another colleague for dinner in town. But I didn’t wear them during the day or during my presentation.

3 Celebrate incremental steps of success

Someone took a picture of me at a presentation I particularly like. In it I stand small in the background on the stage. In the foreground, the backs of the heads of the people sitting in the audience dominate the picture. You can see a few men wearing the red check Ghutra shawls. A few men’s heads are bare. A few women’s heads are covered with black cloths.

There was me, a long-haired American, speaking to an audience of mixed Saudi professionals.

I’m happy to say that people kept their phones off, looked up and nodded enthusiastically. There was laughter and applause. Many stayed after our allotted time to continue to ask me pertinent questions. One of my trainers from the trips to London was also there. He approached with a big smile and told me how he had urged his colleagues from another department at a distant bank branch in town to make sure and attend. He was so excited; it touched my heart.

I was even told that the CEO I met earlier that day was watching me through the online streaming service provided by the bank.

I can imagine that just a few years ago so much of this scene would not have happened.

Twenty-four hours is sometimes all it takes to exchange uncertainty and doubt for real-world experience and determination. My journey has strengthened my belief that we humans have more similarities that can bring us together than differences that can divide us.

Write to Gina in nursing
SundayBusiness@independent.ie

With corporate clients on five continents, Gina London is a leading expert in communications strategy, structure and execution. She is also a media analyst, author, speaker and former CNN anchor.
@TheGinaLondon

https://www.independent.ie/business/making-new-connections-and-learning-about-new-cultures-in-riyadh-saudi-arabia-42193035.html Make new friends and learn about new cultures in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

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