Communicating with Arabic Speaking Clients

Communicating with Arabic speaking clients can be complicated.

Language Use

  • Many Arabic speaking clients have low levels of formal education, as well as poor proficiency in English.
  • Some Arabic speakers have little formal education in Modern Standard Arabic.
  • Arabic is not the first language of all Arabic speaking Australians; some speak Assyrian, Kurdish, Coptic or Somali as their first language and Arabic as their second language.
  • The Arabic speaking community represents a diverse range of countries, ethnicities and religions.

It is important to know these basic facts about language use as early as possible in your relationship with your client.

Here are some useful questions to consider in getting to know your client:

  • What is your client’s spoken English proficiency? Open or Close

    The English proficiency of Arabic speaking clients varies greatly depending on their length of time in Australia, literacy, education levels, socialisation and opportunity to learn English.

    Clients’ level of English language proficiency may be satisfactory on some occasions, and inadequate in others. If detailed information is being communicated it may be appropriate to use a professional interpreter or a competent bilingual worker.

  • Does your client read Arabic? Open or Close

    This is important if you want to give your client any written materials in Arabic. Due to war and dislocation, some Arabic speakers have had disrupted or no schooling. For the illiterate, it is often very distressing to have to explain that they cannot read. It is far preferable to have checked this with your client early on in your initial interviews. There is a wealth of translated material in Arabic on a broad range of health and community service areas – see Arabic Translations to locate relevant material for your service.

  • What is your client’s first and preferred language? Open or Close

    Although the majority of Arabic speaking clients have Arabic as their first language, it is important to confirm this at your initial contact with the client and to record both ‘preferred’ and ‘other language/s’ in client files. Asking your client directly is the best way to find out. Determining your client’s preferred language is important as it will also help in deciding whether to engage a professional interpreter, especially when you are outlining detailed or complex information. See Engaging an Interpreter for more information on when, how and why you should use an interpreter.

  • Does your client read English? Open or Close

    You need to know your client’s level of English literacy to determine the usefulness of any written information you need to give them. Written information can vary in complexity – from an appointment letter, to medication-list instructions, to consent to surgery, to admission to a residential facility. Accurate understanding is crucial in these cases. You may find our Arabic Translations useful.

    Sometimes, when clients themselves cannot read English, other family members can, so it is still a good idea to be given written material in English which can assist with understanding and reminders from other family members.

Client Responses

Word order in Arabic is different to the English word order in a sentence - for example, the verb comes first. So when speaking in English, an Arabic speaking client may want to say "the boy eats the apple", but actually says "eat the boy the apple" (following the Arabic word order). Similarly, adjectives come after the noun, rather than before as in English, so “the red car” may be described as “the car red”.

Lengthy and colourful descriptions are a feature of verbal communication in the Arabic language, as are blessings and the use of creative wording. The Arabic language has a strong oral tradition and often Arabic speaking clients may provide you with a more detailed response to a question, rather than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response.

In cultures of the Arab world, the individual tends to be perceived as inseparable from their families. When it comes to decision making on matters of service provision, be aware that your client may often want to consult with family members. He or she may not, therefore, be able to respond immediately to some of your questions, particularly if the response requires a decision.

Body Language

As well as your client’s use of written and spoken language, it is important to recognise culturally specific ways of communicating: body language, gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice. Arabs communicate in expressive and demonstrative ways. Expressing one’s emotions and feelings in gestures and behaviours are acceptable amongst Arabs, as are obvious displays of affection. Social interaction and conversation among Arabs occurs at a much closer distance and well within the ‘personal space’ of Westerners.

Greetings

Handshakes with the right hand at the beginning of a visit or interview are appropriate with your clients. Placing a hand on your heart along with a slight bow is a sign of respect and this is usually done as a greeting. Placing the palm of the right hand on the chest, bowing a little and closing one’s eyes connotates ‘thank you’.

Touching noses together three times when greeting is a Bedouin gesture of friendship and respect.

See Basic Phrases for expressions suitable on greeting clients.

Kissing

People familiar with each other will greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks. Women greet each other like this, as do men and women in many situations. You may see close friends and family members hug and kiss both cheeks upon greeting. Clients who become familiar with you may greet you in this way which is a sign of warmth and welcome.

For Muslim clients, it is important to note that during the Hajj (Muslim pilgrimage) people may kiss only on the shoulders as a gesture of friendship and greeting.

Eye Contact

This is important in Arab cultures. Always make (and maintain) direct eye contact as it is a sign of seeking to communicate with the other person. If you don’t make eye contact you may be perceived as lacking real interest in the person or as having something to hide. Staring is not necessarily rude, so don’t feel uncomfortable if clients and family members are looking at you for prolonged periods of time.

Gender

Body language and contact may differ for women of Arabic speaking backgrounds depending on their religion and whether they are more Westernised or more traditional. In general, public displays of affection between men and women are not condoned. Often in more conservative Arab cultures and families, any form of physical contact is not approved, including handshaking and kissing as greetings.

Tone of Voice

People of the Arabic speaking world are expressive in ways that are more vocal and more elaborate than is common in English. It is not uncommon for Arabs to raise their voice as a way of showing their emotions – this is a common way of communicating and not cause for concern.

Culture and Tradition

There are many other aspects of communication which are culturally embedded and may influence your communication with your Arabic speaking clients. Please see Culture & Traditions for more information on key things to consider when engaging your client.