Afghanistan cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
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Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
The best topic to discuss is asking Afghans about their lives, taking care to not raise any expectations unnecessarily. As the economic situation of the people is extremely bad, sometimes asking about how they do will be interpreted as you trying to offer some help. It is safe to talk about their kids in general, but no personal questions should be asked, especially about female members of the family. A question about which province they come from is always helpful, especially if you know something about that part of the country and can share that with them (eg: "it is a beautiful part of the country", "I have seen pictures of it", "I would like to go there some time" and so on).
Questions on marital status of the women should be avoided, especially in front of others, as this is considered rude.
It is OK if you make some jokes, but of course it should not be targeting one person or one ethnic group in an humiliating way. I mention this because there are common jokes in Afghanistan with particular reference to some ethnic group, especially to minorities. Take care with your audience. For example, jokes that might offend women include ones which have any sexual topic or material in it.
First of all, Afghanistan is a complex country with different cultures depending on where in Afghanistan you are from. I have spent most of my time in Afghanistan either in the North Eastern part of the country, or in Kabul. In these areas, you are more likely to meet the men first. They are interested to talk to you and find out where you are from and are willing to tell you about where they have come from originally and where they have travelled. They are also very happy to talk about their children but rarely talk about their wives. They will show you a picture of their children (if they have one) but will never have a picture of their wife to show. It is a cultural taboo for others to see a picture of the wife and especially for another Afghan man to see the wife.
Afghans are very interested in comparing cultures and are always interested to hear a visitor’s opinion and views of Afghanistan. They prefer not to discuss the war unless you know them well. Once you know them well, they will open up and tell you some of the horrors they or their families have experienced. It is documented that at least one person from each family has been lost in war in the last 23 years. They are interested in talking about Islam and are curious about your religion but this is not a topic for discussion for a first meeting.
Much of the population is illiterate and uneducated. There is a difference in how educated professional people greet expatriates. The men will greet each other with a handshake and this also goes for women expatriates. Outside a professional setting and with people in rural areas, men will not usually shake the hand of a woman. As a woman, I always wait for the Afghan to extend his/ her hand before I offer mine.
The men love to tell amusing stories and proverbs from their culture. They love music. It has to be remembered that during the Taliban regime, laughter and music was not allowed. Now, it is very common to see smiles on the faces of men, women, and children.
There is a huge difference between people who studied, lived or worked in the main cities such as Kabul, Mazar, Jalalabad, Herat and those who were raised and lived in the rural areas or some of the provinces such as Kandahar, Paktia, Uruzgan, Logar or Ghazni.
People who lived in the main cities, mentioned above, are more open-minded and considerate of different cultural issues within their own communities and with other groups. As far as keeping a distance, it is always wise and more acceptable that you keep a proper distance, meaning just be as close to the person as he/she can hear you and you can hear them. While you may sit next to a female colleague in her office or in your office to discuss an official issue, be careful to completely avoid this in public or with a female you meet the first time.
Chances are that people living in the main cities of Afghanistan know that handshaking in the Western world is common. If they are offered a handshake, they will not hesitate to respond. While you can safely offer a handshake to your male colleagues, with female you need to deal with them individually. Some women might feel very uncomfortable to shake your hands, especially in front of others, and in some cases they may refuse. Instead, they will bring their right hands to their chest to reply to your handshake. So, it will always be safe to start with you touching your chest as a way to start greeting and then once you know the Afghan female that you are meeting, then decide on individual basis.
On the other hand, the people from the rural areas are extremely conservative when it comes to physical contact. One thing that you may find strange in this regard, is that the male population tend to have more physical contact, with both male and female foreigners. Men often hug each other and will shake hands with both males and females. Afghan females might appreciate close contact by their female expat colleagues. In fact, the acceptable forms of touching such as hugging, rubbing someone’s back are all OK between an expat female and an Afghan woman.
Don’t be shocked or puzzled if an Afghan woman doesn’t look you in the eye even if you talk to her for several minutes. This is not a sign of not respecting or not paying attention to what you say. It is just a custom there. Opposite sexes don’t look each other in the eyes. It is not only at work place, but also at the family level. Cousins of the opposite sex don’t look each other in the eyes. On the first days of your visit, a lack of eye contact is common, especially with females. As the time passes, this changes.
Give yourself enough time before you decide to touch a person in Afghanistan. Touching a person of the opposite sex represents an old and trustworthy friendship or being good colleagues. While I will not see touching of an opposite sex advisable at first days of your contact, touching of the same sex should be judged based on how close you become to each other.
Afghanis appreciate a clear, but not very loud voice. Again this should be decided based on your distance from the person you are talking to. You shouldn’t sound too bossy if you want to attract more attention, especially at the beginning.
Note: An expatriate woman should ask her Afghan colleagues about how to approach men and be more cautious with Afghan men than male expatriates, especially about avoiding behaviour that might be misleading and create misunderstandings. A good number of Afghan males, especially before passage of some considerable time, find some of the common behaviour of female foreigners misleading and somehow strange.
As a woman and expatriate, I found the people come very close when talking. They often step into ’your space’ and always look at you very closely. They will often stare and this appears to be acceptable behaviour. There seems to be no trouble making eye contact with others, even as an expatriate woman to an Afghan man. I have noticed that Afghan women look down when they are talking to men but I am told that this is out of fear and insecurity, not a cultural taboo.
Men are very affectionate with each other in public. They greet those they know with a hug and a kiss and shake hands with those they don’t know. They will shake hands with an expatriate women but not with an Afghan woman. The women will shake hands with women only.
It is very rude to raise your voice or show anger to a person in front of others in the workplace. The Afghans find it very disgraceful to be rebuked in the presence of others.
The Afghans like to talk a lot and meander quite a bit before getting to the point. There is a long greeting process and general talk before getting to the point. For a westerner, this can be often frustrating, especially when you are in a hurry. It is very rude to ask a direct question without first asking how the person is.
Display of emotion
It is generally OK to be affectionate. However, it is important to watch how you show it. Any physical contact or touching to calm someone should be according to what I mentioned in question 2. You can become angry, but avoid using words such as silly, stupid even if they might be acceptable in Canada. You can show your anger by not talking to someone or by using proper conflict management tools such as warnings and so on. In Afghanistan, a very common way of showing anger between Afghans is that they become physical. But of course this is not going to be the case with Expats.
I have been told that if a man hugs a woman as a greeting (even an expatriate) he can be disciplined severely by the local police. There is no affection between men and women shown in public.
As mentioned above, it is considered very rude and even offensive to raise your voice or show anger to a person in front of others in the workplace.
It is very rare to see an Afghan cry in public. They also become very uncomfortable at the sight of an expat crying.
Dress, punctuality & formality
As far dress is concerned, Afghans wear jeans and a shirt to work so you will not have a problem wearing what you normally wear in Canada. But every expat, female or male, should ask about "acceptable" dress. What is important is that you dress decently. This applies both to male and female expats. Generally speaking, Afghans will not expect expat females to cover their heads and it is not a must to wear long sleeves or pants. No shorts, no mini skirts or no shirts that show a major part of women’s chest. Your male colleagues will find it uncomfortable to work with you if you do that. Also, gradually they will lose trust in you.
All colleagues call each other by their last names, followed by "Sahib". For example, a person with Hashimi as the last name, will be called "Hashimi Sahib". But this is truer in case of higher- ranking employees/supervisors. As for foreigners, males are called by their last names preceded by Mr. and females will be called by last name followed by "jan", a Dari word showing affection and kindness. Women also use ’jan’ for each other. In some cases the feminine form of this "Sahiba" is used for female colleagues, but it is not as common as "jan".
The majority of Afghans working with foreigners by now know importance of being punctual, meeting deadlines. But still you need to make it clear that you demand these. Otherwise, they will not be in a hurry. They have been dealing with different management styles and they pretty much go by what their supervisors demand of them.
Afghans really value being motivated and encouraged, whether by words or otherwise. So, it is really a useful management tool to admire the ones who deserve to be so. If you do this in front of others, then the effect will be especially positive.
Dress is very conservative for men and women. Men should wear long sleeves and long pants. Shorts are not appropriate. I have seen expat men wear short-sleeved shirts when it is very hot, but you never see an Afghan man wearing short sleeves. Women should be covered from neck to ankles with loose fitting clothes. Pants are ok, tight jeans are not. Pantyhose are not acceptable unless covered with a long skirt or dress. It is important to have a headscarf with you, although I rarely wore one unless I was in a rural village or speaking with mullahs (religious leaders). The burqa is still worn widely in rural areas and even in the cities, although professional Afghan women can usually get away without one in Kabul. Burqas are taken off in the house or office without problems.
It is normal for Afghans to address you formally. Once they get to know you well they will call you "Mrs. Susan" rather than by last name. It is important to address the Afghan formally as well. In general, the Afghan people are very polite.
There is always regular time and "Afghan time" which is 30–45 minutes after the designated time. The Afghan people generally are very hard workers but deadlines are really not of high importance. They may start 30 minutes late but rarely leave on time and often work 2-3 hours overtime without compensation and never complain.
Family matters are of utmost importance to the Afghan. Therefore, do not be surprised if, when a family member is sick, the staff person does not show up. I rarely saw abuse of this though. "Malaria" is often a reason for staying home.
Preferred managerial qualities
Usually the more highly educated staff make it to the top positions as the country doesn’t have many of them. Therefore, a university graduate would be considered highly educated and will be respected and regarded as someone who knows more. This can change however, and if this turns out not to be the case, than the person will not be regarded as before. Experience, leadership qualities, being open to new ideas, being hardworking and honest are all considered as important as they are in Canada. If a supervisor possesses these qualities, he will see a high degree of cooperation from his/her staff in return. However, staff will show their highest degree of obedience in front of the supervisor, regardless of the mentioned qualities. Afghans generally follow hierarchy and you should be considerate of this. If a driver comes straight to the manager to complain about something or to report something, this might not be appreciated by the lower level supervisors.
With an expat supervisor or manager, things are very different. Staff may start reporting things to the expat that they may not report to a local supervisor, mainly to earn their trust and get their attention. Therefore, you need to know the motive behind that sort of behaviour. You might have staff who change their work habits to attract your attention. For example, they might start staying late, coming earlier, becoming more vigilant when you are around and so on. In order for you to know these tricks, you need to listen carefully and be very observant. Expats are generally regarded as good and staff tend to be respectful and obedient. One thing that might change all of this is if you are close to those who are not very much appreciated by others.
Education level is of high importance to Afghans and since many of them have not had the opportunity themselves to go to school, they respect anyone that is educated. The Afghans are very flexible and adapt easily to new things. This is probably due to the fact they have been in conflict for so many years that there is not anything that they are "used to". They tend also to be uncomfortable making decisions without quite bit of direction. Instability and security concerns have meant that they tend not to have a lot of experience planning ahead.
In some cases, Afghan men do not really like working in a subordinate position to a woman. Certainly, this is much more pronounced between the Afghanis themselves. I found that most men did not mind working for an expat woman.
In most cases, Afghans do not show emotion, so ostensibly, you will be "liked", regardless of how they esteem you. I found that only rarely does a feigned accommodation of someone get in the way of work. If the Afghans don’t "like" you, they usually work very hard regardless. As your staff gets to know you, they will come to you and tell you that they appreciate you.
Hierarchy and decision-making
In the recent years, Afghans have had some exposure to modern management techniques and tools. They will talk about participatory methods, so decisions are made with consultation of the concerned staff. But one common thing is that supervisors tend to discuss the issues with others, while making decisions on their own. Holding meetings is a very common phenomenon in Afghanistan and that is the forum where they discuss issues and generate ideas. So expect a lot of brainstorming sessions. You need to ensure that female participation in discussions gets somehow equal to that of male participation. Female staff will be very reluctant to participate.
Yes, it is OK to go to your immediate supervisor for answers and feedback. In fact, they appreciate that.
Decisions are made by the manager and, as stated before, Afghans are usually happy to let you make the decision. They like brainstorming and do not hesitate to participate. It is acceptable to go to the immediate supervisor for feedback and assistance.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Women are usually considered "people who belong to the home". Men are mostly dominant and you will need to work a lot to promote women’s rights. However, you need to be very careful. Men’s dominant attitude will make it hard for you to ensure female contribution.
Afghan society is a religious society, but not as extremist or fundamentalist as projected in media or some other sources. It is true that people say they are religious and they need time for prayer, but not everyone prays.
Class and ethnicity
This used to be a very serious issue and people were judged based on which class or ethnic group they belonged to, but it is not as serious anymore. The more than twenty years of war and emigration has changed this for the better. However, some people may still feel proud to be descendants of famous tribes such as Mohammad Zai, Sadozai and Popal Zai.
Always, the man is considered superior to the woman. Afghanistan is a patriarchal society. Women are restricted in many ways by their husbands or fathers and always do what they say.
Islam is really the only religion in Afghanistan; most Afghans are tolerant of all other religions as well.
There are certainly class differences, the educated and people in high positions are treated better than others. For instance, the driver of the vehicle will not eat at the same table as the person he is driving.
There are many battles still in Afghanistan related to ethnic origins. For instance, most in the South are Pashto and seen as being sympathetic to the Taliban, while most in the north are Tajik and have fought the Taliban. Racism is alive and well in Afghanistan.
It is important to get to know your staff and take into consideration all these issues when hiring and making manageable teams. Even though a mix of gender and ethnicity is optimum, it would probably not be appropriate at this time. In time, a balance will take place.
Many of your colleagues will try their best to approach you for establishing personal contacts. Inviting you to their houses is both part of their tradition and also they see it as a good tool to get personal with you. While establishing such a relationship is very important and useful, at the same time you need to be careful. You need to crosscheck the information you get from people who try to become very personal at a short time.
As stated before, a bit of time needs to be spent with greetings and formality first before getting down to work. Once a friendship is established, Afghans are very loyal. Afghans are very social people and you will get much further by being friendly and kind than by being pushy and direct. If you make a promise, it is important for you to keep it as Afghans are normally very trusting unless you disappoint them.
Privileges and favouritism
Very much yes. The only time I would recommend such privileges is when they deserve it (i.e., when the sole reason for this privilege is not because he/she invited you to their houses). One of the ways to ensure this happens is to discuss this with that friend. You both need to consider the pros and cons of such an action and then decide accordingly.
The Afghans are not shy about being nepotistic and if they know you and know you have the influence, they will not hesitate to ask you to hire a family member or friend. In my experience, it is not a good idea to have family members working together. The Afghans will sometimes take liberties that we as westerners would not. For example, some will use your name and make promises on your behalf. There may also be a different definition of property; it seems that many things are considered communal property.
Conflicts in the workplace
You will know it sooner if this is a male colleague than with a female colleague. A few of the signs are no willingness to talk or be as friendly as they used to be, trying to argue over small issues, not being attentive when you talk and so on. It is always good to discuss work-related or personal problems privately first. There is tough competition amongst colleagues at workplace and any confrontation in public will worsen the situation.
As alluded to above, it is better to do this in private. If Afghans are having a problem with you, you will hear about it eventually, as gossip is common and does not seem to be frowned upon. The grapevine is very powerful. In most cases though, the Afghans are tolerant of expats’ faux pas, if they know you are there with good intentions.
Motivating local colleagues
Job satisfaction, commitment, money, loyalty, good working conditions, fear of failure are all relevant factors, but most importantly incentives and appreciation, whether financial or moral. It can be very effective to mention names of those who do well at occasions such as meetings and other gatherings. Certificates of achievement, suitable raises and job sustainability or security are all good motives.
Afghans are loyal. They are generally very poor, so having employment is very important, both financially, and in terms of social standing. They appreciate flexibility and an easygoing nature rather than rigidity. They usually give 100% and work well with some guidance, supervision and a little gentle pushing.
Recommended books, films & foods
Afghanistan—Essential Field Guides to Humanitarian and Conflict Zones, Girardet & Walker; Afghanistan, A History of Conflict, Griffiths; The Great Game, Hoprick; and Taliban and Jihad, both by Ahmed Rashid.
Kandahar (OK but not a great portrait of Afghanistan).
Under the Veil (I saw it on CBC in 2002). Excellent!
www.aopnews.com/today.html, www.afghansite.com , www.afghan-web.com, www.afghanonline.com, and afghan-info.com.
There is only one English language newspaper in Afghanistan, Kabul Times, but there are many UN agencies and other international NGOs with their newsletters and surveys and all sorts of documents, relating to culture and political affairs in the country.
One of the ways to get cultural interpreters is through Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Also, you can use the expat network to find a reliable interpreter.
Places to visit
The province of Badakhshan (the most northern province) is extremely beautiful; the mosques in Herrat; the Bamiyan Buddha sites; the destruction of Kabul (west side); Salang Pass and Khyber pass.
Due to security restrictions, it is really not advised for an expat to go to any large events. I did go to a Bosh Koshi (events with horses and dead goat), and football game; however, through both of these events, we attracted so much attention that people crowded us and our safety was at risk, so we left.
There are local TV stations now in most big cities; however, English is not used.
There is a good resource book called the Survival Guide to Kabul that is updated on a regular basis. That will give an overview of things to do in Kabul. In other areas, you mainly have to rely on the locals to let you know what is going on.
I think you need to be extremely careful in this regard as the heroes after 1977 (i.e., after president Daud) are considered heroes by one party and puppets or killers by the other party. So, it is always safe to give examples of historic national heroes such as Ahmad Shah Abdali as a good King and poet, Malalai as a brave female soldier, King Amanullah as liberator and so on.
The great Massoud is currently the country’s hero. He was instrumental in the war against the Soviets and actively opposed the Taliban. He was murdered on Sept 9, 2001 just before 9/11.
Shared historical events with Canada
The fact that Canada has hosted a considerable number of Afghan immigrants is a good example, but of course some people who never left Afghanistan during any of the hard times may not like this.
Canadian peacekeepers who were stationed mostly in the west part of the country, have a very good reputation for their part in community emergency and relief projects. Canada has been funding many humanitarian projects, both during the war and now.
Canada assisted in the war against the Taliban and Canadians are highly respected.
At one time, the Agha Khan made his home in Canada, so the Afghans see this as a link as well.
Some Afghans don’t like foreigners in general, but this has nothing to do with Canadians. They consider foreigners as people who seek to change their traditional historical and social norms such as the role of women in society. Also, with what is going on there now, some Afghans view the westerners as invaders, depending on which part of the country we consider. In some parts this number is higher. In other areas, you may not be seen as threatening if they know that you are Canadian and not British or American.
Many people who have only seen Afghanistan through the eyes of the media only see this country as one of war, ruin and soldiers. Afghanistan is a beautiful country and the people on the whole are generous and kind. Insecurity is mainly in the southern most part of the country. Woman and generally most men would like to see the Burqa gone; however, they still live in fear that they will be punished by the local authorities for being uncovered.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in 1965, one of the eight children. He was raised in Kabul city where he studied until age twenty-one. He then moved to Pakistan as a refugee. He graduated in engineering and worked as operation supervisor in Peshawar with the UN de-mining agency for Afghanistan. He later worked with Save the Children (USA) as training coordinator, coordinating/conducting workshops in Afghanistan on a variety of social subjects such as human rights, gender, non-formal education, health education, and so on. At the end of 2000 he immigrated to Canada and is currently working as a language teacher with Canadian Forces. Your cultural interpreter is married and has three children. He has travelled and worked extensively in Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and to South Africa.
Your cultural interpreter was born in India the second child of four. She is a Czech/Irish in heritage but was raised in India, USA, Manitoba and British Columbia. She studied Nursing at the University of Victoria followed by a Masters of Science in Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Her work sent her abroad for the first time to Sudan as a consultant with Centres for Disease Control and UNICEF. Your cultural interpreter went to Afghanistan in September 2002 where she is still living. She is working with UNICEF as a health consultant. She is married to a Japanese Canadian and lives and works in British Columbia when not working abroad.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.