Libya 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.
On this page
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
Libyans are welcoming and generous to foreigners and would always try to help them adjust to the Libyan lifestyle. However, foreigners should know what topics to bring up when meeting Libyans. One may need to approach the people differently depending on their ages, education and gender.
There are many topics that could be used to start a conversation with Libyans. Talking about the weather is a good topic to start with, especially the hot weather in summer and how to get away from it by enjoying the splendid Libyan beaches. The nice places and the ancient cities in Libya (e.g. Sabrata and Liptes) are topics that could be also be discussed. Talking about your own country might be of interest to some people. Furthermore, while meeting middle-aged or younger people, one could start the conversation by using the weather and then switch and talk about sports such as football (soccer). Football is the most popular sport in Libya and people enjoy playing it and talking about the matches they watch. The well-known clubs in Tripoli are Al-Ittihad, AL-Ahli, AL-Madina and AL-Wahda. In Bengazi, the second largest city in Libya, Ahli-Bengazi, Al-Nsser, AL-Tahadi and AL Hellal are the most popular and oldest clubs in the city.
On the other hand, some subjects should be avoided, such as sexuality in general, religion, and politics.
Family discussion (not too personal) is always a good subject. If they have kids, you should ask questions about them. Questions like “what part of Libya (village/town) are you coming from?”, “Where did you learn your English?”, “Where/what did you study?” are always good introduction type questions. You will be asked these types of questions as well. Work related discussions should not be too long especially if it is a non-related work meeting.
I try to avoid religion and political questions. Religion because if you start on that subject, certain Libyans might just decide to try to convert you! Some may even speak negatively about your own religion although most well-educated Libyans will not venture that far. Politics because most people would welcome a political change in the country but they do not feel comfortable talking about that in public. If you find yourself alone with your host (like in a car for instance) you may try asking such questions if you feel comfortable enough.
Humour is always good; however, try to stay away from sexually explicit type of humour. Humour about politics (especially if it involves Americans) is always well received, but do not tell a joke about the current political system in the country.
Distance is required when speaking to other people, especially when you are talking with someone of the opposite gender. When talking, eye contact is recommended. Libyans usually make eye contact as a sign of paying attention and respect to the speaker. When speaking with the opposite sex, continuous eye contact is not recommended either for a Libyan or a foreigner. Faraway from the big cities, in small villages, you should avoid eye contact or any conversation with women.
Physical contact is common between Libyan people, such as shaking hands, tapping shoulders and walking arm-in-arm. Shaking hands is the mostly used and acceptable physical contact in Libya. Other contacts may be used in case of a close relationship. On some occasions one might see the same sex persons hug or kiss the other person‘s cheek; this is not a sign of homosexuality. Some of the Libyan people use hand gestures to express themselves. Other Libyans may speak loudly, especially in market areas.
Distance when speaking to someone is about the same as in Canada. When talking to a woman try keeping a greater gap between you and her (unless you are a woman, of course). If you are a woman, then a Libyan man will normally keep his distance while talking to you. Eye contact, whether in a business meeting or in a casual encounter, is very important. If you do not make eye contact when talking to them, they will think that you are weak or unsure of what you are talking about. When meeting someone for the first time I always shake hands only; I will not try to touch them in any other way (pat in the back or shoulder, for instance) unless they intiate.
I would say that for gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice, if you keep your own style (like when you are in Canada) it will be fine. In the case in which you have a Libyan boss/manager, he will probably make a point of raising his voice once in a while to you. This does not especially means that he his unsatisfied with your performance or other aspect of your work, but rather he wants to send a message to the Libyan people in the offices next door; that message is “I am his boss” “I have the power”. When this happens, realise that it is not directed at you and just keep your calm; keep discussing the subject normally.
If you are the boss and employ Libyans, never raise your voice to them. It will undermine your credibility to all the other Libyan employees.
Display of emotion
Public displays of affection are not acceptable and are even forbidden in Libyan culture. Kissing or hugging between members of the opposite sex is not acceptable in public, even if they are married. Religion prohibits those activities. Libyans use a lot of facial expressions. Feelings such as sadness and happiness can be demonstrated in public and women tend to express their feelings more than men. In case of a death or a wedding, they would freely show their feelings. However, demonstrating anger in public is considered impolite behaviour.
They are certainly not common in public. In the street you will see mostly men (may be one woman for every 100 men). The few couples that can be walking by will, in 99% of the cases, not hold hands. Holding hands with your spouse in the street is ok but you may get some looks directed to you from passer-by. Kissing should be avoided. Anger would not be well received if directed towards a Libyan. Libyans like laughing but do not make a point of showing laughter in public; only in small groups.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Libyan workers are expected to dress conservatively and properly. Furthermore, some jobs require formal dress while others less so. When dealing with a superior or in formal meeting, one should use Mr. or Mrs. in front of the first or last name. If there is a friendship relation, the family name or the first name is enough. Deadlines are very important, and workers are expected to finish their work on time. Punctuality is expected from the workers; they are expected to work a full day and not to be absent without an acceptable excuse and previous permission. The number of days of absence should not exceed the amount allowed. You could meet people who do not respect time or deadlines however, this more common in government offices and public sector since they have a lower productivity as compared to oil companies, banks, joint venture and private sector companies.
Dressing for work will depend on the job itself. Libyans do appreciate business suits but do not expect a foreigner to wear one unless in marketing positions or in a position dealing constantly with managers/Directors/CEO of Libyan companies. If you are a woman, wearing other things than long dresses/pants and long sleeves blouses would be inappropriate.
Addressing colleagues/supervisors is the same as in Canada. Both of you will want to develop a good working relation and therefore befriend each other. Hopefully most of your colleagues will speak adequate English or you will speak Arabic. If not, this could be an issue in understanding all nuances.
Unfortunately, time issues will be a factor in Libya. Meetings can be set at a given time but will be delayed either because of professional or personal reasons by one or several of the attendees. Also, Libyans are well known for setting unreasonable deadlines without even consulting you. In this case, a letter/memo must be sent to the appropriate party in order to outline the issue and set a more appropriate deadline.
Preferred managerial qualities
In general, education and good standing are the most highly regarded quality in a superior or a manager, whether local or a foreigner. In some work places a good network of contacts is another important factor for a manager. In some cases, mostly in government-owned companies, a position might be awarded to someone even though that person is not qualified. The manager can know how his staff perceives him by maintaining direct relations and communicating clearly and precisely with the people around him.
All of the above qualities (First Contact section) are welcomed in a local manager; however, some of these qualities are normally seen only in newly assigned manager. As time goes by, the “hard working” quality tends to fade away. This is due mainly to remuneration. For instance, a floor cleaner can be paid the equivalent of Cdn$300.00 per month while a manager is paid around Cdn$500.00. There is nothing there to create an incentive to work hard.
Again, all of the above qualities are excellent ones. Libyan employees know that your salary is a lot higher than theirs and, therefore, expect you to work harder and longer. It is up to you to define when enough is enough.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Decisions are taken by the managers or department heads of workplaces or companies. Usually ideas are expressed from the managers and department heads but they can also come from the lower level. Consulting your supervisor for answers and feedback is not only acceptable, but also recommended.
In an Expat-Libyan work relationship, the decisions will be taken by a Libyan after he consults with his expat expert. It is acceptable to go to your Libyan supervisor for answers regarding office logistics or when other low-level decisions have to be made. However, it is not appropriate when it comes to a point which relates directly to the reason you were hired in the first place; in their eyes, you are the expert and you should be able to solve the problem or come up with a good alternative
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Although by the law, Libyan women have the same rights as men, some workplaces cannot be run by women such as places that need men’s physical strength.
Women in Libya earn all the rights to get promotions or to have the same chance to apply and get the jobs as men. In addition, female workers usually get special considerations from their bosses due to their other responsibilities as mothers and wives.
Islam is the official religion in Libya. In fact, all Libyans are practicing Muslims. However, in the workplace and elsewhere, other religions are always respected. Foreigners are expected to respect our religion; for example one should not smoke or eat in public places during the month of Ramadan.
In the workplace, characteristics such as education can count and well-educated people earn other people‘s respect both at work and outside of the workplace. Wealth-status will have no impact in the workplace. The majority of the population in Libya belongs to the middle class.
In the workplace, usually the worker‘s ethnic origin has no impact - especially if you are working in the capital, Tripoli. However, in other places you may hear about different ethnic origins. One can see variety in customs, cultures and different traditions from city to city.
Women are low wage workers. Men & women should not gather together during a social event. Women cannot speak their minds as much as men. Women have to dress appropriately at all times while men’s dress code is more flexible.
Islam is the only religion and is a very important aspect of Libyan life. Five time a day they will have to stop what they are doing in order to pray and during the month of Ramadan they will fast during daytime. Religion has the biggest impact on the workplace.
Classes are not as important as ethnicity
A manager will tend to hire people of his own village/ethnic group. Also, if a Libyan belongs to the same ethnic group as Qadhafi, he certainly has a better chance to climb the corporate ladder.
In Libya, personal relationships with a client are not necessary when it comes to business. However, it is important to establish a relationship with other colleagues, which may lead to other business opportunities. A personal relationship can help the foreign worker to have a good understanding of the boss' expectations regarding your responsibilities.
It is very important. More than likely, Libyans will initiate establishing this personal relationship by asking you a lot of questions about your family and children. If you have no kids (like us), they will ask you why. For them, having kids is very important and they do not understand why a couple would marry and decide not to have kids. It is important for them to establish this relationship in order to determine your personal values and interests. Is the job that you are performing just a job, or are you really sincere in wanting to do business with them? If they don’t ask you these types of questions, you should volunteer some of that personal information yourself. That way, they will probably open up and tell you a bit about themselves.
Privileges and favouritism
In Libya, privileges, promotions or salary increases are responsibilities of the local managers or local department heads, therefore the foreigner manager will not face these problems. Some colleagues and employees may expect special privileges or considerations from you, especially if you have a good relationship with them.
I must first define the word “colleague” in the Libyan context: if you have been hired by a Libyan company to do a job, all the Libyans working with you will not consider you as a colleague but rather as “hired help”. If you work for a Canadian company doing business in Libya and you are the boss, then some Libyans may consider you as a colleague while keeping in mind that you have the power to hire/fire them.
The paragraph below considers that you work for a Canadian company in Libya:
Your colleague will probably not expect special treatment but will certainly try to have some friends & family hired by the company. There are no normal circumstances that would warrant hiring such people; however, it could be allowed for support positions such as drivers, labour, etc… If the friend and family member is a professional (engineer, geologist, etc.) he would certainly be welcomed to apply for a specific position but would have to go through the same hiring process as all the other applicants.
Conflicts in the workplace
When having a conflict with a colleague you can confront him/her directly in private, and not in public as it could complicate the problem. You would know if your colleague is offended by something you have done by noticing his behaviour and attitude towards you.
You should confront him privately. If he is having a problem with you, he will probably do his outmost to avoid you. If you have done something to offend him you will probably hear about it from other Libyan employees. Rumors and small talk abound in Libya.
Motivating local colleagues
Things that motivate Libyan workers are good working conditions, ensured privileges (such as the right to be promoted), possibility of vocational training in order to improve their productivity and salary.
Money is certainly a big player. Anything better that the $300/$500 CAD per month mentioned above will go a long way. They may not be used to dedicating themselves to the job as we often do, so some monitoring and job performance evaluation at regular intervals would be highly recommended. The Libyan government employees stay with the government even though they are not well paid mainly because of the pension and other benefits. If you can give them that as well, it would certainly be appreciated.
Recommended books, films & foods
To know more about the Libyan culture there are many books you can read, such as “Your guide to the Great Jamahiriya” and “ Welcome to the Great Jamahiriya”. Both books contain all the important information you would need to know about Libya. There are many private websites, which can be a good source of information about the Libyan history and culture; you should visit “www.libyaonline.com”.
Food differs from place to place and from one city to another, but there are some recipes are shared among all the cities in Libya. Some reliable and valuable sources of the Libyan cuisine including the regional variations differences, influences and modern modification are presented in the following books:
- Al-matbakh al-Arabi al-Libeel (The Libyan Arab cuisine) by Nariman M. Saleeh
- Ta’Amuna (Our Food) by Hamada al-Barrani (the first book to be puplished about Libyan food
- Atbaaq Hawwa (Eve’s Plates) by Um Mohammed
All of these books provide many ideas about the Libyan recipes and sample the Libyan kitchen, including the regional variations, differences, influences and modern modification.
To learn more about the Libyan culture, there are many recommended activities such as attending a soccer match. Soccer is the number one sport in Libya and most young people in Libya enjoy watching and playing it, so to know more about the Libyan culture, you can attend these events. The other popular sporting event in Libya is the national horseback riding competition.
Cafés are widespread and Libyans like to sit in these cafes to chat. Some of these cafes are located in nice location and they allow foreigners the opportunity to interact and know more about the Libyan culture.
There are many places to enjoy while in Libya, for example, the Libyan beach, the ancient cities, such as the old city in Tripoli (Almdina Alqdema), Ghadams one of the four oldest cities in the Arabic world, Sabrata and Libtus megna, which both were built by the Phoenicians, and the Libyan Sahara, which is famous for it’s abundance of oases and last but not least, the Aljabl Alkhder (the green mountain).
Unfortunately, all local radio and TV programs are in Arabic and very biased toward the current political regime. Concerts set-up by locals are inexistent, however, you will have events organized by some embassies. The only sport that is talked about is football (soccer); everybody can go to these events. Talk to your embassy or other expats in order to find a cultural informant. There are a lot of local restaurants serving Libyan and international food.
The host country‘s national heroes are, Omar Almuktar, who fought the Italian occupation for many years until he was hanged in 1931 at the age of eighty. Some of the major Libyan fighters against the Italians were Ramadan Al-Swaihli and Suleiman Al-Barouni.
Qadhafi and his sons for political reasons.
Shared historical events with Canada
As far as I know, there are no shared historical events between Libya and Canada that in any way would affect the work or social relations negatively.
The only one I can think of is the issue of entry visas to Libya. This situation may have been fixed recently but I am not sure. The background is the following: After September 11th, 2001, Canada made it very difficult for a Libyan to get a visa to enter Canada; therefore, Libya reciprocated by also making it difficult for Canadians to enter Libya.
I don’t see any Libyan stereotype about Canadians which might harmfully affect the relationship between them. However, I think the stereotype Canadians have about Libya is that Libya is an underdeveloped country; this stereotype could offend Lybians.
That Libyans are not hard working; however, this is not especially the case; the political context and the pay structure have to be taken into account. There are a lot of Libyans eager to perform a good job as long as the pay incentives and potential for promotion are there.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born and raised in Tripoli, the capital of Libya. He is the third child of a family of six children. He lived in Tripoli until the age of thirty-five. He received his B.Sc. in Mechanical Engineering from Al-Fateh University. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter moved to Canada to study. He is currently living in Canada doing his Masters in Engineering. He’s married with two children and he is planning to return to his country after his studies.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Quebec, Canada the second of three children. He was raised in Victoriaville and went on to study geology in Chicoutimi at the University of Québec in Chicoutimi. His work sent him abroad for the first time in 1993 where he managed a mining project in Colombia. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter went to Colombia, Niger & Libya. He worked in Libya in 1998-99 and once again from 2002 to this date (2006). He is currently living in Calgary, Canada, but still works on rotation in Libya. He is married with no dependents.
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.