Pakistan 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
It is good practice to start conversation with an introduction that gives the person a quick synopsis of one’s background. Conversations around where one is from, and what one does can all be good conversation starters, likely to encourage others to respond in a similar way.
In the context of formal meetings, most Pakistanis expect Canadians to go directly to the subject of the meeting. During these meetings, it is important for Canadians to convey information about their experience and project they are engaged in with passion. Expressing one’s personal interests in the success of the project can create a good impression that will likely elicit buy in and cooperation of Pakistani colleagues.
Pakistani’s tend to be very personal when it comes to conversations. It is very normal for individuals to ask about educational background and about families in first interactions. From a Canadian perspective it would feel awkward to talk about “personal” stuff during first interaction.
Pakistanis tend to find connections mentioning that they know someone who has lived or work there. Finding a common ground can make conversation easy. Hence, it is advisable to mention about where you are from.
Pakistanis are proud of their culture and historical past and love to talk about politics and religion. However, try to stay away from both topics as something small can become controversial. Instead, try to keep a conversation around things you would talk about in Canada. For instance, cricket in Pakistan is synonymous to ice hockey in Canada.
Confrontational arguments during first interaction are uncommon and can leave you in a tricky situation. You would find that Pakistanis are generally curious about personal experiences. Share travel stories and positive observations about Pakistan. Generally, try to keep conversations general and broad.
Pakistanis like to express their sincere point of view, especially when subject under discussion is about topics such as health, education, and the impact of terrorism on society. They can get very animated, employing gestures with emotional tone of voice to convey opinion. Pakistanis are very expressive and employ a full range of verbal as well as non-verbal communication styles. It is not unusual to hear men use colorful language and swear words in humorous and casual conversations, especially when conversing in local dialects. In the presence of women, however, most men will often restrain from using swear words and raising their voices. Pakistanis tend to be reserved in expressing their personal opinions in the presence of foreigner they are not familiar with, this changes as they get to know the person better.
Pakistanis are very verbal and use hand gestures a lot while talking. They also tend to speak in a louder tone, which might sound offensive in a Western setting. Be aware that, since people are taught culturally not to express their opinions openly, it is advisable to be clear and precise while communicating.
There are cultural differences across the country. In urban centres people are more cognizant of the idea of space. However, giving a hug on a first meeting can be common in certain areas. While shaking hands is expected, women tend not to shake hands with men. Do not shake hands unless a woman offers her first.
The way people view time is different in Pakistan from Canada. It is very common to get distracted in meetings. People do not usually adhere to time schedules. If you have timely issues it is better to be direct and take the conversation back or find the best way to manage it.
Display of emotion
Men and women display affection for friends of the same gender publicly but not so for friends of the opposite gender, even when they are good friends. Even married couples are unlikely to hold hands in public.
Men holding each other’s hands in public and putting their arms around the other’s shoulder is not an indication of a same sex (or gay) relationship. The same is true for women.
It is common to observe Public outbursts of anger. Frequent power outages (particularly in summer), shortages of fuel, and problems associated with public transportation, all combine to create circumstances in which tempers are easily frayed. Political realities have also contributed to a confrontational mindset. The horrific terrorist attacks on Sufi shrines, mosques, and schools, as well as confrontation between leading mainstream political parties have created an environment of fear, and anger. Discussions on political issues on television often degenerate into shouting matches. There is, however, also a realization among many people that expression of anger is becoming an obstacle to discourse on critical issues that could inform public resolution of problems.
Public space in Pakistani is very different. Aggression on the road is a very common occurrence and is normal for people to honk while driving. It is also common to see outbursts of anger in public. However, in formal settings people tend to be very polite, hospitable and affectionate. It is very common to compliment each other in formal settings.
Pakistan has a conservative culture. You will not see couples holding hands or exchanging kisses in public. It is normal to kiss each other on the cheek when meeting for the first time especially for women.
Dress, punctuality & formality
In urban areas, white collar workers dress formally. For men, formal dressing would include a suit and tie, or a local kurta shalwar (shirt and baggy pants), and a waist coat with lots of pockets to hold pens, spectacles, and wallet. Women’s workplace attire can be a traditional mid-length shirt with straight pants, sometimes accompanied by a long scarf called a “dupatta”.
Formal greetings for men would include a verbal greeting consisting of "hello", "good morning", or "assalaamalaikum" (meaning peace in Arabic), accompanied with a hand shake. On meeting a woman, the same verbal greeting should be followed with a hand shake only if the woman offers her hand. Women may take the initiative and shake hands with Pakistani women. Women may greet men but it’s best to shake hands with them only if they offer their hand.
It is best for men not to approach female colleagues that are Pakistani if they happen to see them in public places such as a market. However, Pakistani women may approach male colleagues in public places and introduce them to their friends and family. Canadian women may approach female Pakistani colleagues in public places and greet them normally as they would at the office. For Canadian women, it would be best not to take the initiative in approaching a male colleague they see in a public place. However, if they are approached by their male colleague, be sure to greet them normally.
In urban settings, Pakistani middle class professionals take their work requirements, including deadlines as seriously as they would in Canada.
Pakistanis are not punctual in an informal setting. People tend to come late and you might have to enforce some kind of punctuality.
It is rude to use first name for someone who is older or in a higher position than you. Words like sir are readily used.
In work environment, people tend to dress formally. Men usually wear formal Western attire (dress pants and shirts). Women are usually dressed in shalwar Kameez (Baggy pants and tunics) with scarfs. For women, it is advisable not to wear sleeveless clothes or show legs.
Preferred managerial qualities
Pakistanis evaluate their superiors based on their perception of his/her competence, and fairness in dealing with colleagues and clients. Receiving frank feedback from staff on the progress of their work, and/or being approached by staff to discuss problems and achievements regarding their assigned projects are all indications that they genuinely consider that supervisor an effective leader.
Pakistanis put a lot of significance into academic qualification and education versus experience. Degrees acquired in the Western world are held with prestige.
Micro management has been a business norm in the country for a while and it is difficult to create a teamwork environment and to work as a team. Hence, it is difficult to create similar work environment as Canada.
Hierarchy and decision-making
In government offices in Pakistan, the main decision makers are the top bosses of the departments. Each government department is headed by a Secretary (equivalent of Deputy Minister in Canada) who decides all matters in the department. Sometimes, major policy decisions are made by a forum of secretaries, which are then approved by the cabinet. This is a common practice although in theory, powers of decision-making are delegated to the lower tiers. Inter-departmental meetings are regularly held in which opinions are sought from field managers/supervisors but it is the head of the department who ultimately decides which idea to pursue further.
The practice is somewhat different in the non-government and private sector organizations where ideas are generated and decisions made in a more participatory manner. In these organizations, any staff member can come up with an idea and this is then discussed jointly in staff meetings and decisions are made accordingly. It is however the top boss who has the final say in any decision-making.
Both public and private organizations follow a hierarchical management style and one has to approach his/her immediate supervisor for any idea or issue. It is then up to that supervisor to carry forward the idea or issue to an appropriate forum.
Decisions are usually taken up by managers depending on the organizational hierarchy. Work culture is significantly different in government versus private sector. In the public sector, decision making is mainly associated with managers with little or no input from other team members. In the private sector, different opinions might end up shaping a decision.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Attitudes on gender, class, religion, and ethnicity in Pakistan vary in urban and rural settings, and also along generational lines in society as a whole. Religion has been pre-eminent in defining legal and political dimensions of gender and citizenship since the 1970s. A conservative movement first compelled the parliament to come up with an exclusivist definition of a true follower of Islam, and later toppled the authoritarian but socially liberal government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The military government that replaced him introduced laws that restricted the ability of women to give evidence on crimes committed against them, placed restrictions on the rights of minorities to vote, and introduced "blasphemy" laws that are frequently exploited for the imprisonment of people for long periods on the basis of false allegations. The restoration of the original provincial autonomy and voting rights provisions of the constitution in 2010, has not yet led to the rollback of laws permitting oppressive treatment on the basis of gender and religion. The Iranian revolution of 1979 and the long Afghan war of the 1980s contributed to the emergence of a sectarian split between the more observant sections of the Shia Muslim and Sunni Muslim populations that has also caused considerable violence and bloodshed.
Pakistan's central authorities have traditionally had difficult relations with ethnic groups that constitute the federation. In 1971, its Bengali speaking province seceded, and emerged as an independent nation that is today known as Bangladesh. During the mid-1970s insurgencies erupted in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan that were quelled with difficulty. The military government of General Pervez Musharraf took a tough stance against the Baluch nationalists' demands for autonomy, sparking another insurgency that intensified after tribal chief Akbar Bugti was killed during a military operation in 2005. Since then, Baluchistan, and its capital Quetta, often experience violent turmoil.
Pakistan's religious and ethnic fissures are not likely to impact on the working environment of Canadians in Islamabad and other urban centers, as they mostly interact with middle class professionals, most of whom are enlightened, treasure the religious and ethnic diversity of the country, and deal with each other with civility and respect.
In Pakistan class, gender, religion and ethnicity play an interesting role.
Pakistan is a patriarchal society. Women face various challenges and barriers which impacts their participation in the labour force. However, despite all the challenges and contrary to Western perceptions, women are visible in leadership role and are working in occupations that are seemingly male dominated. Pakistan is one of the countries with a former female prime minister and governor of state bank. Women have a special quota in the federal legislative assembly. Generally, Pakistani men are respectful towards women. However, harassment and discrimination issues still exists in the workplace.
Class discrimination is very visible with the concept of class more complex than the Western definition. Pakistan has huge economic disparity with a shirking middle class. The colonial concept of servant and master is still prevalent and is very difficult to navigate from a Western prospective. Class essentially does not mean “money”. It is a complicated term with contortions associated with power and family name.
Pakistan is Sunni majority country. The last few years’ prosecution of certain religious minority groups has opened up a Pandora box. Targeted killings of minorities (e.g. Christians and Shias) is becoming a growing concern from the last few years. Religion is a controversial topic. It is advisable to stay away from conversations that have anything to do with religion.
Pakistanis are not overly religious; however, expressing religious opinions is cultural. Morality is associated with religion and drinking alcohol is illegal in the country.
Pakistan is an ethnically diverse country with Punjabis being the dominant ethnicity. Ethnic clashes are a common occurrence in urban centres such as Karachi. However, it is not common to see confrontation at work based on ethnicity. Just be cognizant of the fact that all Pakistanis are not culturally and ethnically same. Avoid conversations related to ethnicity.
A personal relationship with colleagues and clients contributes to creating a productive work environment. In the absence of a personal relationship, professional workers are likely to do their job conscientiously and serve clients well but an inclusive environment is most conducive to problem solving and creativity.
Building personal relationships are integral. Pakistanis emphasize a lot on family, friends and personal connection. Do not hesitate to ask colleagues and acquaintances to make business introductions.
Privileges and favouritism
The answer is “No”. Pakistan's middle class professionals and citizens at large view cronyism and patronage with contempt. This view is reflected in the media, as well as in frequent protests against officials who are suspected of extending privileges to their friends.
Pakistanis try to cultivate personal relationships at work. However, try to be fair to all the employees. Favouritism and privileges can impact the workplace environment. Just be cordial and fair.
Conflicts in the workplace
If you are working as part of a team it is best to bring up the problem in a team meeting and frankly point out how it is affecting your performance individually, as well as that of the team collectively. If that doesn't work a one to one talk with the colleague would be appropriate.
Pakistanis are private people. If you have a work related problem, it is advisable to confront it privately by being open to the person and asking direct questions. Also try to keep a record of grievances. Pakistanis are not good when it comes to record keeping.
Motivating local colleagues
A person’s proven competence and fairness, and the perception that they are providing a valuable public service will motivate their Pakistani colleagues to perform well.
Try to encourage employees by giving positive feedback. Compliment and encourage junior workers to build repertoire. It is common to give monetary gifts to individuals who are servicing you (e.g. gardener, cook etc.). Similarly, if you are a senior manager and you have taken your staff out for lunch, it is an expectation that you would foot the bill. Pakistanis generally are hardworking people. Promotion and pay raise work as a motivation the same way it works in the West.
It is also important to note that personal relationship plays an important role in Pakistani culture.
Recommended books, films & foods
A good book on the experience of a foreigner in Afghanistan and Pakistan during war time is Kim Barker’s The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Doubleday, 2011. It is recommended for its wit and admirable intellectual honesty.
Mohammed Hanif is a thought provoking journalist and writer from Pakistan. He has written two good novels, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Knopf, 2008, and Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, Vintage, 2011.
Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Anchor Canada, 2008. It is an interesting novel on the morality of political dilemmas facing young Pakistanis in the age of terrorism.
Popular TV shows
Mazaaq raat (comedy night) is a talk show with a panel of hosts who exchange jokes with celebrity guests. The show also features music.
Mazaaq raat is a Dunya TV production, episodes can be viewed on YouTube.
Drama series are also popular in Pakistan. Among the most watched is Hamsafar (meaning companion) this is a Hum TV production (2011-2012) and is available on YouTube.
Khuda ke leyey (meaning in the name of God), produced in 2007 is a popular movie on the consequences of religious extremism. It is available on YouTube.
Bol (meaning to speak) is a heartbreaking story on a very bold theme, and is available on YouTube.
Quetta- a city of forgotten dreams is a movie based on a moving story on the persecution of the Hazara community in the province of Baluchistan.
Biryani : Beef Chicken or goat pieces are cooked in a blend of fragrant spices and yogurt and layered with basmati rice and saffron. Served with yogurt raita.
Koftay: Tender meat balls with mint coriander and onion filling in a spicy curry.
Seekh Kebabs: Barbecued minced meat on skewers served with naan bread.
Chicken Tikka: Barbecued spicy chicken
Lentils are used in a dish called daal. It is usually eaten with plain rice or chappati.
Vegetables, usually in the form of curry are served with rice or chappati.
Seafood is usually served deep fried, or in a curry.
They are normally sweeter than western desserts. The local variety includes:
Gulaab Jamun: These are fried dough balls in sugary syrup.
Kulfi: Is very similar to ice cream, it is topped with pistachios and almonds. Also served in mango flavor.
There is a wide array of sweet meats available
Pakistani’s love their tea, and have it twice a day usually. Kashmiri chai or pink tea is served at dinner parties.
- Meatless days –Sarah Sulehri
- Ice Candy Man - Bapsi Sidhwa
- In Other Rooms, Other Wonders - Daniyal Moinueddun
- Moth Smoke - Mohsin Hamid
- The Wondering Falcon - Jamil Ahmad
- Waiting for Allah –Christina Lambbooks
I recommend the movie The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Pakistani music has strong roots in Indian classical music. Traditional Indian. Sitar and Harmonium are local instruments. With regards to food, Chicken Tikka, Biryani, and chicken Karahi are popular.
Canadians stationed in Islamabad, can visit the shrine of Sufi saint Bari Imam that is located close to the Canadian High Commission. Tourists experience the environment of soothing pilgrimage and prayer, and are also able to have delicious food and sweets.
Among the interesting places one could visit are the many beautiful small resorts located on the road that links Islamabad to Abbottabad through the high mountainous valley. Among these are Murree, Ayubia and Nathia Galli. While driving through, one can stop and go hiking in the forests of tall pine trees.
Pakistan has some of the best hiking trails in the world. It is home to the world’s second highest mountain. It is worthwhile to go on a trip to Northern Pakistan (Swat, Skardu).
Lahore is the cultural centre and is often refereed to as the food capital of the country. Pakistan has a rich history. Indus valley civilization is one of the oldest. Understanding local culture through the historical narrative would ease the transition.
The undisputed national hero of Pakistan is its founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The son of a businessman in Karachi, he studied law in Britain, and became a highly successful lawyer in the cosmopolitan coastal city of Bombay. Jinnah developed good relations with all communities in India, and acquired the reputation of being an "ambassador of unity". He also had a lifelong interest in civil liberties, and defended political prisoners of the British colonial regime. Jinnah had a painful falling out with the leading Indian nationalists on account of his perception that they were not prepared to accommodate diversity in India, and became a champion of Muslim nationhood. In 1947, Jinnah accepted the plan for India to be a loose federation that did not come to fruition, and the British government implemented a partition plan that led to the emergence of India and Pakistan as independent nations. Jinnah became Pakistan’s first head of government, but died only a year later in 1948. On account of championing equality of citizenship regardless of religion, Jinnah is revered by liberals and campaigners for rights of minorities in Pakistan.
Pakistan's first elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who was executed by the military government of General Zia ul Haq in 1979 is highly respected for his role in the framing of the country's constitution in 1973, and for his courage in the face of horrific persecution after he was overthrown.
Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, served two terms as prime minister, and was assassinated by the Taliban in 2007, She is fondly remembered and respected by many Pakistanis for her courage in offering resistance to the military regime of the 1980s, and later oppressive governments.
Imran Khan, a highly successful fast bowler and batsman in cricket, who led Pakistan to a glorious victory in the 1992 World is widely revered in the country not only for his accomplishments as a sportsman, but also for his role as a philanthropist in setting up a university and hospitals for the treatment of cancer. Imran Khan is also a politician whose political party, Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (PTI) enjoys popularity in all provinces and governs the province of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa.
Pakistan's most revered elderly person is a gentleman called Abdul Sattar Edhi, a Sufi mystic, who has inspired Pakistanis to donate generously to enable him set up a country wide network of ambulance services, hospitals, services for people with disabilities, and shelters for women and children.
Among youngsters, Aitzaz Hasan, a teenager in Ibrahim Zai, in Hangu district of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa is greatly admired for his selflessness and courage in confronting a suicide bomber who was attempting to enter his school to kill his schoolmates on 7 January 2014. Aitzaz was able to stop the attacker, by wrestling him to the ground, and sacrificed his life in the fight. The suicide bomber’s vest blew-up, killing him too, and the 2000 students and teachers remained safe.
Tahira Qazi, the principal of Army Public School, Peshawar, and the teachers who made a valiant effort to protect their students from a merciless Taliban attack, and sacrificed their lives on 16 December 2014. Among the victims of the attack were 152 people, including 132 children.
Malala Yousafzai, was born on July12, 1997 in Mingora, Pakistan. As a child, she became an activist for girl’s education in Pakistan. She was targeted by the Taliban and shot at point blank range when returning from school in Swat, Pakistan.Malala’s skull was pierced by a bullet and she had to be transported to London for emergency surgery. Malala survived and continued to speak out on the importance of education, becoming the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
The national heroes of the country are Mohammed Ali Jinnah, often referred to as the founder of the country. Others include Allama Iqbal (National Poet) and Abdul Sittar Idhi (Philanthropist), Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (Political leader, Former Prime minister), Imran Khan (Cricket player), and Jahangir Khan (World Squash Champion).
Shared historical events with Canada
Like Canada, Pakistan was once a colony of Britain. It emerged as an independent "Dominion" in 1947. Almost the entire landed, financial, military elite and the professional middle class speak fluent English. There are several widely read newspapers in English. Canada’s role as a middle power in foreign policy and its development assistance to Pakistan were highly appreciated in the past. During the deployment of its troops in Afghanistan, Canada's image in Pakistan changed as it emerged as a feisty member of NATO, but its forces were not directly involved in incidents with the Pakistan army as the US forces sometimes were. After the Canadian elections of 2015, whose outcome was widely applauded in Pakistan, many hope that Canada will reemerge as a middle power with an interest in promoting multilateral international institutions. There are a large number of Pakistani immigrants in Canada, positively advocating about Canada as a country where public education and health care are available to all citizens, and where democracy and good governance co-exist.
Pakistan was once a part of British India. The shared colonial history with Canada is the only common link. As a common wealth country, Pakistan shares a similar colonial heritage. Indians served in World War 2 along with Canadian troops. And the pain of war still exists in the collective memory. Although most Pakistanis are not as cognizant of this fact.
Canada overall has a positive perception of Pakistan. Lately a lot of Pakistanis have immigrated to Canada and have chosen it as a home.
The fear created by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001 forms the lens through which Pakistan is often perceived and portrayed by the mainstream media of North America. As a result, Pakistan which is home to a rich and diverse cultures is seen primarily as a place that produces terrorists. Terrorism is, indeed an important issue for the international community, as well as the citizens of Pakistan. It has been estimated that over 81,000 Pakistanis have been killed in the war against terrorism since 2001. In dealing with this threat, Pakistan faces similar issues that confront the international community and any successful strategy to defeat terrorism will need to rely on cooperation between them. A critical foundation of this kind of cooperation will be the necessity on the part of international community, including Canada, to realize that Pakistan is an ancient culture with a rich history of excellence in music, poetry, Sufi mystic culture, and religion, and as such, Pakistanis deserve to be treated with respect.
Due to the recent events related to terrorism, Pakistan has been viewed as a religiously fanatic country. Most of the news or fictional depiction of Pakistani women represent covered women who are oppressed. Unlike Western perceptions Pakistani women are active participants in the labour force. In urban centres you would readily see women working as doctors, lawyers and senior civil servants. Some of the examples are the Oscar winning film director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Maliha Lodhi (Pakistani ambassador to United Nations) and the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Pakistanis are depicted as religious. The religious practices in Pakistan differ a lot compared to other Islamic countries. Most women in urban centres do not cover their heads and co-education is very common.
About the cultural interpreters
Your SME hails from Lahore Pakistan and grew up in the exciting coastal city of Karachi during the 1970s when it was beautiful and peaceful. She studied journalism from Karachi University, and migrated to Canada in the 1980s. She worked at the High Commission for Pakistan for many years, and presently works as a Cultural Interpreter in Ottawa.
I was born and raised in Pakistan. I have a graduate degree in economics from Carleton University Ottawa and work as an economist for an organization in Ottawa.
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.
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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.