Yemen 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
Good discussion topics when meeting a person for the first time include issues regarding the country where the foreigner is from. Usually, the host will set the topic of the discussion asking questions like «Where are you from?» «How do you like Yemen?» As the discussion goes further it is normal to discuss international political issues. Discussing domestic political issues is unlikely to be a topic of a first conversation especially with a foreigner. However, it is important to be forthcoming but polite when discussing.
One thing to bear in mind in any aspect of the Yemeni culture is the difference between interactions between men and women. During a first meeting humour is welcomed among the same genders or if the setting involves both men and women and is addressed to a general audience. However, if a foreign male individual is meeting a Yemeni woman for the first time in a business setting, humour will not generally be welcome and may create tension in relations.
An encounter usually begins with a handshake and a customary greeting. The ability to greet the other person in Arabic will be positively received. Some Yemenite women are uncomfortable shaking hands with a foreigner or stranger, especially with a man. They may even refuse; in which case they will place their right hand on their chest instead. I have also experienced a refusal to shake hands for religious reasons. The other person will usually stretch out his forearm instead of offering his hand, or he will hide his outstretched hand beneath his clothing. Hugging is rarely practiced, and never in a work-related setting. Of course it is never considered acceptable between a man and a woman, regardless of the circumstances.
Yemenites may appear mistrustful and reserved towards foreigners. But they are also inquisitive and respectful. As a general rule for first contacts, you will be held in high esteem if you appear polite, respectful, and unassuming in your attitude and the manner of your speech. It is preferable to keep a certain distance on first approach and to allow trust to grow. Relations will warm as time goes on. Yemenites are courteous, warm, and very welcoming people.
Unless you know the people you are speaking with very well, discussions about religion, faith, and the status of women are to be completely avoided. These are very sensitive subjects where culture shock is considerable. Sex is a topic that is forbidden in all circumstances. Discussing politics may be risky, above all if one ventures to comment on international relations and American foreign policy. Yemenites are generally fiercely opposed to American interference, which they quickly associate with global domination by the West. In this domain, moderate opinions are rarely the norm.
Family may be a topic of conversation. Yemenites are very discrete about their wives, but speak willingly and proudly about their children. Sports and the arts (architecture, painting, jewellery, music, traditional cooking, etc.) are interesting alternatives. The legend of the Queen of Sheba is also often mentioned.
In general Yemenis do not have a strong sense of space, especially among people of the same sex. It is natural for example to observe men holding hands while walking on the street. This does not indicate any specific sexual orientation rather it is considered as a sign of how strong the friendship is between both men. However physical contact between men and women is considered a taboo.
When meeting a Yemeni for the first time you can expect a gentle handshake and direct eye contact. Yemenis of the same sex like to stand close to each other far different than what is customary here in Canada. One must avoid appearing to distance themselves in such situations as this is viewed as sign of disrespect and signal coldness to the Yemeni host. However, if you are dealing with the opposite sex maintaining distance is considered normal behaviour.
Generally, when meeting a Yemeni woman do not initiate a handshake unless you are a female. A woman is always expected to initiate a handshake as many Yemeni women consider shaking hands with a man a forbidden or strongly offensive act. Should a male foreigner (or national) accidentally initiate a handshake the woman may retain the right of not extending her hands. This is not a sign of disrespect rather an indication that the woman is not comfortable with shaking hands with the opposite sex.
The personal distance that must be kept when speaking with someone is similar to that in Canada. Remaining at arm's length is usually acceptable. When sitting and crossing one's legs, one must be careful not to show the sole of the shoe or of the foot, as Yemenites may consider this insulting and disrespectful. Although they will not let on, but they will be ill at ease.
In a work-related situation, eye contact is important and will be viewed as an indication of frankness. On the other hand, women must avoid gazing persistently, which may be ill perceived and regarded as an advance, no matter the setting (professional, social, etc.)
Display of emotion
Public displays of affection and anger are normal among nationals. It is natural for example to observe men holding hands while walking on the street. You will also see Yemenis of the same sex shake hands, hug or kiss each other on the cheeks as a way of greeting.
However, signs of affection between a man and a woman are almost non-existent. Although this is gradually changing, it is extremely unwelcome by many Yemenis who consider public displays of affection between men and women offensive. Kissing, hugging and any other form of affectionate behaviour between opposite sexes must be avoided in public areas.
All forms of show of affection between men and women are unacceptable, both in public and in more limited social circles. On the other hand, one should not be surprised to see two men (or two women) holding hands in public. This is a common show of friendship. In the public sphere men have much more latitude than women, as much in their attitudes as in their activities and their manner of speaking.
Dress, punctuality & formality
For men, suits in lightweight fabrics or combining trousers with long or short-sleeved shirts and a tie are appropriate. For women, dresses of lightweight fabric and blouses are considered appropriate as long as they cover most of the body.
Official events require formal business attire (i.e. full business suit).
When addressing colleagues using their first name is common. However, when addressing supervisors/managers it is common to use the prefix of Mr./Ms. along with either the first or last name of the individual. Depending on where you will be working certain titles may be used as well as a sign of respect. These include “Sheikh” and “Excellency”. Usually when dealing with senior government officials using the term Excellency is recommended. Sheikh is generally used to address senior or wealthy individuals.
One important thing to understand when considering Yemenis approach to time is that Yemen is in general a slow paced environment. People are laid back. Delays to business meetings and/or appointments are not uncommon. This should not be interpreted as a matter of disrespect or discourtesy. This is starting to change slowly as the pace of life starts to become faster and faster. It is also not uncommon for meetings to be interrupted by phone calls.
Public or government institutions are less strict when it comes to issues of punctuality and productivity. However, private businesses expect their employees to be punctual with minimal absenteeism and highly productive.
In a professional or official meeting, formality is de rigueur, as much in dress as in the form of address used with colleagues and supervisors.
Yemen is a very conservative country and one must dress accordingly. Avoid wearing any kind of revealing clothing, such as shorts, Bermuda shorts, or camisoles in public. For men in the workplace, business casual dress is suitable, i.e., shirt and trousers, without a necktie. For more formal meetings, a suit and tie is preferable. For women, moderation is the golden rule. Local women wear a headscarf along with a long black robe that completely covers the body. Some women even wear the veil. Even though foreign women are not expected to follow this dress code, it is nevertheless recommended that clothing that covers the arms (a loose blouse or a jacket) and legs (a long skirt, or preferably, slacks) be worn. Nothing too form-fitting or low-necked should be worn. Long hair should be worn up, to provide more modesty.
English is spoken but by a few people. Even in more “international” workplaces the locals' knowledge of English is middling. Thus, one must accept that work colleagues will not master certain nuances of the language, a fact that must be taken into account with regards to management of staff, effectiveness of internal communications, and so on. Fluency in Arabic is definitely a great asset, and learning just a few words will afford you an advantage. In addition, hiring an interpreter may be a good investment.
Colleagues are generally addressed by their first name. A more formal approach is used with a superior. Yemenites respect titles and positions of authority very much. When in doubt, avoid familiarity in a work-related setting.
Deadlines and punctuality may not be taken seriously by many Yemenites. The civil service is no exception in this regard. The perception of time is rather more flexible than in North America. The temperature is a factor to consider, especially in the south of country: if it's hot, time stops! In order to receive the desired results, it is advisable to clearly indicate one's expectations regarding punctuality, deadlines, and productivity. Directions and objectives relating to productivity and good teamwork must be reiterated regularly.
Preferred managerial qualities
A local superior/manager is usually respected for their experience and leadership. However, one must keep in mind that Yemen is a tribal structured country and therefore the city or tribe the manager belongs too can also play a role in defining the structure of the relationship with the superior or manager. This is different if the supervisor/manager is an expat. Expat superiors/managers are respected for their education, experience, leadership and level of interaction with locals. The last characteristic can make all the difference when dealing with Yemeni employees.
Usually the best way to understand how your staff views you is by engaging in frequent casual conversation with the employees requesting feedback. Yemenis tend to be conservative when it comes to providing feedback so taking proactive measures to solicit feedback is recommended and acceptable.
The most sought after qualities in a supervisor are experience, studies, strictness, and leadership. An individual's reputation and place of origin are also determining factors. It is essential for the supervisor that he be respected. A reluctance to exercise authority may rapidly discredit a leader.
For a foreign supervisor, it is difficult to really know the feelings of Yemenites, at least in the beginning. They respect position and the exercise of power above all. An atmosphere of great trust is needed in order to sound out the staff's opinion with respect to oneself. Taking the time to converse outside of work, in a social setting, may make confiding easier. One must be patient and analyse attitudes and body language. The way in which a task is performed may also be a good indicator of an employee's feelings towards his supervisor. Be on the lookout for lack of interest, negligence, lack of respect for deadlines, etc. What's more, be aware that if they do not trust you, your employees will not share any information with you. On the other hand, if they enjoy a good work environment, Yemenite workers are generally very loyal. The forging of friendly bonds make work a great deal easier.
Being a foreigner may turn out to be an advantage, in that foreign skills and know-how are valued. Be aware that a foreigner will also be judged on his character.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Decisions are usually taken by certain superiors/managers and work their way down. Ideas are generated by senior staff and rarely come from the average employee. This also changes from organization to another. Private sector organizations involve employees in the decision making process more than any other organizations. However, in general decisions are made at the top of the hierarchy and work their way down.
It is acceptable to go your immediate supervisor for answers and feedback. However, you may not receive the amount of feedback you would expect here in Canada. Yemenis are generally conservative in feedback and may avoid constructive criticism through a face-to-face interaction.
In Yemen, hierarchy is very important in the work setting, and there is a great deal of respect for authority. Traditionally, decisions are made at the top of the organizational chart. It is uncommon to make decisions by committee. Yemenites have not been exposed to participatory management styles. Nevertheless, when they are explained and put into effect, such techniques receive a positive response.
It is perfectly acceptable to seek feedback from one's supervisor. He will consider the initiative to be a mark or respect and loyalty.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Men are considered superior to women in general. However, this is gradually starting to change. In the workplace this can be seen by the absence of women in senior management positions and difficulties in dealing with a female manager.
Yemenis have high regard to religion and religious practices. This can be seen by witnessing the various breaks for prayer during regular business hours.
Class & ethnicity
Yemen is a tribal society; therefore, people are mostly seen based on which tribe/city they come from. Depending on the organization, where you come from may have a significant influence on where you go within the organizational structure.
Ethnic differences also effect where one may go within the organizational structure with a “pure” Yemeni, a Yemeni whose both parents are from Yemen, being favoured over the “Muwalad” Yemeni who has a parent from a different country.
There is neither de jure nor de facto gender equality in Yemen. A woman is subordinate to the authority of a man (her father, husband, brother, or son). The social roles of men and women in Yemen are very clear-cut. Relationships between men and women in public are very rare; they live separate lives. Men dominate the workplace, and very few women are educated.
In the work setting, it is important to take into account this social structure that is very different from ours. You must adapt your behaviour according to whether you are interacting with a man or a woman. The behaviour to display will also be clearly laid out depending on whether you are a man or a woman.
Religion is a basic element of Yemenite society and occupies a preponderant place in the daily life of the population. Islam is the state religion. Yemenites are strong believers and very observant. The daily prayers set the rhythm of life and sometimes of work. Yemenites are respectful of people of different creeds. However, atheism and agnosticism are met with total incomprehension. It is preferable to keep one's beliefs to oneself if they are not in agreement with the local ones.
Class and ethnic origin
It is above all the clan system that influences social interrelationships in Yemen. There is a complex hierarchy of tribes, each exerting different degrees of power.
Developing a solid personal relationship with a colleague or client is key to any business relationship within Yemen. Having a good relationship with key individuals can make all the difference in making or breaking the deal. It is personal contacts that make things happen in Yemen.
The best way to establish a strong relationship is to socialize with the client or colleague in casual times. It is also important to maintain frequent contact via phone as a sign of courtesy.
A good personal relationship with colleagues and clients makes work and doing business easier and establishes an atmosphere of trust favourable to all work-related activities.
The preferred social activity among Yemenites is the khat session. The khat is a green plant that produces a light stimulant effect. According to the World Health Organization it is a mild narcotic, although Yemenites are convinced that it is not a drug. Its freshly cut leaves are chewed and held between the teeth and the cheek. The more skillful manage to form a tennis ball sized mass in their mouths! Khat sessions take place every day. Someone will invite friends to their home, or a gathering will occur in a public place or on the street. Sessions begin early in the afternoon and may last until late in the evening. It is said that khat loosens the tongue and keeps one awake. As a result, khat sessions are an opportunity for long conversations among men. It would appear that a number of important decisions are made during khat sessions, which are always timed to coincide with formal and official meetings. On the other hand, it is generally thought very poorly of for women to indulge in this activity.
Be aware that alcohol is absolutely forbidden in Yemen and that restaurants usually have separate “family” sections for women and children. Big hotels are the only public places where it is possible to socialize with men and women at the same time.
Privileges and favouritism
Special privileges or considerations would be expected from a Yemeni manager given a personal relationship or friendship. However, this is rarely the case with a foreign manager. It is common knowledge that foreigners are less likely to provide special privileges or considerations based on a personal relationship.
There are no specific circumstance I can think of you that may require granting such privileges or consideration unless the individual requesting them is of such a high status within society (and has requested the service so bluntly) that refusing the service may have a significant impact on the performance of the business i.e. the requestor is a minister within the government or senior Sheikh with strong holds on the market. Drawing the line on this is very difficult but in general these are very rare cases and will usually be encountered by senior level executives in social gatherings outside a business environment.
Preferential treatment is commonplace. Hiring a friend or a family member is not seen negatively as nepotism. Employees with whom you have a good rapport will expect to be accorded certain privileges. But in the work setting, I do not encourage preferential treatment based on friendship. The act of using favours to forge alliances with certain people to the detriment of others may turn against you. This also creates a precedent, which will be very difficult to reverse.
Conflicts in the workplace
The best way to deal with a work-related problem with a colleague is to confront him or her directly in private, as a public confrontation is considered insulting and offensive.
The best way to know if a colleague is having problems with you or is offended by something you've done is to ask them when in doubt. They will appreciate the fact that you are taking their feelings into consideration.
If you are in the minority in a predominantly Yemenite work environment, there is a good chance that you will be the last one to know if you have offended someone. For reasons of pride, the wounded party will not willingly admit his discomfort. This is all the more true if you are his superior.
Yemenites are very proud people. It is preferable to settle disputes in private rather than publicly. This is especially true if you are a woman. Since Yemenites are not used to mixed gender professional relationships, your colleague may take additional offence to your being assertive towards him in public.
The rumour mill is strong, as much in the workplace as in the community. Be aware therefore that everyone will have an opinion on any given dispute despite your having taken the necessary precautions to settle everything in private.
Motivating local colleagues
Job satisfaction, money, good working conditions and opportunities for growth are the main issues that motivate Yemeni colleagues to perform well on the job.
Yemenites are not used to positive reinforcement (regular encouragement, congratulations for a job well done, acknowledgement of extraordinary effort) in the workplace. Yet, in my experience this is a very effective means of improving employee productivity. A Yemenite will be particularly proud to receive a certificate of merit, be it for completion of an internal training course or productivity worthy of special mention.
Loyalty is also a motivator for good productivity. If they hold you in esteem, your staff and colleagues will be inclined to work at double speed when it is required. Financial incentives are also motivating factors. The unemployment rate is very high in Yemen and poverty is widespread. Therefore having a good job is very important, as much from a financial point of view as for social status.
Recommended books, films & foods
“The English Shiekh and the Yemeni Gentlemen.”
- Yemen Gateway, http://www.al-bab.com/yemen/Default.htm
- The British-Yemeni Society, http://www.yemensites.com/dir/s.asp?l=33857
- Yemen, Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yemen
- General links about Yemen from the American Institute of Yemeni Studies, http://www.aiys.org/webdate/yemlinks.html
- Yemen Times, Local English newspaper, www.yementimes.com
- Yemen: The Unknown Arabia, by Tim Mackintosh, ISBN: 1585671398
- A History of Modern Yemen, by Paul Dresch, ISBN: 052179482X
- Yemen: A Pictorial Guide, by Scott Kennedy, Nora Kennedy, ISBN: 1860630308
Unfortunately, Yemenite culture is little known internationally. History books are probably the most accessible means of learning about Yemen. Reading about the history of Islam, religious laws, and so forth, may also be useful and may help you to avoid some unpleasantness once there. Travel guidebooks will convince you that the beauty of Yemen makes it worth the trip. I would suggest the Lonely Planet Guide to Yemen, which is likely the most authoritative guidebook available on the country.
One of the best ways to learn about Yemeni culture is to attend social events and gatherings in Yemen. In addition, engaging in casual conversations with people is also a valuable source in obtaining more information. To understand the general mood of the country reading local English newspapers is a good source.
There are many cultural interpreters available within organizations that employ foreigners.
Unfortunately, cultural activities open to the public are poorly developed, even in the capital city. Freedom of the press is limited and publications in English are rare. Local television programming is in Arabic. The Yemen Times, published twice weekly, is the only English language newspaper. For everything else, one must rely on the locals to find out what is going on in town. Public places that easily accommodate both men and women are very rare. They are limited to the big hotels and the venues for events put on by embassies in the capital.
There are several national heroes within Yemen. Mainly the heroes are respected for their bravery and/or achievements.
For example, the president of Yemen is seen as a national hero for his efforts in uniting Yemen and maintaining its unity after the 1994 secession war.
The Queen of Sheba is the national symbol, representing the legendary prosperity of the Kingdom of Sheba. Yemenites share this legend with Ethiopia. Several works deal with this topic.
Shared historical events with Canada
No, there are no shared historical events that could affect work or social relations. Yemenis in general have high respect for Canadians given the cultural and historic background Canada has and its position in key global issues.
The Western presence in Yemen is still unobtrusive. Canadians living there are largely present to do business in the oil industry or to conduct trade. Yemenites are fiercely opposed to American foreign policy and some people have trouble telling a Canadian from an American. The difference must be pointed out as it sometimes leads to a change in attitude.
Canadians are generally seen as nice and understanding. These attributes can only assist in building effective relations. I am unaware of any stereotypes that might be harmful to effective relations.
Yemenites are very conservative. They are people who are proud of their traditions but inquisitive and very welcoming. The cultural differences are marked and profound. Mutual respect is often the token of cordial and very enriching relationships.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Sana'a the eldest of 4 children. He was raised in this town in the north of Yemen until the age of two. He then moved to the United States and remained there till the age of 10 after which he returned to Sana'a again. He continued to live there till he was 16 and then moved to the city of Doha, State of Qatar where he lived till he was 19. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter immigrated to Canada to study in Calgary. He graduated with a Bachelor of Technology in Applied Information Systems Technology from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT). He is currently living in Edmonton and working with a global IT company. Currently, he serves as Executive Director of the Yemen-Canada Relations Council, a non-profit organization intent on further developing the relations between Canada and the Republic of Yemen in areas of trade and socio-economic development.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Quebec the youngest of 4 children. She studied in International relations at the University of Laval. Her work and studies sent her abroad for the first time in 1992 where she traveled in South America, Europe and Middle East. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter went to Yemen, where she lived for one year. She recently returned to Canada. She works in international relations, she is single and has no children
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.