Etiquette in Egypt

There are over 82 million people living in Egypt. About 95% of the population lives in the Nile Valley, resulting in one of the highest population densities in the world.

The main language is Arabic, but for business purposes, many Egyptians speak English, French, or both.

Egypt is a Democratic Republic, with a President as Chief of State and a Prime Minister as the head of government. Their legal system is based on European models, with heavy influence by Islamic law.

A majority of Egyptians are are Sunni Muslims, and about 10 percent are Coptic Christians. As a result of Arab-Israeli tensions, the previously large population of Jews has dwindled to only a few hundred.

The Egyptian Pound (or Genēh Maṣri)  is the currency of Egypt, locally abbreviated as LE or L.E., which stands for livre égyptienne. The Pound is divided into 100 piastre, or qirsh, or 1,000 milliemes

An Egyptian greeting involves repeated expressions of welcome.  For Arab men, the greeting is taking each others right hand, putting the left hand on the others shoulder and kissing each cheek.  For Westernized men a simple handshake will be the norm.  Any kissing only takes place between members of  the same sex.

Punctuality for meetings is not a priority.  I have been to meetings where the person I was meeting didn’t show up at all or was quite a bit late. You can also expect to be offered tea while you are waiting and during the meeting. By all means take it and drink it.  Not accepting hospitality from your host is an insult.

You may not be introduced to the wife of a traditional Egyptian man due to Moslem rules.   Always wait for the other party to initiate physical contact such as a handshake.   Smile and introduce yourself verbally.  If you are a woman, you can introduce yourself to a traditional Egyptian woman but men should follow the lead of the Egyptian man in the group.

Greetings may be long and people may hold hands after initially shaking hands. Men should nod and wait for women to offer their hands first.

Many Egyptian men and women are more Westernized and if they are involved in business, they will initiate the greeting and handshake – follow their lead. Otherwise, wait for the other party to initiate physical contact such as a handshake. Smile and introduce yourself verbally. If you are a woman, you can introduce yourself to a traditional Egyptian woman but men should follow the lead of the Egyptian man in the group.

An Egyptian greeting involves repeated expressions of welcome.  For Arab men, the greeting is taking each others right hand, putting the left hand on the others shoulder and kissing each cheek.  For Westernized men a simple handshake will be the norm.  Any kissing only takes place between members of  the same sex.

If a business card is offered, make sure you have yours to give.  Always give your card with your right hand.  Accept cards with your right hand as well.  You can hold it in your left hand but don’t put it away while you are in the presence of the giver.

Use titles and the honorific. Refer to government officials as “Your Excellency.” Don’t use a first name unless you’ve been told to do so.

Punctuality for meetings is not a priority.  I have been to meetings where the person I was meeting didn’t show up at all or was quite a bit late. You can also expect to be offered tea while you are waiting and during the meeting. By all means take it and drink it.  Not accepting hospitality from your host is an insult.

Confirm meetings a week in advance of actual meetings with business people. Reconfirm a day or two in advance.

Meetings tend to be open door and include frequent interruptions. If a person comes in and starts a new topic, don’t try to return to the original topic until they leave.

Business relationships are driven by personal relationships.

Never schedule meetings between 11:15 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Fridays due to prayer times.

If a business card is offered, make sure you have yours to give.  Always give your card with your right hand.  Accept cards with your right hand as well.  You can hold it in your left hand but don’t put it away while you are in the presence of the giver.

If you use business cards, one side should be translated into Arabic, the most commonly spoken languages in the country..

If you are invited into a Libyan’s home, good gifts include nice chocolates, sweets, or pastries.

Give gifts with both or the right hand.

Small gifts for children are appreciated.

Don’t give flowers.

Don’t expect your gift to be opened when it’s received.

In Egyptian restaurants, looking at a fellow diner’s plate is considered rude.  By doing so, you are showing your desire for their food or envy of what they have on their plate.  If the other diner notices your look, you will be offered some of what is on their plate.  The proper thing is to refuse twice, but on the third offer accept a little on your plate.  By not accepting, the other diner will take it as an insult and believe you do not like what they have chosen to eat.

If you are eating in someone’s home in Egypt, you can look at each others plates because everyone is eating the same food, usually served family style.  In this scenario, there is no comparison of wealth or choice.

Dress modestly and remove your shoes at the door. Compliment the house on the house.

Never leave a totally clean plate, no matter where you are dining in Egypt. This sends the signal to the host that there wasn’t enough offered and that you may still be hungry.  Always leave a little of each kind of food on the plate.

Always accept coffee or tea, even if you aren’t going to drink it.

Eat with only the right hand.

Take second helpings as a compliment.

Don’t salt your food.

Find out where you are to sit before making assumptions.

Never leave a totally clean plate, no matter where you are dining in Egypt. This sends the signal to the host that there wasn’t enough offered and that you may still be hungry. Always leave a little of each kind of food on the plate.

Don’t worry if you forget these rules though, as foreign visitors are granted leniency when dealing with Egyptian etiquette rules.

The Egyptian sense of personal space is generally closer than what is commonplace in Western cultures.  If you feel your personal space being invaded, avoid backing away, as this will be interpreted as being cold or distant or a blatant rejection.  Touching of your arm or shoulder or back during conversation is not uncommon.

Use of the Arabic phrase for “No, thank you.” (“Laa Shokran”), is helpful when approached by street vendors or children asking for money or inviting you to take their photograph for money.

Egyptians have a self-critical sense of humor and use it often.  Don’t make the mistake of joining in and criticizing others or their culture.

Conversational topics that should be avoided include: family and wives, religion, money and the cost of items (unless you are at the bazaar), politics and how you feel about the regional politics.  You may be asked many very personal questions about your faith, family life, and politics (especially by taxi drivers).  You have a choice whether you wish you to answer or not. Good topics of conversation include: travel, what you have seen in their country, food, music and entertainment, art, positive or complimentary aspects of history, books, education.  Always gear the conversation towards the positive and express gratitude for your hosts’ hospitality.

The Egyptian sense of personal space is generally closer than what is commonplace in Western cultures.  If you feel your personal space being invaded, avoid backing away, as this will be interpreted as being cold or distant or a blatant rejection.  Touching of your arm or shoulder or back during conversation is not uncommon.

Use of the Arabic phrase for “No, thank you.” (“Laa Shokran”), is helpful when approached by street vendors or children asking for money or inviting you to take their photograph for money.

Egyptians have a self-critical sense of humor and use it often.  Don’t make the mistake of joining in and criticizing others or their culture.

Conversational topics that should be avoided include: family and wives, religion, money and the cost of items (unless you are at the bazaar), politics and how you feel about the regional politics.  You may be asked many very personal questions about your faith, family life, and politics (especially by taxi drivers). You have a choice whether you wish you to answer or not. Good topics of conversation include: travel, what you have seen in their country, food, music and entertainment, art, positive or complimentary aspects of history, books, education.  Always gear the conversation towards the positive and express gratitude for your hosts’ hospitality.

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