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An Awkward Compliment: the Importance of Multicultural Awareness

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It was my second time visiting Qatar as a presenter at its leadership conference. Amid the bustle, I managed to re-connect with Adeeba, a friend of mine from the online MUN program I pioneered. By then, the novelty of being in the Middle East was fading and while I was careful about my dress and actions, I was not especially cautious about my speech.

“Your hijab is really pretty! It looks great,” I mentioned.

“Oh, I can get you one tomorrow! I can’t give it to your right now, but I’ll bring another one like this,” she insisted genuinely.

Confused, I loaded the conversation with a few jokes to shield my bewilderment and treated it as a passing remark.

The following week in psychology class, in discussing social scripts, we watched a video titled “10 Surprising Ways to Offend People in Other Countries.” In the darkened classroom, the stream of white subtitles “Making a compliment like “I love your couch” in Arab and African nations can make your host feel awkwardly obliged to give you the item” caught my attention.

Suddenly, Adeeba’s insistent remark bubbled up in my memory and I understood that the exchange was not a lighthearted joke.

I do not know what Adeeba thought when I complimented her hijab. I know from our solid friendship that she would not be seriously offended by my insensitivity of the situation. However, had the same conversation occurred between an acquaintance and me, perhaps I would have lost the chance to connect with an individual.

I am fortunate to have experienced this surprising encounter with Adeeba but it has also taught me to take nothing for granted. No matter how positive something may appear, in a different place, different time, under different circumstances, it may just not have the intended effect.

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