Case 5.2.

How to Insult an Egyptian Customer 


A Canadian high-tech manufacturing firm deep in negotiations with an Egyptian importer and wholesaler was pleased to learn that the head of the Cairo-based company was coming to Toronto with a view to concluding negotiations. Vice President Paul White was even more pleased when Dr. Mahmud Ahmed hinted to him that discussions were moving along nicely and a large initial order was likely. The Egyptian contract represented the biggest and most profitable deal White’s company had worked on to date.

Quite aware of the importance of relationship-building, Paul invited the Egyptian delegation to an elegant reception and buffet dinner at the prestigious Grand Hotel with Dr. Ahmed as the guest of honor.

Dr. Ahmed was his usual friendly self when he arrived and warmly shook hands with Paul. After a few minutes of chit-chit the Canadian led his chief guest to the drinks table stocked with fruit juices, wine and soft drinks and asked, “Well now, what can I offer you, Dr. Ahmed?”

“Oh, nothing for me right now” replied the Egyptian with a smile. The two men conversed pleasantly about sports, music and other mutual interests for a while and then White guided his guest to the buffet table loaded with food the Egyptian was known to like. The Canadian was very surprised when Dr. Ahmed once again declined politely, saying that he wasn’t hungry.

Puzzled by his guest’s lack of interest in food and drink, Paul wondered what the problem might be. Then the Canadian host was drawn into conversation with some of the other guests and did not notice when Dr. Ahmed left the party early.

At the negotiating session the next day Dr. Ahmed was cool and distant. No progress at all was made towards an agreement. That afternoon White learned that the head of the Egyptian company was complaining vociferously to his colleagues about the “rude and offensive treatment” he had undergone at the dinner party. “I certainly do not intend to do business with such discourteous people,” he was heard to say.

With the delegation due to leave Canada in three days, Paul White was desperate to know what was happening. Was this a negotiating ploy — a pressure tactic?

Case 5.2.

How to Insult an Egyptian Customer 

Solution and Discussion

Ironically, in this case Paul White was actually being a perfect host according to the rules of his own culture. Most Canadians would find it rude to insist, to push a guest to eat or drink. And of course it was polite of Paul to talk to the other guests at the event. Paul’s mistake was to be ignorant of his guest/customer’s expectations.

Yes, the Canadian did carefully inquire about Dr. Ahmed’s food and drink preferences, which is very important with a Muslim visitor. But Paul did not do enough homework:
1. He failed to find out that in Dr. Ahmed’s culture the host is traditionally expected to offer a guest food or drink two or three times. The guest is expected to politely decline once – or better twice before graciously accepting. The idea is to avoid appearing greedy.
2. Paul was also unaware that in Egypt’s hierarchical culture a guest of honor expects to receive the host’s full attention. Paul should have taken Dr. Ahmed by the arm and introduced him to the various other guests rather than leaving his guest of honor alone.

This is another example of the cross-cultural truism, “What is polite in my culture is often rude in yours.” So while it’s always good to “be ourselves” we may sometimes need to tweak our business behavior to meet the buyer’s expectations – especially when hosting visiting customers.