How to be respectful to the Arab Culture

 What to Do When You're a Guest at Dinner

Starting Point, Frequency of Visits:

                Normally in western culture, we are all generally used to the idea of having privacy and some alone time to reflect on our lives and what we should do. Generally in all Arab societies you will find the people to be very welcoming and very inviting. An Arab needs no social boundary of personal time. In fact, frequent visits and general invitations back are more than expected. You might also find it a bit daunting with how many invites to gatherings and parties that there will be, so be ready to socialize with neighbors and close friends a lot. They like to stay in contact with their friends and so you could easily offend someone if you do not come or decline many invitations. Generally a response to this from an Arab would be that you are a very busy person. The maximum time that an Arab friend will be away from you would be 3 days at the most before they would like to make contact with you again. (Nydell, 2006, pgs. 20-21)


Avoiding Offense from Un-Supported Invitations

            In Western culture you will find that some expressions like we should do something sometimes will be taken quite literally by Arab people. Though it is a saying commonly used, make sure you mean it when talking to your friend. (Nydell, 2006, p. 21)

Your Etiquette At Dinner

        Arabs love to host social functions. One very important thing to remember is to not serve food onto your plate at the dinner table with your left hand. Just like in Old Testament times when you couldn't do certain things or else it would be considered unclean, the same is true of some Arab customs. The usage of only the right hand is mainly for dishes that are used by more than just you.  If it is your own plate, then it is ok to eat with a knife and a fork in each hand. (Nydell, 2006, p.64) Also, at any given time your host will be very generous and make sure that you are well cared for with your food. Water is not served until at the end of meals and not during the main meal, since water being drunk during the main meal is considered unhealthy and not wise to drink with a meal. (Nydell, 2006, p. 62)


Main Rules of Etiquette

         This is some of the basic rules of etiquette in Arab culture that you should remember when you are at parties and social functions to help you better remember the main ideas of what you should watch out for and be careful about. Please note that there is a lot to remember so just stick to the main ideas and try to remember to avoid what you think is most offensive in a given dinner situation (taken as presented similarly in Nydell, 2006, p. 63-65):

-It is important to sit properly. Slouching, draping the legs over the arm of a chair, or sitting carelessly when talking to someone communicates a lack of respect. Never cross legs on top of a desk or table when talking for likewise offense.

-When standing and talking, it is considered disrespectful to lean against the wall or keep your hands in your pockets, because it shows lack of interest.

-Sitting in a manner that allows the sole of one's shoe to face another person is an insult and can easily be avoided if you don't cross your legs during the function.

-Most countries including the Middle Eastern area show that it is common to remove your shoes at the door. To be able to see if this is a regular requirement with your visit you should observe others or be aware if there is a distinct pile of shoes by the door. Removing your shoes is a sign of respect especially to one that is hosting the dinner party.

-Forgetting to shake hands when meeting a person or saying goodbyes is considered rude. When a Western man is introduced to an Arab woman, it is the woman's choice whether she chooses to shake hands or not; she should be allowed to make the first move. It is not an insult to decline shaking a woman's hand when you know you are with a more traditional Muslim.

-For dress at a social party, it is usually more formal (like suit and tie for men, dress and high heels along with jewelry for women). If you dress casual, it may be taken as a lack of respect for the hosts. There are some occasions when casual dress is appropriate.

-One who lights a cigarette in a group must be prepared to offer cigarettes to everyone.

-Men stand when a woman enters the room; everyone stands when a new guest arrives at the party and when an elderly or high-ranking person enters or leaves.

-Men allow women to precede them through doorways, and men offer their seats to women if no seats are available.

-If you admire something small and portable, an Arab may insist that it be taken as a gift. As a guest you must be very careful to not show too much admiration for small, very expensive items.

-In certain social situations like public places being the biggest, it is considered inappropriate for a woman to smoke or drink alcoholic drinks.

-In Restaurants, Arabs will almost always insist on paying, especially if it is a small group setting or a business setting. Your response that is appropriate is offering to help pay in a gracious manor.


-Arabs have their own ideas about femininity and masculinity. Long hair on men is inappropriate.  Women who wear mannish dress or behave in a way that is not womanly or traditional is not approved.

-You will never over hear family disputes or fights, so it is best if you have a problem with one of the guests or the host to speak with them privately and constructively.

-Do not photograph or video others at the dinner party without their permission.

-Staring at others for a long period of time is not considered rude in Arab culture, especially if they are foreign looking. The best solution is to move away from the situation if it makes you uncomfortable.

-When paying together as a group for a major meal together, it is best if one person pays the bill and is reimbursed later, because publicly calculating a bill is considered annoying and embarrassing to Arabs. 


Asking for Seconds: Warning

 If you ask for seconds, then you should be expected to get quite a bit on your plate. With things like etiquette with food as well, you should expect for them to offer seconds. It is a custom for Arabs to be able to give more food as much as possible to be a good host, even when you’re not hungry.  The Video below demonstrates just how much food you are to expect when asking for seconds. (Nydell, 2006, p. 60)

Timewise, When to Show up, When appropriate to Leave

When you come to a dinner invitation it is usually a custom to stay later and also to arrive late. This is usually a custom that can be taken off-guard by most westerners due to western culture usually being prompt and leaving too late. You need to also remember that most invitations will be usually later at night around 8 to 10 at night when it actually starts as well. When the function is about over and you look your ready to leave, it is a custom for them to invite you to stay longer. Any good host will be accustom to asking this to help you feel more comfortable to stay longer, but you can still leave even after this polite persistence which shows their interest in you. (Nydell, 2006, p. 58)


More Information

To understand Arab culture at social gatherings, here are some additional resources to help you better understand what a social dinner gathering may include in an Arabic world. These are YouTube videos and websites to give you more of an understanding of how to be respectful with your host.

For More information about eating ettiquette you can go to:

Middle Eastern Food Eating Etiquette at westmichiganlive.com

Protocal Etiquette School of Nevada, Las Vegas

Middle Eastern Culture - Goes into more detail than just etiquette but does mention some aspects in it so I found it helpful to take a look at


To give you a better idea on the size of social gatherings this video is a video of a dinner party around Ramadan, the time where Arab's fast for forty days during daylight hours and have a big meal at the end of the forty days:

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Most sources and information from these sources unless otherwise stated:

Nydell, Margaret K., Understanding Arabs: A Guide for Modern Times, 4th Edition, Boston, MA, Intercultural Press, Inc., 2006, pgs. 20-21, 55-65

YouTube, 2008 LLC