The importance of context in Arabic

Have you ever been on holiday in a foreign country where you encountered customs that you didn’t quite understand? Or have you ever asked someone a closed question, and then they responded with an open answer? Or has someone said ‘no’ to you, but it turned out later that this person actually meant ‘yes’? If so, there is a good chance that you were dealing with a different culture where some things are done just a little differently from what you are used to. This article introduces you to Arabic culture as a high-context culture.

What exactly is a high-context culture?

The term high-context culture, and its counterpart low-context culture, was introduced in the second half of the twentieth century by Edward Twitchell Hall, an American anthropologist. These two terms are used to indicate how explicitly a culture communicates and the importance of context in that communication. This ranges from verbal versus non-verbal communication, e.g. gestures and body language, to behaviour and view of the world.

Characteristics of low-context cultures

Low-context cultures are mainly found in north-western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Cultures in these countries or continents often speak plainly in their communication, make little use of non-verbal communication, and have a preference for written communication. They place greater value on written agreements rather than verbal agreements, for example. Efficiency is also emphasised, time is money, and you are expected to be punctual.

An example of a low-context culture is the Dutch culture, where people are task-oriented and efficient in their actions. If they make an appointment for 08:00, they tend to be there by 07:55 already, and they prefer to have as much in black and white as possible. Denotation is also an important part of their communication: they tell it like it is and do not beat around the bush.

Characteristics of high-context cultures

High-context cultures are mostly found in Asia, southern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. In these cultures, it is very important to communicate in a socially desirable manner, relationships enjoy a high priority, and verbal communication is preferred. Verbal agreements are binding, body language and gestures are incredibly important, and you need to pay attention to underlying meanings and any background information. Time is not decisive but rather more of a guideline, and you are flexible.

The Arabic culture is a high-context culture. The connotation of what is said is more important than the literal meaning. It is considered rude to answer questions with just ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and even during phone conversations, people tend to gesture a lot with their one free hand. It is also much more common to communicate with each other in person than by e-mail, and it is not strange to show up at an appointment scheduled for 10:00 at around 10:30, and then exchange pleasantries before getting to the point.

The many sides of love

You can tell that context is incredibly important in Arabic culture by the different translations of some words, among other things. There are, for instance, as many as ten different translations for the word ‘come’, depending on the context of the word. If you come by invitation, you use a different word for ‘come’ than if you are visiting from a foreign country or if you are coming from a place in the same country.

Another good example of this phenomenon can be found in love. As I explained earlier, the ties you have with others are very important in Arabic culture. Consequently, Arabic people have many different words to describe love, depending on the situation.

Love in Arabic is حبّحبّ

The most common and general term for love in Arabic is حبّحبّ (IPA: ḥubb). This word is derived from the same word as the Arabic word for ‘seed’ (حبّ, IPA: ḥabb). Isn’t that quite a poetic image of love, as something that blossoms from a seed into something beautiful? The translations for ‘I love you’ (أحبّك, IPA: uḥibbuka/uḥibbuki) and ‘sweetheart’ (حبيب/حبيبة, IPA: ḥabīb/ḥabība) have the same origin.

There are, however, many other different degrees of love in Arabic. There is, for instance, محبّة (IPA: maḥabba), which stands for brotherly love, a more compassionate kind of love. As you can tell from the recurring ḥ and double b, this term also has its origins in the aforementioned word for love.

Another concept of love is found in the word هوى (IPA: hawā), which is used in the context of longing and desire. This word is also sometimes used in the sense of falling and toppling over. In other words, you have fallen hard for someone. هوى is therefore concerned with the time before you enter into a relationship with someone, but during which you are attracted to the other person.

Later, after you are already in a relationship with someone and you know that person well, you can use the word عشق (IPA: ʾishq) to describe the passionate love between the two of you. ولع (IPA: walaʾ) can also be used in this situation. With this word, you say that you set someone on fire.

And there are so many more other words to describe love.

‘It surely hasn’t rained for a while.’

Context is also very important in everyday conversations. In countries such as the Netherlands, people tend to be very direct. Dutch people don’t mince words and speak their minds. If you find yourself with two others in a room and you notice that they want to have a private conversation, then you make a move to leave the room and say something like ‘I’ll close the door’ as you go.

In Arabic, this is unlikely to happen. In the same situation, you would more likely say something like ‘I have to go and do something’ before you shut the door behind you.

One situation where I encountered the Arabic high-context culture was when I once had to pick up an Arabic person. When we arrived at my car, he said ‘it surely hasn’t rained for a while’. I instantly understood that this was not a general comment about the weather, but that he was making a comment about my car. This was because it had not been washed for a while and did not look as clean as it normally would, because of all the pollen in the air during that period. In this way, he was subtly trying to convey something, without directly confronting or perhaps even insulting me. I am sure someone from the Netherlands would have said this in a much more direct manner.

As you can see, the differences between low- and high-context cultures can cause quite some difficulties in communication. So if you are interested in travelling to the Middle East or learning the Arabic language, you now know that this aspect of Arabic culture is something you need to take into account.

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