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**Draft, final appeared in  Public Relations Review, 21 (1995), 241-255.

Bridging Cultural Differences:
American Public Relations Practices & Arab Communication Patterns*

R.S. Zaharna, Ed.D.
School of Communication
American University
Washington, DC 20016
phone: (202) 885-3995
e-mail: Zaharna@American.edu


This study focuses on how public relations practitioners and scholars can incorporate the dynamics of intercultural communication into their work. The study examines how two cultures -- the Arab and the American culture -- have two distinct perspectives for viewing language and, as a result, two differing preferences for structuring persuasive and appealing messages. Several frameworks for viewing cultural variations were used to develop a chart on "cultural communication preference" for Americans and Arabs. For the Arab culture, emphasis is on form over function, affect over accuracy, and image over meaning. An awareness of these cultural differences can help facilitate client relations, media training, and message appeals.

International public relations is one of the fastest growing specialties within the field of public relations (Botan, 1992; and Modoux, 1989). However, while the area itself is growing, very little research has been conducted (Pavlik, 1987, p. 64). Most of the material available is anecdotal and lacks a theoretical base.

This study focuses on how public relations practitioners can incorporate the dynamics of intercultural communication into their practice. The study specifically examines how two cultures -- the Arab and the American culture -- have two distinct preferences for structuring persuasive and appealing messages.

While the two styles are very different, most cultural differences tend to lie below the surface of one's awareness. Without a conscious awareness of how another culture is different from one's own, there is a tendency to see the differences of another through the prism of one's culture. This is how the phenomenon of ethnocentrism occurs. When ethnocentrism occurs, cultural differences are no longer neutral, but rather negative. As Norman Daniels (1975) said that when differences aren't perceived as differences, they are perceived as right and wrong.

This study, based on a cross-cultural rhetorical analysis (Zaharna, 1994), seeks to bring the cultural differences of the Arab and American rhetorical styles into conscious awareness. An awareness of these cultural differences can help facilitate client relations, media training, and the design of persuasive appeals.

The study first explores the various cultural frameworks for visualizing how the two cultures differ. These cultural frameworks are based on the theoretical works of intercultural scholars. The second section of the study specifically outlines what these cultural differences mean in terms of the role of language and designing persuasive appeals. The final section briefly discusses the implications of these cultural differences for American public relations professionals who provide counsel to peoples from the Arab culture. In light of the recent developments in the Middle East, learning about the Arab and American communication differences may be a timely prerequisite.


There are several ways in which scholars have distinguished the Arab and American cultures. Most intercultural scholars tend to view the Arab and American cultures as cultural opposites. This section briefly reviews five theoretical frameworks useful in highlighting the salient differences among cultures. These theoretical frameworks were used to develop the cross-cultural chart of rhetorical styles at the end of this section.

As a footnote, I should remind my reader that in speaking of cultural frameworks, I am referring by necessity to cultural generalities or cultural tendencies. It is not uncommon for an individual's unique idiosyncrasies, personality or experience to override any number of cultural generalities. Further, with regard to the "American" culture, America is quickly becoming a multicultural society of many cultural groupings, each with its own communication style. However, in the discussion that follows "American culture" refers to characteristics documented by intercultural scholars (see, for example, Stewart 1972, 1989). Many of these characteristic are still prevalent in the American mass media and public communication campaigns in the U.S. Similarly with regard to the "Arab culture," the cultural patterns vary slightly across the 21 Arab countries.

High-context & Low-context
Perhaps the most well-known cultural continuum is Hall's (1976) discussion of high-context and low-context cultures. Hall views meaning and context as "inextricably bound up with each other" (1982, p. 18). The difference between high and low context cultures depends on how much meaning is found in the context versus in the code. Low-context cultures, such as the American culture, tend to place more meaning in the language code and very little meaning in the context. For this reason, communication tends to be specific, explicit, and analytical (Ting-Toomey, 1985).

In high-context cultures, meaning is embedded more in the context rather than the code. As Hall states, "most of the information is either in the physical context or internalized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message" (1982, p.18). Thus the listener must understand the contextual cues in order to grasp the full meaning of the message. As Hall says:

People raised in high-context systems expect more from others than do the participants in low-context systems. When talking about something that they have on their minds, a high-context individual will expect his interlocutor to know what's bothering him, so that he doesn't have to be specific. The result is that he will talk around and around the point, in effect putting all the pieces in place except the crucial one. Placing it properly -- this keystone -- is the role of his interlocutor. (1976, p. 98)

In other words, in high-context exchanges, much of the "burden of meaning" appears to fall on the listener. In low context cultures, the burden appears to fall on the speaker to accurately and thoroughly convey the meaning in her spoken or written message. For a more extensive discussion of intercultural differences between high and low context cultures, see Hall (1976) and Ting-Toomey (1985).

Indirect & Direct
Scholars have also distinguished the Arabic and American cultures in terms of direct versus indirect communication styles. Levine (1985) introduced the cultural variations of directness versus indirectness and clear (univocal) versus ambiguity in communication patterns. Levine said that the American cultural preference is for clear and direct communication as evidenced by their many common expressions: "Say what your mean," "Don't beat around the bush," "Get to the point" (1985, p.29). Levine's description of univocal and ambiguous communication further underscore the differences:

Univocal verbal communication is designed to be affectively neutral. It aims for the precise representation of fact, technique, or expectation. Univocality works to strip language of its expressive overtones and suggestive allusions. Ambiguous communication, by contrast, can provide a superb means for conveying affect. By alluding to shared experiences and sentiments verbal associations can express and evoke a wealth of affective responses. (1985, p. 32)

Thus where univocal communication strives for emotional neutrality or objectivity. In contrast, ambiguous communication deliberately uses language to evoke an emotional response. Additionally, whereas univocal stresses openness, ambiguous styles would be more likely to conceal or bury the message. Similarly, univocal stresses specific factual and even technical aspects of a message that the ambiguous style would omit.

Doing & Being
Another dominant cultural divide stems from Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck's (1961) two proposed value orientations. One orientation focuses on activity, the other on being and becoming. The activity orientation places a premium on "activity which results in accomplishments that are measurable" (Kluckhohn, 1963, p. 17). Stewart (1972) calls the activity orientation "doing." He noted that such features of "doing" cultures are characteristic of the American culture's emphasis on the importance of achievement, visible accomplishments, and measurement of achievement (1972, p. 36). The proclivity toward "doing" is found in such common American expressions as "How are you doing?" or "What's happening?"

Opposite of the "doing" cultures are the "being" cultures such as the Chinese, Japanese, or Arab cultures. Okabe (1983) contrasts the American "doing" culture to the Japanese "being" culture. He observes that achievement and development are not as important in a traditional vertical society such as Japan where an individual's birth, family background, age and rank is much more important. For an individual of the "being" culture, "what he is" carries greater significance than "what he does" (Okabe, 1983, p. 24).

In Arabic, the equivalent of "How are you doing?" is literally "What is your condition?" In which you would respond with your emotional or physical state, or Thank God for his blessings. (For a more detailed analysis on the Arab and American as doing and being cultures, see Zaharna, 1991.)

Oral & Literate
Anthropologists have long posited the distinctions between oral versus literate dominant societies. The print or literate dominant society relies more on the factual accuracy of a message than its emotional resonance (Ong, 1980). This may relate to the historical purpose of the written word -- to record, preserve, and transmit (see, Stock, 1983). Literate societies also favor evidence, reasoning, and analysis over the less rational, more intuitive approach (Denny, 1991). This contrasts to the logic of oral cultures, where a single anecdote can constitute adequate evidence for a conclusion and a specific person or act can embody the beliefs and ideals of the entire community (Gold, 1988).

Whereas literate cultures may place a higher premium on accuracy and precision than on symbolism, in the oral cultures the weights are reversed. In oral cultures there appears to be greater involvement on the part of the audience, and this in turn, affects the importance of style and devices that enhance audience rapport.

Citing Cicero, Gold (1988) highlights numerous features of the oral tradition, including repetition as a means for keeping attention as well as making the speech "agreeable to the ear" (p. 160). In terms of message comprehension, Henle (1962) noted that auditors will "go to considerable lengths to make sense of an oral message" (p. 371). Thus listeners play a valuable part in constructing meaning within an oral exchange. As Gold states, "the audience cooperates with the speaker by trying to understand the meaning or 'gist' rather than the actual content" (1988, p. 170). Thus, the audience is quite active.

With heightened listener involvement, the aesthetics of style and audience relations may supersede the informational aspects of a message. An oral message may be valued more for its affective power than its cognitive merits. Tannen (1982) noted the interpersonal involvement between speaker and audience, as speakers strive for a more emotional and participatory responses from their audience. Clearly with style overriding substance, aural ornaments such as formulas, humor, exaggeration, parallelism, phonological elaboration, special vocabulary, puns, metaphor, and hedges are critical (Feldman, 1991; Gold, 1988).

Linear & Non-linear
Similar to the oral/literate framework, intercultural scholar Carey Dodd (1982) suggests linear versus configurational (non-linear) thought framework. In this divide, the American culture would be more representative a linear thought framework, and the Arab culture more configurational or non-linear. According to Dodd, the linear orientation "has transformed auditory and oral communication into visual communication by means of written symbols, organized into linear thought patterns" (1982, p. 163). The linear cultural pattern stresses beginnings and ends of events, unitary themes, is object oriented rather than people or event-oriented, and is empirical in its use of evidence.

The cultures of configuration orientation involves the "simultaneous bombardment and processing of a variety of stimuli" so these people would think in images, not just words (1982, p. 162). The non-linear thought framework, according to Dodd, normally has multiple themes, is expressed in oral terms and heightened by nonverbal communication. Time orientation is less important than people and events, and time is not segmented.

Other dominant cultural variations identified by scholars include collectivism versus individualism (see, Trandis, Brislin & Hui, 1988 for overview); formal versus informal; and ascribed versus attained.


All these various ways of looking at the Arab and American cultural dichotomy are not only inter-related among themselves, but related to how each culture views the role of language in its overall cultural communication matrix.

English Language: Transfer of Information
Several distinctive features can be distilled from the above cultural analysis about the American perspective on language (see chart). As a low-context culture, one would expect language use as specific, technical and detailed. Speakers would be held responsible for being as accurate and factual as possible. In terms of direct, univocal culture, preference is for clarity, objectivity, and directness. As a "doing" culture, with emphasis on action and measurement, there would be a call for words matching actions such as "Doing what one says," or "Walk the walk and talk the talk."

Both linear and literate patterns emphasize accuracy, factual presentation of information for documentation purposes and for "doing things," as well as for argumentation and reasoning purposes. Linearity also stresses presentation of singular themes; ie, one point followed by second point, followed by third, etc. Points or facts are presented sequentially, in a linear progression. One "builds an argument" in a "step by step fashion" instead of "throwing things in all at once."

An important feature related to "doing" or activity orientation is that for the literate culture, words should match actions. "Symbolic statements," as Gold points out, "should not be a substitute for action" (1988, p. 171). Thus there is a tendency to match words with deeds.

Finally, from a Western historical perspective, written language was viewed primarily as a means for record keeping and documentation (see Stock, 1983). In other words, language appears to be a medium for conveying information. Focus again

is on accuracy of content or substance. Style serves primarily as a means for enhancing the accuracy and truth of the substance.

Arabic: Creating a Social Experience

Not only does the Arabic language reflect the variations discussed in the cultural divide, but several socio-historical forces have further influenced the role of Arabic for the Arabs. These include Arabic's role as an art form, as religious phenomenon, and as tool of Arab nationalism. These forces appear to have shaped the role of the Arabic language in an entirely different fashion. Rather than viewing language as a means for transferring information with a stress on factual accuracy, language appears to be a social conduit in which emotional resonance is stressed.

First is the role of Arabic as an artistic form. As an early scholar noted, the "magical sounds of the words" combined with the images, have a powerful effect on the psychology of the Arab (Shouby, 1951). Hitti perhaps summed it up best when he stated,

Hardly any language seems capable of exercising over the minds of its users such irresistible influence as Arabic . . The rhythm, the rhyme, the music produce on them the effect of what they call 'lawful magic' (sihr halal)" (1958, p. 90).
The melodious sounds of the phonetic combinations and plays on words in the recitation of Arabic prose and poetry has been likened to music (Almaney & Alwan, 1982; Patai, 1973; Shouby, 1951). Indeed, as one Arab colleague once remarked, recitation of the Koran may be the Western equivalent of classical music. Because of their talent with words, poets throughout Arab history have been held in high esteem. As Chejne noted, "there had been hardly any scholar of consequence in Arab-Muslim society who did not try his hand at poetry" (1965, p.450). With the stress always on style in Arabic, "eloquence and effectiveness were equated" (Hamod, 1963, p. 98).

The power of the Arabic language for Arabs is also derived from its religious association through the Prophet Mohammed and the Koran. For the believer, the majesty of the language of the Koran is considered a miracle from God for the Moslem prophet was illiterate and unschooled. "It was the Koran -- the Revealed Book -- that was conceived to represent the highest linguistic achievement of the Arabic language" (Chejne, 1965, p.454). The Koran was not only revealed in Arabic, but Arabic is the language used in prayer by Moslems throughout the world.

Finally, Arabic is associated with contemporary nationalism. Many throughout the Arab world have defined "an Arab" as anyone who speaks Arabic (Patai, 1973). Language not only served to define, but to distinguish as well. Chejne explained the intimate link between Arabic and the growth of Arab nationalism: "both Arabic and the nationalist movement have complemented each other to such a degree that they could hardly be separated" (1965, p. 459).

When looking at the three major socio-historical forces associated with the Arabic language -- art, religion, and nationalism -- one can see that symbolism is embedded in the very essence of the language. Each are also participatory, subjective social experiences; the communicator cannot be truly disengaged from either the message or the audience. This contrasts dramatically with the very function of the written word -- to record, preserve and transmit. Similarly, whereas orality or public speaking, by nature, is a group experience, reading and writing tend to be a singular experience. In fact, many have claimed that creativity in writing is best achieved in solitude (Storr, 1988).

The dominant communication preferences for the American and Arabic cultures are outlined in the following chart.

Cultural Variations of Messages
In American and Arabic Communication Preferences

                                                     American                             Arab

                            Socio- Legal documentation             Poetry, Islam
                            Historical Record preservation        Nationalism
                            - stress accuracy,                                 - reliance on symbols,
                            - emotional neutrality, objective            - emotional resonance
                            - technical, concrete                             - abstract
                            - language used to transmit                   - language used to create
                                information                                              social experience

Hall (1976)         Low-context                                      High-context
                           - meaning in message                          - meaning in context
                            - explicit                                             - implicit
                            - details within message                      - details in context
                            - speaker responsible for                    - listener responsible for
                                  message comprehension                      understanding message

Levine (1985)    Direct                                                Indirect
                           - direct, to the point                             - indirect, circular
                           - clear                                                 - ambiguous
                           - simplicity valued                                - embellishments valued
                           - objective                                           - subjective
                           - emotionalism avoided                        - deliberately use emotion

Kluckhohn &     Activity/Doing                                  Being & Becoming
Strodtbeck         - emphasize action,                             - emphasis relationship
(1961)                      measurable action                                 within social context
                          - tie between word and deed               - words for social effect

Dodd                  Linear                                                Non-linear
(1982)                - one theme                                         - not necessary have one theme
                          - organized with beginning                    - organization not stressed
                                 & end
                          - object-oriented                                 - people & event-oriented

                          Literate Society                                Aural/Oral Society
                          - written word valued                          - aural experience valued
                          - singular experience                           - group experience
                          - factual accuracy stressed                  - imagery and sounds stressed
                          - logic & coherence                            - emotional resonance
                          - speaker & audience detached           - speaker & audience linked
                          - analytical reasoning                           - intuitive reasoning


Not only do the two cultures differ in how they view the role of language, they also exhibit distinct preferences for one particular rhetorical device over another in designing persuasive messages.

Repetition versus Simplicity

Repetition in Arabic is a decidedly positive feature. It is not uncommon to find a string of descriptive phrases or words all referring to one phenomenon (Shouby, 1951). Not only is there repetition within a message, but often times repetition is used as a strategy among messages. Repetition -- to repeat something over and over again, or to be wordy or verbose -- for Americans may have negative implication. For the speaker, it could imply that the statement was not heard or not taken seriously, and thus necessary to repeat it. For the listener, repetition can imply that the listener was not paying attention or perhaps is not mentally capable of comprehending. Repetition, even as a rhetorical device in public speaking, is used sparingly for emphasis.

Accuracy versus Imagery

Because of the powerful group experience in the oral tradition, a speaker seeks to engage the imagination and feelings of the audience. It is not uncommon for an Arab speaker to use metaphors that may seem outlandish to an American. However, creative metaphors, analogies, and story-telling are part of the rich fabric of the oral tradition. In fact, whereas an American may insert facts and figures to illustrate a point, and Arab speaker may use one strong, vivid example to convey a point. An Arab speaker also tends to be very generous in her use of descriptive adjectives and adverbs.

Exaggeration versus Understatement

As scholars have noted, distinct cultural preferences exist regarding how much one may stress an event or feeling. Shouby (1951), for example, observed a tendency of overassertion by Arabs and understatements by Americans. Prothro (1955) sought to test Shouby's observation. Not only did Prothro find such a pronounced cultural distinction, he cautioned that "statements which seem to Arabs to be mere statements of fact will seem to Americans to be extreme or even violent assertions" (1955, p. 10). Overassertion may have contributed to the American stereotypical perception of Arabs as violent, boasting, or insincere.

Words versus Action

Because of the symbolism of Arabic derived from the aesthetic realm of art and spiritual realm of religion, words may be more tied to emotions rather than concrete realities. In contrast, the American cultural preference tends to directly link word and action. The American preference for "words matching the deeds" is evident in many common American expressions such as "Practice what you preach," "Do what you say," and "Walk the walk, talk the talk." Indeed, action appears preferable over verbal statement: "Actions speak louder than words." If one does not "keep one's word," by fulfilling a promised action, then one's "words ring hollow." The "word versus deed" gap in Arab rhetoric may have contributed to a stereotypical image of Arabs as "lazy," or "dishonest."

Vague versus Specific

As evident in the cultural analysis and the observations of other intercultural scholars (Anderson, 1994; and Cohen, 1987), the Arab cultural preference is for indirect, vague, or ambiguous statements. This again stems from the function of language as a social lubricant aimed at promoting social harmony. Any direct question or answer could expose the other to a public loss of face. Americans may perceive such ambiguity as frustrating, confusing, and devious. This is because the American preference is for direct, frank and open communication which they tend to associate with honesty. Also an American would tend to give the specifics and details, describing "the whole in terms of its parts." In contrast, an Arab speaker would simply speak in terms of the whole without feeling the need to dissect the phenomenon.


As one may gather from the above discussion, the cultural preferences have several implications for American practitioners who may work with clients from the Arab culture. Below are some of the applications of the theoretical discussion.

First, it is important to appreciate the cultural differences are just that, different. Rather than one style being right or wrong, cultures have different preferences. In working with a client it is helpful to speak in terms of cultural preferences which are more appealing or effective with the American public. This approach will help the practitioner appear less judgmental and in turn make the client less defensive.
Second, a practitioner may want to point out cultural differences as they occur. This will help both the practitioner and the client bring more of the hidden differences into awareness and thus reduce the risk of communication misunderstandings.
Third, there are several implications for message design. Simplistic messages may not be appreciated by Arab clients. American firms would have to emphasize how such messages as "Free Kuwait" are more powerful to Americans than "The people's committee for the liberation of Kuwait." Additionally, while overassertion and exaggeration might be viewed as stylistically more appealing to an Arab client, the American practitioner would need to explain the premium Americans place on credibility and how these practices can jeopardize credibility.
Fourth, changing cultural communication styles are extremely hard. In media training, it may be more effective for a trainer to work with the client's cultural style rather than attempt radical changes. This will help the client achieve a more confident and natural appearance.

Finally, some cultural differences may cross over into different ethical perspectives. What is ethically acceptable in the Arab culture, may be censored in the American public relations industry -- and visa versa. It is important that American public relations professionals counsel their international clients about the norms of American public relations ethics. Allowing a client to cross the line of acceptable ethics may backfire on not only the client's image but on the firm's as well.


As scholar Norman Daniels (1975) once observed, when intercultural differences are not perceived as "different," they are perceived as right and wrong. This is especially true when cultural differences are hidden below the level of awareness. This study explored differences in how the Arab and American cultures view the role of language and by extension, the techniques involved in constructing persuasive messages.

Several frameworks for viewing cultural variations were used to develop a chart on "cultural communication preference" for Americans and Arabs. For the American culture, language appears to be a medium of communication used to convey information. Emphasis is on function and by extension substance, meaning, and accuracy. A message may tend to be valued more for its content than style. For the Arab culture, language appears to be a social tool used in the weaving of society. Emphasis is on form over function, affect over accuracy, and image over meaning. Accordingly, content may be less important than the social chemistry a message creates.

In light of the recent events in the Middle East, the possibility exists for increased involvement by Americans with peoples from the Arab culture. The study highlighted specific concerns for practitioners who work with clients from the Arab culture. While knowing the different cultural preferences is important in message design and client relations, it can also assist in media training and ethics. The discussion of the implications and applications is rudimentary, a much more could extensive be developed from the various cultural differences.


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