As I prepare to board the last flight home on my Saudi Arabian experience as a trainer/consultant, I’m trying to sort through my thoughts and feelings. Although I’ve written on countless topics, in a wide range of publications, I’m pondering how to effectively communicate the difference between my expectations and the reality of my 12 amazing days in the Kingdom.
It’s not that I’m unaware or unappreciative of cultural diversity. I’ve travelled to 74 countries, 19 of them within the past 11 months distributed across all 7 continents (or 5 or 8, depending on which list you follow!). I teach courses on cultural competency and speak, write, and coach on topics related to international and global careers. In short, I’m not someone whose only knowledge of “away” is through the media.
However, for this trip, despite all my personal and professional preparation, I became acutely aware of my “unconscious incompetence” – like all of us, I just don’t know what I don’t know . . . and there’s no quick fix for that except through personal experience.
In preparing for this trip, I had a wonderfully open “cultural informant” – an Australian consultant who had made the journey to Saudi Arabia 8 times in recent years. I so badly wanted to “get it right” so I asked about as many details as I could think of – would it be okay to wear nail polish, make-up, jewellery, capris, open-toed shoes? I knew I needed to purchase and wear abayas (the long black robes that women in Saudi Arabia must wear in public). However, I learned that standards are changing and a bit of colour or trim would be acceptable. That led to more questions – how much colour or embellishment? There are no abaya shops in my local area so I began searching online. The choices were endless . . . and overwhelming! Eventually, I selected two and they made their way to the West Coast of Canada via India, Dubai, and the USA.
Saudi Arabia is not a country one can just “drop in” to. I was granted a “State Visit” visa to support the government to launch a comprehensive quality assurance framework as a foundation for an emerging career development culture in Saudi Arabia. As a career management specialist, I was excited to have the chance to influence the career development of Saudi citizens. The content of the competency framework, and the guidelines/standards for products, services, and professional career practitioners had been developed and customized for Saudi Arabia by Barbara Macnish’s Miles Morgan team in Australia.
Dave Redekopp (Life Role Development Group) and I were contracted by the Canadian Career Development Foundation (CCDF) to train leaders in public and post-secondary education, non-profits, government offices, and corporations to begin to use this comprehensive system to enhance their career development programs, services, policies, and products. Equipped with seven booklets (in English and Arabic) and working with an English/Arabic translator, our first 5-day course began less than 8 hours after I’d landed in the country! Meetings continued until I left for the airport 12 days later – we made very good use of our single-entry Visa.
Family, friends, and colleagues had expressed concerns about my safety – I’ve never felt safer in a foreign country in my life. Without exception (well – except for one very cranky gate-keeper who was from another country) I was treated with such warmth, kindness, and compassion that I instantly felt at home and I feel that I have a large Saudi family that I’m eager to get back to (or to welcome on a visit to Canada or meet with at an international conference). The Saudis are very family-oriented – we shared pictures of children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, and spouses. I never heard a raised voice except in excitement. Their enthusiasm – both for what we were teaching and for life in general – bubbled over.
In Week 1, our group was mixed (men and women); in Week 2, as we mentored other trainers, we worked in the more traditionally segregated groups (men with Dave and women with me). However, the men were eager to learn from me and the women were equally eager to work with Dave, so we switched at one point for a session with the other group. In the mixed group, the women kept their abayas on, of course. In the segregated groups, once the door was shut, a few women took off their abayas (many, me included, chose to keep them on – in part because the clothes we were wearing underneath were pretty casual!). Many women had their faces covered in the presence of men but removed their niqabs (face coverings) and sometimes their hijabs (head coverings) in the segregated group. However, like women anywhere, sometimes a “bad hair day” made it preferable to stay covered! The one amazing thing about niqabs is how much communication happens through the eyes; as a counsellor, I pay a lot of attention to eyes, so speaking to a woman wearing a niqab increased the intensity of that focus – pretty amazing!
In debriefing our 2 weeks of training in Saudi Arabia, Dave Redekopp reflected on the similarities between this and experiential career exploration. Although preparation through reading/research is essential when learning about careers, it’s insufficient. Similarly, informational interviews can add the richness that our cultural informant, Barbara Macnish, offered to us – in the words of a Mastercard ad, it was “Priceless!” However, there was still a significant difference between the thoughts we’d formulated based on our research and preparation and the reality of being “on the ground” in Saudi Arabia. There’s nothing at all that can compare with trying out something new for yourself and forming your own impressions based on that firsthand experience. In my case, the experience in Saudi Arabia was so positive that I’m very eager to get back . . . and already beginning to work on another project!