ASA 010: Egypt. The Joy of Relationships

Monika Chutnik
Egypt. The Joy of Relationships

In this episode Monika Chutnik is talking to Jana Holla, an intercultural expert, passionate, and creative educator. Jana knows the Egyptian culture as a training profession who supports international business communication, but also as a researcher and scientist, a passionate and anthropologist, and a person who chose Egypt as her place to live. She’s also an expert in DEI – diversity, equity, and inclusion.


In this episode you will learn:

  • What are main cultural beliefs and values in Egypt
  • How it is to be a foreign woman living in Egypt
  • The importance of relationships in Egyptian society
  • European perspective on Egyptian culture
  • Tips for living and working in Egypt


To summarize what we have learned about the contemporary Egyptian culture. First of all, be open to people just as they will be to you. Secondly, people and relationships are more important than schedule. So stay flexible. And thirdly, be respectful to the culture and people by dressing properly.


When you listen to this conversation, please think about who else might be happy to know what we are talking about and share with this person later on. I really care to be reaching the right people with my content, so thank you very much for this in advance.

I wish you fun and discovery!


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Additional materials:

  • ASA 004: What are Microaffirmations and why you want to have them in your team
  • ASA 007: Managing Projects in Mexico
  • ASA 008: How to Make Friends with the Danes



European in Egypt

Smell of the orient

The climate is very different than in Europe. There are different smells, different sounds. You step off the plane and you immediately know you are somewhere else. It’s not just the heat, which, depending on which time of the year you go, can be exorbitant. So it’s the temperature, but it’s primarily the smell. It’s the smell of the orient.

Noisy place

Cairo particularly is a noisy place. It’s the home of about 30,000,000 people. The traffic is overwhelming. The sound volume explodes. And it’s also the way how Egyptians like to communicate.

In Egypt, you raise your voice very often. People aren’t arguing all the time. What you’re hearing and what you’re interpreting as arguing is actually people trying to impart how important the topic is. Using their higher voice volume. This is one of the first misconceptions that many people would have about Egyptians. Actually, Egyptians really do not enjoy conflict.

The volume level in the country itself is higher because of the traffic, because people have a tendency to speak louder, and because, particularly in Cairo, everything is just loud. The music is always louder than it should be. European Union has certain volume levels that are considered healthy or unhealthy, acceptable or unacceptable. In Egypt they are always in the unacceptable volume levels.


Egypt’s Religions 

Egypt it considered to be an Arab country. About 90% of the Egyptian population would say: I’m Egyptian, I’m an Arab. That doesn’t go, though, for the Coptic minority.

One thing we need to understand is that Egypt is very much an Islamic country, and the 90% of Egyptians are Muslims. However, Egypt is also a place where you had one of the first Christian denominations – the Copts. By now, they’re considered more of the Orthodox branch.


Importance of Relationships in Egypt

Egypt is the country where relationships are very much at the center of your life.

Everybody tries to work because you need to live. But work is not the primary occupation you have in life. Your primary occupation in life is your family or your friends. And relationships that you’re building with people around you, also with your colleagues. It goes both ways: personal, but also professional relationships.

Relationships are always at the forefront of everybody’s attention. So you take the time, you are flexible with your schedule, because if you meet somebody on the street that you know for a long time and you haven’t met him in a long time, even if you’re rushing to a meeting or to a family function, you will stop and maybe even change your plans completely and forget about the other meeting or postpone it because this person is important.

Time will wait. Time will adjust to what is happening right now with the people you are with.


After work life in Egypt

Most of my single friends in Egypt go back home after work, change their clothing, and immediately go out. They meet with friends, go to social clubs or coffee place.

If you’re married very often you would stay at home. But it’s very common that family would just visit you without giving you any prior notice, which can be fun, but can also be a challenge. Spontaneity is something that still happens a lot.


Privacy in families

Very often we’re talking about the more traditional culture and about more westernized or globalized family lifestyle.

In a traditional Egyptian family there is no privacy.

In Egyptian house you don’t knock. Very often the doors aren’t closed. The mother would never knock when she’s entering her child’s bedroom. The same goes very often for the bathroom. If you’re hearing somebody’s in the bathroom, you usually don’t barge in. In Egypt, sometimes you might. Because you might need something.

The notion of privacy is connected to the fact that you’re always surrounded by family.

You are never alone. And traditionally, it’s considered to be a bad thing to be alone. People always want to make sure that you’re never lonely. That you’re always surrounded by other people. Because being surrounded by other people is considered to be the right way of being, and it’s considered to be also good for you, psychologically speaking.


Introverts in Egypt

You don’t have to communicate with people all the time when you’re with them. Even in a house, you’re still left alone by your parents, and siblings. Just not for a very long period of time. I guess if you’re on the extreme scale of being an introvert, this is not your favorite place to be. Let’s face it. But if you are somewhere in middle, between introvert or extrovert, it’s perfectly okay. You can always find a little bit of space for yourself. Sometimes you probably have to fight for it. And it is not the norm. That’s the bottom line.


Connections in Egypt

Making connections is much easier in Egypt than in Europe. But I would also distinguish between the superficial, first meeting and establishing deep friendships. Just like everywhere else.

Superficially, it’s very simple. It’s very simple to talk to other Egyptians. It’s very simple to talk to other foreigners. Because with foreigners, you can always connect on how simply different this place is compared to where you grew up. With Egyptians, they’re very much curious where you’re coming from, what your people are like, how long you have been to Egypt, how much you enjoy it, what you have seen.

On the superficial level, the communication is very quick and very easy. If you want to create deeper, meaningful friendships, that takes time. And that also requires you to be a bit compatible, have some common ground.


Language in Egypt

The moment you are thinking of living and working in Egypt at least few Egyptian phrases and words are incredibly appreciated and go a long way.

Many people will speak English if they have higher level education or are working in the tourist industry. In the urban places, especially Cairo, about 80% of the younger generation will have at least the basic command of English. But people in the rural areas not so much. You need to look for the more educated classes to speak.

People who always should have at least some command of English are pharmacists. Because the last 2 years of pharmacy studies are taught in English.

If you ever find yourself in a rural area where nobody speaks English and you really need some help, find the nearest pharmacy. I’m not saying their command of English will be excellent, but it’s going to be at least basic.


What is still surprising

Behavior on the streets

One aspect that still surprises me, even after all these years, is the behaviour of many Egyptians on the streets and in public spaces. The behavior of “I’m here, and I really don’t care who’s around me”. In the context of cultural collectivism, it is intriguing that, especially in crowded urban areas such as Cairo, people tend to take a very individualistic approach to daily survival.

For example, when navigating crowded streets or public transport such as the metro, it is common to observe people seemingly completely absorbed in their own mission. Whether it is a conversation on the phone or a determined rush to reach their destination, their focus can be so intense that they effectively jam the street or create bottlenecks. At such moments it can feel as if the surrounding world ceases to exist for them.

Such behaviour may seem paradoxical in a collectivist culture where people usually value group harmony. However, when it comes to personal survival and getting from point A to point B, personal goals often outweigh collective considerations. This aspect of Egyptian street life remains a fascinating, if sometimes bewildering, part of daily existence.


Foreign Woman in Egypt

It connects to the sexual harassment, which is a big topic. The moment you have blue eyes, white skin and blonde hair, you’re a goddess on one hand. But you are an object. On the street, I’m being noticed. There’s no such thing as I can melt into the crowd. It happen to pretty much any foreigner, a man or a woman, especially coming from Europe, especially when they’re white. Racism is a thing, colorism is definitely a thing.

The positive side of this is that we are noticed and admired. The negative side of this is that we are admired as an object.

We therefore have no feelings and we’re therefore more accessible. On the street I get a lot of attention. I’m being called out every 5 minutes. Very often it’s very positive language. I understand it’s really not about me as Jana walking down the street. It’s about me as a white woman object walking down the street and steering a lot of fantasies.

Again, the harassment in that sense, doesn’t always happen from the side of the men. Young men are usually the worst because they can’t control themselves. Very often, I get positive reinforcements also from women or girls. They just love the fact that I have blonde hair or blue eyes, which is something they’ll never have.

The attention I’m getting can be also negative. I learned that I shouldn’t take this personally because it’s really not about me as Jana. It’s really just about me representing a particular image in the Egyptian mindsets. But not everybody is equipped or can handle it easily.

Is it changing? Of course, there’s the potential for change, but I’m not seeing solutions coming forward anytime soon.

Sexual harassment doesn’t happen only to foreign women. It’s also a local phenomena. This is something that really needs to be said. Just as it affects us, foreign women, it also affects local women.


How to dress in Egypt?

Business dress code

The general principle when it comes to dressing is: you always try to dress up rather than dress down.

Always, if you’re in doubt, go for more formal than informal form of dress. Of course, depending also who you work with or what is the occasion.

If you’re working for a governmental institution or a private institution led by Egyptians, a suit is definitely more of a thing than a broader shirt. So you’re dressing up to a degree.

However, when you’re working for a multinational corporation that is trying to get globalized/western ideas of casual Fridays, you would see employees walking in jeans and just in casual wear during those days. But it’s always good to have something more formal with you in the office. Because if during the casual Friday you’re going to meet a representative of another company, they’re not going to appreciate you being dressed down.

Casual dress code

In normal or daily living situation we need to remember that Egypt is an Islamic country. It’s not a fully orthodox Islamic country. So most women would be veiled, but not necessarily all of them. And it’s not a precondition that you have to be veiled.

As a foreigner I don’t need to walk around on the street with full length sleeves and a skirt or trousers all the way to my ankles. But the general principle is: no tank tops for women. You definitely don’t want to show your belly. When people see exposed belly, it’s a little disturbing. But short sleeves are perfectly fine.

Ideally, you should have covered elbows, knees, and belly, both for men and women.


Control and Acceptance in Egypt

In Egypt we’re very often talking about fatalism, about the fact that everything is in the hands of god, and therefore, we have no control whatsoever. This is a little bit of a stereotype, and it doesn’t really work to that full extent. But you do have this notion that my life is not fully under my control. There’s at least 20% if not more that I simply cannot control on daily basis.

Also you have the support of the family. People will drop everything to help. The moment there’s a family emergency, everything else stops. This is something that maybe in business is very difficult for some people to accept.

The acceptance is definitely there. But you also have the support network that comes with that. Whether you like it or not.


Inshallah – god willing

When an Egyptian or an Arab would say “okay, we’re gonna meet tomorrow at 5”, she or he will very often add “inshallah” (if God wills). For most foreigners, at least at the beginning, this would be interpreted as “it’s not gonna happen”. What this really means is “If all goes well, I will be there tomorrow at 5 or around 5, but I’ll try to be there exactly at the time we agreed because I respect you. But there’s this 20, 30% chances that something might show up, and I might not be able to make it.”

In Egypt we’re using “inshallah” a lot. It only means “I’m reminding myself and you that I don’t have my life or the circumstances fully under control”.



When you come to Egypt, take your time enjoy the people around you, be curious, talk to them, try to get to know them a little bit. Take your time and just take it in.


Thank you!


Photo by Omar Elsharawy on Unsplash

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