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Tuesday
Oct162007

The Nuances of Afghan Office Etiquette

One of the highlights of my current job is getting to talk to people. In doing market research on construction materials I regularly find myself in the offices of five to ten heads of companies in a given day. This means I have had ample opportunity to compare and contrast different different settings in which Afghans conduct business. After a while, I couldn't help viewing these things through an anthropological lens as well.

The basic schematic of the Afghan office is, like many throughout the world, a projection of power. There are typical two rooms. The first will be less lavishly furnished and be occupied by an average of five people at any given moment; a mix of servants and sundry employees. The second room will be the lair of the boss himself. It will contain an enormous desk and the rest of the space will be taken up by obscene plush couches arranged in a salon setting. The meeting will also entail some sort of serving of food. This schematic allows numerous waits for exhibiting and mediating power, so here's how.

The number of people in the anteroom. This shows the power or status of the person you are about to meet. In fact most of them seem to have nothing to do but hang out (there are usually different servants who will bring you your tea later on). The people in the anteroom therefore, not just show how many people the boss can afford to hire, but also that he can afford to have them sitting around not doing much. The more powerful the boss, the more people and the more leisure on hand.

The main reception room. You and the boss will not be the only people in this room. Very often other people have been waiting since before you arrived to conduct their business. They may even have been waiting through multiple previous visitors. Unfortunately (for Afghan society) I never am made to wait, owing to the fact that Western visitors accord status, and those like myself who speak English are at the top of even that pecking order. Being made to wait and seeing the other guests that are brought in will impress upon the other individual the importance of the person they are waiting to see. If the person you are waiting to see cannot speak English themselves, they will frequently produce a foreign-educated son as a measure of social advancement, usually with the excuse of acting as a translator, which is pretty thin when everyone speaks Farsi. The desk is often little used and mostly for show, a fact often compounded by the impractical arrangement of unnecessary electronic gadgets upon it.

The food offered and the method of its offering. Tea can be served either before you sit down or offered just when it becomes clear that you are about to leave. The food will be non-existent or the usual assortment of nuts and raisins or include some specialties as souhan and gaz. Some people, as a result of class or pretension, go for the cornucopia effect, presenting you with a table covered in things like Pringles, Dorritos, and LU cookies. Some also dispense with tea and offer you coffee (perceived as a core indicator of things Western; Westerners are often perceived to dislike tea), soda, or even Red Bull.

The use of Western artefacts. This is something of a cross-cutting theme. The amount of Western artefacts on hand is inversely proportional with the amount of modernisation of the given boss. This extends from clothing to food to decor. The person educated or brought up the West will great you behind a well used desk in an office tastefully decorated with Afghan objets d'art while wearing a kurta-pijama. On the other extreme, we once spoke with the son of the boss, who had been left in charge. This individual, whilst making an aweful attempt at a Tehrani accent (which is prestigious thanks to the cultural power of Iran and the massive Farsi-language entertainment industry based in Los Angeles which is also given voice in the accent of Tehran), was wear probably one of the most amazing get-ups off all time, consisting of: acid-washed, flared, and incoherently embroidered jeans (Rajastani embroider on one pant, mickey mouse on the other); a collared shirt which had massively oversized cuffs, cufflinks the size of bones, and patterned with oversized neon-hued pieces of cheesecake (the collar was necessarily popped), and to top it off, a leather life-preserver-style vest that was sekwinzed.

It's not just the boss's personality or pretension that factor into this but also those of the clientele. Whatever the individuals preferences, there clients or potential clients will also look for certain signals. Many people have a regal salon-style set up, but will instead take you too a modern and efficient office when given the chance. Another axis is professionalism. The more professional the company, the more familiar its offices will look to someone from the West. People who sat behind a desk where they were visibly at work knew how much they would sell in a given interval, the cost of their inputs, and be full of potential strategies for growth. The biggest divide overall is between businesses that just consist of trading and transporting goods and those that are trying to establish an actual corporate structure, which is necessary to institutionalise the benefits of economic growth.

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    The Nuances of Afghan Office Etiquette - The Global Californian - Scott Bohlinger
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    The Nuances of Afghan Office Etiquette - The Global Californian - Scott Bohlinger
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    The Nuances of Afghan Office Etiquette - The Global Californian - Scott Bohlinger
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    embroider your new t-shirts

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