"Right, what are we having done today?": Examining Cultural Challenges in Service - Encounters at a British Beauty Salon in Kuwait

Nada Algharabali


Kuwaiti society is increasingly striving to evolve into western modernity. It is for this reason that the Kuwait marketplace heavily relies on foreign franchises, be they British franchises such as Harvey Nichols and Marks and Spencer, or American franchises such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks (Welsh et al. 2001). These activities entail a large influx of western workers who are unaccustomed to the conservative, Arab and Islamic culture of the host country.

This paper investigates the interaction between hairdressers from the UK in a British beauty salon and its Kuwaiti clients, providing a useful insight into the cross-cultural challenges encountered between participants from different backgrounds in this service-oriented setting. The subject of this study is an area that has seen little research in the Gulf region, a part of the world which is not the frequent object of sociolinguistic and ethnographic research (but see a study carried out in the UAE by Palfreyman and Al Khalil 2003; and another in Kuwait by Almubayei 2010). Additionally, this study is significant because although numerous studies look at communication in the hairdressing service sector in western societies (see, for example Cohen 2010; Garzaniti et al. 2011; McCarthy 2000; Sharma and Black 2001; and Toerien and Kitzinger 2007), a few studies have concentrated on the Middle Eastern regions.

This study utilizes sociolinguistic qualitative analysis to explore various patterns of client/hairdresser interaction. All transcribed instances of interaction presented in this study have been collected in conjunction with eight weeks of ethnographic observation and interviews with both clients and hairdressers. Analysis specifically focuses on three forms of interaction: task-oriented talk, relational small talk, and silence or non-talk (Holmes 2000, Jowroski 2000, McCarthy 2000, Tracy and Coupland 1990).

Findings indicate that cross-cultural differences between foreign hairdressers and local, Kuwaiti clients are manifested in (non-language related) challenges that often affect hairdresser/client relationships. This paper, therefore, highlights the importance of training programs in helping to introduce potential foreign employees who aspire to work in the Gulf region to the importance of cultural background knowledge of the host country.

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