Getting to Know Afghan Newcomers: Considerations for Culturally Aware Communication

In the last year, over 80,000 Afghan newcomers have arrived in the United States. As with most populations, there is a lot of diversity and complexity among Afghans, and knowledge of these nuances helps us better serve newcomers. Culturally aware communication is especially essential for strong rapport building, which leads to smooth and successful integration for Afghan newcomers. Below, Dr. Farid Saydee, a native of Afghanistan and the Founder and President of Language Mentors International, offers a variety of considerations that can inform this important process.  

Verbal Communication Considerations

Indirectness: When communicating verbally, Afghans may speak in an indirect manner, meaning they may tend to talk around a subject and provide a great deal of context before arriving at their point. At times, they may assume that the listener understands what they are trying to convey based on the context and background information they provide. In conversations with service providers, some Afghan clients may not directly ask for what they need. Take time to summarize the needs you think the client has presented and ask clarifying questions to ensure you both have clear takeaways from the conversation.  

Respect: Among Afghans, maintaining respect for elders is very important, and it can be considered inappropriate to be matter of fact and too straightforward. As a result, indirect communication is especially common when interacting with elder Afghans. Younger Afghans typically communicate with older relatives and community members in a respectful and gentle manner. For example, instead of saying to an elder, “I am leaving,” one might say, “With your permission, I leave.” 

Titles: Verbal communication includes the terms Afghans use to address one another. These terms usually follow a hierarchical structure dependent on status and relationship. For instance, men who are the same age may call each other “brother” and behave informally with one another; women of the same age may similarly call each other “sister.” To be respectful, many Afghans address elders as “aunt” or “uncle,” even if they are not related. In addition, one’s occupation can affect one’s title. For example, if a woman named Freshta Akbari is a physician, Afghans will likely refer to her as “Doctor Akbari” or “Doctor Sahib Akbari.” The title “Sahib” means “Madam” or “Sir.” Service providers should be aware of these communication norms but avoid making assumptions. Upon meeting Afghan clients, it is best to ask each individual how they would like to be addressed.  

Nonverbal Communication Considerations

Body language: Many Afghans use gestures and rely heavily on body language when communicating. When an Afghan greets you, they may hold their hand over their heart and give a slight nod. To reply, you can do the same or simply nod and say hello. If you are the same gender as the client, you may initiate a handshake. But if you and the client are opposite genders, do not shake hands unless the client extends their hand first. 

 Eye contact: As a sign of respect, some Afghans will avoid making eye contact, especially if working with the opposite gender or someone in a position of authority. Service providers should understand that when they look directly at Afghan clients who do not return eye contact, it is likely not a sign of dishonesty or disrespect.   

Personal space: When working with clients of the opposite gender, it is a good practice to provide more personal space. Some Afghans may be comfortable with less personal space when interacting with individuals of the same gender. Service providers should address this if it becomes a concern for them. 

Language and Dialect Considerations

Service providers arranging for interpreter services should be aware that Dari and Iranian Persian are two dialects of the same language, Farsi. When Afghans use the term “Farsi,” they are likely referring to the dialect spoken in Afghanistan, not to the dialect spoken in Iran. These two dialects are mutually intelligible when written but very different when spoken. Therefore, an interpreter from Iran might not be an appropriate interpreter for a Farsi/Dari speaker from Afghanistan. 

To learn more about working with interpreters, check out these short e-learning modules produced by Switchboard: Introduction to Working with Interpreters and Overcoming Challenges in Interpretation

General Communication Tips

The following tips are relevant to communicating with all clients: 

  • Focus on the individual. This allows individuals to explore their feelings, beliefs, and behaviors while working through integration challenges.  
  • Avoid making assumptions about clients or their background knowledge and experiences. (For example, people often incorrectly assume that clients from Afghanistan, especially SIV recipients, speak English. This could potentially lead to communication issues.) 
  • Convey empathy and understanding. (For example, many Afghans are uncertain about the current situation in Afghanistan and their future in the United States. Afghans generally appreciate kind gestures and respond to warmth.) 
  • Ask clarifying questions to gain more insight. Asking questions that are relevant to your role and the services you provide may help strengthen rapport and lead to better client outcomes. 

Recommended Resources

To learn more about Afghan newcomers, explore these videos from the “Who are the Afghan Newcomers?” series presented by Switchboard: 

  1. Key Events in Recent Afghan History 
  2. Social and Cultural Characteristics 
  3. Transitioning to a U.S. Culture 

You can also complete our self-paced e-learning course Cultural and Practical Considerations for Working with Afghan Clients. 

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