In 2004, rather than coming back to Washington, DC for my first semester of my junior year in college, I took off from Boston’s Logan Airport headed for Amman, Jordan, where I would spend my fall semester. It wasn’t an easy choice to leave behind the center of our political universe (and my academic and social life) for a Middle Eastern country I had never been to before and a place where I didn’t speak the language (but that’s a story for another day).
I arrived in Amman in the middle of the night, anxious and excited, ready to start learning right away. Once I was picked up by our program director, my first question was “What’s the most important word I need to know?” Surprisingly, the response was not the Arabic equivalent for a greeting, nor for ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. What my director said was “Wasta”.
Loosely translated, wasta means influence, connections, pull, or power through people. In the Middle East, as well as around the world, who you know gives you as much, if not more, power than money. After all, even if you lose your money, you still have connections. The more personal and professional connections you have, the more clout you gain. The same is true for wasta. Wasta, however, refers both to the amount of power and pull you have, as well as the connections with those people. Wasta is your network and, in Arabic culture, the more wasta you have, the better off you are.
I would say the same is true for our culture. It is especially true in this crazy city of Washington, DC. If I were to do a poll of my friends, nine out of ten would tell you that they were introduced to their job, apartment, or significant other by a personal (or professional) connection. While some may complain that this ‘system’ of connections is unfair, it really is all about who you know. But more importantly, it’s about how you treat them.
With social media networking becoming the next big thing and people making connections online in a more social, rather than strictly professional, arena, it is increasingly important to build full relationships with people. Networking isn’t just about the work you do or the money you pay; networking is also about the way you interact with people. The more reciprocal the relationship, the better off you (and your connections) are.
Tips on how to improve your Wasta:
- Shake hands (with a good, firm handshake). I know this sounds corny, but it shows you are professional and friendly.
- Smile genuinely as often as possible. A positive attitude can do wonders if you let it!
- Always send a hand-written thank-you card when appropriate.
- Return phone calls and emails in a timely manner. This demonstrates that you are attentive, concerned, and timely.
- Use niceties, such as ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘you’re welcome’. Even the littlest things can make a huge difference.
- Join Twitter, follow people in your field or whose Tweets (or updates) you find interesting. Listen, respond, engage.
- Be careful not to engage in sarcasm or snark around people who don’t know you well. This prevents people from mistaking your dry sense of humor for rudeness. (Be especially careful not to use sarcasm or snark online, since tone is not as obvious without your voice or body language.)
- If you read blogs often, comment with a link back to your own blog to encourage interactions.
- Give before you take. Don’t ask for something unless you are able to give something in return.
So, why is wasta important? Not only can it bring about fulfilling personal relationships, but you never know how personal networking will come into play when thinking about other aspects of your life. Think of every connection and contact as a potential ally, business partner, or friend.