International working: Stop and think!

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DUBAI AIRPORT — I am not sure why, but I have avoided writing about this in the 6 years I have been blogging. I think it’s like some strange martial art — the moment you have the gall to think you are good enough, you will be taught a lesson.

I love working across cultures. In the last 12 months I have worked on at least 4 of the 5 continents (depending on how you count them.) And all I know for sure is that I know nothing. I am always aware that there are local customs and practices that will catch me unawares.

This is in spite of so many indicators that suggest otherwise. As I wrote recently, you can hear Michael Jackson everywhere. This week in Kuala Lumpur car after car went by with stickers in their windows with the McDonald’s arches saying “McDonald’s Drive Thru VIP”.

“Ha! Ha!” we can laugh. “You see! We ARE all the same! McDonald’s and drive thru…”

But that may actually be a good example of how we are different. What is a drive thru VIP? Why the heck have a sticker in your front car window? (Amongst my investigating of Malaysian culture, I left these questions unanswered.) All you have to do is walk into a McDonald’s in the Muslim world to know the difference — like the Slavic mafioso and his daughter at the buffet here in Dubai, demanding to know where the bacon is!

A few things to think about as you head across town to meet the feared guys from that other school, or as you jet off to far off lands to share a windowless meeting room with people you think you know.

1. Stop, listen and think

Don’t let a few familiar things make you believe that values, morals and behaviours are going to be the same as yours.

Which is not to say that your mum didn’t raise you well. But your views on politics, timekeeping, religion, humour, etc. are not always shared by everyone else… Just because you KNOW that they are right, doesn’t mean everyone else has to.

2. Only speak when it improves the silence

Regular readers will know I love this LBJ quote. But, like the constant blathering of the ubiquitous CNN and BBC TVs of airports and coffee shops, too many of us like to talk to fill the silence.

Why? Some accents, attitudes and postures single us out as people to be avoided faster than if we were training a big helium balloon with the word “dork” written on it.

When you are in a new cultural situation, why not keep your own counsel for a while, and see if you can’t think of something intelligent to say when you do open your mouth?

3. Keep your hands to yourself

It may surprise you. But not everyone wants to shake your hand. In fact, in some places people simply can’t. Likewise the awkward habit of westerners of trying to pat people on the back, grab their forearm, etc. I am about as white and western as any person on the planet, but if you try to do that locking thumbs hand-shake that athletes now do, or high-five, or bump fists with me… I am going to quietly take you off my Christmas card list… (Oh, you’ll be sorry then, won’t you!)

The same goes for our fascination with questionable hand signals. Thumbs up, pointing at people, drawing a finger across your throat, etc. Don’t.

I was putting a picture of George Bush doing the ‘Texas long horn’ hand sign in my presentation recently… you know the one?… and my business partner Paul told me that when he was a child in Rome a guy on his street got killed for doing that. It means you are a cuckold.

4. Read everything

There’s so much available in local newspapers, online, in your library that you should never be sitting on a plane or a bus playing games on your phone.

Local newspapers are fantastic for what they tell you… and what they don’t. You may know about political issues in a country only to find them completely absent from the local media. Quick! What does that tell you?!

Yes. That’s probably right.

5. Be unfailingly nice

Maybe this is something that your mum taught you. It really doesn’t take much to qualify as charming. Re-watch some old Cary Grant movies if you have to. The trick is simple:

– Say please and thank you
– Smile
– Show gratitude when appropriate
– Say ‘no’ firmly, but without malice
– Watch a little before you act

It’s easy for people to say that the world is going all wrong. We’re good at finding new disasters to replace the old ones. But one thing that I find constantly reassuring is how much people will work to get along.

One woman in a hijab in my course this week in KL will always be burned into my memory. She had a brilliant, warm smile, and she used it indescriminately. It helped me settle. And she was kind enough to make me think a tall, pasty guy from Westmount might have something useful to say to a dozen diverse professionals from around the South China Sea.



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2 Responses

  1. Karl Roche

    Indeed, being polite costs nothing and gets you a long way, as mother said.

    I like Dennis Thatchers quote, “Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.”

  2. Mike

    Should be required reading for anyone who works outside of their cultural comfort zone….and everyone should work outside of their comfort zone – cultural or otherwise. Well done David. keep em coming.

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