Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Some sweeping generalisations about Johnny Foreigner

I'm working in the London office today, and musing on the differences in the way we work. Gosh it's quiet over here! And no-one is hugging. At best there's some polite handshakes or a peck on the cheek. I remember being really alarmed when my first workshop in the US ended with actual hugging. Call me a frosty Brit if you like but I felt my personal space was not so much invaded but fully bounced into.

I'm used to the hugs now but that doesn't mean I accept them. Instead I flash a message with my eyes that says 'I'm British! Don't touch me!'. It works.

One practice that also surprised me in the US, which has yet to catch on in the UK, is applause at the end of a meeting. I first witnessed this in a client workshop I was leading. I thought I must have really nailed it, and moved my post-its around superbrilliantly, because the attendees burst into applause after my 'wrap up' on the last day. I was tempted to bow. It turns out they weren't applauding me, but just giving the whole team a nice warm feeling for a jolly good meeting. Sweet! (Then came the hugs).
Totally appropriate for meetings. If you are a cuddly teddy bear.

There are also more silly turns of phrase in the US. Words like monetize and solutionize pepper the discussion. And the guys I work with, especially the Sales guys, love to talk about getting a client to 'open the kimono', or how they want to 'peel the onion'. I could go on... If I could find a kindred spirit I'd play bullsh*t bingo with them in these meetings. As it is I occasionally put the teleconference on speaker so TLOML can enjoy the nonsense.

The idea that globalization has homogenized national cultures has some currency. At Big Corp and Big Corp's clients, one might imagine every office was the same: grey suits the world over. As my career takes me increasingly further afield, I’m kind of relieved to see that it just isn’t the case and that national idiosyncracies rule.

And it's not just the Transatlantic divide. In Madrid the staff were just a brilliant hyperbolic example of their national stereotype. They'd rock up at about 10am, have coffee till 11am, lunch from 2pm till 4pm (table service, wine, the lot), and then work really hard from 4pm till 8pm. In meetings they would babble really argumentatively, high volume and fast pace, for 10 minutes - and when I asked for a summary translation I'd get about 2 words. 'Really?' I'd say, 'You seemed to have a lot of discussion, are you sure the answer is that simple?' 'Yes,', they'd reply, 'We were just clarifying'. Their 'clarifying' sounded like World War II. God love the Latin temperament.

When I was last in Japan I saw the most incredibly hierarchical culture I could imagine. Years of working across Europe and the US have softened me up, I often don't know if the person I'm talking to is senior to me or not. In Japan you can tell: if someone is more junior by one simple clue: the person crouching and making themselves as small as possible, the person scuttling close to the wall as they move about the building - they're at the bottom of the food chain. The guy standing straightbacked, he's the boss. Simple.

I'm off to India next week when I will be adding to my store of sweeping generalisations about Johnny Foreigner.

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