Rethinking my strategies on self-control

Have you ever had a week where there have been a plethora of articles, links, and thoughts all tied to a common theme that pop up? This week I keep coming across articles and posts like this one by Seth Godin about self-control. At the same time I have, as a parent, being struggling with getting my son to do two distinct but time-related tasks, go to bed on time and go to school on time. Seth’s post asks a good question. why do we necessarily assume that obedience leads to a gradual shift to self-control? If I can get my son to do as I say and go to bed on time and leave for school on time will he eventually start to want to do it himself? And why for that matter does it even matter to me so much that my three (almost four) year old obeys these time bound rules? Taking it out of the home what does this say about my view point about self-control and what I expect from other people?

Now I know that I hate being told to obey and follow the rules. I frequently share a story about how I was late for work 2 minutes on Christmas day while working for NOVA and heard about it at all of my performance evaluations up until the day I left. After the first evaluation I basically stopped caring or exercising self-control as long as I didn’t get in trouble. After 18 months I moved to China in part because I wanted to go to a country where being late by a couple minutes wasn’t viewed as key criteria for access to training, pay raise or promotion. That’s right, I physically moved from one country to another because being told to obey certain rules and being punished for not following the rules led to me hating my job.

So why do I assume it will work with anyone else, much less my son? Particularly when he is basically a pint sized version of me when it comes to rules? That may well be what is bothering me most, I know what doesn’t work and I do it anyway and that makes my frustration all the greater. Particularly as I realize that he has a lot more ahead of him in life with people and organizations asking him to follow the rules so that he will internalize the rules in some approximation of self-control. Clearly my frustration isn’t just with him it’s that I am trying to address a situation with what is in fact a completely wrong strategy.

With messages like these in our life is it any wonder that we have crazy ideas about obedience?

So does this mean that I give up on getting him out of the house on time or in bed on time? No, I still believe he ought to be in pre-school when they start (they do these really cute morning exercises and have breakfast both of which are great social opportunities, which is why he is enrolled in pre-school) and a regular bed time is important for little growing kids. It does mean that I have some thinking and experimenting to do to see what helps him decide the he wants to get involved in these two projects. Teaching him to tell time on a clock seems to be a first step, at least he won’t think that being timely is purely arbitrary.

I have a upcoming leadership workshops in October and November and I feel like this is a topic I am going to get paid to let other people discuss. I am fairly curious to hear what comes out of the Chinese system when pressed on this point. The education system here is based around following rules and fitting into a testing system. One could argue that Confucianism (which influences the Chinese education and civil service systems) is at its heart a doctrine of obedience and rules, promoting strict testing and clear definitions of rank and responsibility. In other words a healthy chunk of Chinese culture relies on the idea that self-control and proper behavior follows clear rules.

I have probably mentioned before that we see this turn up in personality testing in China. Frequently in leadership training we administer the MBTI to help people better understand themselves. Now the MBTI has it’s issues with reliability in China due to being a direct translation of the English version (in other words no cultural adaptation) but regardless we see that of the 4 sets of pair choices four of them E,S,T,J all get over 75% of the respondents answers. That doesn’t mean everyone comes out as an ESTJ but we see a lot of them or type closely matching with two or three similar functions. Why? Because all of the traits we associate with these mental functions are culturally valued and taught in traditional venues of home and school. Largely these behaviors are taught as models that should be obeyed and what we are seeing is that on a surface level they are being absorbed.

At the same time the rules-lead-to-internalization model is being used in people management by leaders from around the world in China, I heard a Belgian general manager tell a group of Chinese supervisors the other day, “don’t be a part of the problem, be a part of the solution.” In other words do as we say to be a part of the group that is behaving properly, other wise you will be viewed as a problem employee. Isn’t there something fundamentally disturbing to think that we as adults treat other adults the way that I treat a three year old?

Among young leaders and managers I find a rising tide of young people who are emotionally distressed because of all the things they feel they “need to do.” In other words when we ask people to internalize something that doesn’t work for them we start to hurt them often in ways that are beneath the surface. Is it a risk we want to take when we go with the easy way to get people to act like we believe they should?

So here is my last thought here: it’s time to rethink old strategies on creating self-control, they clearly aren’t working like we hope they will.

Advertisements

Friends don’t ask friends for discounts…

I have noted in previous posts a strong uptick in my cross cultural training courses in recent months which has primed me to pick up on some interesting ways that cultural filters show up time and again in business. One of the things we always talk about is how western cultures (particularly the US and countries like Germany) are heavily influenced by criteria decision making while in China things are influenced by relationships. The average tourist in China who was gone off the grid and gone shopping in a market where haggling and fake goods are predominant has undoubtedly run into one of the most common business manifestations of this cultural filter, “the friend discount.”

In 2001 I came back to China for the first time since 1997 (which in turn was the first time since 1989) and spent a fair bit more time sight seeing on my own than I had in previous trips. One of the more exciting places I ran into (and would go back to frequently until moving to Guangzhou in 2005) was the Xiang Yang Market. For those of you who missed out on this experience the Market was THE PLACE to get fake goods ranging from CK underwear, to Columbia Gore-Tex, to CDs and DVDs. This was a great place to learn your numbers and your haggling skills in Chinese because no price was really fixed and if you tried hard enough you could get some “really good deals” on practically anything.

Xiang Yang Market Circa 2004

In 2001 one of the things that most impressed me about the shop keepers was that they all seemed to know some key English and overwhelmingly they new how to give me a “friend discount.” To my understanding all these years later friends will try there hardest to knock at least 10% off of whatever price they would give to just any sucker walking by. Friends would also continue with some protesting to come down on that price and additional 10-70% depending on what you were buying. But to really get you into the shop and get you to “taste the goods” so to speak they would throw that friendship discount out early and fast to let you know they were reasonable. There might be a vague hint to some criteria based haggling (“look how well this underwear is made”) but the underlying theme was deals were being made because they liked you and only because the shop keepers were willing to sacrifice to keep our relationship in good standing were they willing to keep bringing the price down.

Good hagglers knew how to play off this dynamic. Failed bargainers would point out defects in quality and demand a discount, skillful bargainers would point out how their friend over in stall 35 had such and such rate and since you were good friends you were sure they had the best deal, this put the onus on your haggling partner to prove what kind of a good friend they were. Of course the longer you stay in this kind of culture the worse you would feel if you didn’t take some of the deals your new “friends” were offering.

In business dealings the friend discount is still alive and well even in business to business negotiations. Recently I began working with Siemens again had made an initial offer to Siemens Management Institute based on an existing friendship and had concluded that the friend rate was already given and all hunk-dory vis-a-vis relationship based negotiations. Not only was I wrong I actually adopted the e-mail that came in between workshop 2 and 3 asking for a discount as a case study for future cross cultural training as address to points in business negotiations: 1. discounts are never asked for at the beginning of the letter 2. the friend discount is alive and well.

So I now take it upon myself to quote a little higher with Siemens on anything. The reason? So that I can afford to give a friend discount when it comes up. I recently introduced a colleague to them to deliver an intensive business writing course and central piece of advice. Charge them at least 1,000 RMB more so that you can give that 1,000 RMB away as a friendly gesture when they ask about it. You might say, “John, does this mean that you just charge more to anyone because you’ll just give them a discount later?” This answer is, “It depends.”

Depends on what? Well here is where it gets interesting. A few months ago during a TTT we held here with Dr. Greenaway we tried out an activity called “have you ever?” and the question was had a business negotiation in China. We then split off into quadrants of those who had or hadn’t and by whether you did or didn’t like the experience. A fair number of us (including some of our clients) wound up in the have and don’t like it side of things. When asked why we said none of us liked running the risk of damaging a friendly relationship. So what does it mean? Let’s try and wrap our heads around this a minute…

When you have someone who is effectively just a cog in the machine or a vendor friend discounts are pretty common. As you begin to build up friendships with decision makers you will find those friend discounts slowly decreasing. Why? Because it is seen as risking the friendship to ask for a discount particularly if the rate seems fair. So the paradox here is that friends give strangers “friend discounts” but friends, for the sake of the friendship, don’t give discounts. I do however give freebies frequently. Why? Because it shows a commitment to the friendship and if I have the time and interest then all the better.

Anthropology 101 introduced the notion of reciprocity. China business 101 ought to put serious business negotiations and reciprocity hand in hand.

Is it business or is it personal?

This week I am in the process of writing a number of proposals and issuing contracts to be reviewed in what appears to be a set-up for a very busy 3rd quarter. What is interesting from a work perspective is that the majority of this busy-ness is coming from new and unexpected sources. My traditional clients, who have been fairly quiet this year, represent a smaller portion of the workload than at this time last year. So what is driving this sudden boom? Apparently personal referrals from folks I would describe as friends.

I recently sat down for a day of training on the Cartus model for cross cultural training for relocating expatriates. I will be representing Cartus in South China (a part of the new business parade) and had a chance to go over their material with super-star cross cultural trainer Dana Breitenstein. Dana made an interesting metaphor that I had heard before from Chris Barclay (who also cites Dana as source material) that compares our western (especially US) cultural model to the Asian model is like comparing an orange and a coconut. Using this metaphor Dana points out that in western culture we find it easy to compartmentalize our lives into different segments, like portions of an orange, a model that is often used in things like western time management. The coconut of course has a tough outer layer to crack through and inside everything runs together.

Orange slices and coconut juice...

I find this model somewhat challenging. Coming from an Italian-American family background (another potential hybrid orange/ coconut culture) I found the business model in Italy fascinating with the emphasis on small family run businesses that operate in an ongoing guild culture. Work is so integrated into the family mindset that there is an Italian expression that roughly translates into “The first generation builds, the second generation thrives, and the third generation wastes.” An interesting way to think of a business cycle and that most small businesses are family run for about three generations before they tank. The Italian mindset seems to have blurred the size of the orange chunks, but there seems to be a clear division in social roles and responsibilities. So maybe it is a coconut flavored orange hybrid?

Working as a largely independent contractor (building a small business that helps other people be independent contractors) I have to wonder how much of my life operates from an orange perspective or coconut perspective. In the past couple of years my ability to make money has largely been tied to my ability to create and leverage positive word of mouth. I recently went through the process of being vetted to work with the corporate education arm of Duke University and found the process to be an interesting study in how we divide up our personal and private lives.

As I collected referral letters and asked various past clients to keep an eye out for a letter from inquiring administrators I began to look at how I classified these people. By and large I have sat down and had dinner and talked about family with virtually all of them. In some cases I have met their family and they have met mine. The fact that I work with my wife somewhat accelerates this process. While I drew great reviews none of these letters and referrals made reference to these human connections, a fact I accepted as part of the business world. In other words a neat orange slice known as my professional background and professional relationships.

When Michael tells Sonny it's strictly business we assume it's the orange model...

What surprises me is that at the same time I was going through the very American process of being vetted based on referrals I was also being promoted by a friend internally at another company. I didn’t ask to be promoted internally but on his own steam my friend asked for an outline to my cross-cultural program, took it to their management institute, and proceeded to tell them that I was next best thing since sliced bread in someone else’s kitchen. I now have a busy calendar of work with them in the coming months. I am pretty sure he didn’t sell me based on the merits of our friendship but rather on the quality of my work from past projects. Which asks the question, “at what point do we begin to translate our coconut qualities into orange slice context?”

What this makes me wonder then is “When I begin to blend the nicely compartmentalized sections of my life like work, family, and friends is it because I am doing business in a coconut world or is the world of small business inherently more coconut like?” The reality for me at this point is that a coconut world is better in the start up phase (again from my point of view other people may experience something else), but is there a point where it becomes a liability? I would argue that the entrepreneurial model espoused by web 2.0 thinkers is that the new business world is about inherently blending those lines. Working in your passion, creating a loyal tribe, focusing on the 20,000 people needed to grow a highly personalized brand versus marketing to everyone and hoping to be the next big thing. By being accessible all the time and making us the brand we are beginning to erase the idea of our work persona and our private persona being overly different. It will be interesting to see where this trend takes us in the coming years.

Any ideas of this trend? Sound off in the comments…

The Impact of Training on Dogma

Last week we hosted Dr. Roger Greenaway (www.reviewing.co.uk) to help deliver a program on reviewing skills and a starter for learning transfer here in Shenzhen. This is the first time Roger has been in Canton (unless you count Hong Kong) so it was a real treat to have him visit. Roger’s methodology has had a big impact on how I view experiential training and much to my surprise the way I was indoctrinated into that methodology is not exactly how he would frame it himself. There are some roots to this that go back about ten years, but this is something I only learned last week.

Buddy Christ

Similar to the source material but not really

In short Roger delivered training to IWNC and later delivered training for PWL when I was there. What’s really interesting though is that Roger’s workshop with PWL in 2001 had more impact than the training I actually joined there in 2004. The story goes something like this… In 2001 Roger decided to experiment with “Clean Language” during his workshop with what was at the time the core facilitators. In short clean language has zero content, it basically reflects back everything that the listener says as a question. So if you say “I had a crappy day today because Mr. X was a jerk.” I would say “What did he do to make you feel/ choose to feel that way.” By scrubbing content it leaves the interpretation up to the listener or in this case training participants. For whatever reason this part of Roger’s workshop really stuck, for years even after being trained by Roger my debriefing was largely reflective or a mirror of this “clean language” format taught three years before hand. A lot of the lessons from both 2001 and 2004 stuck in the organization but this one became sticky and rubbed off from a group of trainees who left the company before I started working there and stayed to some degree after I left.

Good training and learning events should be sticky, they should rub off on the participants and rub off on other people they come in contact with afterwards. The ideas should linger inside an organization even after the initial learners have left. In this sense the training in 2001 was so sticky it took me ten years later (remember I wasn’t in the training) to become consciously aware of how I still thought of debriefing (at least partially) as an exercise in clean language. Even being fully aware of the impact of this style of training there are also some deep rooted behavioral conditioning that I became aware of and actually consciously adopted when I became aware of it.

In recent years I have, thanks to the solid effort of Michael Nelson at ALTEC, been working on my sense of drama and spectacle in training. That said I try to make the drama about the event and less focused on me, I realize the reason for this comes from the model of facilitation that had been sticky enough to reach across from Europe and 30 years time to affect how I view learning. In this model of facilitation the emphasis is on the learner taking central stage and being highly involved in doing something during the process of learning. The trainer or educator fills a minimal roll to reflect action back onto the learner. This flies in the face of a lot training in China which is often about the educator and being lectured to. Even the “Western education” model here actively adopts terms like “Entertrainer” and “Edutainer” to put the emphasis up front and on the trainer. Yes the quotation marks indicate that I think this kind of training is less substantial and has less impact. Very likely this belief stems from the Dogma I absorbed and still to some degree adhere to.

David Brent Models Excellent Entertraining Behaviors

Training, as it was modeled to me, followed the four basic requirements laid out by Kolb for experiential learning. Ironically at the time nobody ever told me that was what I was absorbing, experiential learning with highly dis-associative facilitation is basically incapable of modelling theory and purely emphasizes the experience and deduction. It wasn’t until I started designing my own TTT and adding a touch of theory to explain how experiential learning works that I realized it was what I had been doing all along. Interestingly I felt a bit cheated when I figured that there was a theory tied to the dogma I had rather unknowingly internalized for the better part of a decade.

The learning point for me from all this has been about the importance of planning ahead to make learning sticky in your organization. Training that sticks stays with the trainee and that is great but to make it really worthwhile plan to make sure that the ideas and behaviors stay around long after the training is done. It is probably a bonus if what turns out to be sticky is what you really want to rub off on your team and future team members though…

If you would like to see some of the pictures from Roger’s workshop here in Shenzhen go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/sino-associates

Underpants Gnomes Ahead!

A few years ago I got to catch up with a friend of mine from high school who served in the initial invasion of Iraq as an Army Ranger. He told me that the term for the invasion as dubbed by the rangers he served with was Operation Underpants Gnomes. For those of you who didn’t watch South Park in the late 90’s you might have missed this particular cultural nugget. To summarize the boys from South Park meet a group on entrepreneurial gnomes with a simple business equation 1. Collect Underpants 2. ? 3. Profit/We all get rich.

What the rangers in the Iraq invasion were saying was that step 1 = Invade Iraq, step 2 = ?, step 3 = Freedom in the Middle East. Clearly 8 years later we are still in the “?” phase that the rangers had identified on the ground in very short order. From my experience though Underpants Gnomes Thinking is a danger that falls into a lot of our lives ranging from business decisions to personal matters. I see no shortage of people with a clear step 1 of “let’s set up production in China” leading to step 3 “then we get rich.” Not a lot of step thinking happens until they get on the ground and have to actually implement step 1.

I work in a highly labour intensive field and it is real tendency to watch companies in my industry look for a silver bullet. Or in underpants Gnome thinking a really good step 1. Luckily we don’t see many people trying to actually steal underwear, but we do get a lot of “If we can get one great idea,” or one great event, or be the first to be licensed to distribute such and such product. I see a lot of people believe that a strong e-mail database, a good flier, and good idea equal a must win marketing strategy. Eg instant sales through e-mail or web hits to the homepage. They miss the middle step of making phone calls and knocking on doors and spreading word of mouth. I’ve been thinking about this as I wrap up a marketing drive for an open workshop next week. I think I might have been succumbing a bit to Underpants Gnome thinking. The result is that the past couple of weeks I have been sucked into a lot of last minute hard sales and negotiations I should have already done more than a month or two ago.

Does this look like anyone you work with?

It’s worth sitting down with your team to analyze what constitutes a well formed step 2 and what qualifies as part of step 1. Ask yourself bluntly do you have a step 2 that constitutes a plan on the ground that will save stress and headaches later or our you just sending in your troops hoping for best results with sheer numbers? As the underpants Gnomes can attest having a great step 1 can only get you so far.

Keeping it front and center

As some of you know I started back to the gym this year after a long absence with some legitimate excuses, I had a hernia that made exercise excruciating and that took a long time to fix while I waited for insurance to kick in and even longer to recover from, and some lame one’s, any other excuse I came up with for the past few years. In order to track progress I keep a calendar up front and center on my computer. It shows how much I weigh everyday and what amount of exercise I have done. I have a few set routines that work on cardio and strength development I picked up from my personal trainer I had in Shanghai and track how much I do each time go . Most importantly the calendar shows that I go. Showing up is really the key here, if I show up the exercise is easy.

So let’s just say the calendar is there de-bunk my own bullshit. I realized today that I hadn’t been to the gym in ten days. I was out of town for a few days, but the doesn’t justify missing ten days strung together. Sooo… either I go today or it adds up to eleven days. The calendar doesn’t lie. It’s incapable of lying it records data, so I will be going to the gym to fix the situation. Forget the excuses and just get the calendar back on track.

The other side to that is to examine my schedule and look where I can find time to squeeze in my gym time when things get busy. At some point I have to make those ten lost days come into focus as a chance to break what ever habits I let get between me and the gym. To me the whole reason of keeping track isn’t about seeing where I am going. I have a scale and a mirror for that. The calendar is for catching my own bs. It is for letting me know when I have used my normally best friend, my “bad-ass rational thinking,” and used it to substitute a reason to move off track. The thing is failing to hit the target or listen to my inner bs doesn’t make me “bad.” It shows me that I have the luxury to miss my target. I know have the luxury to figure out how to get on track. That’s worth celebrating.

Since I write this Blog about doing business in China unsurprisingly I can find a way link my own gym experience back to my work experience. The thing I find here coaching young leaders is that as their companies are find ways to better measure their out put and how they benchmark their KPI it is getting clearer. As a direct result it is getting harder for them to substitute BS and lay blame in other places for missing targets. As companies here learn how to keep it front and center it means that the young managers and leaders here have a tough evolutionary jump to make. At the same time older leaders are failing to make the jump to work in a results driven system.

This leads to a couple of serious issues for leaders both young, let’s say 35 and under, and old, let’s just say the folks managing the younger leaders since many of them are also under 35. Let’s start with the first common problem I see, demanding to just see the results. Strict adherence to results is great if you are landing on the Moon, for example, when you have no error for margin. You also have no way to exceed results either you land on the Moon perfectly or you fail and something goes wrong which can in fact be disastrous.

What happens when you miss the Moon and hit the stars...

One can in most business cases not only both fail to hit your targets but also exceed them. In my gym experience this would equate to going five time a week instead three or four. Yes, you sometimes hit your targets as well. By strictly demanding results you find a few things happen. The first is you make excuses impossible and by keeping metrics up front and center keep the pressure on to perform according to those metrics. In essence there is nothing wrong there since it eliminates passing blame and excuse making both of which are fairly common no matter where you are and create no useful results for anyone. The second is you stop serious recognition of what worked or what turned out to be a lucky break when you hit or exceed your target. Most seriously you turn off the ability to reflect on success or failure and learn from what works and what doesn’t. If your goal is to become results driven this means in the long run your drive to focus on results starts to kill excellence rather than drive it forward because you don’t learn how to replicate success or reduce factors that lead to failure.

On a more serious note I find more and more young leaders and specialists internalizing failed results as a sign that they are failures. From a measurable psychometric point of view we see this in increased emotional volatility, higher stress levels, and lower mental health. In other words when you turn results into a pure metric evaluation you not only turn off learning you injure the psychic fabric of the people you are responsible to develop and lead to greatness. Now that clear metric evaluation is starting to take hold here in China the next big challenge that those of us in the field of people development face is turning how we interpret those results into a meaningful action that both drives business but also keeps the younger and more emotionally vulnerable leaders moving forward rather than breaking down and burning out.

Since we can actually measure the damage done (and positive emotional support as well) to young leaders I suggest we turn this into part of the leadership metrics in China. I also suggest that we actually create dialogue among our people leaders as to what they are doing to damage their successors and high potentials or conversely what they are doing to foster greatness. Keeping this sort of discussion front and center with business results makes for a more empathic and healthier work experience.

What do you mean you don’t like Ketchup?

I recently read that children go through their “terrible two’s” in part because they are experiencing the world through a huge cognitive mile stone, they understand that what happens in their mind does not necessarily happen in other people’s minds, which they do up until that point. This of course reminded me of my own son who went through a period of loving ketchup. At some point between the age of 18 months and two years ketchup wound up on his plate and he began to eat ketchup on anything, in large quantities, and by the handful. If that sounds off putting remember this simple fact children at that age assume everything in their mind to be true for what’s happening in our mind. Ergo “if I love ketchup Mom and Dad will gladly eat the ketchup off my hands that I offer to them because they too will love by the tiny fistful.” It is much more off putting to have an infant fist covered in ketchup shoved in your face with the words, “delicious Daddy eat some.”

Tastes good...

From the terrible two’s onward there is nothing as exciting or frustrating as learning that what happens in our mind doesn’t always happen in other people’s minds. As Augustus is now three and a half it is exciting for him to see what we do differently or know differently from him ranging from “do you know that guy?” to “what do cars eat?” there is a lot he wants to know. Unsurprisingly it is when we don’t match up our thoughts or we as parents are inscrutable to him that we have conflict. Whether it be because we expect him in bed at a certain time, we don’t understand what he wants to watch on TV, or we expect him to wash his hand after going to the bathroom all of these incidents are rich with potential for an argument. Throw in the inability to really communicate well with an agreed upon language (or three in his case) and things can get rocky really fast.

That said it isn’t too hard to draw parallels from my son to anyone living and working in a “foreign” culture and environment. On one hand we really want to understand (or in many cases be understood) as we as people want to know what it feels like to be other people. We want to be able to see or feel what it’s like to be any another person’s shoes in part to look for similarities and in many cases to see the differences. Consider this parallel it’s like meeting someone with a very exciting day job like fire-fighter, when we ask about that person’s job it’s in part because we want to know what it feels like to rescue someone from a burning building because let’s face it as much as we might love our own jobs in most cases we are stuck at desks and not out saving the day. We want to experience the differences in our lives to enrich our own day to day experience, I can only imagine my disappointment if I met a fire-fighter and discovered he/she spent several hours a day making power point slides and designing workbooks.

On the other hand once we have a degree of familiarity in our day to day lives and we are in a context where those differences are no longer greeted with wonder we have a potential for a true failure to connect. As people we are conditioned to sort for similarity and difference we either expect things to be the same and therefore see similarities or expect differences and therefore only see those differences. In NLP this is one of many “Meta-Models” that describes how are brains work.

Now imagine you work regularly with someone who comes from a different cultural or national background. The odds are about 50-50 that every time they have a conversation with you (and you with them) that the conversation is already being drafted from the point of view that a. you both already will look at it from the same perspective and should expect a harmonious chat or b. you two are inherently different and things could go bad very quickly if that one thing you/ or they do happens again and people can’t seem to understand each other.

I know this isn’t only relegated to cross cultural circumstances, you can think about interacting with anyone close to you and see where the first example either went over well or ended in shock or in the second example where things were set to fail from the beginning. So what does this all mean? It means to make the way we communicate across cultures we almost need to come up with a “C” model that blends both. Like saying, “This is ketchup I like it a lot. How do you feel about ketchup? I somewhat expect you won’t like it but I think it would be great if you do because I like pleasant surprises. Also it’s no big deal if you don’t like Ketchup.” Of course on larger issues politics, religion, personal hygiene it can sometime be hard to accept the last line, “it’s no big deal” but really if everything is a big deal aren’t we really setting ourselves up for a failure to communicate to begin with?

I’ll leave today’s somewhat random post with a story of how I made someone uncomfortable based on his cultural projections and then seemed to redeem the day. Let’s rewind to April 2008, I was in Beijing for a workshop and enjoying one of the nicest month’s to visit China’s capital. It was the first time I had visited the city in nearly four years and I was struck by the changes as the city ramped up for the Olympics. This was also about the same time as riots were going off in Tibet and there was a government crack down that was very un-mediapathic happening on the international news and Beijing was getting flack for having forced many citizens out of old neighborhoods during the city clean up. As I rode in a taxi to my hotel I leaned forward to the driver who had been chatting with me and I said, “Hey Cabbie there is something I have to say about the Chinese Government.” He tensed visibly (in retrospect I think he was expecting the worse as Beijing often has highly opinionated foreigners who speak Mandarin unlike Canton) and said, “oh what’s that?” Picking my Chinese as best I could I said, “I really think they have done a good job with cleaning up Beijing I can’t remember ever seeing such a blue sky or so many green trees here.” He breathed a sigh of relief, “oh yes it’s true the city is much cleaner than in years before” he replied.

In this one chat we see a microcosm of what was going on. I had assumed that the driver was pro-urban clean up and was also attuned to this aspect of government. In other words I was in the mode of assuming the driver was in the same mind-set as I was. He actually might have been but, as it seems to me, he was sorting for difference and expected a conflict based on possible prior experience and what the news was emphasizing about the foreign perspective on China at the time. At that time local news had been covering how foreigners had interrupted the torch run in protest and there was an outbreak of patriotism/nationalist sentiment at the time. Instead we were both pleasantly surprised that the conversation went well. On my part because the driver understood what I was saying and on his part because I wasn’t there to point out to him the “failures of his country…”

To me the lesson here was approach each interaction with someone else with the patience this cab driver showed. Expect what ever you want, but let yourself be pleasantly surprised. Try to understand that no matter how good their language skills are if they are not a native speaker there is always a chance that things came out wrong. And finally be able to laugh at your discomfort and expectations because they are probably what is making communication so hard to begin with.