As a consultant I spend much of my time in foreign cultures. Not only in different countries, but in organizations that are not “where I come from”. I have the opportunity to observe and learn about those cultures and they even pay me for it! I find this fascinating. I particularly like observing my own behavior and that of my colleagues who enter that culture as a tourist. We are tourists because we don’t intend to stay there indefinitely, and we are specifically there to look around, learn about the culture, and reflect our insight back to our clients to help them see themselves differently.
I’ve been impressed by many of my colleagues’ abilities to enter and gracefully co-exist with the natives with ease, but I have also been embarrassed by some, including myself, at times. My hope is this short missive on being a good corporate tourist will help the reader avoid many of the mistakes I have made and observed. May it contribute to your happiness as a tourist, corporate, or leisure.
Attitude is Everything
Your attitude is completely under your control, and is the single most important factor in being a good tourist. As you flow through your home territory, you have expectations of how things will go and how others “should” behave. It’s easy to get irritated when people don’t behave as you expect them to.
As I write this, I’m returning from a trip to London, and I had a good reminder of this as I made my way back to the airport. From the hotel checkout desk, to the tube, to the train, to the security line, Londoner’s know how to queue, and they expect you to also. Accidentally jump the queue, as I saw one foreign tourist do this morning and you can watch the irritation build on the faces of the natives.
As a tourist, if you don’t understand the local customs, you can unintentionally irritate the natives and their reaction can feel unwelcoming. If you were at home and you made this kind of mistake, you would realize your own fault, and interpret others’ negative reaction as justified, and most likely you would apologize for you transgression. You wouldn’t feel unwelcome, but rather embarrassed, or stupid. It’s important to note that your attitude regarding your interactions with people you meet can make those interactions go better or worse. It’s totally in your control. When you are a tourist, much of what happens is not within your control, so paying attention to your own attitude is one positive action you can take that will dramatically improve your experience. As they say, “check yourself, before you wreck yourself”.
So what’s this attitude I am waxing on about? I would suggest adopting the same attitude you have when you are going to an art gallery to see an exhibition that you are interested in. You may not know what to expect, but you are open to whatever you find. You may or may not like what you find, but you don’t push your reaction on others who are there having their own experience. The great thing about this open attitude is that it puts an expression of curiosity and wonder on your face. This is really helpful with the natives because when you are walking around with that expression on your face they know you are a tourist, and they cut you a little slack.
When you are curious and wondering, you ask questions when you interact with others, you don’t make proclamations. This is a more respectful way of being in foreign territory, because you are not making assumptions. You know what they say about assumptions, “they make and ASS out of you and me.”
So making a conscious effort to avoid assumptions is important when you are a tourist. Without assumptions you have to ask people for the information you need. When you engage a native with that curious / wondering look on your face and ask for information or assistance, it tends to bring out the best in people. My personal experience has been almost universally people generally try to be helpful, no matter where I am in the world, or what organization I am visiting.
It is also helpful to keep in mind that the natives are making assumptions about you too. From the way you dress, your accent, even the context in which you meet them, they are naturally making assumptions. It’s easy to drop into feeling misunderstood or get righteously indignant when an assumption you don’t like about yourself comes to light. My advice is to inoculate yourself against this. Those thoughts and behaviors take you further away from mutual understanding and trust. So remind yourself that assumptions are human, and help the natives understand you better by sharing your truth early and often. The best way to correct false assumptions is to provide an alternative truthful narative before those assumptions gain momentum.
I stress “truthful” because sometimes those assumptions are right on target. As a consultant sometimes I enter a culture with a mission that is not at all popular with the natives. If they assume there maybe some negative consequence for them as a result of my involvement and that is potentially true, the absolute worth thing I could do is to deny or downplay that potential. Especially if that is true, trust will be critical for my success. Anything less than the truth will erode that trust and ensure failure. So if the natives assumptions are true, own them.
Do Your Homework
Before you go visit another culture, do your homework. Talk to other people who have been there and find out what it is like. Be careful what you ask though. If you ask about someone’s opinion of another culture, your going to get an earful of interpretation and bias. If you were trying to decide if you wanted to visit, this kind of information from people you trust might be appropriate, but as a corporate tourist you have a different goal. You are trying to learn enough to help you be a better tourist.
When you are a corporate tourist, you need to know enough to keep from offending the native so you have the best opportunity to interact with the natives. A very obvious way to draw attention to yourself is to dress in a substantially different way than the natives. Think cruise ship tourist here. You can spot them a mile away. On the other side, trying too hard to look like the natives also doesn’t work and could even be offensive. It’s not about dressing exactly like the natives, it’s about being appropriately dressed. They know you are not “from there” regardless of what you are wearing, but if you made some effort to be appropriately dressed, they at least feel respected.
Many years ago, I had a client that was a flower seed company. We were building systems for them that were used by everyone from the front office, to the farms. Being the customer centric person I hoped to be, I wanted to meet all these various people and observe them in their daily work. I remember the first time I went to one of the farm operations. I was dressed the same way I did for the corporate office. They were always business casual, you know, no jeans, button shirts, no sneakers, etc.. So I rock up at the farm in wool slacks, Oxfords, and a button down shirt. It was fine in the office, but then when I ask to meet the botanists that were designing their products, I was shown into a huge row of green houses where they spent most of their time. Imagine, gravel floors, mud, and lots of humidity. I was uncomfortable, and they were amused. After that day, I was in jeans and Wellies like everyone else.
Greetings are another thing that you can screw up big time and start off your interaction on the wrong foot. It’s helpful to ask about the local customs for greetings. I remember what happened in Chile when I first showed up, I had asked about the dress code, the language, etc., but no one told me about the kissing. In that country, it is customary to “kiss” everyone of the opposite sex that you meet. There is a lot more to this, than it sounds. This is not a kiss on the lips (obviously), but its also not a kiss on the cheek either, (not so obvious to me). It’s more beauty contest kiss to not mess up your make up. Close, but not too close, a little sound, but not cartoonish, and if you leave anyone out, you have offended them. So imagine a business meeting where instead of shaking hands with everyone around the table, you have to kiss all of the women, and shake hands with all the men, if you’re a man. If you are a woman, you can kiss everyone.
Another version of this greeting difference is the huggers. You know who I’m talking about. In some cultures, you hug people whom you have a deeper connection to. Think, old friends, family, etc. In others, some people hug others the first time they meet as a welcoming gesture. I’ve tried asking about hugging etiquette but it turns out that this is often not at all consistent. So my best advice is hang back, wait and watch, and for god’s sake don’t hang on too long, it gets creepy.
A more subtle procedural detail that I have screwed up is arranging meetings. Obviously all the best practices of explaining the purpose for the meeting apply, but there are also cultural norms about calendars and other electronic productivity tools that are not always obvious. In some cultures, you can just look at someone’s calendar, find a open time slot, and send an electronic invitation. In others, that would be considered rude; the expectation is that you make a request, either in person, or in writing, before you send that invitation. I have also been in cultures where invitations for meetings must come from “internal” people, and any external person must be introduced and the meeting invitation be brokered by an internal people or a gatekeeper. My only advice here is to ask someone what is expected.
So those are just a few of the customs that can get you off on the wrong foot in a foreign corporate culture. Do your homework and avoid as many surprises as possible. You will likely still miss something, but in those cases I’d say apologize and move on. At least you tried.
Partake of the Local Cuisine
One of the best ways to learn about a new culture is to break bread with the natives. In every culture there are unique and interesting rituals that surround our most basic needs for sustenance. There is something disarming about eating together that makes connecting with other human beings easier. You also get the opportunity to observe the natives and how they interact with each other from close range. I was working in Chile last year at a company that had a corporate cafeteria on campus. It reminded me of my time working in the U.S. insurance industry through the 1990’s when this was typical. These days, many U. S. organizations have abandoned them.
In one midwestern insurance company the cafeteria was a central meeting place for people who were normally hidden away in row of cubicles, spread across many floors of our building. At least for a few hours, you had the opportunity to cross paths with people you hadn’t seen in a while, or needed to chat with, but hadn’t had the opportunity. The cafeteria was also a place where the conversation was more about family, hobbies, sports, weather, politics, and all things not work related. It gave people an opportunity to engage with people they didn’t work with everyday in a safe and contained way. Worst case, you finished your meal and left.
Another thing I specifically remember about that cafeteria is that there was a table along the window where only executives sat. It wasn’t a private dining room, or a explicitly set aside area, it was just the custom that they hung out there. There were unspoken rules about this. You didn’t go sit down there if you were less than a VP, and really even then you were out of place. This was the realm of Sr VP’s, and CXO’s. The really unusual part was that most of those folks didn’t stay in the building for lunch, so this was a low density table. In a crowded cafeteria, you would think that people would just use the space, but this was “just not done” in that culture. What does that tell you about this particular organization?
Looking around the Chilean cafeteria, I saw a completely different scene. Again, it was crowded and loud at lunch time. There were definitely groups that often sat together, but they weren’t based on rank. Many of these groups were teams that worked together all day, but some were just friends, from many different teams. It reminded me of a college cafeteria. What does this tell you about the culture of this organization?
So my advice is that if you have the opportunity to eat with the natives, either in a cafeteria, or even if they head off to parts unknown, take it. You will learn more about them as a culture, and you will probably have a great meal too.
How to be a Good Native
Looking at this idea of corporate tourism from the other side as a native is also quite valuable. In my career, I have been a native more than I have been a tourist. Personally I believe I am a better consultant because I have lived in the shoes of my clients. So consider how you can make the life of the next tourist you come in contact with a little easier.
Again, attitude is everything. That same attitude of curiosity and wonder works for natives as well. Ask yourself, “who is this tourist, and what can I learn from them?”. Check your assumptions. Assume a positive intent until proven otherwise. Listen carefully and seek to understand the tourists in your life.
If you are expecting tourists, help them do their homework. Share your knowledge of the cultural norms with them so they can avoid sticking out and offending you and your fellow natives. Interestingly, this requires you to think critically about those norms. It can actually help you gain some insight about the fishbowl you are swimming in. The native fish doesn’t notice the water, but it’s helpful for a tourist to understand they will be swimming.
Share your local cuisine with the tourists. It’s a great way to break the ice and make people feel welcome. If your tourist are consultants that you are paying ridiculous rates for, you have a vested interest in helping them enter your culture quickly and effectively. So, invite them to lunch with you and some of your colleagues with no agenda other than to enjoy a good meal.
I hope this short missive has sparked some new ideas, or reinforced something you already knew but had drifted away from. Underlying it all is the simple truth that we are all human and crave human connection. That connection is a two way street. So regardless of your role, be it native or tourist, you have a vested interest in making it easier. Choose one idea from this piece and try to make a difference in your next interaction. I think you will be surprised by how different your experience can be.