Chief Digital Technology Officer & SVP
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Global Business Can Be Hilarious
Why Ketchup Isn't Ketchup & Other Adventures in Cross-Cultural Confusion
Over and over again we hear how every business today is a "global business." You've likely heard the line that "the world is getting smaller." I have heard it so often that I am fairly sure the whole wide world will fit right into my pocket by this time next year.
Despite the marketing hyperbole, it is amazing how businesses big and small today interact on a global scale. In one of my recent plane rides between Harvey Nash's Vietnam and Australian operations, I found myself pondering the opportunities that come with working across borders and cultures. And then I start laughing. I was alone, I was the crazy person on the plane and I was reliving some of the best moments of cross-cultural confusion I have been lucky to experience over the last year. For example:
• The time I was momentarily flabbergasted when a colleague in Australia asked me to arrange a "hook up" with a client. I am a New York girl and a "hook up" is something totally different. Recognizing my American bafflement, my colleague was quick to explain that "hook up" simply means "meeting" in Australia.
• Then there are the cabs. For a New Yorker, riding in a cab in Australia or Vietnam will, without a doubt, induce some serious culture shock. Not only do the cab drivers in Australia talk to you (yes talk, not grunt or grumble), they are welcoming ambassadors of culture and kindness. They are so nice you almost expect that cartoon birds and gentle woodland creatures will break out into song around them.
They chat you up, they share local insights and offer travel tips. And they even invite you to sit right up front and ride next to them. The first time this happened to me I thought there was something wrong with the backseat. In Vietnam, cab drivers are also extremely kind, polite and will stop anywhere you like if you want to get a picture or need information. Can any of my New York and New Jersey readers imagine this happening on our turf?
• Now Black Cabs in London are very knowledgeable but typical British fashion is somewhat reserved. Drivers will only engage in dialogue if you start the conversation and they keep themselves nicely blocked off behind a Plexiglass divider.
• In the UK, I have left plenty of prospective client meetings 100% convinced that we had won new business. The deal was done. The audience was enthusiastic. They loved the materials. They were impressed with our presentation, asked many smart questions and had only positive things to say. Imagine my shock when we were promptly turned down (albeit extremely politely). It turns out that in the UK saying "no" directly and up front is impolite. I have learned to measure the temperature and mood of the room very differently in the UK than I would in the U.S. or Germany where people tend to be very direct in their questions and manner.
• In Vietnam, you never shop alone. Shop attendants will follow you around, sticking to you like glue, which hasn't happened to me since I was a kid and shopkeepers worried about teenagers shoplifting. In Vietnam, they do it because they want to ensure you have all the help and assistance you need. You're unlikely to ever hear a common Australian shopping phrase I have grown to love: "Do you need help or are you happy just having a wander?" As a stranger getting to know these diverse and incredible lands as a business traveler, happy wandering always sounds great to me.
• My early restaurant experiences in Vietnam were also eye opening as the wait staff stayed close by the entire meal, always checking to see if the food was good and to my liking. While it takes time to get used to it, I have learned that all that kindhearted hovering is one of the many ways the Vietnamese people demonstrate the pride they have in their food and culture. Where I come from, hovering at a restaurant usually means "someone wants your table so hurry up and move on!"
Fortunately, the people I have met throughout my travels have been patient and recognized my commitment to growing as a global business professional. I have also been introduced to helpful sites like Culture Crossing, which can provide insights into the workplace customs around the world.
I have also learned to sit back and enjoy the differences, the confusion and the laughter they can cause. Take the time a seven year old--the son of dear friends--gave me a crucial culinary lesson. I was lamenting the lack of ketchup with fries in Australia when my young friend Leo told me that I really wanted "tomato sauce." No, I explained knowingly to the adorable young man, "Tomato sauce is for pasta, ketchup is for fries." "Ms. Anna," he said. "It's a sauce and it's made of tomatoes and here it is called tomato sauce."
And since that little lesson, I have had no trouble at all getting the right sauce for my French fries whenever I am Down Under. I have also learned that the things that confuse and make us different are often the things that bring us closer together. The more my global colleagues and I share what makes us different, the closer we get through laughter and storytelling. Our world might not be getting smaller, but we are growing closer.