I used to train staff for the world’s largest telephone service provider. You can’t afford not to think globally in an international business, I’d say to them. The guy in the Northeast who calls you “buddy” and asks bluntly what you’re selling, isn’t being rude; he’s got no time, works 12 hr days to afford an apartment the size of your garage, and is just being direct. On the other hand, you might be rude if you insist on talking about the weather before coming to your point, because that’s just “the way you were raised”, and it makes you feel better.
Same with the notion that everyone needs to speak what passes in one area of the country for English and an “American” accent. There’s such a thing as international English, and accents vary so much in the US, that listening to two people, one from West Texas and the other from New Jersey trying to understand one another on a conference call, really mitigates any complaints about accents from Kuala Lumpur. Likewise, you can’t be consistent in favoring the international flow of goods and services, while rejecting the flow of people. The idea that we all have to wait to sell goods in China (or they in the US) until we’re all fluent and our accents are “perfect” would gut international trade and reduce us all to poverty.
To do business with the world, you have to adjust. “The world is big” is a slogan I’ve found very useful.
Draw a circle and call it “the world” or “how things are” or “how most people live”, and I’ll draw a much larger circle around that circle.Draw a circle and call it “the world” or “the way the world works” or “how things are” or “how most people live”, and I’ll draw a much larger circle around that circle, and say that yours is just a small corner of something much larger – something perhaps largely unfamiliar.
It’s more comforting to think you’ve got a handle on everything, but if you’ve ever lived in another culture – I don’t mean “among”, or at a military base, or backpacking through as a tourist – I mean lived in another culture – going to work together, eating the same food, using the same transit and the same hospitals, living in the same apartments, then you can’t ever go back to the small world mentality, where you’ve got a handle on everything and it’s mostly familiar. In fact, you’ll start to stand out a bit among small-worlders; others will just smell it on you – the sense that you don’t take for granted all the norms that people think, deep down, define the cosmos.
I think food is a simple but effective way to illustrate the small circle – big circle idea. I’m often told that the things I eat are ‘weird’, and that I don’t eat what “most people” eat. I always like to respond that, actually, most people eat seaweed. Usually you get some screwed up noses and protestations of disbelief. But it’s true: if you don’t eat seaweed, you’re in the minority – and that’s, in fact, what weird really means. If you don’t eat seaweed, it’s probably you who’s “weird”.
First off, 56.6% of the world is Asian (vs. 14.3% African, 12% European. 8.6% Latin American). There are a few common things to most Asian diets: rice, fish, seaweed. Not to lump Korea, Japanese, Chinese (largest population in the world), and other East Asian peoples all together, but seaweed as food is ubiquitous among the world’s largest population groups. That’s most people! But it’s not just them – nearly everyone is eating it, especially if you count additives: “Seaweed-based food additives are now so commonly used in prepared and fast food that virtually everybody in Europe and North America eats some processed seaweed every day” [UNESCO Courier]. For example: “the alginates and carrageenans in hamburgers, yoghurt and strawberry ice cream” are all derived from seaweed [Ibid.]. This doesn’t even count medicinal intake.
Seaweed is just an illustration. The point is, we can’t do business the way we do foreign policy, stomping about telling people how things are, what’s normal, and what they should do. Too often, they prove us quite wrong. The world is big. The world is always outside our circle. These are the lessons essential to working in a big world and working beyond the familiar. For all the rhetoric about tolerance, openness to new ideas and creativity, and ’embracing’ people of all backgrounds, too often what we find in business is a parochialism that relegates to the bizarre that which is merely unfamiliar. That kind of prejudice is understandable, but so is the need to grow our perceptions, attitudes, and interactions beyond what we know. All cultures teach us this wisdom: We must try first to understand, and only afterwards to consider passing judgment.
The big world can scare the Hell out of people, if you break the social rules and mention it. The small world feels safer, if you don’t have a lot of experience outside your circle. But if you simply reject whatever comes from out there, you never will get beyond fear and prejudice, and the world, frankly, will go on without you. It’s suicidal to business. I think this is one of those social rules it’s not only OK to break, but absolutely necessary. The longer we go on just keeping silent or, God forbid, nodding along when the small circle is held up as everything or, worse, the right thing, the more we prop up what is ultimately a failure of enterprise and a set of attitudes that cannot sustain entrepreneurship (not, in the future, but as it already is).
Say it three times with me: The world is big.