According to Mark Twain, “America and England are two great nations separated by a common language.” He was right. For many Americans arriving in the U.K., it’s a shock to discover that American English can be vastly different from English English. When we think we fit right in and don’t stand out from the natives, it’s easy to make some embarrassing mistakes. (Don’t ask for an order “to go” at a British restaurant; it’s a “take-away.”)
Lately, I’ve been reading about autism. Asperger’s syndrome is a type of high-functioning autism where the language skills are better than with other forms of autism; people with this condition are often found in higher education as professors. They have the capacity to lock in on a subject and stay focused. In the movie Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman showed us the savant aspect of autism with his ability with numbers. He also showed another aspect of autism — being clueless about things around him.
As a photographer, I study people and how they act and react to all sorts of things, so that I can photograph them and show who they are. As a result, I have over the years become an armchair sociologist. I’m fascinated with people’s behavior, especially within groups.
Converting the Natives
I have watched missionaries in Africa “convert folks,” only to find out that the locals were just being kind and didn’t want to embarrass them. These missionaries were used to how people respond “back home” and were unaware of the foreign culture.
In parts of America, people are extremely polite. It’s difficult to know where you really stand with them. In other parts of the country, people don’t hold back their feelings and, unless you are accustomed to this behavior, it’s easy to take it personally. Sometimes your best friends will point out your worst faults, yet your worst enemy is always pleasant to you.
The most successful business people try to win and hold clients for the long run — not just long enough to close a sale. If we focus on selling a product and just finding a one-time buyer, we are focusing on the short-term. Like the missionary who thinks she has “converted a soul” but has not learned the culture, it’s a short-sighted approach to life.
Many successful people I have encountered are collectors. They may collect baseball memorabilia or classic cars or art. They enjoy finding something and holding on to it. I think this is also how they feel about people. They enjoy “collecting” them and keeping them around. They are interested in developing a relationship with these people — not just conducting a transaction.
In some cultures, it is rude to immediately jump to the transaction or point of the visit. You must spend time with a cup of coffee or tea, talk about families and complete other cultural necessities before getting down to business. Most cultures reward those who pursue relationships and not just transactions.
With Relationships Come Rewards
I believe if we focus on connecting with people, the rewards will follow. On the other hand, I believe focusing on rewards, rather than relationships, is the surest route to failure.
It’s easy to tell the difference when you deal with people. How many people have you met who made you feel like you were important to them? How many made you feel that you were just a stepping stone on their path to success? Which of these did you look forward to meeting, or working with, again?
Showing an interest in other people and cultures is not only good business. It’s a more personally rewarding way to go through life.