Tag Archive | Invisibilia

When Even Generic Smile Is Seen As Dishonest And Suspicious

To strangers to American culture, Americans’ smiles can be unnerving. “Is there something on my face?” “Did she know something I missed?” “It’s so inappropriate for him to smile at me.” According to some Russians, for the longest time, American’s smile was a symbol of the evil American capitalism. Non-verbal communication is just as much of a socially constructed phenomenon as verbal communication. Cultural shock is akin to bacteria invading our bodies, annoying, inconvenient, and we just want to find some drugs to zap them away. We rarely see cultural adjustment as a challenge to our emotional well-being.

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The second story of the Invisibilia focused on changing one aspect of a national culture, Russian specifically. When McDonald’s opened its first franchise in Moscow January of 1990, it was a huge deal. Not only the symbol of capitalism invading a former communist country, the Russian employees of McDonald’s continued the Big Mac’s culture of smiles in their greetings and services. However, it was the totality of the “customer service,” a la American/Western/Capitalistic ways, that tested the uninitiated and curious Russians. From “Hi, how are you?” “What can I get for you?” to “Is there anything else?” and “Hope to see you soon,” it was the complete opposite of what Russians usually experienced in their own restaurants where servers were surly, rude, slow, very slow, and sometimes downright nasty.

How did the average Russian customers react to their own fellow countrymens’ Americanized behavior, at least inside McDonald’s? Would they be suspicious of such unwanted friendliness? Not just smiling, but eye contacting and “faked” chumminess? Guess what people of all cultures would prefer? To be treated kindly…with or without smiles. The featured Russian in the radio story, Yuri, considered the question whether Russians going to McDonald’s are for food or emotional culture, and his response was, “I think emotional culture. People – some people liked food – some people were kinda, like, eh, food is OK. But, you know, it’s really a great place to just hang out.” Contrary to American’s perception of the uniformed soulless fast-food corporate culture, Russians saw McDonald’s an “island of light and humanity.” Socially constructed reality!

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Such attitudinal change in Yuri and his co-workers took hold of their psyche over time, and some of them began feeling impatient with general Russians’ old ways of taking everything so seriously. In fact, two years after Yuri’s foray into the world of Big Mac, he and his family immigrated into the US, and settled down in Boston. Yuri had a honeymoon period in the States. Then, one day while waiting for bus, a fellow rider struck a conversation with Yuri, and they had a great back-and-forth on some personal stuff. Yuri saw a budding friendship and was delighted. The bus came; his “new friend” boarded after Yuri and sat away from Yuri, like all those talking points had just evaporated into thin air. Yuri concluded, “And I still remember that feeling. I was, like, I thought you were my friend. That’s really strange.”

Of course, you know by now that very few things in social science/social world are absolute. So it is with smiling, it can get carried away in customer service. Many American workers who are on the frontline dealing with customers feel burnt out after a prolonged period of smiling too much, a disguise for suppressed frustration. The forced smile has also created the expectation on the customers’ side to think they are always right and can become wholly unreasonable. So, there is a dark side of “keeping up with the smile!”

I remember vividly my first trip to the People’s Republic of China in 1985. The country had barely opened its doors to outsiders. Almost everything was still state operated with zero concept of “customers;” the few mom-and-pop shops were accustomed to not seeing too many happy customers. Everyone seemed dour and impatient. The only friendly people were your relatives, connections with your relatives, or small merchants who’d like to take a little bit of advantage of you if they could. My western style combined with impeccable Chinese often unnerved the strangers, and if I could be quick, I could enjoy a little break of getting what I needed while they were recovering from being caught off guard. My second visit two years later saw dramatic changes across a large swath of the country, and by my last visit in 1991, Shanghai was on the cusp of becoming a cosmopolitan center. By then, my reaction to seeing the smiling Chinese wait staff was, “They are just being obsequious.” I haven’t been back since and have no idea of how people have changed.

Globalization has upended many carts, such as customer services, labor forces, attitudes toward “strangers,” or cultural habits. My take on of the two stories presented in the Invisibilia episode is this: Top-down changes are achievable in a small group and when the leaders practice what they preach. This was the case of the oil rig, presented in the previous post. The McDonald’s case was initiated from the top HQ down to one Moscow store, but it eventually caught fire as more McDonald’s opened up throughout Russia. More than two decades later, Russians’ smile score was higher than Americans’ in the 2015 “Smiling Report.” Yet, when it comes down to individuals living cross-culturally, such as in Yuri’s case, there is still much internal struggle and negotiation with the external world.

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After being in the States for 40+ years, and happy like a fish back in the water, I still occasionally experience a cultural shift and puzzlement. Actually, such a feeling of disquiet occurs to many people when they move from one region to another, e.g. east coast to west coast, or north to south, and vice versa. Sometimes, English-speaking people moving from one country to another English-speaking country, say, US to UK, or UK to Australia, etc. experience even stronger cultural shock precisely because the changes may be subtle and easily taken for granted.

There are no magic medicines or programs to help us overcome the cross-cultural malaise. However, like all emotional issues, we need to take time to understand, really and deeply understand, not just our cultural environment but how we fit in that environment. It’s stop-and-go; it’s constant; it can be tiring and exhilarating; it’s personal, individualistic and collective. And it can be rewarding whenever we “get” it.  Till next time,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

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When Tough Men Can Cry Openly…

Why do we take our emotional well-being for granted? We talk a lot about “taking care of” it, but do we do as much about it as we talk? The phrase “mental hygiene” is apropos, but the premise of this metaphor conjures up a gross feeling, like, flossing teeth or basic grooming (yet, what’s wrong with doing these acts?!). (The phrase also belittles the complexity of our mind, as if it could be cleaned in a quick ritual act after each meal.) Of course, someone’s emotional/mental mess may be something easily shrugged off in another person. I think that’s part of the problem; the yardstick against which we evaluate our emotional situation and mental state is a fluid measure. When do we know we really need to do some serious mental flossing? When can we get away with a little tooth-picking? Gross…well, we’d better deal with it.

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Thanks to a friend who sent me a link to an Invisibilia” episode in which the focus was on suppressed emotions and forced “positive” attitude. According to the program’s website, “Invisibilia (Latin for invisible things) is about the invisible forces that control human behavior – ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and emotion.” The two stories in this episode explored whether it’s possible to change habits of an entire group of men and to alter a deeply-rooted cultural behavior. The former story took place on a Shell’s deep-water oil drilling rig, Ursa, the size of about two football fields. The latter took place in the first McDonald’s in Moscow.

Most of us are probably ignorant of the nature and degree of danger for oil rig workers. Seeing deaths of colleagues is not uncommon, while physical challenge and injury are common. The culture among oil rig workers is one of ultimate stoicism and hypermasculinity. No show of emotions, even upon witnessing a death; keeping the work process uninterrupted is the key. Most men carry the same bottled-up emotional practice at home as well. Would the practice for regular oil rigs work just as well for an unprecedented deep water drill? In 1997, the first deep water drilling, 4,000 ft deep, even for the experienced oil workers was “like going from Earth to Mars.” The typical 20-person crew for a regular rig would swell to more than a hundred for Ursa, with all the potential hazards and dangers increasing exponentially.ursa-1_custom-8358af5fba589f61d21864036b6ce4551c33fa4b-s900-c85

The main character in the oil rig story, Rick, was put in charge of Ursa. “He was stressed at home, barely able to speak to a son who was about to leave for college. He was stressed at work, in charge of a giant, really complicated venture that he didn’t know how to tackle. Things felt like they were spinning out of control.” Rick’s saving grace was that deep down he suspected and sensed that something was out of kilter and that he didn’t know what to do.

When the student is ready, the teacher will come.

Out of blue, a “crazy one-eye lady” made a cold call to Rick and offered to work with him on leadership issues. Claire Nuer, now deceased, heard about Ursa and thought that she could offer something useful. Rick accepted a meeting and they talked, through an interpreter mostly since Nuer spoke little English; her native language was French. Rick began the meeting with the typical business of scheduling, planning, production, etc. Claire cut him off with “…if you just don’t tell people you’re scared, you’re not going to create safety together.” That caught Rick’s attention. One can bottle up one’s emotions, fears in this case, only for so long. It would work well…only for so long. One might even coast along on another smaller rig, the old familiar environment…only for so long. When all emotions have no outlet for relief, something has to give. At home, Rick was risking losing his emotional ties with his family, and at work, the risks wouldn’t just be Rick’s “incompetence” in managing, but the potential injuries and/or deaths of some colleagues.

So, who was Claire Nuer? She was a leadership coach, founder of Learning As Leadership. Based on new age Est’s method, popular in the 70s and draconian to many, digging deep into one’s emotions to lay the foundation for healing and emotional well-being. The typical Est experience was a day-long encounter (well into 10 or 11PM) that often made grownups cry (by itself, there is nothing wrong with that). Claire and her husband fashioned something similar in their business, mostly breaking down business executives.

Eventually, Rick joined Claire’s sessions, usually conducted through translation. Since Rick’s motivation was largely his broken tie with his son, he even persuaded his son to join him for an encounter session. That session lead to a 180-degree turn for Rick and his son. That was enough for Rick to get his men from the rig involved.

Now, when a boss wants you to do something outside of work, in this case personal development for the better productivity of the team, even when the offer is on a voluntary basis, you take it, however reluctant and dubious you may feel. So, most of the rig workers went; a few refused to do some of the exercises, and remained skeptical. However, those who were more willing to participate ultimately learned to show their vulnerability, and couldn’t say enough good things about the outcomes, not just about work, but more so about their personal lives. Most of these sessions took place while they were waiting for the completion of the rig construction that took 18 months.

During the few long days of sessions (from 6AM – 11PM on some days), these super macho tough guys gradually broke down, cried, shared their stories and feelings… Even the ones who thought “I’ll just reveal a little…” couldn’t stop once they began the process. I understand these principles, but it did creep me out a bit when I read that they eventually managed to overcome revulsion and massaged each other’s feet, demonstrating deep trust. (Author’s note: In many of these intense workshops, participants are required to do things they would normally eschew. Breaking down old boundaries is an important foundation. While I am not totally against some of these exercises, I always find it obnoxious that participants have to behave according to the program’s demands. I mean, there have to be other ways of showing trust. Yes?)

The efforts and money paid off. The accident rate at Shell fell by 84%, and the productivity exceeded the previous industry record. The energy that formerly preserved the hyper masculine norm was now invested in working together, sharing technical information. Instead of fearing to show lack of knowledge or admitting mistakes, the new refrain of “I need help” made the work process much smoother.

All the converts to the new culture openly admitted that as they become more themselves, they like themselves better. “The old way is no fun.”

Darn it, when it comes to story telling, I just cannot economize and fit all the themes and nuances in one post. I will conclude in the next post the changing cultural habits for some Russians who wanted to work for McDonald’s. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com