Just around 2012 is when I received a lesson of a lifetime, to appreciate culture differences and how very deep they can get.
It’s not that I haven’t been exposed to cultures outside of mine till that point. I have lived in Texas as a child, I have been positioned in Korea when working for a major Semiconductor manufacturer, and I have traveled the world both for business and with my family for pleasure. But in 2012 I was a project manager leading business and delivery activities for a major multinational bank, right at the heart of the famous Canary Wharf district in London.
In a grey winter early morning, accompanied by a typical London drizzle, I stepped out of my hotel room and rode the tube to the bank headquarters. Stepped inside the building, while wearing a full suite and tie, and took the lift thirty floors up almost nearing the end of the thirty four stories tower.
I was a vendor supplying software solutions to the bank, and at that morning I had a most important semi-sales meeting with the client, a meeting I had prepared and worked for many weeks earlier.
To understand the embarrassment and lesson I had received that day, there is a need to understand a short piece of British history first.
During the French and English wars during the 14th and 15th centuries, the English archers were what the French soldiers feared the most. Any English archer that was caught by the French military and that has been captivated, had their Index and middle fingers cut off to prevent them from being able to get back to battlefield ever again in case of prisoner exchange occurred. This led to English soldiers taunting their French enemy by raising their two fingers in the V-shaped ‘Two-Fingered Salute’, meaning “You haven’t cut off my fingers !”.
Time certainly passed since then, and while the entire world lifts a middle finger at an annoying person expressing a rude Fuck Off sign, the British raise a V-shaped sign till today to express the same feeling towards a bugging counterpart.
I prepared everything about that business travel, but one thing: The culture difference and nuances I need to know about the British.
Back to 2012, 30th floor in a headquarters building, of one of the world’s largest banks. I approach a conference room reserved for me, room number two, five minutes before my meeting is planned to commence, to organize myself. But then I realize it does not have a white board or projector, which I needed. So I walk a few meters to each side of the corridor to find a different available room, when I come across an igloo shaped meeting room perfect for my needs. White board, projector and nice fancy furniture. Only weird thing with that room was the entire walls were glass made and totally transparent. But I figured that would be better than what I had reserved, so better off start with what I have.
My clients started approaching one by one, and I had directed them all into our new board room to start our meeting. The first couple of minutes start off well and I’m in the muse, when a gentleman dressed up in a full typical bank manager striped suite stands outside the room, we can’t hear him but we sure can see him, and he points out right at me letting me know that was his room.
Because I knew I had another one booked for me, I figured it would be no big deal if I direct him over to my reserved room, room number two. So I point back at him, for what I mean as “You”, and I give him a nice big V-shape salute with my right hand two fingers, for what I mean as “room number two”. The gentleman seemed a bit surprised and upset altogether and for a few seconds did not move or react. I wasn’t sure if he got the point or not, all I know is that folks in the room with me began laughing which embarrassed the gentleman and this entire situation. They had explained to me that the person waiting outside is one of the most senior people in the bank and if I was sure I knew what I was doing. So I comfortably told them that it is no big deal, I have a reserved room and I’m certain that he wouldn’t mind taking another conference room just few offices aside.
The gentleman pointed back at me again. This time his face expression was a bit more serious and determined. He again made some hand movements which I perfectly understood that he needs the room and it is booked for him. I made the conclusion he did not understand me the first time, but this time I’m going to leave no place for doubts. So I looked straight into his eyeballs, pointed right at him with a long reach of my hand, and for the second time gave him the big two-fingered salute.
The gentleman jumped in anger, and wasn’t very gentle anymore. The crowd in the room with me couldn’t stop laughing although they desperately tried to. The gentleman approached the board room door, opened it up and said:
“Young man, this is my room, and you are requested to leave the room, or the building for all I care!”
I gently told him at that point, that I understand that and I’m more than happy to move to a different one, only I have tried to suggest that he takes my room, meeting room number two, and if he doesn’t mind checking it out so we can remain where we are.
This true story ended well that day. But the point of the story is that I have learned a culture lesson for life, right at the moment when I was sure I’m as smart as one can get when it comes to multi-cultures and interacting with people from other places.
I had prepared myself for that meeting weeks before. I had prepared the people I wanted to meet, chased them by mail, made sure of availability, even provoked their interest with what I had to talk to them about.
I prepared all my material, my presentation, my agenda, the way I will open the meeting and close it. I prepared everything about that business travel, but one thing: The culture difference and nuances I need to know about the British.
Since that day I had traveled the world quite frequently, business and pleasure, from the far east to the far west, but there is something I never forget to do when preparing myself for travel: Learn about my destination people and culture.