As you know, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. So one of the staples of any good sales meeting is the evening dinner, and entertainment. As you remember, in China this means going out to a seafood restaurant and eating bait. In England it means copious amounts of alcohol. I can attest to the fact that the English really do binge drink as much as the stereotypical 18 year old college student. Yee-gads, it ain’t healthy.
Anyway, this sales meeting has been planned and hosted by our team in Manchester. For the evening entertainment, they planned a Mexican Fiesta. It was oddly surreal to be in an English Countryside hotel, with people from Spain, Belgium, France, Germany, England, Denmark, and the U.S., dressed in Sombrero’s, Pancho’s and fake mustache’s. How is this not offensive to Mexican’s?
Seriously, though. I cannot imagine doing this with any other culture. Would we dress up as Chinese? Or Africans? Indians? Arabs? Why is it acceptable to dress up in Mexican costumes?
I don’t have any answers, and I will be honest. I did not let it prevent me from wearing a sombrero, drinking Corona, and hitting the Pinata. It was not intended to be mean spirited, or disrespectful. Although, I am sure it would have been hurtful to certain people from our team in Mexico, or our financial analyst in Minnesota, who grew up in Aguascalientes. Cultural sensitivity is a slippery thing. It can be a fine line between fun, and disrespectful, so in my opinion it is best to stay clear of it entirely. Of course, this is obviously just an avoidance tactic. The best tactic is to get to know each and every one of us as individuals. But that takes time and effort.
It is always fascinating to me when we get a global team together. Meeting each other, and getting to know each other as individuals can simultaneously reinforce, and contradict the stereotypes we have of other cultures. In this sense, the meeting, and the ridiculous costumes and behavior served to break down the walls between us. That is the real benefit of getting together. So it is not surprising when one of the Flemish production managers turns his fake mustache upside down, making himself look like Kaiser Wilhelm, and pretends to use the maraca as a hand grenade, and lob it towards the German salesman. They know each other, and have established the mutual trust and respect that allows him to lampoon the stereotype.
But I don’t kid myself. The things that make us different, still make us different. Even though we realize how much we share in common, there is much about us that we prize that makes us different. Pretending it doesn’t exist, is just as insensitive. It was an interesting group. The nationalities I mention, are only one label that can be placed on the people in the team. Even more important to each of them, is their cultural identity, which does not always fit the neat lines of national boundaries on a political map. The German is from Westhphalia. The English are from the North of England. The American’s were from the Carolina, and the Upper Midwest. The Belgian’s were both Walloons and Flemish. The Spaniard was a Catalan. The French, from Normandy and Paris. Each one of these cultural identities is important. It says much more to us than our national identity can. And deeper still is the personal history of each one of them. Religion, family, class, it all matters in making us who we are. There is much diversity within each label we place around our neck. The more time we spend in each other’s presence, the more we peel the labels back to see what other labels lie underneath.
I hope we never lose the value of these identities in our rush to globalization. The various combinations of who we are, where we come from, and what we value, are what make us unique. How sad it would be to all be the same. And besides, homogenity is too difficult of a costume to dress up in.