The other day, one of my international clients commented that the weather in his city (and country) was like a woman. Then, he stopped with a dramatic pause (perhaps realizing we had just met and his comment might not be appreciated in the spirit meant), and I began to laugh. Anticipating his comment I said “changeable?” He chuckled and said “No, variable.”
Now, if you are a frequent reader of my articles you no doubt know I find humor in a lot of situations. This is no different. My immediate response was “Of course, variable is a more suitable term. After all women are like algebraic equations …” With a puzzled look, he and the other gentleman in the car laughingly asked “What? Why?” My reply: “Because you are solving for X. Women have two, so we are always variables with no constant to help you solve the equation.”
(Okay ladies, don’t shoot me! If you follow that logic a step further, men have TWO variables and no constant. So there is definitely NO way for us to solve that equation either! We just have to agree that both genders are equally baffling to the other.)
You Have to Laugh! Humor Makes Connections
Humor is sometimes hard to translate across cultures. In reality we have to be very careful about the context of our humor when we are traveling. Not all things translate well. We also have to be aware that not every comment or joke is meant to be a slight or a “put down.” As a woman consulting and speaking in the international arena, I may be the only woman in the room. I may also be the youngest person in the room. I may be the only American in the room. I may be the only … fill-in-the-blank … in the room. The context and comments made will not be the same in every country.
I have been asked about religion, family, politics, and just about every other topic by clients and prospective clients. It has been pointed out that as an American, female businesswoman traveling alone there may need to be additional accommodations made in travel arrangements—especially when meetings will take place in environments where I will be the only female there. In conservative areas, clients may not want to meet alone with a woman, so they will ensure that others are present for a meeting. The meeting venue may be changed and other issues may arise.
Like humor, these differences aren’t about giving offense; they are simply differences in perspectives and culture. No offense intended and none given. After all, I wouldn’t be there if they truly had a problem with women as consultants and advisors, now would I?
The world is a very diverse place and our experiences can open doors or limit us. Our beliefs don’t have to compromised, but they shouldn’t lead us to assume that a comment or behavior is intended to discriminate. To date, I’ve been asked to provide photos and had questions about faith, appearance, clothing styles, and any number of things, yet none of my responses have prevented me from getting an offer of a project. Sometimes the questions are raised in the context of providing more suitable accommodations and travel arrangements, interpreters, or other aspects of the project. Sometimes it is to begin the process of establishing an understanding between the differences in style and culture.
The same question asked by different people in different situations can have very different interpretations. A question asked about your religious beliefs and background by a business executive in the United States applying for a consulting project isn’t appropriate. Why? Because religion is a category covered under antidiscrimination laws. The same question asked of a consultant traveling to a foreign country and being interviewed by a prospective client in that country shouldn’t be surprised if they get a question about religion. Not all countries have antidiscrimination laws and if they do, they may not cover religion or non-citizens.
Questions about topics that are sensitive under U.S. culture and customs aren’t necessarily viewed the same in other countries and cultures. Context and behavior, customs, and practices all need to be considered and kept in perspective. Humor is just one place where cultural differences may (and usually will) show. If you are going to be international, the ability to interact socially and accept different perspectives will be important.
The reality is, when I’m competing for a project internationally (and often nationally), gender may be an issue at some point in the process for some. That will be the potential client’s problem, and it will generally work itself out before the project “bidding” process goes very far. There are instances and countries where my articles have been reprinted simply using my initials because of the gender issue. It resulted in my receiving an e-mail inquiry about speaking in one of those countries. Being very aware of the cultural differences due to a graduate school friend being from that area, I responded to the e-mail with an invitation to visit my Web site, check out additional articles, background—and my photo—just to be sure they were very clear who they were inviting: an American female. The response was, “Thank you so much for understanding our requirements and for pointing out what had been lost in editing.” I’m told they continue to reprint articles occasionally using only my initials. I’m okay with that. With time, things may change, and they may just be ready for a change in perspective too. After all, nothing is constant. We are all still trying to solve for the variables.
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