Nothing gets you in trouble faster than trying to learn a new culture.
“We cannot become what we need to be, remaining what we are.”
Have you ever said something before that you wished you hadn’t said? Or heard something you thought you understood only to discover that you were clueless? I have.
Since coming to the US, I have fallen victim to both verbal and nonverbal expressions that I thought I understood only to find that I was clueless.
My first reality check was delivered by a woman who asked me to call her by her first name and I responded saying “But you’re older than me.” OOPs. She almost had a heart attack. I didn’t know that was a taboo in America.
Not long after that I had a job interview to attend and I was running late, so I sped up a bit and got pulled over by a female police officer who said, “Pop your trunk” “what trunk? I’m not an elephant, I don’t have a trunk.” I later discovered she meant the boot of my car. I got a speeding ticket and realized then that I had a lot to learn in order to fit into my new environment.
I managed to get to the interview on time. After the interview, the woman tried to explain the dress code to me. “We required our associates to wear blue pants.” She said.
Blue what? I asked. What has blue pants got to do with my working here?
It’s the company policy. She said.
Well, I’m sorry but I don’t wear blue pants and as I told you before, this is my first job in America, I don’t have money to start shopping for blue pants. By the way, are you saying that people run around your store in their blue pants or how do you know the color of their pants?
She pointed at me and said, “how about that one you are wearing.”
I looked down and noticed that I had on a pair of Navy blue trousers.
You see in my culture, when you talk of pants you are actually referring to underwear garments. Again, I realized I had a lot to learn.
Talking of nonverbal expressions. The other day at the airport, a woman sat a few yards away from me. Each time our eyes met, she would flash a beautiful smile. Honestly, I thought she was flirting with me and I’m sure I blushed a few times. Blackman-blushing. I later discovered that the smiles weren’t meant for me. She was actually talking on her cell phone and she had on her wireless-blue-tooth earpiece which was hidden under her hair.
Now I’m so paranoid and too scared to return a smile.
Just when I thought I knew enough to stay out of trouble, something else happened.
I had bought a rental property which I have managed for sometime. There was a woman who worked in the management office who called to say she would like to manage my property so she could make extra money to take care of her four children. I promised I would let her know by Friday.
Friday morning I showed up at her office she wasn’t there. I called her cell phone. Where are you?
“I’m sorry I’m not in today because I’m playing “HOOKIE.”
“HOO WHAT?” I was horrified, confused, and speechless. And for a speaker of my caliber to be speechless something must be terribly wrong. In my confused state, I almost run into the car in front of me. I swerved to avoid hitting the car.
Ten thousand questions ran through my head. Why would she do that? Was she that desperate?
By the time I found my phone under my seat, she had hung up.
A few days later I saw her again. Before she had a chance to talk I pull her aside. “I understand you need money but do you have to do that? I honestly I think you could get a better job without engaging in such a risky behavior.”
What are you talking about? She screamed.
Remember what you told me on the phone?
Yes. I told you I was playing “hookie.” She said.
That’s the word! Why would you do such a thing? I mean, what drove you to that?
Then she began to laugh.
Why? That’s not funny.
When she finally calmed down, she said, “Mr. OJ ‘HOOKIE’ means skipping work – you thought I said ‘HOOKER’ – didn’t you?”
Just then I realized I wasn’t ignorant, it was all about change of environment.
Till I come your way again, keep smiling because a smile is the brush that sweeps away the cobwebs of the heart.
Ola Joseph, M.A., DTM, is the principal of OlaSpeaks, a professional-speaking firm on Change Management, Personal and Professional Development issues in Houston, Texas. His books include “Voices of Courage” “Soaring on the Wings of Courage” and “I Would Save Mama First.” Send your comments to him at olaspeaks.juno.com or call (713) 283 5141 to hire him to speak at your event.