I’m traveling in Europe at the moment.
Until 2001, I had not been off the North American continent. On my first trip to Europe six years ago, I discovered to my surprise that I was quite nervous. I think of myself as reasonably adventurous. (Translation: travel good; bungee jumping bad.) So the fact that I was nearly hyperventilating in the International Terminal at SFO over the idea of flying overseas came as a shock. I got a grip on myself by journaling. And as I was writing, the following poem came to me:
Take comfort in this,
for this thing I know.
People are people
wherever you go.
(As Seussian as those lines sound, I believe they are original. I searched.)
On that first trip, I found it comforting to remind myself that people are people everywhere. And I found it to be true. People love, and fight, and gossip, and struggle, and celebrate, everywhere, much the same. I discovered that even when I couldn’t understand the language, I could guess at the conversations from the body language and tone.
I could tell that the whispered fast conversation involving many giggles over lunch in the restaurant between two middle aged ladies was probably some salacious story about a romance, a mutual acquaintance, or perhaps both. The serious conversation punctuated by nods and formal gestures between two professionals in business suits was probably an Important Business Dinner that would likely result in some kind of understanding or deal or agreement. And the aggravated sigh of the mother with two slightly mischievious children in a department store? All too familiar.
In any case, the poem comes to mind this week because I am, once again, in Europe. (Since 2001, I’ve been off the North American continent many times. I am making up for lost time.)
Since I’ve been traveling around Europe for the last couple of weeks, some of the people I’ve met have asked: “How are we here in < country > different from those others in < other place>?”
My answer is: “There are differences, but the similarities are more striking.”
Another example from this week: in Helsinki, a mother and adolescent daughter got into the elevator in my hotel. The daughter spied the mirror in the elevator and made her mother stand next to her back-to-back. The daughter waved her hand over their heads as though to say “See! I’m almost as tall as you!” Perhaps this is, indeed, what she was saying in Finnish. I wouldn’t know; I can’t understand a word of Finnish. It took me a whole week to master “kiitos” (thank you). But I found the interchange amusing, and I struggled to hide my smile at the private moment in a public place. My 12 year old does the same thing to me.
No matter where we live or what languages we speak, we have far more similarities, large and small, significant and insignificant, than we have differences. People really are people wherever you go.
Business is increasingly global. If you find yourself working with people who live in different time zones and speak different languages from you, rather than focusing on those differences, I hope you take time to notice the similarities.