Monday, April 09, 2012

Why you should flee the country.

I went on a date last year with a guy I met at a co-worker's barbeque. Seemed like a pleasant enough fellow so when he asked what I'd like to do, I suggested he join me for dim sum brunch at a fairly local place called China Max.  He sounded slightly horrified at the idea of being anywhere at 11am on a Saturday (not a great sign, as I'm generally up by 7), but he took the details of the restaurant and we agreed on a day, and the next weekend we met up for brunch.

One might assume that the name of the place, "China Max" (not to mention the location of the restaurant in the middle of a heavily asian area, and the fact that I did say it was for dim sum) might have provided enough clues for him to figure out that the food would, in fact, be asian.  However, apparently this was not the case and so it was only when we sat down and looked at the menu that he mentioned he didn't eat (a) any seafood, or (b) anything "foreign".  Besides causing some rather problematic issues with the ordering of food, this also led to the discussion of foreign travel, to which he was entirely opposed, as he said he was afraid to go to a foreign country.

Since I haven't lived in my country of birth since 1995 this seemed like a rather failed match on several points, and in fact the date was not repeated.  However, I was reminded of the guy when I watched this rather excellent TED video about different ways of looking at things in different countries:

It's not long; I recommend having a quick watch.  But to summarize, the speaker uses a couple of excellent examples to illustrate how we can so easily take for granted that the way we think about things is the only way to think about them, and how our thinking can easily be trapped in a little box that we don't even realize is there.  Exposure to other perspectives -- particularly through travel -- is a great way of escaping this trap and one that people who never leave their home country will always struggle with.

The importance of different perspectives and an understanding of differences between countries isn't just theoretical or helpful in terms of innovating new ideas.  It can be the difference between being an average business professional and an excellent one; or the difference between making a costly and stupid mistake and avoiding it.

A great example from my own experience: when I was hired in 2000 to be the IT manager for a US company with an office in Australia, I moved to Sydney.  One of my responsibilities was to ensure reliable and secure nightly backups of all the servers, including the financial system.  The finance team were clearly still highly traumatized by a recent incident and told me several times over in tones of pain and horror what had happened: prior to my arrival, the US head office had assisted in some updates to the financial software that was in global use by the company.  This wasn't unusual: the software was remotely managed primarily out of the US and UK, smaller offices like Sydney not needing a dedicated IT staff resource just for that one system.  Usually the UK office handled international updates such as Australia, but for some reason this time the US staff had been responsible.  As part of the updates the nightly backup schedule had also been updated by them.

Unfortunately, the US staff member who updated the weekly backup schedule was apparently not aware that pretty much every country except the US uses the date format day/month/year.  He had just assumed that the date format would be the US order, month/day/year, and entered the backup schedule accordingly without checking.  As a result, instead of resuming the normal backup schedule, there were actually NO weekly full backups happening for a period of months; daily incremental backups were fortunately not affected, but the error was only noticed when a problem occurred and a restore from backup was needed.  At which point it was discovered that the last successful full backup hadn't happened for months.  The poor finance team had to spend about 2 days feeding in every single nightly incremental backup tape since that last successful one in order to restore the data (and then spend days more reconciling every last penny to verify it), an experience which clearly traumatized them so much they were still talking about it -- and cursing the US narrow-minded view of the world that had led to the mistake -- even years later.

If that staff member had ever traveled outside the US, even just to Canada, there's a good chance he'd have been aware that date formats can change depending on country, and might have at least thought to double check what Australia used before resetting the backup date.  Experiences in foreign countries and seeing how different regions can do things differently would have made him a more valuable professional, not to mention saving the company and the finance team in Australia quite a lot of both time and money.

Besides practical considerations like the above, it's just a good experience for people to learn different cultures.  I think it makes us both more tolerant, and more accepting of differences.  Besides which it's really quite fascinating what one country considered quite okay while others consider entirely inappropriate.

When I worked in Brazil, it was customary to exchange kisses (on the cheek) with co-workers every morning, at least between men and women.  I got quite used to male co-workers kissing me every morning, so used to it in fact that after 6 months in Brazil when I visited the US for business and bumped into the first US colleague that I knew, I unthinkingly kissed him on the cheek, rather to his surprise.  If my boss here in the US started kissing me and every other female colleague every morning it would be seen as VERY inappropriate, needless to say.  But there, quite normal, polite, and expected.

So if I could give graduates one piece of advice as they start their careers, it's to take any opportunity possible to work overseas.  Visit at least if you can't find work, but if you can find a job then seize the chance.  It's so much more than just a job and an opportunity to travel; it'll expand your perspectives, open your eyes, and make you more valuable and useful in your professional career for the rest of your life.  It's not always been the easiest path to take, but I've never regretted all the moving around that I've done in my career.


  1. I agree completely. I am British by birth. After college I spent two and a half years teaching in Portugal, before returning to the UK.
    I travlled extensively for pleasure and for work/
    Six years ago I moved to the US and have been living and working in California.
    Travelling broadens the mind, but living in a foreign country extends it and removes prejudice to an even greater extent.

  2. riverdancelove@gmail.comDecember 16, 2013 at 2:33 AM

    Culturing yourself is important and relevant to every aspect of life. Whether it be languages, food palette, movies, tv, sports, games, music, writing, or anything else.

    The more you culture yourself the stronger your foundation becomes, and when you learn to start taking the principles and philosophies from one field, and applying them to others where it is efficient to do so, you start zipping through life way ahead of the game.

    Also the more exposure you have to anything and everything, the better your understanding and ability to empathize can become. People without that exposure don't have a great point of reference.

    I don't want to sound judgmental at all, but when I hear stories like how your date went, I just feel kinda bad that that guy has those types of limits in place for himself.