“How could people be so callous?”, thought Susan, a lovely American girl just starting out at an international school in Hong Kong after moving over from the Midwest.
“What’s up with the new girl? Why is she so darn sensitive?”, thought her peers.
I was holding a Cultural Training workshop for a charming American family moving to Hong Kong recently and this teenager was trying to make sense out the this perplexing cultural snafu she had found herself in.
All the kids at her new school were excitedly talking about the “Amber Alert” that was in effect and eager to hear about school possibly closing the following day.
For American Susan, of course, an Amber Alert means a child had been kidnapped and alerts were being sent out to the community to assist in the search for and the safe recovery of the child. How is it possible that her entire class was gleefully hypothesizing that school could be closed soon due to this alert? Visions of unpleasant school lockdowns raced through Susan’s head.
American Amber Alert program:
Her Hong Kong peers, of course, were equally perplexed. Why the heck was this new girl getting so upset about a little weather? Especially since it’s often a “boy who cried wolf” scenario where the government warns of impending doom, but the worst damage is a fallen mailbox and a few downed palm tree leaves.
In Hong Kong, you see, an Amber Alert is part of an intricate early-warning program to alert locals to incoming rainstorms so that they can prepare safely in advance. Amber is the “lowest” alert, which then moves to Red and finally Black (when all schools and businesses must close).
Hong Kong Amber Alert program.
On a related note, I recently did a cultural training session for a Dutch executive on Doing Business in the United States and he recounted his look-and-see trip to California. He mentioned he was in a bar with a few dozen American friends, and one other colleague from the Netherlands. At one point, he said, literally everyone’s phone beeped, rang, vibrated, flashed or signaled in some way at the exact same time. Everyone’s phone, that is, except for his and his Dutch friend’s foreign phones registered in Amsterdam.
He said it was really freaky and wondered if all the Americans were going to be air-lifted out thanks to the local warning and the two clueless Europeans would be left to face Armageddon.
It was his first exposure to this very efficient Amber Alert system, that recently set up an enhanced warning system to allow wireless providers to reach millions of cell phone customers in the USA. The program has saved countless lives.
It’s precisely these sorts of cultural oddities that can make assimilating in a foreign culture so challenging, no matter how well prepared we may think we are.
For this reason, whether it be as a student or as a high-level executive, it’s always a good idea to seek out a mentor to provide guidance on the inner workings and assorted ins-and-outs of the local culture.
Though this helps enormously, we can never get rid of misunderstandings completely. And, we wouldn’t necessarily want to, anyway, because it’s the experiential learning that has the greatest impact. And can make for some hysterical cocktail conversation fodder as the journey unfolds!