Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Culture, schmulture (part deux)
A thinly disguised conversation

The other day I had an interesting conversation with someone from Bangalore. When I described it to the lovely Carol (along with my comments on the cross-cultural aspects), she suggested I write it up. The names have been changed so as to make it not too obvious... especially since I'm sure I got the order and some details wrong.

I showed most of the below to "Mahesh" (he's still here in Sunnyvale) and told him my idea of using it to illustrate cross-cultural communications, and he was OK with it. He asked me again if I had any plans to visit Bangalore.

For your reading pleasure, then, here is...

The thinly disguised conversation

Bill was trying to code a lookahead regex in Perl when he heard a knock on his office door. It was Mahesh, who he met yesterday. Mahesh manages the team in Bangalore, and was visiting headquarters in Sunnyvale for the first time.

Bill turned his chair around to face the door. "Come in, come in!" he said.

"I wanted to drop this by." Mahesh produced a small paper bag, which Bill accepted. Opening it, he saw it was a very thin vase, wrapped in cellophane. He tried to stand it up on his table.

Mahesh encouraged him to take the cellophane off, then explained that the vase was made of gunmetal. The pattern was engraved and covered in silver. "Very pretty," Bill said.

"If you come to Bangalore, you will see many shops, including this one." Mahesh indicated the store's name on the paper bag.

I wonder what else he had in mind, Bill thought.

After a moment, Mahesh sat down in the big armchair and suddenly looked abashed. "I hope I didn't offend you by sitting here when you didn't..."

Idiot! Why didn't you offer him a seat? Bill mentally kicked himself. "No, no, no," he said. But now what? Mahesh wasn't the usual fast-paced conversationalist.

After a moment, Bill asked, "How long will you be in Sunnyvale?"

"Just this week," said Mahesh.

"And what are your objectives for this visit?"

"To meet people. To attend the meetings that this part of the team has." He smiled and made an open gesture with his hands. "That's all."

Taking that at face value, Bill tried, "How long have you been with the company?"

Six months. Bill and Mahesh had both worked at HP before, and so they were able to compare their impressions of their current company in light of their former employer.

Bill cast about for something else. "How do you feel about the collaboration between Bangalore and Sunnyvale?"

A brief pause. Mahesh smiled again (somewhat awkwardly, Bill thought). "Pretty OK. Well, we have a young team, not much experience -- neither here in the company nor elsewhere. I was hoping to set up a meeting with you, once every 15 days or so. It would be a phone conference -- you could do it from home -- and you could get to know what we are working on, get to know the team, and so on. Maybe you could mentor some of them. Does that sound all right?"

"Perfect," Bill replied. Does he mean every three weeks (15 working days) or twice a month (15 calendar days)? he wondered. Those details can wait, though; I'd say "yes" either way. Arrgh -- I forgot I have to set something up like that myself -- for next week, when Pete is out here.

"What time would work for you?" Mahesh asked.

The time difference could hardly be worse: 11½ hours, or maybe 12½. People in Bangalore usually come to the office "late" in the morning and stay late in the evening.

"How about 6:30 AM my time?" Bill tried. "Would that work?" Is that 7pm in Bangalore, he wondered, or is it 6pm now that we're on daylight savings?

Mahesh looked surprised. "Isn't that too early for you?"

"Well, I'm usually up by about six anyway," said Bill. "And if it was going to be evening here, it would have to be quite late." Later than I probably want to be awake, he thought.

"You know, offering to have a phone conference with the team at 6:30AM your time is no joke; they will really appreciate that," Mahesh said.

"Well, anyway, if it was like 6:30 then we could talk maybe half an hour and I could still ride my bicycle over to the train station," Bill explained.

The conversation then switched to less work-related things: where Bill lived, commuting, each man's children, etc.

Bill thought of something else. "Is there anything else we could do at this end to improve collaboration? Offer to help or something like this?"

Mahesh talked about the need to build some sort of wrapper first.

Bill nodded, while frnatically thinking, what kind of wrapper? He was usually pretty good with accents, but it took him a while to figure out that the word was "rapport." He turned his attention back to Mahesh.

"Unless the rapport is built," he was saying, "then offers of help could be misunderstood."

Drat it, Bill thought. I've blown that more than once, then.

"But once that rapport is there," Mahesh continued, "then we could get the kind of mentoring my team needs. There are tremendous mentoring resources available here in Sunnyvale and it would be a waste not to use them."

"Right," Bill said.

"After one or two meetings," Mahesh said, "some of the guys might send you email, 1-on-1, or maybe call you in your office in regular hours."

"Perfect." Bill was pretty sure that this was what Mahesh had wanted to talk about.

After a while, Mahesh thanked Bill for his time, and left.

Bill reflected on the conversation afterwards. That was pretty important, he thought. We both learned something, and built bridges.

How did Bill do?

Here's what I came up with:
  1. Though he was working on a technical task, he took time with his visitor.
  2. He acknowledged the gift verbally and appreciated it.
  3. When he saw Mahesh standing there, he probably should have offered him a seat!
  4. At least he figured out that Mahesh wanted something. Could he have asked him about it more directly? Probably not. ("What do you want from me?" probably isn't quite what you want to say. "Can I help you?" may have the problem of offering help before rapport is established.)
  5. The collaboration question was probably a good one. I also give Bill points for not asking too many questions right away. (Americans often ask too many questions, though in this case "Did you mean every two weeks?" would probably have been OK.)
  6. When Bill didn't understand "rapport," he probably could have interrupted Mahesh immediately and asked him what he meant. I don't fault Bill too much here, though; his style seems to work for him
  7. Bill never did get around to finding out whether Mahesh meant every 2 weeks vs. every 3 weeks, but I don't fault him too much for that, either; the two of them can figure that out later.

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