When Kile Ozier travels oversees, he appreciates the differences in people’s cultures… But after one run-in with a TSA agent at SFO, he realized that he might not be fully appreciate people’s differences while at home.
I’m in Dubai for the foreseeable future on a massive project.
One of the things I like so much about working in this part of the world is the disparity of nationalities and cultures on pretty much any team of professionals one might encounter. On this team I have joined, already, are English, Dutch, German, Indian, Pakistani, South African, a couple of Americans and myriad more. Together, in a culture alien to us all, as we work to deliver unsurpassable product to this client and culture.
I appreciate my ability to be sensitive to the disparate cultures around me and keep the faux pas at a minimum with positive relationships built and nurtured with relative ease. I say that, as during my most recent departure from SFO airport, I was brought up short as I realized I’d overlooked something very close to home.
There is a guy at SFO whom I have not liked for years. He’s always at the entry to the TSA queue and is a stickler for one’s carry-on fitting into that ridiculous metal display that asserts to determine whether or not said carry-on will fit in the overhead compartment. Sometimes, one can slip by him if the bag is carried deceptively or it’s busy. But he will NOT allow the too-large bag to pass.
I haven’t been liking this guy; not since my first encounter with him, years ago.
When I interact with him, I keep it sweet, swift and professional; but inside I’ve judged him a jerk. He’s an older gentleman, Chinese, with a thickish accent; which doesn’t make it any easier to communicate when he’s saying “no.” Irascible and, in my opinion and experience, not the most pleasant person.
This most recent time I encountered him, I was still out in the queue at the check-in counter, well before security. Right as I got to the ticket counter, up marched one of The Entitled (you know the type; hotshot guys for whom No Rules Apply…) with this man in tow. Barging up to the Agent adjacent to me, he launched into a diatribe about this man’s incompetence in his refusal to allow Mr. Entitled’s (massive) rolling carry-on past the barrier.
Mr. Entitled was loud, brash, pushy and dismissive of this man-whom-I’ve-been-judging; and his carry-on was BIG. He was berating the man in the third person, telling the agent of all the times he’s had his bag on board with him…and who does this guy think he is, telling him any different.
I didn’t feel like watching, so went on to security and – about four minutes later – this gentleman walked past us in the queue to his regular place at the head of the rope and stanchion, the physical entry to the TSA queue.
Slowly, he bent over and picked up his gloves; then stared out at…I don’t know what he saw, actually. He stared in the direction of those of us in the queue, but sort of through us, over our heads or beyond where we were standing…
…And, in that moment, what I saw broke my heart. What I now saw was a man from another culture, deeply dedicated to his job. Dedicated to…and Proud of it. Suddenly, I re-appreciated him; coming from a culture where Rules are almost more than Rules, where Rules and Order are Respected…and they do apply. I saw that all he was doing – all he had ever been doing – had been seeing that the rules are followed.
He had simply been doing a job he is grateful to have and proud to do.
I saw him hurt and perhaps shamed to have had his competence questioned. I have no idea the outcome of the altercation at the ticket counter; all I saw was the starkly visual, personal result of the insult.
The wound I perceived in his eyes made me ashamed of all the times I had thought ill of him.
He looked out at the airport, turned, picked up his jacket and put it under his arm and left the area. Head down.
I realized in that moment that I’d short-circuited one of my most valued personal and professional qualities by assuming and compartmentalizing.
Empathy, cross- and inter-cultural sensitivity are of my best qualities. I’m good at making my way in alien cultures; appreciating my own sensitivities, they serve me well in my work…especially here, in Dubai.
When in Dubai, though, it’s easy to remember to remain culturally sensitive, as one is constantly surrounded with reminders through accents, clothing, skin color and mannerisms. It was right there, at home, that I’d overlooked the very clues I seek when I’m aware.
We should always strive to be aware. And beware the pitfalls of familiarity that lead to any assumptions; erroneous or otherwise.
Exploration of assumption is the first tenet of my Big Five for the creation of compelling experience. Exploring – being aware of – one’s own assumptions is a valuable tool in all situations, then, not simply the Important Ones.
So, here’s the lesson for all of us, certainly for me: practice at home what we practice in the field. Assume nothing; and watch for one’s own assumptions in every aspect of daily life, in personal and professional interactions.
Be and remain sensitive to others, and guard against judgement on the basis of anything from facial expression to uniform.
I now believe that that man has never sought to be unpleasant or difficult, he doesn’t even see it that way; he has simply been striving to do his job the best way he understands it as it needs to be done.
It’s not up to me to judge him, nor to like or dislike his style. Rather, I’m offered the opportunity to simply accept that it is what it is. The man’s been there for years; someone must appreciate and approve of the way he does his job.
People around us, throughout our personal and professional lives, all have backstories and histories of which we know nothing. So much we might tend to take personally, or take-onboard in frustration, might very easily spring from reasonable sources or rationale outside our own experience.
We just never know.
My suggestion is to accept it and move on, in situations such as this one. In our ongoing professional lives, then; when someone isn’t responding as we might prefer, perhaps it’s a healthy modus operandi to call to mind that such lessons, and just work with what we have.
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Photo: Flickr/Betsy Weber