It is 1997.
I am a technical instructor based in SoCal. I’m teaching in Hong Kong 75 days before the British return it to China. I am told the students all speak English.
We have a book called ‘Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands’. The book explains issues that can affect business communications, whether they be cultural, behavioral, or linguistic. I learn, for example, that in China one presents one’s business card with both hands, by the edges. I also learn that, while the students and I may speak the same language, there will be another issue that will affect my training.
The Chinese have a sociological concept Westerners know as ‘face’, referring to one’s sense of dignity or prestige. I learn that students in China do not ask questions of their instructors. Questions imply the instructor has not done a good job of teaching.
There is a certification test given at the end of the course and none of my students have ever failed it. I am committed to making sure my Chinese students don’t either. I develop a rigorous system of daily reviews in which I grill them on each concept covered in the preceding days.
On Friday morning, we assemble in the classroom. Their manager joins us for what will be their final review before taking the test. By Friday the review takes 45 minutes. Every student answers every question posed correctly. I am thrilled. So is their manager, who stands in the back grinning.
It is 1999.
I am conducting the same training in The Great White North, Toronto, Canada. As I cover the section on database maintenance I explain that if the components of the system get out of synch the system would ‘Go South’.
I realize that this is a colloquial expression and remember what the book said about avoiding them when doing business abroad. I apologize to my students for using such an expression.
“‘Going South’ probably doesn’t mean the same thing here as it does where I come from,” I tell them.
They look at each other, then they look at me. They smile and nod.
“Yes, it does”.