Greeting Dance


I have been a successful interculturalist for 20+ years and should be a master of international greetings. Yet the more I learn, the more I know ‘it is a dance’, and one I best be fully awake for. Case in point… last week, I approached a female client from Spain. I leaned in to the left and deftly sensed she was maneuvering for a cheek kiss rather than a hug. No problem. A quick touch of the cheeks and I was returning to my comfort zone with the satisfaction of a job well done. The glow faded quickly, however, as I noticed she was rounding for a second cheek kiss on the other side. By then, I was back too far, so jerked forward with an apology. She withdrew saying ‘no problem’. I persisted in moving forward to land the second cheek brush to complete the greeting dance. She accepted it. We both tried to erase that experience from our minds as we leapt into conversation over our tea and coffee.

As-Salamu Alaykum, Jambo, Ohayo Gozai-Masu, Guten Morgen, Buenos Dias, Selemat Pagi – do greetings matter?

In Sudan, some of the Canadians I worked with felt local greetings and “small talk” were a waste of valuable work time. That was until the Sudanese explained how the lack of a greeting was negatively affecting their entire workday and their productivity. These Canadians quickly learned that satisfying their Sudanese colleagues’ need for connection was in everyone’s best interests, and got the job done more quickly.

The typical Sudanese greeting in this setting included a combination of Islamic and Arabic phrases back and forth which could easily take more than five minutes. The Sudanese reassured the wide-eyed Canadians that they could successfully pare five minutes down to under a minute (unless they hadn’t seen the person for a few weeks – then there would be more to discuss to keep the relationship healthy).

Inconsequential as those first few words might seem to time-focussed Canadians, an initial connection, however brief, can set the stage for improved empathy, understanding, communication, and collaboration. More and better work gets done.

Before we moved to Mexico City, our children were young teens and had not thought much about greetings. But when faced with people kissing their cheeks, they quickly overcame their feelings of being “freaked out” and got into the Mexican groove.

My surprise came when we returned to Calgary two years later. Our daughter, then 15, reported on what was most interesting about her first week back at school in Canada. “Nobody here knows how to greet”, she exclaimed. “They can’t decide if they want to shake hands, bump fits, hug, or just grunt, and they definitely are not air-kissing cheeks.”

So, is it possible, even desirable to foster a ‘greeting dance’ in Canada?

A former oil company president in Calgary was legendary for remembering the names of employees, clients, and suppliers – and taking the time to say hello. It astounded me that he would stop to say hello when it had been months, if not years, between us bumping into each other. It made me want to deliver a better service to him and his company.

Greetings are a foundation of employee engagement, which we are constantly reminded is a serious issue for today’s workplaces. Engagement brings innumerable wonderful benefits to an organization.

Add to this the nature of the Canadian multicultural fabric. When we consider the broader concept of culture – beyond national culture – to encompass generation, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc., everyone we work with is from a culture other than our own!

Are we conveying “I am pleased to see you”, “You are important to me” or something completely different?

As the Sudanese helped to teach me, a warm greeting, whatever it takes, sets the stage for a day of collaboration.

In Her Majesty’s Service


This past spring, I received a LinkedIn message from a stranger asking if I would be interested in delivering a training program on Canadian business culture to the U.S. Navy, in the Mojave Desert. Hmmm. If this was a scam, it was too interesting to let pass by.

Being a Canadian prairie kid, I know a thing or two about where you might and might not find the Navy. Not here, and I am guessing not in the Mojave Desert. Though it turns out – China Lake, California, is home to a major naval air weapons testing facility.

I replied with cautious interest, unlike one of my colleagues who received the same note and immediately dumped it into the trash folder.

After considerable vetting, they decided I was their man. Perhaps, it was my academic record, my many years of intercultural experience, or my desire to one day be a Navy Seal. More likely, I was the only one who responded to the request. Flattered, I accepted the gig.

My mission was to assist US Navy personnel sell weapons of moderate destruction to the Canadian military, and dated ones at that. Apparently, hugely destructive weapons are reserved for themselves and a few select enemies.

I google-earthed the training facility address and saw a steel door, on a windowless wall, at the back of an art studio (I am not kidding here) in a Californian desert town. A perfect cover I thought, and asked my contact if I should show up in a Group of Seven nature disguise

Just prior to meeting participants on training day, a U.S. government official had to explain that it would be unsafe for all concerned if I was to ask any personal questions of the participants or share any personal details of myself. For a training program focussed on personal values, national values, preferred communication, and negotiation styles, I couldn’t see how that would be a problem. “Suppose Howdy Doody emailed Johnny Canuck with an inquiry on a replacement for the Avro Arrow…”

To overcome my fear that I was becoming a traitor to my own country – I explained that the most endearing greeting is to dip one’s hands in maple syrup and touch your fingers to the Canadian’s lips, while at the same time making a hissing sound like bacon sputtering in a pan.

I coached “If one of your weapons system fails the Canadians, sincerely say ‘soooorrry, I’m really soooorrry’, ask yourself ‘what would Tommy Douglas do?’, and quickly arrange for the finest medical attention.”

“Consider renaming your ordinances for greater appeal to the Canadian market, with such fear-invoking monikers as the Beaver Bomber, Loonie Droppings, and Timmies Double Trouble.”

The only benefit of not receiving a military jet return flight from Calgary, was that my wife, who accompanied me for safety reasons, and I were able to take a small detour on the way to LAX to enjoy some fine craft brews and snacks at the scenic Kern River Brewery at the southern tip of Sequoia National Park. Highly recommended.

Joking aside, I found the organizers helpful and professional, the U.S. Navy participants to be curious, thoughtful, open, and engaged. It is refreshing to see the U.S. Navy paying such attention to building respectful and positive relationships. May our two countries always be allies.


Fun and Games at the Movies


Few things make me as happy as going out to the movies. It’s been that way for only about 55 years. Maybe it’s the memory of popcorn on arrival and ice cream bar in departure at the Regina Capitol, with my father, that helps the warm feeling.

I miss not seeing Mr. Magoo or another quality cartoon up front, and am grudgingly getting used the pre-show advertisements.

But not all changes are unwelcome. What does everyone in the theatre have with them now they didn’t when I was a kid? No, not a handgun. Yes, a smartphone.

I was in the Calgary Crowfoot theatre a few months ago, and after the ads but before the previews (another highlight for me), they invite us to pull out our phones to play a contest – with the winner receiving Scene points.

Feeling like I can do this, I whip out my phone, and await instructions. Download TimePlay. By the time I get that sorted out, the contest winds up. I am not phased because I will be ready next time.

A few weeks later, at the next movie, I am ready with TimePlay loaded. But it doesn’t connect. The contest starts. TimePlay suggests that if I am not getting a connection, I need to turn off my Smart Switch. As I work on that, the contest winds up – again.

At the next movie, I still haven’t quite figured out how to turn off Smart Switch. A google search points me in the right direction. This time, I actually get registered for the game, but when it ends a few seconds later, my user name, Donovan, is listed on the big screen, zero points, at the bottom.

Undeterred, at the next movie, this time at Westhills, I am full of enthusiasm to play and to crush the competition. But TimePlay is having trouble connecting. I do some googling and learn that this theatre doesn’t have the wi-fi for TimePlay so there will be no game.

I will one day compete, so beware of Donovan you Crowfoot movie goers.

On the other hand, life was a lot more predictable when it was popcorn, cartoons, movie, and an ice cream bar.


Jane Fonda and the Alberta Oil Sands


The greatest threat to our world is not global warming or climate change. Our greatest threat is not talking to each other, not trying to understanding each other, and not being able to collaborate – whether that is a disconnect between rich/poor, right/left, east/west, industry/environmental, or otherwise.

I doubt Jane Fonda voted for the incoming American President. Yet, I see similarities in their style – ‘my way at all costs, and I have nothing to learn from the other side’. This approach is hazardous.

Recently, Ms. Fonda toured our Alberta oils sands and spoke out against them. I don’t fault her for that. She is an actor commenting on social and environmental topics. I don’t fault her for that either. Public engagement should be encouraged.

While in Alberta, I am sure she learned something new about the anti-oil sands, anti-pipeline argument. That is fine. However, Ms. Fonda was also invited to attend informational meetings with senior, educated Albertans presenting the other side of the debate. From my understanding, she did not want to hear this information and declined these meetings. For this, I fault her.

If we have learned anything from world events of the past couple of years, it is that living in our own echo chambers will only widen our problematic disconnects.

Conversely, after taking office, the Alberta government appointed a co-chair, who has a record of opposing oil sand development, to the province’s “Oilsands Advisory Group”. That was very confusing for many Albertans. But this is our only way forward – bringing all voices to the table, to be heard and considered with open minds.

There have been more meetings of government, business, environmental and aboriginal leaders over the past few years. This multi-directional conversation where all parties listen and are heard, is essential.

The alternative path is one of – ‘if my side doesn’t win, it’s because the system is rigged, and I will need to try other tactic – I may need to take more drastic action, property may be damaged, people may get hurt’ – all justified for the end cause. Does this sound familiar? We know where this path leads.

Much has been learned over the years about better ways for opposing views to navigate and reach better solutions for all concerned.

Difficult decisions need to be made. Not everyone is completely happy. Some decisions may be reversed or adjusted as better information becomes available.

The key to resolving these conflicts, however, does not rest in ‘choosing sides, digging in heels, and closing ears’ or in public relations assaults. The key lies in open communication, dialogue, learning as much as you can about the other’s perspective, and continuing to work on finding common ground and bridges to these conflicts.

By clearly understanding the values and motivations of one’s self and others, techniques for bridging differences have become more sophisticated. Let’s use them.


Extended Family and Cultural Stretching

Generation Family

Go to a Rwandan restaurant, see a Sinhalese singer, befriend a Brazilian, visit Vanuatu – all these may expand your intercultural knowledge and skills; and be fun too.

An underestimated place to practice and improve intercultural skills – non-judgement, empathy, active listening, multiple perspectives, bridge building – are interactions with extended family.

Within my seemingly not-so-culturally-diverse extended family are people who vote Democrat, Republican, Conservative, Liberal, New Democratic Party and Green. There are Christians, agnostics and atheists; Anglos and Francos; white Euro-Canadians and Metis; and multi-generations. Some are materially very well off, others live frugally. And I know my family is less culturally diverse than those of many fortunate friends.

Some of our most strained relationships seem to be within our families. What a great place to practice non-judgement, empathy, active listening, seeing multiple perspectives and bridge building. Over a coffee, a phone call or email, perhaps we can improve our cross-cultural skills this week. Like a muscle, stretch and grow stronger.

Spielberg’s Wisdom


In Steven Spielberg’s address to the Harvard Commencement on May 26, 2016, he quoted Michael Crichton, the writer of the Jurassic Park films. “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree”.

An equivalent saying in the intercultural field might be “If you don’t know your own culture, you are like a fish that doesn’t know it is in water.”  Self-awareness, through exploring historical roots and our own cultural values, is essential to understanding our place in the world. These insights are, in turn, the foundation of our ability to successfully interact with other people.

As part of the self-reflection Spielberg encourages, he asks us to recognize the dark ‘us-and-them’ side of our tribalism, and instead come together in the common “we”.  He notes there is no difference between anyone who is discriminated against – whether it’s a Muslim, Jew, minority on border communities, or the LGBTQ community – it’s all one big hate. And the only answer is more humanity – replacing fear with curiosity, connecting with each other, and feeling empathy toward people of all tribes.

He led the thousands of Harvard community members present to make eye contact with someone nearby who they don’t know. In the twenty seconds, there was shuffling, laughter and eye contact. He asked for people to remember this moment of human connection.

Spielberg closed with “I have imagined many possible futures in my films but you will determine the actual future, and I hope that future is filled with justice and peace.”


Poverty Inc. Film

April 3, 2016

Poverty Inc. film by Michael Matheson Miller

“Fighting poverty is big business. But who profits the most?” is the tagline for the documentary film “Poverty, Inc.” Ellen and I saw last week. As you might expect, the film offers many examples of NGOs, charitable and government organizations, however well meaning, that end up not delivering what the people in need most need, and continuing a presence long after they should be gone.

Disaster relief is generally accepted as worthwhile, but the on-going injections of food and clothing, for example, are seen to disrupt local markets perfectly capable of delivering the goods.

A popular form of aid in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake was to establish orphanages, and to help arrange for Western adoptions. It was found that 80% of the children in the orphanages actually had at least one living parent in Haiti (often who visited regularly). Parents put their children into orphanages to ensure they received food, clothing, education and medicines. The aid agencies were, and still are, inadvertently splitting families.

Suggestions for development included:

  • do some serious research before stepping in to offer assistance
  • work with locals to determine and deliver the best form of help
  • providing training and access to new markets, working as partners with local staff
  • be aware that organizations naturally tend towards becoming unconsciously self-serving, and
  • build in review mechanisms, and exit plans into their projects.

It is worth pondering that if we can’t solve poverty within our own culture/system, what chance do we have of solving poverty in a culture/system we may not understand. Helping others is still important, but as was the film’s theme – how best to follow the lead and need of the local people.

The micro picture challenge – how to help people be successful on their own terms within their existing political/economic system.

The macro picture challenge – what is their ideal political/economic system, who gets to determine that, and what role can outsiders legitimately play in the system change of other countries (bureaucracy, property rights, laws, etc.).

Poverty Inc. also highlights the work of 19th century sociologist Émile Durkheim on “social facts”, or the cultural box within which we view problems and potential solutions. To get out of that box is a monumental task. Again, what mechanisms can be built into the system to build awareness of our box (as I believe our box can change but we will still be in a new sort of mental/cultural box), and to collaborate successfully with people whose boxes are different from ours.

The film’s creators wanted to elevate the global poverty discussion, and we believe they well-achieved their purpose.