Vive le Différence, Vive la Similarité

A few weeks ago I joined a seminar over Skype run by a facilitation expert from Hamburg, dealing with the complexities of handling trans-national meetings where some or all of the participants are using a second language. Although I wouldn’t describe myself as a facilitator, at least in this context, I do have a bucketload of experience of meetings and negotiations where I was in the minority as a native English speaker. All the same, the lady conducting the seminar raised thought-provoking subtleties that I hadn’t really considered. She knows what she’s talking about. (If you have an interest in this area, get in touch and I’ll introduce you).

On the other hand.

I guess about a decade ago I found myself in Athens with a colleague, who for this purpose we’ll call ‘Joey Two Pipes’. (Don’t ask. Really.) We were touring around a bunch of Greek investment banks, touting a complicated scheme to sell and lease back some hotels we owned (well, kind of owned, this was Greece after all). There were all sorts of complications, but we figured we had a neat solution. I’d spent the last few meetings driving a flipchart, explaining this stuff, so in this meeting I offered Joey the wheel and he took it.

So we’re in a (thankfully) air-conditioned meeting room in Athens in the middle of July, with eight or so Greek bankers of varying vintages, about an hour in, with pleasantries and introductions exchanged, and Joey is hitting his stride with a well rehearsed spiel. He’s just reached the bit where he pauses for breath, to allow the smartest young Myrmidon in the room to raise the obvious objection to what we’ve just said we’re trying to do (“but Kiria Two Pipes, there will be tax to pay…”)

And, just as with the previous presentations, our turning-point response is “Ah yes, but we have a cunning plan…”

But this time something new happens. A youngish guy, who to this point has managed to articulate consummate boredom but little else, suddenly sits bolt upright, stares at me, and with a stony and menacing expression asks in a thick Greek accent: “But is it a plan so cunning you could pin a tail on it and call it a weasel?!”

I guess you had to be there, but few things in life are as funny as a Greek banker in the middle of Athens quoting Blackadder to you in an otherwise dull and tie-laden meeting.

Depending on your point of view, it’s either apt or ironic that the word ‘cosmopolitan’ derives from the Greek kosmopolites (‘citizen of the world’), a formulation of Diogenes in the 5th Century BCE. Either way it became a binding principle of The Enlightenment, of which I am very much, if not a child, at least a loyal descendant. Commerce, free markets, globalisation, travel, internet, all have positive connotations for me (not unequivocally, of course) because of their power to broaden our radius of morality to a wider and wider community. And developing cultural touch points is a key part of that progress, whether it be my feeling of comfort in a provincial Japanese dojo, because I’ve grown up with martial arts, or a Greek banker proudly referencing British comedy.

We didn’t get the deal away. The Greeks all disappeared without trace for the whole of August, and the Brits lost patience and moved on to new projects in the mean time. The Scandies, who actually operated the hotels, were mightily pleased.  They’d never liked the idea in the first place.

(Some details have been obscured to protect the innocent)

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