The Complexity of Social Skills in a Foreign Context

I have always been a direct person. This may not be surprising when looking at the bigger picture of my Russian- Israeli background and overall family upbringing. However, a person who doesn’t know me or the context of those cultures doesn’t have this big picture. Such is life.

It took me 10 years of living in the United States to learn the important skill of being tactful. I worked long and hard on it because I understood the following:  if you want to say something negative that will not add any value to the situation, what’s the point of saying it? It’s better to keep it to yourself.

Now I’m at the next level of my emotional development. I realized a few years ago that people don’t want to hear the truth, they just want to hear the answer they are expecting. A simple example is of a woman asking her boyfriend “Do I look fat?”, of course she expects “no, you look great!”. If he says this to her, everyone is happy. But, if he says no, she feels bad, he feels bad because she feels bad and overall happiness is diminished.

Similarly, in a country like Brazil, where the emotional realm is much stronger than the rational one, I find myself increasingly more in situations where a superior asks me for my opinion, but in fact, he or she just wants me to repeat his or her own opinion and show admiration to his or her ideas. And again, I reach this point where if I disagree, everyone’s happiness diminishes. I should just agree, nod, accept and move on. But, it’s just so hard to do.

First of all because at times, opinions and perceptions may have consequences for others, and agreeing means incriminating others while saving myself. So there is an issue of ethics and integrity.

Secondly, there is a more complex problem of the inherit bias we face as foreigners. Everyone passes on judgment on anything you do, attributing your actions and opinions to your country of origin. “Aha! – she doesn’t agree because she’s American, and Americans think differently than us.”  Brazilians tend to do this a lot. They attribute your opinions to you NOT being Brazilian and therefore, by default, disagreement is your fault, since you don’t understand the Brazilian context.  But in reality, the situation doesn’t have anything to do with the Brazilian or not Brazilian context. It’s easier for them to reject your opinion this way, instead of considering the option that you may be actually right and they are wrong. What can one do in such situation? Agree with their opinion, of course.  You know if you disagree they will think you’re being inflexible, arrogant, and overall questioning their position. Disagreeing will not lead anywhere.  In the end, everyone is happy, but you feel like you just lost a piece of yourself. Especially, since you know that you’re hired because and not despite being foreigner.

In short, this is the dilemma I am facing these days. How do I accommodate people’s emotional needs without losing my integrity or personality?

Laziness, Luck, and Work-Life Balance

Ever since I remember, I thought of myself as a lazy person with potential for more. When I was in middle school and was offered to skip a grade, or go to a more advanced school, I refused and preferred to stay with my friends. In college, I stopped reading my textbooks probably after the first semester (the fact that I stopped buying them also helped), and only studied before the exams in order to pass (of course forgetting 100% of the course materials right after). I picked classes based on the professor’s rating and reputation for lenient grading. When time came to look for jobs, I applied to all the IT companies, barely studied for interviews and got dinged by all of them. I had no interest to work in IT and ended up getting a job in a major investment bank because I ran into a friend in the hallway and he told me the name of the CEO of this bank, and thus helped me be the only one that answered this question correctly in the job interview. Later on, while my new class of analysts was working its ass off, I chose to take every vacation day possible, leave work at a decent time and never work on weekends. We all got the same salary and bonus at the end of the year.

I had no patience to look for a more interesting, or high paying job, nor was anymore interested in the banking industry and therefore chose to go to business school. I didn’t know much about this whole thing and ended up making some connections with current MBAs who gave me very useful tips that helped me navigate the process. I wanted to apply to the top five schools and write the perfect application but yet I ended up finishing my application about 3 hours before the second round final deadline and applying only for my top choice. I got in. This is when I started getting scared about luck and how long will I be able to get away with things and continue on the right path.

Then came business school. I was surrounded by highly successful over-achievers that going through my life, would have picked the toughest path at each and every step of the way. They would skip the grade, study a whole week for the test, go to a special school for gifted children, choose the toughest college for undergrad, participate in 50 extra-curricular activities, go save orphans in Africa, and worked long hours for the best companies. All of this while looking great and projecting the image of utter-happiness. Scary shit. I felt extremely guilty for being a lazy bugger and not doing all these things throughout my life despite having the chance to. Then came recruiting and everyone was spinning in circles, trying to get internships in every top firm for the top salary and image. But I of course, chose the opposite path and only applied to things I thought would be interesting. I got no job offers while people around me were getting them left and right. Somehow, despite all that I ended up doing a great internship in an awesome company, for the first time in my life working hard and waking up in the morning looking forward to doing what I was doing there.

Second year of MBA repeated the same cycle with just a lot less efforts on my part. When I was about to graduate and still had no job, I was thinking that I should start worrying and freaking out and was indeed starting to do so, without much action though. I then got a job offer and decided to venture into the unknown and move to Brazil. It somehow again worked out.

When I first started my job here, I was overwhelmed by lack of structure and communication of expectations. I think I finally see the benefit of this.. It lets me structure my own path and create the position that I want to have. This isn’t easy. Especially, when you’re used to corporate America that tries to put you in a box as hard as possible and then tells you to think outside the box. Now imagine, there is no box, no one knows what a box is, and you’re in the middle of it, trying to make sense of the mess. No more excuses for the lazy person to exploit the system and look for shortcuts. There is no path to shortcut. So, it has been an interesting challenge that made me feel really excited about work for the first time in my life. On the other hand, I have been spending too much time in the office and then too much time outside the office thinking about work and worrying about becoming a sad workaholic.  I was in a conference recently, at a women-in-business event, and the keynote speaker, a successful CEO of a company was talking about work-life balance. She said that she hates the question of work-life balance and that her response to it was: ” forget work-life balance, there is no such thing, I just do everything because I like what I am doing and I am passionate about it. I never think about the balance of things”. I thought this was straight to the point.

For me the issue of balancing multiple priorities was always about the level of interest in each one. Therefore, it ended up with no balance, but rather focus on what was appealing at the point of time. I am still struggling with figuring out the right way to navigate the world around me, but at least I see by experience that different paths can lead you to exactly the same point, and one of those paths may indeed be easier than the other. Not sure what is the lesson to be learned from that.

From Brazil to Canada and Back

The blog has taken a break and grobby leveraged her strategic capabilities to land her a trip to a professional convention in Toronto. This was the first time in the 5 months since my arrival here and there were so many things to catch up on that I didn’t even realize that I was missing. Step one was the realization that I am back to mother America when I landed in Charlotte for a connection stop. I almost ran to the so familiar Bank of America ATM to take out money, just for the heck of it. I then had to explain to a cashier what is a credit card with a chip and why do I need to enter a code in order to use it. Following that, I have to explain to my Brazilian colleague why the USA doesn’t use credit cards with chips and that we’re not so advanced against fraud prevention. Later on, I happily noticed a Chilli’s restaurant (that in my normal life you couldn’t pay me to be seen at or have any interest in), and then had to explain to my colleague the merits of an American breakfast – eggs, pancakes, sausage.. yummmm!!! She appreciated the experience.

Funny, how the small things in life do make a difference. When in Toronto, I used my free time to catch up with the simple pleasures such as bagel with cream cheese, Chipotle burrito bowl, thai food, dim sum, big pharmacy with lots of options for cosmetics, a shopping mall with the brands I like, clean streets, properly-flushing toilets, courteous waiters, free glasses of water with dinner, etc.

Many other things happened during this trip but I will share one interesting anecdote. One of the evenings of the convention, I was about to get a drink with a friend. As we were waiting in the queue to the get a seat at the bar, an older gentleman (around 70), approached us and started chatting with us. He was dressed in a typical business casual (khakis, button-up shirt and sweater) , with a funny hat that made him look like an anthropology professor. He presented his card that said he’s a private investor and said he is retired and goes to these conferences just to meet his friends and have fun. He then insisted in joining our table and after some initial resistance we accommodated. One by one, his friends started arriving and joining our table. We kept squeezing more people into the sofa and wondering what the hell is happening. With each friend arriving, the process went as follows: Our new friend, would introduce the person, tell us how he is very successful geologist and entrepreneur who made millions, then the newly arrived guest will praise our friend in return and say something along the same lines as his own introduction and then join the table. Then they would proceed to discuss some investments or common businesses, with alternating pauses for telling a story on how they were young and crazy explorers back in the day in Colombia or some other random country. A completely surreal experience. I recently read a book about Hemingway’s life in Paris and the Parisian artist society cafe circle and decided that our new friend is the Hemingway of geology. Every 5 mins someone came to our table to shake his hand or toast with him. Upon my return to Brazil, I asked an ex-geologist colleague about this man, and he was pretty shocked that I had met him. He is indeed one of the best known in the field.  Life is random. As I always say.