Monday, January 24, 2011

Traveling incompetently

by Steve Brock on January 24, 2011

Okay, so how hard can it be to open one of these? We all have areas of incompetency. Approach them the right way and you might just turn a trip into a meaningful journey...

I cannot open new lotion bottles. Those ones where you push down on the little spout and the lotion comes out? I’m virtually incapable of twisting the top in a way that unlocks the spout.

Why tell you this? In part so that you don’t ask me about other common skills I lack. This one may be pathetic – most five-year-olds can open these bottles – but at least it’s inocuous.

But mostly I share my inadequacy with lotion bottles because it reflects a truth about me and about you which is this: In some area of our lives, we are all totally and completely incompetent.

I’ve seen this with CEOs and leaders of great organizations or with others we look up to and respect. In some aspect of their lives, they lack the skills to perform some basic activity.

Now here’s the fun part: When you travel, you are often called upon to use skills you rarely employ at home. Thus, you increase the likelihood of coming face to face with one of your areas of incompetency, often when least expected. The question is, what will you do?

Will you bluster your way through? Blame someone else? Try to fake it (or ignore it)? Get exasperated? Or will you own up to it and invite others into your area of weakness?

I remember my aunt telling me about visiting relatives in Sicily many years ago. On that trip, she got a bug bite of some kind or a pimple right at the entrance to her ear canal. Her area of incompetency wasn’t just in diagnosing the proper treatment, but in her language skills (and her belief that they were stronger than they actually were). She knew enough Italian to be dangerous – literally.

She went into a pharmacy in the small town where she was staying and told the pharmacist and his assistant what she thought was, “Can you help me? I have a pimple in my ear that is very painful.” When the two men looked quizzically at each other and then began to laugh hysterically, my aunt’s first reaction was to be incensed. But she checked that response and asked them again, calmly, but this time with gestures. That brought even more laughter.

Somehow – I was never clear on the details of how they discovered the correct translation – they made it known to her that what she had actually said was, “I have a large pickle in my ear.” When she found this out, she laughed with them and apparently they all became good friends from that point on.

Some of us can’t pack well. Others are horrible with directions. Some slaughter foreign languages while most don’t even try. Maybe you can’t do foreign currency conversions in your head. Some people can’t figure out how to open doors in foreign telephone booths or bathroom stalls. Perhaps you have no clue on tipping or how to buy a metro ticket or how to fill up the gas tank in a rental car. The reality is that in some area, you simply won’t be competent.

Guess what? That’s a good thing. Particularly for Americans, acting out of our assured competence all the time in a foreign country isn’t always so positive. In many cases, we reinforce stereotypes and create barriers between us and others.

When you demonstrate some area of weakness or incompetency, you’re basically revealing your own humanity. And that can be very inviting because it reveals our need for others. People respond to our humanity far more than they do to our competency.

So next time you’re on a trip and you can’t figure something out, don’t get frustrated. Ask for help. It may initially be embarrassing, but if you approach it with the right attitude, you might just solve your problem…and even make a new friend.

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