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Alan and the Culture Clash

I work for a computer training company and we provide a lot of training on behalf of Microsoft.

Once upon a time it was very easy to be a Microsoft trainer. All you had to do was pass an exam in the product you wanted to train, and supply Microsoft with a video of yourself in full classroom flow, in order to prove that you were actually capable of standing in front of a group of people and talking coherently. Presumably Microsoft played the video during Friday afternoon drinks and if everyone laughed loudly enough you got to be a trainer.

Actually, since nobody in Microsoft ever laughs at anything, that probably isn't true. Microsoft is a particularly humourless organisation which takes itself far too seriously. I told a joke to a Microsofty once.

"When you go and work for Microsoft," I said, "they arrange for you to have an operation to put a microchip into your head to turn you into a robot. And because the surgeons are very cost conscious, they usually take the opportunity to remove your sense of humour gland at the same time."

"That's ridiculous," said the Microsofty indignantly. "Microsoft don't operate on their new employees." He sounded quite angry. "That's a stupid thing to say."

"See?" I said, and laughed.

He looked bewildered.

Over the years, the criteria for becoming a Microsoft trainer have become much more formalised and much tougher to meet. The programme also stopped being free – for the last few years, all trainers have been required to pay an annual fee to maintain their certification.

The introduction of that requirement was when we discovered that Microsoft had their own extremely bizarre notions of world geography. New Zealand, I was surprised to find, is a state of Australia. In the first year of the new regime, New Zealand trainers were required to pay their renewal fee in Australian dollars. New Zealand dollars were not acceptable. (To be fair, Microsoft fixed that in subsequent years). Furthermore, in the first year of the programme they made such a mess of implementing exchange rates that trainers in the UK ended up paying about $100 (American) more than trainers anywhere else in the world. However this was offset by setting the exchange rate for Greek drachmas   to such a ridiculous level that the Greeks ended up paying vastly less than anyone else in the world. Since both Greece and the UK are part of the European Union, a lot of UK trainers renewed their certifications in Greece in order to avoid the massive extra costs.

The storm of complaints over this seemed to take Microsoft a little by surprise. It was almost as if they had no real understanding of the non-American world. Perhaps their programmers simply implemented "foreign" requirements because the specifications told them to, but they didn't really believe that foreigners were different from Americans, so they didn't test the system out too well before it went into production. After all, if programmers at NASA can completely destroy a space probe because they don't know (or don't care) about the difference between imperial and metric measure, then I'm sure Microsoft programmers can do the equivalent in their own areas of (non)-expertise. Doesn't everyone know that the world outside of America is purely imaginary, somewhat akin to the square root of minus one?

Trainers see evidence of this every day in the classroom. All our students are presented with a training manual printed on American letter stationery and bound in a three ring binder. It is completely impossible to buy American letter stationery in this country and it is almost impossible to buy three-ring hole punches. In New Zealand, in common with most of the rest of the non-American world, we print on A4 paper and bind the pages in two ring binders. As a direct result of this thoughtlessness, non-American students cannot bind the notes they take in the class into their manuals. Even if they do manage to get the holes into the right place on the paper, the pages stick out from the rest of the manual and very quickly tear and get dirty.

When you are a trainer, it is necessary to update your knowledge all the time. New products are constantly appearing, new things are always on the horizon. If you fall behind, you quickly lose credibility in the classroom. One way of keeping up to date is to attend technical presentations and meetings. Consequently when Microsoft announced the release of their new .NET environment, I went to a technical presentation to start learning about how it worked.

An extremely competent and switched on Microsofty stood on the stage and demonstrated many of the features of .NET. He wrote programs and made things happen. He really was very good indeed and was obviously thoroughly familiar with his material. He wrote a program which displayed a red square on the screen.

"Watch this," he said and pressed a key. The red square turned green. The audience watched in polite silence. Red square, green square. Very nice.

The demonstrator seemed quite nonplussed.

"When I do this in America," he said, "the audience always cheers and whistles and applauds when the square changes colour."

He did it again; and again it was received with a silence of the polite persuasion.

"I guess I really am in a foreign country," he said wistfully. "OK," he continued. "I'll write you another .NET program. You'll love this. It simulates the magic 8-ball!"

He beamed with pride and waited for an audience reaction again. Nothing happened and his smile gradually wilted away in the silence.

When the silence had endured for an almost unbearable length of time, a voice from the audience yelled, "What's a magic 8-ball?"

"You're kidding me, right?" asked the Microsofty, disbelief dripping from every word. "You really don't know what the magic 8-ball is?"

Silence again.

"Gee - I thought everybody knew about the magic 8-ball."

Since we obviously didn't know what he was talking about, he tried to explain the magic 8-ball, but since he hadn't pre-prepared the explanation (because he'd assumed that we'd know) it wasn't a particularly lucid explanation. If I understood him correctly, the magic 8-ball is a pool table ball that provides essentially random answers to questions and therefore "foretells the future".

He struggled bravely through the rest of the demonstration, but his two doses of culture shock had obviously unnerved him.

George Bernard Shaw claimed that the Americans and the English are two nations separated by a common language. He's quite right - but there's more to it than that. They are also separated by a common culture. The similarities often blind you to the differences and when you stumble over the differences it can sometimes be a real surprise to both sides.

For example, several years ago, shortly before Microsoft announced one of their significant new products to the world, some of our trainers went over to Microsoft's headquarters in America to get some pre-release training straight from the horse's mouth. The different approach to learning that the different nationalities adopted was quite an eye opener.

American students clustered near the front of the classroom; they were quiet, polite and attentive. They took copious notes and asked grimly intelligent questions and appeared to respect their trainers almost to the point of adulation. And they applauded, cheered and whistled when red squares turned green (or whatever).

The Brits, Australians and New Zealanders, on the other hand, clustered at the back of the room, sniggered, made lots of sarcastic comments, and sneered at the trainers. They asked awkward questions, when they bothered to ask questions at all, and they didn't applaud anything.

As a trainer, I much prefer the latter behaviour in my students. Attentive respect, amounting sometimes to obsequiousness, scares the willies out of me and I’m never sure how to cope. I prefer my students to be a bit more bolshy. But then I would feel like that, since I share that same cultural background.

Despite this, all our trainers came back from America full of enthusiasm for the new product and stuffed to the gills with esoteric knowledge. All said they'd had a great time and learned heaps. So obviously the experience wasn’t wasted. But they were quite unsettled by the behaviour they'd observed in the Americans. And I bet the Americans were equally unsettled by the behaviour they'd observed in our trainers.

I suspect this cultural blindness exists mainly in the English speaking world. Other areas of the world generally do not share a language or a common cultural background with their neighbours and therefore they don't expect people from other countries to be the same as they are. Because they expect differences, they sometimes tend to respect them more.

But the old British Empire that formed our common background was just too damn large and too damn complacent, and its scattered remnants have grown too diverse without us realising it. Consequently we take each other by surprise far too often. The superficially familiar turns out to be unfamiliar when we examine it closely, which is unsettling. And that inculcates a distinct lack of respect for any cultural differences (both our own and others) since we find it too bewildering. Because we expect (and often require) similarity instead of difference, we become less tolerant. And the more extreme the difference the less patience we have with it. The truly foreign can often be terrifying in its unfamiliarity, and we want no part of it. Instead, we tend to insist that our own culture is the norm and deviations are not permitted (they frighten us).

Americans in general, and Microsoft in particular, are often completely indifferent to the annoyance that their cultural insensitivity engenders overseas. Indeed, I'm sure they don't even notice it happening much of the time since they never seem to change anything to suit local conditions (we've been getting three-ring binders and letter stationery for donkey's years). Might is right. In many ways America is merely Microsoft writ large.

However there are occasions when I find this behaviour extremely offensive. An American hotel once refused to take my reservation because I didn't have a zip code in my home address - not only was that offensive, it was damned inconvenient. Other things, such as the magic 8-ball, just make me laugh. But given that I do sometimes find the behaviour offensive, I think it is only fair to ask myself just how much of my own instinctive behaviour offends members of other cultures? I'm sure it must happen rather more often than I realise; and that makes me feel uncomfortable for I do not like to think of myself as a cultural chauvinist, though I suppose at times I must be.

Currently the Americans seem keen to impose their thinking upon the world by force of arms rather than by force of commerce. Starbucks and MacDonald’s and Microsoft are no longer in the vanguard. These days tanks and missiles are the preferred propaganda. And yet America appears to be having a lot of trouble with the idea that this forceful imposition may not be wanted at all in many places, and they seem somewhat bewildered by the resistance they are experiencing. If they don't learn to recognise the reality of the cultural differences they are so intent on smothering; if they don't learn to be more flexible in their attitudes to both small things (zip codes, three-ring binders and backward dates) and large things (Islam, oil and human rights) they may well find themselves the pariahs of the world instead of its saviours. There is much to admire about American culture, but its blind insensitivity to other viewpoints may well prove to be its downfall. I’m not very comfortable with the metaphor of Microsoft as representative of America – but the parallels are more than just anecdotal; they are truly scary.

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