Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Conference

The conference that I was coordinating is over and I survived.  What an experience that was!  Yesterday was the first day and of course there was a new checkpoint on one of the two main routes to the Embassy, which meant traffic was snarled.  We started about an hour late.  That afternoon, we were 4 hours into the conference and 3 hours behind schedule.

Iraqis and Americans have very different ways of conducting meetings.  Here's a typical exchange among Americans:
Ralph: "Give me a status report on the project.  Start with line 1."
Bob: "Lines 1, 3, and 5 are done and signed for.  Line 2 will be done this coming week.  I need your people to provide us with a Mark 2 shnabblefratzer before we can move any further on line 4."
Ralph.  "Right.  You'll get it tomorrow."
Bob: "Roger that.  Then we'll be done with line 4 by the 25th of the month."

Now for the equivalent exchange between an American and a team of Iraqis:
Ralph: "Give me a status report on the project.  Start with line 1."
Iraqis: A 20-minute discussion of line 1 ensues, complete with five people talking at once, mostly in Arabic with some broken English, arm and hand gestures to rival the Italians, sometimes sounding like they're about to come to blows, and the hapless translator is completely overwhelmed and unable to provide more than a rough outline of what's being said.  And at the end of it all, we still haven't even started talking about line 2.  And Bob?  Bob gave up about ten minutes ago and went for a cup of coffee.

Americans are very businesslike about meetings.  Facts and clarity are paramount.  Not so with Iraqis: personal relationships are the key thing.  They'll spend a lot of time in small talk, trying to get to know who you are.  What you know is not that important, even if what you know has a direct impact on their business.  It's a way of life that's well adapted to their social roots and history.  It's not well adapted to high technology and a fast-paced, globally interconnected world.  So when the modern Western way collides with the ancient Iraqi way, people on both sides can get perturbed.  We see them as slow and inefficient.  They see us as pushy and insensitive.

Today's session was very similar to yesterday's.  We started almost as late despite the fact that there was no checkpoint to delay traffic.  And when we jumped into the first topic (a planned 30-minute review of something previously settled), we promptly ground to a crawl.  It was like they'd never seen the document before.  Two hours later, with only an hour left before we had to leave, we moved on to the second (more important) topic.  The third and fourth topics (even more important) were covered in ten minutes, mostly by skimming over the all-important (to us, not to them) details.

So the next time I conduct a conference like this, I'll try to keep a few things in mind.
1.  We won't really start until an hour after the scheduled time.
2.  Iraqi watches evidently have no hands.
3.  We'll move at the speed of a snail for the first 80% of the meeting.  We'll speed up a bit for the next 30%, and only lightly touch on things for the final 20% as we madly try to wrap things up.  You'll notice that's more than 100% of the meeting time.  That's because it will go well over the allotted schedule.
4.  Don't present them with something new and expect them to make an immediate decision.  If at all possible, give them some time to go ask their boss.  It's pretty likely that they're not empowered to make those decisions.
5.  Be respectful.  Their way is not our way, but that doesn't mean it's wrong or bad, just different.  


1 comment:

Shea said...

Sometimes, like in this post, you make me laugh, because the things you say and touch upon are so true