a good blend

People are a lot like wine: a good blend involves a special combination of science and serendipity. While there’s something to be said for a pure, one-grape varietal (or in sticking with the simile, immersing oneself in a solitary culture or society), it’s an exceptional day when the opportunity presents itself to experience a diverse assembly of people with many different backgrounds.

A few weeks ago I had just that chance. My job in Human Resources brought me to London for a global “meeting of the minds.” While “science” (or planning rather) brought us together, it was the first time any such gathering had ever taken place in the history of HR at my company. Despite vast differences in level of experience, professional goals and cultural frames of reference, the mix “serendipitously” worked. Reflecting back, my experience with this group shared many characteristics of a good blend of wine:

It was unexpected and “palate” opening.

Anyone who enjoys wine like I do has his/her preferences. If I’m feeling a white I always look for a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc , and if red is on my mind I defer to an Argentine Malbec. But if I had to select my all time favorite wine today, I would say without hesitation it is The Prisoner from Orin Swift, a vineyard in California. In terms of travel/culture I’m quick to say that I’m partial to South America…I’ve always been drawn to that part of the world and I’ve traveled extensively around the continent. I have studied the Spanish language for most of my life and I embrace my quarter Brazilian heritage and family. As we do with wine and many other aspects of life, we often get comfortable with what we know. For example, prior to my London trip I had certain Cold War era preconceptions of places like Bulgaria and the people who reside in that country. I am ashamed to say I was a bit shocked to meet someone from that part of the world who seemed so “Western” in many regards and totally contrary to the stereotype I had manifested. On the other side of that coin, I reveled in the challenge of winning over someone with her own stereotype of Americans. I tactfully tried to demonstrate my open-mindedness and deference to her culture. I complimented her fashion-sense (the common language of love for most women of any background!), asked genuine questions about her country, and truly listened to the responses. It’s an amazing formula for building rapport across cultures.

It was intense.

Mixing so many people from different countries can be overwhelming at times. It requires patience, particularly with the various styles and pace of communication. In a meeting with an ambitious agenda to cover a lot of content in a short period of time, there is a sense of urgency for communicating points quickly and moving on to the next topic. But when most people are speaking English as a second language and many come from cultures where more words are not necessarily less (as in the U.S. where we have a “cut to the chase” communication style), it required some mental endurance and heighted attention to really hear the value in what others were expressing. As it is important to let wine breathe and not judge it too quickly upon first taste, people require the same restraint in making hasty judgments.

I also had a lesson in different cultural approaches to communication. For one person in particular, speaking in a confrontational manner was totally normal and she didn’t think twice about how someone from a different country might respond. I myself fell victim to her intensity, and even coming from a culture that embraces confrontation, I caught myself reacting defensively.  After giving it some time and perspective I was able to understand that this person was just trying to establish her credibility among a group of equally intelligent professionals – much like the dominant grape in the wine blend analogy.

It left me hung-over.

As much as I love wine, unfortunately when you have too much you pay for it the next day. This trip left me feeling exhausted in much the same way. The sheer energy required to meet a new group of people, contribute ideas that added value among many eager and talented professionals, and balance respect for different cultural norms left me feeling a bit hung-over (the jet lag didn’t help either). I simultaneously learned and attempted to keep more distance with the people from the UK, to remember to greet the South Americans and the Spaniard with the proper cheek kiss, to make sure not to confuse “Brits” with “English”, and to refer to Eastern Europeans instead as Central Europeans…honestly my head is still spinning.

At the end of the day, wine is a great equalizer in that it enables us to to drop the guard. Give people enough of it and suddenly everyone loves each other and the invisible barriers fall by the wayside. The climax of our meeting was a delightful dinner where the wine flowed like water. Suddenly everyone found a common interest and bonded immediately. Judgments were set aside and everyone found a human connection with another. It was just that easy. I’m sure the naysayers out there are thinking it was just the effects of good food and alcohol. I say that’s just sour grapes.

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