Cross-culture expert Pellegrino Riccardi discusses Cross Cultural Communication at TEDxBergen event. Here is the full transcript of the TEDx Talk.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Cross cultural communication by Pellegrino Riccardi at TEDxBergen
It’s really great to be in Bergen, this is the second time this week I am in Bergen. I live in Oslo, I guess I’m living in the wrong place.
As you quite rightly say, my name Pellegrino, which is my first name, means ‘pilgrim’. It was given to me by my Italian parents. It is as if they knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life. “Let’s give him the name ‘pilgrim’, and then he’ll travel the world.” That’s basically what I did. This is my workplace. I do a lot of travelling.
I can give you a fancy title of what I do, but what I really do is I try to help people communicate better, especially in the global business world. So I try to help people communicate better with other nationalities. You know, the first thing you think of when you work with other nationalities and cross-cultural communication, is “Let’s look at the other cultures.” Well I take a slightly different approach. I say to people, “Take a look at yourself.”
So I am going to talk a lot about perception because it’s all about perception and understanding what people see. As you see, I have Italian in me, I have a lot of British in me. Some people are often surprised by my English accent, it’s quite nice, isn’t it? Because you weren’t expecting this, I know, you were expecting me to speak with an Italian accent. I don’t speak like that.
And I’ve been in Norway for over a third of my life actually, so I’ve got a lot of Norwegian in me as well. What I like doing to people is I have these little social experiments to test their perception of me. Now as I said, I travel a lot, so I like playing with the airlines. I like going up to the airlines and talk in English, or sometimes talk with an Italian accent, to see what kind of reactions I get. And English is the best one. If you want a good service, you speak English like I do. It’s fantastic. People take you seriously.
Well, they do, you know. I mean, yesterday, the plane to Bergen was late. If I go up and say, “Excuse me, it’s 30 minutes late, I’m a punctual person, I don’t like being late,” they just take you seriously. But yesterday I thought I’d try in an Italian accent. So I went up, and I actually said, “Excuse me, but the plane is 30 minutes late, I’m a punctual person, you know.” Exactly! I got the same reaction as you did there. This is one of the problems when working with other nationalities: people see what they want to see, they don’t always see what you see. And this is one of the challenges.
Just before we get into it, culture, let’s look at culture. My definition of culture, and I know this doesn’t cover everything, but let’s keep it simple. I usually do two day workshops on this, I’ve got 18 minutes — “a system of behavior that helps us act in an accepted or familiar way”. Keyword there: accepted or familiar. We’re basically doing things which are accepted in our social group and which are familiar.
So a lot of my work is actually explaining Norwegian behavior to other nationalities. So I’m constantly looking for this sort of, “Can we describe a Norwegian in a nutshell?” And I think I found it. I found this fantastic text on the Internet, I want you to read it, it’s really worth reading. “If you were to use a color to describe this person, he’d have to be green. He lives in isolation in his home, a place he best describes as ‘his’ and ‘cosy’. However, he is not the most receptive of people when it comes to visitors.” The typical Norwegian. “He is somewhat primitive, but he is honest, straightforward, all he really wants in life are the simple little pleasures like peace and quiet.” Do you recognize any of this?
There are some key words — can you see that? They jump out at you. And you think OK, it’s a stereotype, but a lot of this is a bit true. And I show this to Norwegians, and they kind of nod, “Yeah, OK. I’ll give you that one.” And then I surprise them: this is a description not of a Norwegian, but of a Hollywood film star. Yeah! Would you like to know who it is? There it is. Is that person there.
And the point about this is you often believe what people tell you as well. I could sit there and tell you this is a Norwegian, and you believe it. It’s not a Norwegian at all; although maybe this could be a Norwegian that is going off to this house, but there are many words in there which are accepted and familiar.
Another accepted and familiar thing about Norwegian life is the Norwegian forest; I live in the Oslo area, it’s all forest. Working across borders is basically not accepting completely that your assumptions are the assumptions of others. I mean that’s logic; you know, common sense. The Norwegian forest is a good thing, isn’t it, Norwegians in the room? It’s all good, it’s fresh air, nature, elks, skiing, it’s fantastic. Well that’s what my wife thought the first time my father visited us in Norway because she thought we would do something nice.
So my wife asked my Italian father, “Would you like to go for a walk in the forest?”
And my father looked at her and said, “Why?” And I had to explain to my wife that if you say to another Italian, “Hey, you and me, we go for a walk in the forest,” that means something else, you don’t do that. But how can you know that? How could you know that? Accepted and familiar. At the time, we went for a drive, we went for a drive with my father, and we are all looking at the same thing. Look at this beautiful Norwegian landscape. And my father is taking photographs that he wants to show his friends. The road is kind of bumpy, so he says to my wife, “Could you slow the car down please? Stop the car. I want to take a proper photograph.”
My wife says, “But Mr. Riccardi, there is nothing here.”
He looks at her and he says to her, “I know. I’ve never seen nothing before.” What was amazing with this is we’re looking at the same pictures and we’re using completely different words to describe it and this is the challenge of working across borders. We’ve got different ideas of accepted and familiar.
Here is what is accepted and familiar to me when I queue. I was raised in the UK, we’re the world champions of queueing, waiting in line. And you know? We’re fantastic. If you’re waiting in line in a supermarket in the UK, let’s say there are 10 people waiting in line, and we all are getting a bit impatient because we’re all waiting in line — and then they open a new cash register, do you know what will happen in the UK? The first four people, they won’t move, they’ll stay in the queue. The next six people will move to the next cash register in more or less the same order, and they kind of check with each other.
And if they open another cash register, the same will happen. It’s like a formation dance, it’s fantastic. Would the same happen in Norway? No. What would happen if they shout in Norwegian “Ledig kasse”, which is “Available cash register”? What happens? Everybody goes for it. It’s first come, first served, isn’t it? Isn’t that what is accepted and familiar?
Now the first time that happened to me, I was shocked, and I said some not very nice things about Norwegians. But, you know, you got to dig a bit deeper to find out why Norwegians do that. Why are they running for that cash register? Why is it a free for all and first come, first served? I think it has got to do with this. “What?” they say. This is the King of Norway on a train in 1973, that guy in a cap on the right. This is equality, and I think the queueing system in Norway is all about equality. First come, first served is about equality, and it’s the ability to dig under the surface and find out what the underlying values are. That’s how you know how to communicate with people, and this thing with equality is really important in Norway. It’s the reason we’re so laid back with each other, we don’t bother with titles, we dress casually, it makes a fantastic business environment actually, doesn’t it?
But sometimes, this can take you a bit by surprise, and in those situations where you feel uncomfortable or irritated, we have a tendency to jump to the negative conclusions rather than the positive conclusions. I mean I travel all over the world — and this is not an advertisement for the airlines — but it is Scandinavian Airlines, and it’s Lufthansa, and it’s Singapore Airlines, and everybody knows Singapore Airlines has the best service; why? Because they have a whole lot more hierarchy in their societies. Therefore, when they serve you, they serve you, and the Singapore Airlines staff – I don’t know if you’ve ever been on a Singapore Airlines flight — but from the moment they welcome you, they look like they’re going to serve you. I mean, it’s just the body language, it’s like, “Anything for you, sir.”
Now, if a Scandinavian Airlines person did this when you came on, yeah, exactly, you would get suspicious, wouldn’t you? What is going on? Because it is not accepted or familiar, that’s it, you know. This is what it’s all about. So this is how we do it. And look at the space. Space is important, nobody is touching. If you go to somewhere like Finland, that space becomes even more, can you see? It’s fantastic.
And look at the way they queue in France. There is nothing like the way I’m used to queueing, and it’s different every day, it’s never the same. And in some cultures, you need a bit more motivation to stand in line. This is my favorite one, this is fantastic, look at this. Isn’t that great? They’re all different. We are all doing the same thing in slightly different ways.
Now, how do you get across borders? How do you navigate through this? Because you can’t learn all the codes, it’s impossible. Here is a tip. This is what I’m really passionate about: Curiosity. I am, have been, always will be a curious person. Curiosity gets you through a lot of things. I believe you can ask any question to anybody just about anything, provided you do it with curiosity. That’s it.
Curiosity is a great thing. Now, I’ve got three kids. Kids are the most curious creatures on the planet. A recent survey — I can’t believe this, but I have to quote it — apparently, 4-year-olds will ask up to 390 questions per day. 82% of those questions will be to mothers rather than fathers. You know why? Because when the kid goes to the father, what does the father say? Go and ask your mother. Curiosity is so important.
And I remember the time — one of the most difficult situations I had — I was having a meal in Helsinki, in Finland, and I was sitting there, and the thing is, Italians, when we talk, we have to talk actually. We eat and we talk, we eat and we talk. We’re not alone on that actually, there are many cultures that do that. Finns, on the other hand, don’t have to talk. They can talk, but they don’t have to.
So, I’m sitting next to this Finn, and I’m trying to be curious and create a conversation, and I thought, “OK, small talk.” The rules of engagement of small talk.
Rule number 1: ask a simple question. Curious, simple question. Rule number 2: listen to the answer, pick out a word, follow up that word. It’s really simple actually. So, I was there, this quiet Finn was sitting next to me. And I turned to him, and I said, “So, have you lived in Helsinki all your life?” And he looked at me a little strange, and he said, “Not yet.” Moments like this – you know, which word do I follow up: ‘not’ or ‘yet’? – they really challenge your curiosity, but you’ve got to be curious, and it’s really simple.
Do you know what it is about the Nordic cultures? It’s all about economy of language. Italians use loads and loads of words to say very, very little actually. In the Nordic countries, it’s different, it’s the opposite; it’s minimum words, maximum message. So, where I was raised, in the UK – the UK, it’s also lots of words, by the way — look at this, “Excuse me, may I just interrupt you for a second?” That is 10 words. That is way too many words. The Norwegians manage to do this in one word, that’s what I call economy of language. What is the word? Look at this. Yeah. “You?” That’s it.
Here is another example. “Sorry for bumping into you like that, terribly clumsy of me.” That is way too many words. The Norwegians do it in one word. Ready? There it goes. Fantastic. My favourite and you know the answer – “Sorry, I didn’t quite catch what you just said.” Hæ? Well-done. “Hæ?” One word. The first time I heard that, I just heard this, “Hæ?”
I’ve got three kids now going, “Hæ?” “Hæ?” “Hæ?” But look beyond the negative side, and look to the curiosity. And this is it, we are often misperceived because, on a serious note, this “Hæ?”, which I’ve heard many times, doesn’t often get perceived very positively by other nationalities. You get it, yeah? Everyone has been misperceived in their life. The Dutch are often misperceived, they complain a lot, they are the world champions of complaining. But why do they do it? They do it because they are looking for something better. One way you do it is to complain and seek a better result, that’s often difficult.
I used to work with a guy who was French – he is French – I used to work with him, his name was Yves. Yves. Yves complained a lot as well. He complained about everything, and he questioned everything. He had a fantastic mind. I would come into work and once I came into work, and I said to Yves, “Good morning!” He looked at me and said, “Is it?” He was on that level, you know.
I’ve had my challenges too. The biggest challenge I’ve had living in Norway and trying to communicate with my fellow Norwegians, is, of course, feelings and expressing feelings. Where I come from, we express. What I’ve learned to do, I’ve had to learn to do is kind of tone myself down actually living in the Nordic countries, in Norway, to tone myself down, keep it low, keep it calm, because that works better, which is often very, very difficult.
Another thing is rules, I still find rules a little tricky. I must admit that is where I’m quite Italian. These are people driving into work in a town, in Norway; they are following rules, can you see? They are simple rules, the rules are: keep between the lines and don’t use the lane over there – that’s the public transport lane – unless you’re a bus, a taxi, or an electric car; simple rules. And look at this: every single car manages to drive between the lines, it’s fantastic.
Now, this is a little clip that I took this summer driving down to Italy. This is a police car; that car has nothing to do with the police car. It’s just a little, short clip, but look at it. I mean, would you do that in Norway? You know you wouldn’t. This is another clip in France. What they do — yeah, yeah, look, what happens is that, you see, they drift. I love that guy in the BMW, the French guy is going, “Left or right? I do not know yet. I have not decided.” It’s fantastic.
In some countries, you can’t even see the lines. Where are the lines? Where are they? I suggested once to an Indian colleague of mine, “Perhaps, if you painted the lines more regularly, people would follow the rules.” And he just said, “No, that would be a waste of paint.” That is why we have traffic wardens in Norway. This is a traffic warden in Norway giving a ticket, a fine to this car.
Now, I’m just going to check. You see, Norwegians know these rules instinctively, it’s your duty to learn the rules, but can I ask you why is that car going to get a fine? Too close to the zebra crossing there, pedestrian crossing. What is the minimum distance? People mumbling ’25’. You know this stuff, it’s like a stupid question.
So the day I parked my car in Oslo, let me just explain you what is going on. You see, the line goes under here and then underneath the wheel, this is no parking, I was a little bit in a hurry. My wife said to me, “I think you should move your car forward a little bit.”
I said, “Why?”
“Just move your car. It’s… you’ll get a fine.”
“Just… just, please, move your car.”
You could see she was really uncomfortable, and this irritated me, I thought, “You know, I don’t have time for this. Let’s go.” So I left. OK – and this is especially for the Norwegians in the room – did I get a fine? Do you feel sorry for me? No. You get no sympathy. No sympathy whatsoever. It’s a simple bloody rule, follow the rules.
Now Italians believe that the power of speech, the power of persuasion is your most important tool in life. We believe that you can appeal to people, and if you’re good enough at appealing, they might listen to you, and they might find an alternative solution. So I believed that I could call the Oslo Traffic Police and talk my way out of the problem, and I can see Norwegians doing this, “Oh, no! You’re wasting your time. Don’t bother.” No! I thought I would try.
So I called the guy down at the Oslo Traffic, “Hello, this is Pellegrino …” by the way, I spoke English, of course, not Norwegian, because they take you more seriously. “Hello, this is Pellegrino… I’m referring to the case 78206.”
“Yes, I have it in front of me here.”
“Listen, I was just wondering if we could be a bit flexible on this, we’re only talking about 20 centimetres, I’m really sorry, I’ve learned my lesson, I won’t ever do it again.” Did it help? Not at all. To his credit, he was good, he was really good. I could hear him clicking in the background, he had all the rules, he was saying, “I’m very sorry, but the wheel must be inside the box. It says so here in the rule 5, paragraph D.” He had all the answers in front of him.
And then he said something I’ll never forget, he said to me, “Riccardi is your name, you may be Italian. You probably like football.”
I said, “I do like football.”
“Well, it’s like football, you know. The ball must be over the line, the wheel must be…” But it’s fantastic. It was great. He had all the answers, black and white, he had everything. Fine.
So I told my friend Yves this, my friend Yves, the French guy, who got really irritated. Remember Yves? “Is it?” But he is really good at asking questions and he said, “OK, the wheel must be inside the box. What if I take the wheel off the car? What would happen then?” I thought that was really interesting actually. I called back and asked, “What would happen if I took the wheel off the car?” He didn’t have an answer for me. He couldn’t answer that question. Why not? Because it’s not an accepted and familiar question, and he doesn’t have that approach.
Then you need the help of an Italian because the time I parked my car in Italy. You see, I was looking for a parking place on a holiday, impossible. I see a traffic warden, and I go up to her. And I start talking in Italian, “Listen, I’m looking for a parking place.”
She says, “There is a parking house nearby but don’t park your car there.”
She says, “It’s too expensive. 40 Euro!”
“Really? What should I do?”
And she says, “I like you. You seem like a nice fellow. I like the way you talk Italian, I’m going to help you today. Park your car over there.” And she points over to this sign and says, “Go and park car over there.”
“Come on, I can’t…”
“It’s OK, it’s not dangerous. Park your car there. Don’t pay 40 Euro in the parking house. Park your car over there. I give you a fine for 30 Euro, you save yourself 10 Euro.”
I’m not here to discuss whether it’s right or wrong, but what I can tell you is that I get it. I get it because I’ve got it inside me. I’ve seen this before, and I accept it, and I can see the positive elements. You see, these three cultures I have inside me.
Just to finish off, this is what I’m passionate about: I’ve got three cultures inside me, and they’re all very different, they are planets apart, they really are, in certain aspects. But you know what I try to do on a daily basis, especially with my kids? I try to take the best of all three – take the best of all three and try to merge them into one new culture where you take the best of all three. Across borders isn’t about going to cross borders in my mind, it’s about extending your borders and creating new ones around us. And you know what if you can create a new culture where you take the best of all three, like I try to do, and it’s not easy, guess what? That’s when you create what we call a global mindset. And I believe this is what makes the world go around.
Thank you very much.