The Thing about difference…

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The thing about difference…

Recently I had the very fortunate opportunity to go on a working trip to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Abu Dhabi. We went working with the Manufacturing Institute and their Make It Campaign to encourage young people to consider a career in manufacturing and an aerospace partner working Globally.

I’ve never been to the UAE before and after reading a document  of ‘guidelines’ produced by the manufacturer I was, I must admit, a little nervous about saying the right thing, doing the right thing and not being seen as rude or offending someone accidentally.

Combine this document and anticipation with discussions on the plane on the way over with some of the partners we were going with, and the common misconceptions spread by the media abut the ‘Middle East’ generally, I wasn’t exactly relaxed.

As I mulled it over whist watching a couple of things on the TV (including he recent film, Southpaw – excellent) I decided I wasn’t going to let fear be my guide, instead I elected to be polite – as I usually am obviously – and take each situation as it arose. We were fortunate enough to be travelling with some people from the Aerospace business that fly regularly (every three or four weeks) so we all had a ready-made source of guidance and support for social and professional situations.

A few areas we were guided on:

–       Don’t ever say ‘no’.

–       Shake hands only when offered.

–       Only take food with your right hand

–       Don’t beckon people with your index finger

–       Don’t show people the soles of your feet

–       Be enthusiastic, but carefully

We delivered two events with one hundred students in each – both at University buildings and with manufacturing partners from the UK and UAE as well as the Government’s Education Council (like the DfE) and film crews and PR people.

Here’s what I did:

–       Directly said ‘no’ to one of the female business partners (who was suggesting something that was going to be complicated logistically)

–       Tried to shake hands with one of the top female representatives from the Education Department

–       Attempted to pick up a date with my left hand (before it was batted away by a UK colleague)

–       Often gestured with my hands (as I do) clicked my fingers repeatedly and clapped my hands a lot.

–       Took my shoe off to sort an errant sock out (managed not to point my sole at anyone)

–       Was indefatigably enthusiastic, loud, a bit sarcastic and generally full of energy.

Here’s what I learned:

–       People from the Emirates are unendingly polite and calm

–       People from the Emirates are warm and friendly

–       People from the Emirates are funny and intelligent

–       Working with an interpreter doing a two-handed presentation was a brilliant, fun, new and exciting experience

–       Children the world over LOVE to get involved with a challenge

–       Creativity is a transferrable skill – developed through enthusiasm, passion and a good set of questions.

–       As long as you smile and apologise for your small digressions people from the Emirates are gracious

–       Working overseas was an absolute pleasure and privilege

What, therefore, is the thing about difference? Well in essence, difference isn’t always as different was we think its going to be. Once we allow ourselves to have an open mind, try new, challenging and difficult things and have faith that the people we’re working with also want to have a good experience then we can find out things about ourselves as much as others.

With a flexible attitude and faith in people and their abilities and skills difference can become a lovely thing.

Just remember – right is hand for food and smile at people!