All in the name…

by John on November 28, 2011

Today’s post was inspired by my recent trip to the Dominican Republic and some of the cultural nuances that I’ve experienced firsthand during my travels to Central America and the Spanish Caribbean.

I’ve always wondered about business professional who claims that they can think “globally”. I’d like to ask them if they’ve ever spent extended time abroad in a country where English is not the predominant language? Now don’t get me wrong, living and working in Miami has some of that flavor, but let’s be honest its still part of the U.S. I’m talking completely out of your comfort zone and full immersion in a culture and language where you have no tangible points of reference.

One of the first things I noticed was the fascination with surnames and how it may have an impact on how you’re treated. I didn’t realize it had much significance until I started dating my wife (waaay back in my university days). Her father, a military officer and instructor at his country’s military academy, wanted to know more about my last name. His questions were always polite but he wanted to know more about my family’s history.

This all made more sense to me when I had a chance to visit Nicaragua in 2009. My father-in-law briefed me on what to expect in country. He explained the social and political landscape and said not to worry but to follow his lead.

He introduced me to several of his friends, former colleagues, and extended family members. It always stared the same way “This is my son-in-law, insert name here, he works here at this corporation, and he’s also related to a former President of the United States?”

Now I’m incredibly shy about that small fact, but since I was completely out of my comfort zone linguistically and culturally, I had to go with it. I learned that it was a way of establishing a bastardized version of positional and referent power. Once that little fact came out, the tone of my interactions changed with people. Moving from an “Oh he’s just a gringo in the background” to a friendly tone. At times the interactions became more formal, and at others, incredibly informal.

Fast forward to last week and my trip to the DR. I found it a bit off being referred to as “Professor” but realized that it was a clear way to differentiate between instructor and student and again between position and referent power. When I was politely asked by someone about my surname, I kept it brief and didn’t mention the whole presidential thing. I then politely asked about his, and was met with the whole “I’m a PhD from Harvard-wrote a book about business education-teach across Central & South America” story.

My follow-up question about the business of education stopped Dr. Harvard in his tracks. He looked at me and said “Never thought about it from that perspective. You’ve given me something to think about.”

All due respect to my famous dead family member, but sometimes you gotta build the reputation all on your own.

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