Social Ponderings


A Taco Consultant ??

A Taco Consultant ??

I am currently working as a consultant in Mexico City. (And I work a lot in this profession, leaving me little time for the blog – so sorry dear readers!)  Today I found myself pondering the term and role of consultant as I walked home from work. Here are some of my thoughts.

On the one hand, I love the term “consultant” because it is so incredibly vague and somewhat meaningless. According to the dictionary, it means: “A professional who provides advice in a particular area of expertise … ” and then goes on to list several areas of expertise that consultants typically work in, such as management, accounting, the environment, entertainment, etc.

Sometimes it is nice to have a profession that is not at all well defined. At parties I can talk about whatever aspect of consulting seems the most interesting to people at the time. And if I find myself answering questions from a rather boring and less-than-intelligent person, I can simply say with an air of confidence, “I am a consultant.” (full-stop) And they will usually shut up, having not a clue what that means but thinking it must be something very important.

On the other hand, having an ambiguous profession is often more complicated and difficult. First when explaining to an overly curious type what you do … it can take several sentences and sometimes a couple paragraphs worth of words to clearly describe my job. And secondly, and most importantly, sometimes it is unclear to me and my clients what it is I do. This is by far the hardest part of being a consultant. It seems like a constant battle between dark confusion and a clearly defined list of strategies & objectives. Sometimes I feel a bit lost as to my role as a consultant, and very often the clients demonstrate their lack of understanding through completely out-of-scope requests and very needy behavior.

In trying to navigate this confusing world of being a “consultant,” I have come up with a few conclusions (or hypothesis?) about the profession today in the world (and based on my experiences in the US and Mexico):

  • Part of the role of consultant is to constantly define what type of consultant you are – for one’s own clarity as well as that of your clients.
  • While in an ideal world a consultant would always bring new ideas and insights to their clients, in reality, it does not always happen like that.
  • In fact, what many clients want, expect and need of their consultants is a smart, outside perspective and analysis of the information they already have
  • And many times consultants are really just used for reassurance or confirmation of the beliefs or plans that clients already have made
  • Perhaps the most important role of a consultant is to listen to the clients, in some ways acting as a counsellor to clients who need someone from the outside to listen to them and reassure them so they can manage their fears

I think we often forget just how much our world is filled with fear. We look to friends and family for reassurance, turn to religion to give us faith amid uncertainty, but who can we turn to when we are scared and unsure of our professional (business) decisions? Aahh yes, the consultant.

And that must be my real role.

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The next few blog entries will touch on several aspects of culture and society in Mexico – especially for readers who might not be so familiar with life here. (for those who live here, it might be a little redundant … sorry!) pyramid 

Topic 1: The Socio-Economic Level Pyramid

Mexico is very divided into socio-economic levels using a pyramid that everyone knows about – and generally knows what level they belong to:

 

Socioeconomic Pyramide
Socioeconomic 

Pyramid

Here are some generalizations about each level:

 

A/B – highest, richest, generally best educated in top private schools, well-traveled (US and Europe trips), have nice houses, cars, maids/nannies, as well as possibly gardeners/chauffeurs/body guards, many married women dont work, many have family business or very well-paying jobs.

C – Technically the “middle class” – typically divided into 2 parts:

C+  The Upper Middle Class – might have similar access to private education as upper class, though less expensive schools, have well-paying white-collar jobs, houses, cars, etc, but have less disposable income as A/B, have maid/nanny but not chauffeur or body guard

C – more middle-class, have modest homes, no or shared/inexpensive cars, lower-paying jobs, private education but not at the best schools, might have a maid a couple times a week, limited savings, struggle to live decently

D – Also split between D+, the growing “upper lower class” and D, the lower class

Most do not have car, rent house (or live with large extended family in old, small-town house), work at more laborious jobs, attend public schools, limited education, women and men have to work, have large families, no savings

E – The mass of poor people – live day-to-day, struggle to afford basic necessities

This Pyramid permeates the entire society and culture as a guideline for class – and people generally treat others according to their class. This can translate into respect levels and general attention/effort paid differing according to socioeconomic level.

Procrastinating on the Beach

Procrastinating on the Beach

“Why wait for tomorrow to do what you can do today?” he emphatically asks (tells) me.
Because I like to procrastinate, I respond, in the most confident voice I can feign.

But inside, I wonder, why do I procrastinate? Of course, logically it makes sense to not wait for tomorrow to do what you can do today … but for the life of me, I cannot possibly seem to do that. Maybe its because today I can always think of a million other worthwhile tasks other than what I should be doing for tomorrow …

Or perhaps it’s that I am addicted to the pressure of not having enough time. Fascinated by the stress of knowing I could have done the work earlier and in a more relaxed manner but that it just would not have been as intense, exciting, nerve-wracking …

And sometimes I think I work better under the  pressure that results from procrastination. I seem to work faster, more efficiently, and perhaps, just perhaps, smarter?

And the big question I am dying to know the answer to:  Is procrastination a cultural trait or personal trait? Why do we do it? Is it something that should go away with age? Or am I just a born-and-raised procrastinator, just like my “late arrival” issue. A response? Anyone?

Walk or take a snooze ...

Walk or take a snooze ...

I recently came across a great article called “Understanding Cultural Differences” (by Edward and Mildred Hall, 1990). They talk about cultures as tending to fall into two groups (Monochronic and Polychronic) depending on their internal time system which guides nonverbal communication and actions. Monochronic cultures are typically “Western” cultures including Swiss, German, Scandinavian, and US-an. While Polychronic cultures tend to be more Mediterranean and Latin, as well as East Asian and Arab.

The article goes on to explain some differences between these two ruling time systems and how they influence so many cultural interactions. Here are some of the most striking (and in my experience, completely visible and true) differences between cultural time systems. 

Monochronic (US, German) people tend to …. vs. Polychronic (Latin, Mediterranean) people who tend to:

  • do one thing at at time …. vs. do many things at once
  • concentrate on the job …. vs. are easily distracted and subject to interruptions
  • take time commitments seriously …. vs. consider time commitments an objective to be achieved if possible
  • emphasize promptness …. vs. base promptness on the relationship
  • need information to operate well …. vs. already know the information through cultural understanding
  • committed to the job …. vs. are committed to people and human relationships
  • adhere religiously to plans …. vs. change plans often and easily
  • are concerned about not disturbing others …. vs. are more concerned with those who are closely related than with privacy
  • show great respect for private property (seldom borrow/lend) …vs. borrow and lend things often and easily
  • are accustomed to short-term relationships … vs. have strong tendency to build lifetime relationships
Chasing Bubbles, not a thought to the hour

Chasing Bubbles, not a thought to the hour

While of course these are broad cultural generalizations, I found this list very insightful. It is true that in Mexico the meeting will always go long if there are still things to be said (which there always are). And no business meeting begins without at least a few minutes of small talk about children and families and personal life. All meetings are interrupted multiple times with various cell phone calls (taken in the meeting), emails being sent/received, and various side-conversations among participants. I am sure it is no coincidence that most office floor-plans in Mexico are “open style” as the heightened noise level, lack of privacy and increased social interactions are more comfortable for Latino cultures. And no weekend plan, such as a beach trip, can ever be counted on until you are actually in the car leaving the city, because 9 out of 10 times the plan will change even up until a half-hour before scheduled leaving time. Which can be frustrating!

Though as a perpetually late US-an myself, I must admit that I secretly like the emphasis on relationships over promptness. Honestly, my late arrival is not a reflection of my respect (or lack there-of) for the person I am going to meet. I just was raised in a household where finishing something was more important than arriving on time for the next thing. I have a suspicion that the US being the melting-pot that it is has more cultural influences from the Polychronic Time side than people like to admit. It must by my great-great-great aunt’s French influence.

A Mexican Suburb Full of SocioCultural Differences

A Mexican Suburb Full of SocioCultural Differences

Lately I have been noticing a lot of cultural differences in the way people work, think and act in Mexico. From business situations in my multicultural new job to social and everyday life encounters. And I am not just talking about Mexicans and US-ans … lately I am surrounded by people from all over Europe, South America and North America. With various languages and even more varied ideas about life, it is always a cultural experiment living in such a multicultural environment. For example, I just hosted a party with guests from no less than 8 countries! The party was interesting to see how people act and interact in different ways, many of them ruled by a hidden cultural guide unknown even to them.

I like to think of Cultural traits  as a software installed since childhood, when we watch, listen and learn from our parents, families and those around us how we should act in certain situations, what type of verbal and non-verbal communication we should use, and when to do and say specific things. Even though the majority of this learning will always be sub-conscious, years later it will still be visible in our many of our actions, expressions and manners of communicating. Let’s take the simple social event of a party; there are a million examples of the influence of people’s cultural upbringing guiding their behavior. For example:

  • Some arrive early, some arrive late
  • Some bring home-made gifts, some bring nothing but a smile
  • Some stick to their date or friends all night barely talking with anyone else, while others make the rounds several times and leave with a long list of new friends
  • Some smoke, some don’t … some drink, some don’t … and others smoke and drink (a lot)
  • Some dance, even before being drunk, others dance, only when drunk, and still others never get up the courage to move their bodies at all
  • Some sit down most of the night, others prefer to stay standing
  • Some talk a lot, others listen more
  • Some munch directly from the snack bowl, others take some chips into their napkin or hand to eat
  • Some talk about their careers and accomplishments, others talk about their families and travels
  • Some treat the bar tender with utmost respect, others order the him around rudely
  • Some carefully clean up when they are through, others don’t seem to notice the avalanche of a mess they leave behind
  • Some take ice, others lots of lime, and a few just like it hot
  • Some leave early, others leave when the hosts start to fall asleep after 4am 🙂

While not all of these differences are purely cultural, I personally believe (after studying anthropology and thinking way too much as I people-watch for hours on end) that many more differences have their roots in our cultural-infused upbringing than we care to admit. And when I say “culture” I don’t just mean Mexican, Brazilian or US-an. I am referring to micro-cultures of sociocultural groups (e.g., US hippies,  Mexican fresas), religious groups (Catholic vs. Jewish), socioecomic levels (middle vs. upper, NSE C vs. B+), and so many other micro-groups we belong to that influence how each one of us is raised from childhood to adulthood.

Just something to think about the next time you attend a party. Watch people’s actions and interactions, think about how and possibly why they do the things they do. It adds a fascinating new dimension to every party!

Mexicans on the street

Mexicans on the street

Mexico is not known for its productivity. Everyone has heard of the stereotypical “lazy Mexican,” walking slowly, lazing about, working at a snail’s pace, talking a lot … just some of the perceptions of Mexicans. When I first arrived and saw how many hours people spent at work in Mexico City, I thought those stereotypes were completely unfounded and downright wrong. Then I started to realize that while people do work long hours in Mexico, work is rarely conducted in the most efficient manner possible, reducing overall productivity. I have found, it is the lack of organization, over-hierarchical processes and unimportance given to schedules and timings that leads to this great lack of productivity in Mexico. Here are some real-life examples:

colombia-045sm

Organization in general is a joke. A million papers, a million archives on various computers, one or two people controlling the information and 50 others in need of it but not having a clue as to where to find it. Long, wordy emails and ridiculously long powerpoints that are not only hard to digest but nearly impossible to use for planning.

Hierarchy is extremely important in Mexican culture. Bosses have ALL the power and typically are the only ones who make decisions. This leads subordinates to defer any decision for fear of upsetting their bosses, making it impossible to work with anyone except the highest level client in order to agree to anything and move ahead. In addition, everyone and their mother has to review things, though with people receiving as many as 200 emails a day, it is virtually impossible, leading to increased mistakes for lack of clear lines of accountability and responsibility.

Schedules and times are always taken with a grain of salt … nothing is ever fixed in stone. I have rarely been to a meeting with a client that was not rescheduled a minimum of two times leading up to the date and almost always started late and ran over-time. In fact, meetings are rarely even assigned end-times. People like to share their opinions and discuss things for extended periods of time here. And if a meeting ended on time, the following meeting just might start on-time, which would be very un-Mexican.

But aside from all these cultural conditions that affect productivity in Mexico, somehow, work does get done, companies do make money, and most people seem content with their work (totally subjective opinion). And I must say that when deadlines put on the pressure, Mexicans DO know how to get things done quickly and efficiently. I generally think they are hard workers, even if half their time is spent trying to reschedule meetings and read their boss’ mind. Perhaps the whole influenza outbreak and week and a half of “working at home” wont have such a negative effect on productivity after all.

Covering up for safety!

Covering up for safety!

I am sure that everyone has seen the news about the Influenza outbreak in Mexico. I am sure the images of mouths covered are not new. But from the perspective of someone living here, I have to say, it is quite a sight to see.  I feel like I am in a science fiction movie. People are staying in their houses … no school, no work in offices, no restaurants, no concerts or movies, few people out and about … and everyone walking around with their nose and mouth covered.  In general, very creepy. For a few days the city was literally shut down … though apparently pharmacies, hospitals and the television and movie rental industries have made out quite well.

Old and young alike ...

Old and young alike ...

I am still not sure just how dangerous this thing is, or if it really merits any sort of action beyond normal health precautions, but I will say that the Mexican response to the “crisis” has been incredible. With just a few announcements by the government and health officials, the city of over 20 million people effectively shut down all movement. Everyone got a tapa-bocas (mouth cover), and people took all necessary precautions against a veritable plague. Though it is not the plague. It is the flu. Which kills thousands of people annually. So I am stuck wondering, is all this really necessary?? And if not, who is behind this? The biggest city in Mexico will have lost precious time and productivity and economic activity for over a week, which cant be good for the already weak economy. And not to mention the post-traumatic stress syndrome of the country after having the living daylights scared out of 23 million people. At least there wont be any protests because everyone will be too afraid to be in a large crowd.

I really wonder what the after-effects will be from such an event. Or, perhaps Mexico will be its glorious self and return to normal in a week, with not a trace of the craziness except for millions of blue tapa bocas laying around. We’ll see!

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