Pastels and Pleats in a Truckstop – A Lesson in Cultural Awareness (Updated)
The 1980’s were not known for their contribution to high fashion.
For the most part, I didn’t care. My wardrobe of choice consisted of cotton shirts (preferably black), blue jeans, and if I could get away with it, cowboy boots (otherwise known as a man’s timeless classic).
My wife on the other hand, felt that this wardrobe choice needed adjustment, and by adjustment she meant anything that wasn’t a black top, blue jeans, and boots.
So… when shopping for clothes, she selected items that were currently in style – pants that had a pleated front and cuffs, shirts that had collars that seemed to extend to your belly button, shoes that were the exact opposite of boots, and all in colours that I can only say reflected the genteel hues of a summer flower garden.
I normally could avoid the pastels and pleats as I came to call them, since many of the people in my workplace dressed in my version of 'normal'. She hid her disappointment well.
One day I was told I needed to go to one of the other sites of the company I worked for and deliver some training.
My darling wife offered to pack my suitcase for the trip. I foolishly said yes.
The site was in the back woods of West Virginia. (You may see what’s coming…)
Getting to this remote area, I had to take a tiny commuter plane, and we arrived at the airport (if you could call it that) in the midst of a rainstorm. On the plane there were two other passengers… both military gents, and by the number of ribbons on their uniforms, they were fairly senior officers.
The airport was the kind of place where the same person guides the plane in, unloads the bags, runs the ticket counter, and also covers the car rental.
I had arranged to rent a mid-size car on my arrival.
In the lot were two cars. A midsize car, and a Chevrolet Chevette.
This was the era when a ‘midsize’ car was the size of a Sherman tank. The Chevette was the economy car of economy cars… it was the size of a riding lawn mower and had slightly less acceleration than a boulder. It was not so affectionately known as the “Shove-it” because if you encountered a steep hill, you may have been better off to get out of the car and push.
When the two military officers walked up to the car rental counter, guess which vehicle they were given?
You are correct.
I was handed the keys to the Chevette.
I threw my suitcase in the back of the car and drove to the hotel.
My traveling clothes were a mess from the rainstorm so I unzipped the suitcase to pull out a change of clothing.
Neatly packed in that suitcase were my pleated pants, pastel shirts, and stylish shoes. Not a bit of denim or black cotton in sight!
I reluctantly got ready the next morning and headed into the plant where everybody was wearing, you guessed it, cotton shirts, jeans and boots.
They seemed mildly amused at my clown outfit, but after all, I was from Canada, maybe things were different up thar’.
We got through the morning’s training session and it came time for lunch.
Every member of the training session had brought their lunch, so I asked about local restaurants.
The only eatery in the area was a truck stop a few minutes away.
So… I got into my Chevette and drove to the truck stop.
It was the kind of place where everyone could sit in a booth by the windows and watch the comings and goings.
Which means that when I pulled that little car into a parking space among all the pickup trucks (the local vehicle of choice), they noticed.
They noticed when I got out of the car in my pastels and pleats and came through the door.
I know they noticed because as I entered the restaurant, the place went dead quiet. (I am not making this up).
At that moment, I didn’t know if I would ever walk out of that place.
I realized that I could do one of two things.
Turn tail and leave, in which case I would not only have to live with the shame but also miss lunch, or…
… enter the place, sit down and try to act as normal as possible, which I did.
Thankfully the server was gracious (perhaps she secretly wanted to dress her husband up) and I didn’t get beat up.
But I did leave there vowing to never, ever let my wife pack my bags for me again.
So… what did I learn?
Believe it or not, I learned a lot that day.
If I had been culturally aware, I would have never packed pastels and pleats for a visit to West Virginia back country. If I had worn my jeans, boots and cotton shirt, nobody would have paid much attention to me (aside from the clown car) as I entered the restaurant.
It’s the reason in my last job, I wrapped a tie around my neck every morning even though I would much prefer to never wear one of these beastie things.
My current job is a tad more casual. I can get away with jeans, but the boots (lovingly hid from my wife so they don't go to Goodwill) at my current job would be inappropriate, and a great deal of energy would be required to get people to the same point of engagement as I easily do when I’m dressed in the ‘uniform’ of my role.
Being culturally aware removes so many barriers to engagement with others.
It’s not becoming LIKE those who are of a different culture, but it is about respecting their culture.
It’s about finding out what is important to them, rather than insisting that your ways and culture is superior.
So my near death experience in West Virginia has prepared me to be more effective in my role so many years later.
How about you?
What’s your cultural awareness story?__________________________________________________________________
Images: Used under creative commons license.
About the Author:
I’m the AVP - Information Technology, for Sheridan College, in Oakville, Ontario Canada, where my team is transforming the delivery of education through innovative application of technology. (www.sheridancollege.ca)
I'm convinced that IT leadership needs to dramatically change how IT is delivered rather than being relegated to a costly overhead department.
In addition to transforming IT in my role as CIO, I look for every opportunity to talk about this... writing, speaking and now blogging on BeBee (www.bebee.com/@kevin-pashuk) , LinkedIn, ITWorld Canada, or at TurningTechInvisible.com.
I also shoot things... with my camera. Check out my photostream at www.flickr.com/photos/kwpashuk