Today we have a Guest Post from a friend of mine, Nancy Sypniewski. I met Nancy when when she began doing volunteer work at an animal shelter where I served as PR, but calling her a volunteer doesn’t even come close to suggesting her full value to the shelter. She was amazing. And she was also amazing to talk to. I recently asked Nancy to share one of her stories for the Blog, and she has graciously agreed.
I don’t know if Nancy will have time to come back and answer any questions, but I wanted to include this story, because it deals with a subject I think about a great deal, teaching something in a cross-cultural setting. The story dates back to a training exercise from her days in the tech industry.
We were working in South Africa. Our job was to implement a computer system that would automate the inventory of the power utility. This was back in the day of mainframe computers and big unfriendly user terminals. We first had to understand their business, determine the best method to automate their inventory, modify the “best fit” computer system, convert their existing data, thoroughly test both the modified system and converted data, develop and test customized training materials, and then finally train the people who would be using the system. These steps took thousands of man hours and multiple years.
We were finally ready to start developing our training materials. We were reminded that our audience would be tribesmen, mostly Zulu and Sutu. These men would arrive in the morning wearing a loin cloth and sandals, they would change into company provided blue jumpsuits and steel toe shoes, and then back into their tribal clothing before heading home at the end of the day. It was imperative that our training materials be full of simple language, pictures and diagrams, not because these men were of low intelligence, quite the contrary, the issue was language – English was often the 3rd, 4th or even 5th language they had learned.
Training day arrived. Our instructor had the students lay their arms across the keyboard and watch the letters appear on their terminal screen for every key they had touched. The room was filled with awe. The instructor then told the students to “Hit the key with C L E A R printed on it.” Each and every student did just that, they hit the key with the solid blast of their closed fist, causing many of the keys to pop off and fly all over the classroom. Needless to say, the students jumped up and frantically gathered the keys, now totally afraid of the new “machines” they had just destroyed. We assured them that all could be easily fixed and sent them into the break room for early tea and cookies.
Within about 20 minutes we had popped the keys back onto the keyboards and were ready to resume class. Since I had been with most of the students multiple times over the years and was a familiar face, it was decided that I would restart the class and give reassurances.
I asked that they restart the exercise by laying their arms across their keyboards while watching the letters appear as before. I then carefully said “Now, I want you to depress the key with C L E A R printed on it.” Everyone hesitated. Just then, a man in the front row raised his hand. I asked him what he wanted and he said, “Madame, I do not know what to say to make the key sad.” Luckily, everyone laughed and we had learned the lesson of careful word selection. After that, we always reminded one another to never use a $10 word when a $1 word would would do a better job.