Saturday, May 18, 2013

Avoiding Cultural Gaffes while Appraising Abroad

British innkeeper Basil Fawlty [actor John Cleese] is confronted with an "ugly American"
 
 
One day in Perth, Australia, my Australian hosts and I had some time to kill between property inspections and we settled at a pleasant riverfront café at about 11 am.  Not quite ready for lunch, but having already had breakfast, I asked only for orange juice.  Then I immediately asked if it was “fresh-squeezed”.
 
My hosts immediately asked if I was trying to re-create a classic scene from the BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers, the famous 1979 “Waldorf Salad” episode in which an obnoxious American comes to visit.  I even remembered that episode, particularly since it was the first time I had seen Americans parodied in foreign media. This American from California was portrayed as demanding and belligerent, finishing his demands with the phrase, “or I’ll bust your ass!” And he and his wife insisted on fresh-squeezed orange juice. That episode was hilarious, but it did make me feel uncomfortable wondering if that was how the rest of the world perceived Americans.
 
As a southern Californian, I perceive one dividing line between better-quality and lower-quality restaurants is whether the orange juice is fresh-squeezed.  God knows we have enough oranges in this state, so when the waiter pours the orange juice out of a carton that says “Florida” I judge the restaurant to be “not really trying”.  Traveling in Mexico, I have found that restaurants there would never even think of not squeezing oranges. Naturally, I do not expect oranges to grow in England, but Perth, Australia looks so similar to a California city, with its palms and eucalyptus trees and waterfront, similar to San Diego or Long Beach, that I was disarmed into thinking that fresh oranges would be present.

We had a good laugh, but it was not the only cultural gaffe I’ve made while traveling in Australia.  On one hand, I have found Australians to be refreshingly down-to-earth and approachable, but have mistakenly assumed that this informality extended to attire. Last year, for instance, I again found myself in Perth on a 40 degree Celsius day (104 F), wearing a tank-top, and I spied a lively bar with a t-shirted crowd across from my hotel and tried to enter, but I was refused admittance by the doormen.  At first, I couldn’t even understand what they were talking about, as they use an Australian slang word for tank top, but then I realized that I had seen no one wearing a tank top that day and that I was underdressed for summertime Australia. Bear in mind that I live in a city (L.A.) in which I can dine at a $100 per person restaurant and not have to wear socks.  (We have a surreal culture which has adapted to the demands of imperious Hollywood stars.  If Rob Lowe doesn't have to wear socks at a 5-star restaurant, why should the rest of us?)
 
Likewise, I have been glad that I packed a business suit on my Australian trips, as there are more situations requiring it over there than here in the U.S. I even did a couple of guest lectures at an Australian university and noticed that the Australian faculty wore suits and ties.  If only they could see how California college professors dress – not much differently than their students.
 
Mexico
 
There are many Americans who misunderstand Mexico.  Despite negative portrayals of Mexico in our news media, the concept of courtesy is stronger there than it is in America.
 
Even the poor people practice courtesy.  Once, when I was inspecting a contested property with a Mexican appraiser and his colleagues, we were greeted by residents of a local ejido, a commune composed of agrarian peasants, who politely asked why we there.  When we explained that we were performing a valuation for the owner of the property, they courteously explained that the property belonged to them instead.  No shouting or cursing was involved, unlike the last time I inspected a trailer park in Bakersfield, California.
 
Another time I was traveling in Mexico with another American (not my employee) and three Mexicans, and I felt like my American colleague was raising their eyebrows with his bossy behavior, calling the shots on when and where we would meet and eat and pause for souvenir shopping.  We met for breakfast on the second morning, and although I ordered bistec ranchero (steak ranchero), I received huevos rancheros (eggs ranchero) instead.  My American companion was outraged for my sake and thought I should have had the meal returned to the kitchen, but I was satisfied to eat huevos rancheros to avoid an international incident and any unfavorable impression of Americans, all the while understanding that he came from a city where it is acceptable behavior to stand up and shout “Where’s my f***ing cheese steak?”

Every culture has its blind spot, including our own. Once I was with an American who expressed his moral indignation at the sport of bullfighting. A Mexican responded with "We Mexicans find it strange that you Americans treat your house pets better than you treat your own children."  Touche'.

Traveling abroad, I am sometimes offered food that could be considered strange to Americans, particularly when traveling in China, where I’ve been served snake, dog and donkey meat, but I cheerfully eat it and say “Thank you.  It’s delicious.  I consider respect for other cultures to be part of appraiser professionalism.  It is also keeps an appraiser's mind open to differing concepts of value in other cultures.

 

 


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