My friend, Max, is an interesting character, a true creature of habit. He likes the same meal every day, if he can get his way. He prefers to wear the same clothes. He has very specific routes he will take to specific places. He watches the same TV shows.
Unless he’s traveling.
In those instances when he is abroad, Max will call his mother from the outback of Australia on a scratchy pay phone connection and say, “Ma, I’m eatin’ grubs!” (And yes, he means big giant protein-filled bugs.) This is a guy who eats hamburgers from Wendy’s almost every day. But overseas, he’ll eat anything they serve him (Max takes tours, so there’s always a “they” in charge of the experience), and he’ll be pleasant about it, even if he doesn’t like it.
Max also has the most amazing photo album of his journeys. He has this pose. It’s very big-eyed, with his mouth very wide open, in this kind of surprised, he-might-be-shouting expression of joy, with his arms outstretched very far as well. He looks like he’s won a very big sweepstakes. Max has this picture of himself all over the world: the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, Russia, Madison Wisconsin. Everywhere. (Note: Max has never been to Madison. I made that up.)
When in Rome
The expression, “when in Rome,” means that one should consider doing what his or her surrounding neighbors are doing when in a different environment. It means, “to be one of us, act like up.” It’s easy advice to follow when visiting someplace abroad, like Norway.
I’m writing this from my room at the Radisson Blu in Oslo, Norway, on the last day of a trip that saw me spend a day in Iceland and a few days in Oslo. Some examples of my “when in Rome” attitude were that I learned that Norwegian people don’t like to make small talk in elevators, so I didn’t after the first 40 tries. I learned that Norwegians would rather hack their leg off with a Viking sword than take a compliment, so I tried hard not to compliment them after my first 106 efforts. Things like that.
I went to the Gulltaggen dinner (Gulltaggen is the biggest and best marketing event in Norway), which followed their awards show. Over 1000 people attend this dinner. I’ve never ever dined with 1000 people before. Fancy food, by the way. But then, after that, I went to the afterparty at the Oslo Spektrum (their arena). After that? I went to the after-after party at the little quasi-British pub around the corner that played live music until 2AM. After that? I went to the after-after-after party held at a startup’s offices, where others played shuffleboard and foosball and drank more until about 5AM.
After that, I couldn’t be in Rome any more, because I couldn’t keep my eyes open.
The Importance of Embedding
I learned a lot about Norwegians, Icelanders, and Swedes from hanging out until 5AM after the Gulltaggen’s official events had long come and gone. I learned that their stoic outward expressions of the day time are passed down from very humble roots and that inside, they’re every bit as passionate as folks from Argentina or Boston or Moscow. They just don’t express it as freely and outwardly throughout the day. Get them into a party situation, and they’re your best friends forever. You’ll have amazing conversations about dreams, about the future, about the fear of being an entrepreneur, etc.
I know more about the Scandinavian people (at least this group and this kind of people) than I ever would have, simply by attending part of the Gulltaggen event. As a speaker, I do try to stick around as much of an event as I can manage. I try to learn more, and then more about the people I’m with. Why? Because without that sense of embedding, without that connectedness, I’ll only be skimming the surface, and it’d be like knowing only about their avatar and their last five tweets.
You can learn about people online and use that for your business (and personal) needs as well. Follow people on various social networks for a while. Observe them. Practice your own “when in Rome” moments. And then learn how you might really serve their interests or their wants. The reward is much bigger.
And if you should find yourself considering a European vacation spot, I can recommend all of Scandinavia (and if Iceland doesn’t consider themselves part of it – I have no idea on this and am too lazy to google – consider there, too). The people will seem a bit reserved and private at first. But you can find your way in, if you want.