Wednesday, 28 March 2012

"They don't understand you...... just shout louder"

"They don't understand you...... just shout louder"  
This; I would love to claim as an overheard conversation between tourists abroad trying to communicate in some market scenario.  The truth is, that it is a cliche of British humour that when we can’t communicate with a foreign national we just talk louder.  One of my great heroes, Wilfred Thesiger, observed this to be an unspoken policy in parts of the Sudan Political Service back in the early 20th Century.
It is a cliche because it is so near to the truth about brits abroad but I have also managed to see this trait in French, Aussie, Brazilian and Italian logisticians the world over.  When the pressure goes on....the volume goes up.  In fact in some cultures it is not the logic that you argue with but the passion so being able to argue your logic loudly is a definite advantage.
But not understanding you, goes way deeper than language difficulties.  I could call this post “Adventures with Kwesi”; Kwesi was my driver in Ghana whilst running logistics operations for a commodity broker.  Kwesi however is representative of almost every driver I have worked with in some way or another.  They get stuck with the crazy Obruni/Gweilo/Blan (insert your own local term for “white guy”) who listens to the BBC World Service to convince himself that home is one turn of the tuning dial away.  The white guy operates at a pace that seems totally unnecesary and more importantly has an unseen rule book called “common sense” which he often refers to but no-one you know has ever seen.
I have half a dozen favourite moments in my time with Kwesi when he taught me how common sense is regional.  One day we had an important banking document that needed to be transported to the company accountant for signature.  
“Can you take this to Albert and get it signed?” I ask Kwesi
“Yes Misser Alistair”  He politely and dutifully replies
4 hours later and Kwesi is not back from a 45 minute journey.
A phonecall ensues.....
“I told you to go to Albert and get the document signed, where are you”
“I am at Albert’s and the document is signed” Kwesi proudly declared.
(pause - with some stifled giggling at my end)
“OK Kwesi, can you come back now”
The problem was the brief, at no point did I mention coming back....I mean why would I surely that speaks for itself.  Quite often when we track back our logistical failures it is what my old Flight Sergeant used to term “insufficient brief”.  This was his catch all for there was enough information in the brief.  I have illustrated this in cross cultural operation because that is the bulk of what The Logistics Project in remote and austere settings.  It is however applicable in almost any leadership setting.  As I steadily work my way through the local work instructions for a central warehouse and the logistics element of 14 operating sites I keep Kwesi in mind.  Is the brief sufficient, where can I deviate from the prescribed path and how regional are my assumptions.
If you want to hear more tales of Adventures with Kwesi you’ll have to petition me in the comments, I don’t have a plan for the next blog yet...but I am sure something will crop up in my day to day to trip my logistics sensibilities.


  1. You forgot to mention that trait is far too common in Americans too :) I've noticed on my first two trips to Sierra Leone when I was with groups that if a Sierra Leonean returned someone's question with a blank stare, the American would repeat extra extra extra loudly (and usually with exaggerated hand gestures), as if that would help. Usually it was a matter of them just talking to fast ha ha.

    So...more on the adventures of Al and Kwesi...?

  2. Without wanting to sound "this one time in band camp" but this one time on the coast road to Tema we had wandered of my strict diet of the World Service to a station and ended up listening to a station playing REM. Michael Stipe wailing "if you believe they put a man on the moon" so I joked with Kwesi "do you believe they put a man on the moon" to which Kwesi replies most definitely without taking his eyes off the road.


    "But Kwesi they have, in fact several men"

    (pause to absorb this new information)

    "It's far"

    (end of conversation)

    I realised my history of the world was very different to the history of Kwesi's.