It’s not often that I advocate children’s stories as a business tool, but if it comes to understanding a different national/regional culture, they can’t be beaten.
There are plenty of organisations and books to help the business traveler with advice on which fingers to use for which gestures, whether it’s acceptable to show the soles of your feet, etc. These are important, but few actually help travelers to understand the mindset of their hosts/visitors.
Reading local children’s fables, however, gives a simple and intuitive guide. For example, when I was working in Singapore a couple of years ago, my first port of call was the local bookstore for a book of local children’s stories. One story, "How the Island of Singapore Came About", told the story of two mer-children disobeying the king. The end result was the punishment of their families and friends with them. And suddenly the strong community ethos of Singapore was made clearer than any abstract description.
I was reminded of this when at my parents’ home a little while ago. At my mother’s insistence, we were clearing out old books from the shelves. [I have no recollection now of what Malcolm Savile’s "The Gay Dolphin Adventure" may have really been about, but I doubt it would survive long in today’s marketplace.]
One book I came across was the NATO Storybook. A small project, one person from each member country had chosen a fairy story or fable from their country to represent themselves. And the final book gave brief, intuitive insights into 16 countries – easily read and understood – rather than typical dry briefings.
A few years ago, UNICEF produced a similar commercial project with Dorling Kindersley – a brief insight, glossily produced. I suspect that, given the advance of the web, a simple worldwide project could be extremely effective – children from different countries telling the stories with either subtitles or unedited translations for other languages. And, I suspect, not that difficult to implement.
But until that happens, next time you’re going abroad, get the fairy stories and read it on the flight. You’ll see with new eyes when you land…