Perception is reality

Perception is reality. This phrase has been bouncing in my head all week, ever since I read it in my company’s social media guidelines.

*Yes, my company has social media guidelines, as I found out after mentioning this blog to the HR. And while we are on this topic, the postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent Lionbridge’s positions, strategies or opinions. Which you have probably figured out already.

Perceptions and mob justice

A memory about perceptions keeps coming up: last summer in Dar es Salaam, Paul and I were very close to falling victims to mob justice.

Here is what really happened. Salum, a taxi driver, was taking us to the airport. Suddenly, we saw a man flying across the road and landing right in front of our car. Salum quickly veered to the left to avoid him. The car in front of us, that had hit the man, drove on.

A few seconds later, the traffic slowed down and stopped, the car in front of us had to stop, and our car had to stop, too. Instantaneously, a mob of thirty people gathered on the road, shouting, pointing towards the spot of the accident and the two cars, and shaking their fists.

We knew the most important Tanzanian rule of the road: if you hit someone, don’t stop. Drive on and come back with the police. But there was no way to drive on – we were stuck in traffic.

It was the other car that caused the accident. We knew it, they knew it, and the mob kind of knew it. Suddenly, a Swahili woman in a red burqa emerged next to our car, pointing and shouting. More people moved close to our car, pointing at us and shouting. Salum rolled down the window and started yelling back.

Part of the mob seemed to believe that our driver was at fault. The new reality was being created, with the possibility of us having to bear the consequences. We were mzungus (= Europeans, so meaning walking wallets, from the Tanzanian perspective), and it made our position even more precarious.

We got lucky: the victim was hurt (probably a broken leg) but still conscious. The mob picked him up and carried him towards the two cars. It was the moment of truth: he pointed to the other car, the mob moved away, and our car was forgotten. A young man motioned “go” to Salum, and we sped away.

What could have other outcomes be like? I don’t know, and it’s not the point of the story. For me, it was about how quickly perceptions can cross into reality, and how palpably real they can become.

Online vs. offline perceptions

I work remotely, so I am in the perceptions business – big time. For my team members, I am a Russian-accented voice in a teleconference, a bunch of emails, an internal wiki profile, and whatever comes up if they google me.

I am traveling to Boulder on Monday, to spend a week onsite, meet my manager (a remote employee herself), and work side-by-side with my Boulder-based coworkers.

With me being there physically, are our pre-existing perceptions of each other going to be majorly disrupted? Are people going to be very different from my mental images of them? Am I going to be perceived completely differently in real life than as a virtual teammate? I am a bit worried about these things.

At the same time, I am very curious about how this trip unfolds and what I can learn from this de-virtualization. And meeting so many people in real life will be good for my social tonus. And getting to know my team with help me understand them better, and work productively in the future.

Are you in the perceptions business?

These two situations – being in the middle of a mob in Tanzania, and flying to Boulder to meet my team in real life for the first time – are two very different examples of how perceptions and reality can interact in everyday life.

I am sure there is more stuff in between. Have you been there? Is it something that you are noticing around you? How do you interact with it?

The Courageous Traveler Guest Post

Kate at The Courageous Traveler posted my article about Africa. It’s a great website – already tons of great articles and growing!

In other news, I am writing this post from the Kenyan coast. In Mombasa now, heading to Malindi and Lamu next week, then back to Nairobi and on to Ethiopia for two weeks. Probably not much internets inbetween, which is a good thing, for a change…Writing a journal is much more vintage!

What Am I Doing in Africa?

Friends and family back home (whatever “home” means at this point) frequently ask me about my experience in Africa. And I keep coming up with answers that don’t seem to satisfy the people who ask. It would not bother me necessarily , except that now I’m also starting to wonder why it is so hard to put into words why, exactly, I wanted to come to Africa, and what, precisely, I am doing here. So I am going to give it a try.

Why Africa? I’ve been answering this question since May, and the answer keeps changing – with general themes of adventure, pro bono work, and travel.

The short version of the answer is,

Why not?

The more comprehensive version is,

I thought it would be cool to go and do some volunteer work in a developing country, just check it out and see if that’s what I want to do in the long term. This is not something I thought long and hard about, it kind of happened by itself. We were moving states anyway and were going to travel anyway. I wanted to go beyond travelling for the sake of travelling, and work on a project of some kind.

Why volunteering? It seemed like the most natural way to get involved with some kind of a project, and the right thing to do – take a break from the private sector and see what it’s like working for a non-profit. Also, motivational factors included “saving the world” and bragging rights when coming back to “civilization”.  Seems to be working so far 🙂

What’s the company? The company is KickStart Tanzania. The mission is to lift millions out of poverty. The method is enabling the poor and creating economic opportunities for them – sustainable solutions to poverty, rather than handouts. In practice, it means selling manual irrigation pumps to farmers. The founders tell the story and explain the method here, you can read more here and support the organization if you feel like it.

What’s the work like? I’ve been helping out with marketing – a daunting task considering the target customers live in remote areas, go to a big town maybe once or twice a month, don’t get newspapers and often don’t own radios. My mandate was to look at ways to reach more farmers more effectively, from the perspective of scale (key accounts strategy) and location (geographical targeting). In day-to-day terms, it meant learning a lot about Tanzania’s agriculture, calling on NGOs, government officials, and companies, and staring out of the window at the ocean while writing up my findings. There’s a new product release coming up in November that I’m also helping with (my favorite part was coordinating a photo session for the pumps and spare parts).

The money question. Arrangements for volunteers vary greatly, and in the best case scenario the hosting organization would cover all of the costs: the return ticket, visa fees, vaccinations, accommodation and a fixed per diem to cover basic living needs. I have a subset of these costs covered, which works for me since it’s for the experience, not for the money.

That’s it for today, although of course there is more going on. Would love to hear your thoughts – what would you want to know about going to Africa and living here?

Selecting a Translator

I was tasked with finding an English-Swahili translator yesterday, for some sales/marcom material that needs to be ready for mailing on Monday. So, a bit of urgency around this one. Luckily, I spent almost two years in Boston working with translators, I am in a Swahili-speaking country right now, so how hard could it be? Not so fast…

(But first, a disclaimer: not that I am trying to poke fun at anyone. There are cultural differences. And there are Africa-specific problems with the level of education and expertise. They can be amusing at a first glance, but mostly they are actually sad. But my main intention here is to observe and notice things as they look to the customer’s eye. What works, and why? What doesn’t, and why?)

It was very interesting being, for a change, on the client side of the “choosing the localization vendor dance”, and it provided a cool perspective and some things to meditate upon later.

Appropriate subject line

One of the responses I received had a subject line “I AM TANZANIAN TRANSLATOR”. Let’s start from the second when this email popped up in my inbox. What is going on with this message?

  • It is in CAPS. For an email, I cannot think of a situation when CAPS could make a message better or more effective. CAPS=SCREAMING. As a client, I don’t want to be screamed at. DON’T USE CAPS!
  • The subject is about the translator, not the client. As a client, I want to have my need (find a quality translator who is quick and has a professional attitude, and more or less fits my budget) addressed. The subject should be related to my need – having some documents translated. When in doubt, just hit reply and re-use my subject line (“English-Swahili translation – request for estimation” – totally don’t have to customize this one).
  • English is not perfect (even to my non-native eye). Which is sort of fine, because this is a very common situation. But, for a short line like this, and for sales pitch texts – definitely helpful to have your standard communication proofread.

By the way, the email and the CV were in mostly in capital letters, too. The translator apparently had a degree in Mass Communication (or, to be more specific, MASS COMMUNICATION).

Relevant message

Again, there were so many messages with translators talking about themselves. I know that writing a “cover letter” or a “motivational letter” is a pain. It was a pain for me when I was still in college, and it remains a pain for me. Writing pitches is awkward because it is so easy to get confused and write an “I am X and I can do Y” message, when what clients really need is a “This is what I can bring to the table” message.

A surprisingly high number of people did not actually address my request (which boiled down to “send your rates and samples of your work”). They talked about their educational experience and work background, and provided their rates, but they did not send samples – and did not say why.

One of the best messages did not include samples, either. But it acknowledged my request (“I cannot send samples right now”), provided a reason (“I am away from my desk”), and a solution (“I can translate a paragraph from your source documents and send it to you tomorrow morning”). That translator demonstrated that she was actually able to need my need – have a chance to evaluate the quality of her work, and in doing that, she scored extra points for professionalism.

So what?

The thing is, I actually recognized bits of myself in these translators, and I specifically wanted to look at the bits that I want to improve in the future. All of the above applies to me before I ask other people to follow it. And I ever forget that being a client can be just as frustrating as being a vendor, I hope that I will at least remember to re-read my own advice.

Hilarious jokes in any society create mental condition that placate minds of people

Zanzibar Popular Jokes BookcoverRemember my story about the Tanzanian humor? Here is the second installment – excerpts from “Zanzibar Popular Jokes”, copyright by Amir A. Mohammed, in recognition of the fact that “most advanced countries have recognized the human need for comedies and laughter in their public life”. The author and I hope that “you will all be excited to read the book with appalling laughter”. Here is a sample of G-rated jokes – if you want the really racy ones, you’ll have to borrow my paper copy. Spelling and punctuation as printed.

A short-sighted man was standing in the balcony on the second floor of a storey house, when he noticed a short lady standing on the ground floor. He tried to seduce her to come upstairs to no avail. So he decided to follow her where she was standing, but when he came closer to her. The lady was in fact an empty drum.

During a school examination here in Zanzibar a student was questioned in the test paper, what is your mother tongue?. The student thought deeply how to answer the question, then he tried to imagine his mother’s tongue, his answer was “pink”.

In 1994, one prominent CCM political leader came to address a CCM political rally here in Zanzibar, In his speech, he became so emotional and went too far to claim openly that if any CCM leader leaves his party (CCM), he must be tally crazy, but after just one year he himself left his party (CCM).

In order to keep himself busy and pre occupied, a man in Pemba Island was constantly mailing letters to his own address and he goes to the Post Office to collect them himself. What an idea to fight boredom.

A young man once met a pretty lady in a shop. He was soon attracted by the charm and beauty of that lady. The lady was wearing a gold necklace on her neck which was carved like a small aeroplane. The young man expressed his love to her by saying. “I love your aeroplane and your air port also”.

I’m planning to show the book around the office and see if people laugh. I still suspect that something is missing from the jokes because of translation. What do you think? Do you know of other cultures with similar humor?