The Perks of Being A Fish Out of Water.

The phrase stenciled on the bus my son takes to school  - “Watch Your Step” - might as well be bolted onto the front door of his grade school as well as any number of organizations and companies.

Whether it’s Osaka, Japan or southern Marin County, California, if you’re in the change business – either intentionally or by the accident of your presence  - you run the risk of being a fish out of water if you’re not closely attuned to the local culture.

The little secret about change is that most people aren’t so interested in disrupting their status quo; the exceptions are organizations (or people) who are doing so badly that any help (and change) is welcomed, or those people (and organizations) are doing so well that doing better and working hard has become part of their DNA.

My son’s grade school in southern Marin – a private school comprised of 50% of kids from San Francisco and 50% from Marin – which does many, many, many things well but has diversity and inclusion challenges judging by demographics that don’t match its aspirations or local population statistics –  is not one of those exceptions. The company in Osaka, where a colleague just took a change role, is in the “doing badly” category as an exception but unfortunately doesn’t know it.

When you’re that fish out of water there are opportunities galore to stub your toe and trip up, or alternately piss people off because you’re disrupting a social or organizational order that wants to preserve the status quo.

For my colleague in Japan it was a new-hire start, as one of the few non-Japanese employees in the company, to a senior managerial role to a firm of several thousand employees with no introduction or announcement: no official title, no computer or email access for a couple of weeks, and no “charter” marked out for his change in work.

For me it was a cancelled diversity and inclusion meeting that I drove 1 1/2 hours up from Silicon Valley to catch, only to find out that the mom who chaired the session had decided a suggestion I’d made was too hot of a potato to handle; the phone call that never came to alert me to the meeting shift or to later to express regrets for my lost time were not surprising. The snub was not subtle.

So in the case of my son’s school it’s a chance for me to learn to navigate the culture of the suburbs; overwhelmingly white (Larkspur, a town near my son’s school school, for example, reports out at 90%+ white, de facto segregation by most definitions) and straight in a San Francisco metropolitan area that is 10+% LGBT and 50% Caucasian.

While my son’s cohort of kids and parents is thankfully atypical, relatively diverse, and welcoming (“The grade with all the black kids and gay parents” as one dad in another grade observed.” “I’m one of those gay parents and my kid might be one of those black kids” I responded), there are opportunities for me to become more culturally competent about a geographic area that is very different than the diversity bubble (34% Asian, 15% Latino, 6.5% African American, 15% gay) across the Golden Gate bridge called San Francisco that’s my home.

What’s good advice for when you’re a fish out of water like my colleague in Japan (or non-traditional multi-ethnic families like mine in parts of southern Marin)?

  1. Learn to speak the language; even if you’re not fluent, the locals will generally appreciate the effort.
  2. Put your anthropologist’s hat on and go to school on the culture; in Japan people may nod and say yes to note that they’ve heard you, not that they agree with you.
  3. Recognize that many of the norms that you may be used to don’t apply; as I’ve learned, for example, someone asking to hear what you have to say does may not mean that they have any interest or intent to do anything about what you’ve said, even if what you’ve said has merit.
  4. Avoid taking it personally. This is a hard one for me, but the reactions you engender is most likely that you’re different. Anyone else in the same boat would draw the same reactions.

My colleague in Japan has signed up for language lessons, and I’ve pointed him to some resources on getting up to speed culturally. He’ll hopefully also take it slower on the change front, recognizing that what’s slow for him may be very fast for the locals.

Me? I’m getting tutoring from my friend Beth, who now lives in Marin and grew up as the only Asian girl at her school in suburban Orange County. I imagine that I’ll need to learn a new lingo (“Want to go shopping at Nordstrom's?”) and learn that some phrases – “Nice hair; hope it wins” – that are snappy and funny in San Francisco are culturally irrelevant in some parts of southern Marin. Beth already alerted me to watch out for some of the straight white suburban housewives (“mean girls” she emailed) who play by different rules then the ones I know.

So when you’re a fish out of water, and making waves either intentionally or by accident, it’s good to know the name of the game, even if you find that it’s simply called swimming with the sharks.

Fish Out of Water via Shutterstock

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