Monday, May 03, 2004

Training in Mexico

An American trainer, about to run a workshop in Mexico for the first time, has asked for some insights into relevant cultural differences. I have done a lot of training in Mexico. It was always my favorite place to work, despite my lack of any real ability in Spanish, and many of my longest-lasting friendships and professional relationships are with people I met while running training or OD programs in Mexico.

Americans (which I am not) have a disadvantage, but not a major one. Gringos are still viewed with some (never overt) disdain and you have to earn the respect – and importantly the affection – of your participants. Being passionate or emotional about your subject (or about anything, really) earns you credibility rather rapidly. Demonstrating an interest or appreciation of Mexican culture or history gains you respect – so long as it is not conveyed in a patronizing or imperialist tone :-). Mentioning a visit to the Archaeological Museum, asking about local food or art or music (but not the mariachi kind!), can score you some points and get some interesting conversations going.

I had been a Mexico enthusiast long before I made my first business trip there twenty years ago, so I probably had an advantage. I recommend a book called "Distant Neighbors" by Alan Riding. It may be a little out of date, but it's a great primer on the roots of modern Mexican culture.

Showing a little humility and vulnerability early on, taking time to talk about your background and asking about theirs, and getting them actively participating from session kick-off helps enormously. If you are running the session in English, only those most comfortable in English will contribute. So if language is a barrier, small group work helps greatly because people can communicate among themselves in Spanish. My style is very participative, and I found that if you are perceived as a facilitator rather than a lecturing authority, and if you appear to be as interested in learning as in teaching, people open up and contribute enthusiastically.

Despite the stereotypes, Mexico has a vibrant, energetic, progressive and thoroughly modern business environment, which maps in many respects to the kind of world we are familiar with in the US. Young Mexican business people are incredibly hard-working, very well educated, and worldly. They share many of the social-conscience issues and angsts, and are as status conscious and ambitious, as their American counterparts. So motivation among the learner group is rarely an issue. I find Mexicans to be reserved and guarded till they get comfortable with you, after which the group can become very exuberant. And you know you have had a good day when you are still deep in conversation with a group of participants in the early hours of the morning, by which time your Spanish has usually improved remarkably.

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