Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Where You Come From - An Inexhaustible Lesson Topic

I come from Kansas City, well better said I grew up in the suburb of Overland Park, Kansas.  When I meet most people in Europe, neither ring many bells.  Kansas City is one of the non-descript cities of a few million people which litter the middle two-thirds of the country.  In fact, if you landed in KC, Cincinatti, Minneapolis, Dallas, or Pittsburgh you could forget where you are because they are all the same.  This is 'fly-over' country which many people only see from 36,000 feet.

Of course, the residents of these place would deeply disagree with this statement and could talk at length about the unique features, culture, and legends of their hometown.  I distinctly remember a taxi ride in Springfield, Missouri in which the cabbie insisted on giving me 100 years of the city's history in 10 minutes.  He even stopped the meter to take me past the next performing arts center.  It would not be any different in Omaha or Louisville.  I found the same in Glasgow and Liverpool.

But with the invention of the internet and the flattening of the world, these places have generally lost their uniqueness and developed into carbon copy cities with nearly identical cultural traits.  I bring up this point because much the same has happened here in Germany as well.  Local variety has been diminished by global sameness.  But superstores and chain restaurants are boring.  Because they must attract the global masses, they avoid risks and anything which might offend the local consumers.

I find that local flavor, local traditions, and local culture make for highly interesting lessons.  I like discussing the exceptionalism of our region.  The students are proud of their perceived uniqueness.  I believe this also has a distinct business function.  Many business small talk conversations revolve around such topics.  They are useful in business.  It gives the parties the chance to talk about something they know and like.  But it also allows them to get a sense of the values, motives and background of the interlocutor.  These topics leave space for stories and humor, but also provide a certain distance from dangerous personal opinions.

It is interesting to see, for example, how foreign trips are arranged.  Guests are often hosted in a hotel or neighborhood which has retained traces of the local culture.  Guided tour events are arranged to give guests a short journey through the traditions and legends of the region.  There is always the desire to give the guest the 'authentic' experience.

With this in mind, here are a few discussion topics which I often use in training.

  • How did your hometown get its name?
  • Who is the most famous person from your hometown?
  • Is there anything from your home which is 'world famous'?
  • Tell me about the special food from your home region.
  • What unique traditions does it have?
  • Does your hometown have any 'rival' cities?  Why?
  • What are the most famous buildings in your town?  What happened there?
  • Tell me about a festival you have every year.  Why should I go?
Google maps and street view are great resources for this.  I also find that these topics can often be captured and turned into skills training.  The simplest is something around tourism but I try not to use this too often and instead look for something more creative.  For example, I once had a student from Herzogenauerach here in Germany.  The most famous story about this town is of Adolph and Rudolph Dassler who founded Adidas and Puma respectively.  The two brothers fell out and never spoke to each other again.  But this little town is still the headquarters of these two sportswear giants.  I took the story (which all are familiar with) and set the task of negotiating a merger between the two firms.  Their goal was to 'heal the wounds' of the past.  The students did some internet research (due diligence) to gather some financial data, worked in teams to prepare for the negotiation, and then held the meeting.

This is just one example of how these lessons can turn out.  I will be heading to Kansas City next week for a short trip to say hello to friends and family, but at the same time I will be sniffing the winds of cultural change in my hometown.  Perhaps I will find a few lesson ideas along the way.

So, I encourage you to look into where the students come from and capture these topics to develop engaging and personal lessons.  It works for me.  But sadly, we never did get Adidas and Puma back together... the loyalties simply run too deep.


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