Moving beyond the baguette
Typical LBS scene: you just started a new elective and you have been assigned to a study group with people you kinda sorta don't really know-ish. To relieve the akwardness, you state your name and country, as LBS people do. Lise is from Peru. Wen is from South Korea. You throw your first attempt at being the "funny guy" of the group: "Oh you're from South Korea - wopa Gangnam style!". Everyone laughs a bit, though not as much as expected, thus to save face you clear your throat, and add "Anyway, have you ever eaten a bibimbap in Gangnam?" to communicate to the audience that were just pretending to be culturally ignorant, and that you are, in fact, a fine connoisseur of the South Korean culture, as illustrated by the fact that you can name a neighborhood in Pyongyang and a signature Korean dish ("oh sorry, yeah Seoul, ah ah. Totally Seoul. Party on, Wen.").
In fact you have just fallen in an all too common trap here at LBS; the Cultural Semi-Ignorance trap (CSI trap). A Culturally-Semi-Ignorant guy just knows enough to show to Culturally Ignorant Amateurs (funnily enough, that spells CIA) that he is superior to them, while still being kinda annoying to the truly culturally knowledgeable guys. Wen, for instance, is kinda annoyed right now and politely pretends he wants to know which of the 50 states you come from exactly (although, just like everyone, the only American States Wen could name are California, Hawaii, Jersey Shore and... Canada?).
Enough picking on Americans. The problem is, at LBS, everyone does that. We tend to satisfy ourselves with being CSI guys. (Ok, not everyone, especially not you, dear enlightened reader of this article).
Today, in the days of the Internetz, each country is increasingly represented in our common conscience as a blend of unique peculiarities, which are more or less correct but which are, more importantly, easy to understand, easy to respect and equally easy to make fun of. All bathed in politically correct and approximate English.
As a French person I get that a lot. While some of the peculiarities attributed to my counties are quite flattering (Romance! Wine! Joie de vivre! Fashion!), some are less glorious (we go on strike to complain about our 35 hours a week, we eat frogs, and I even had a History major relaying the saying that France loses each battle it fights - please type "French Empire in 1812" into Google and let's never talk about it anymore).
But of course in reality we all know that we don't truly believe this is true. People don't really think that every morning I wake up in my Dior pajama, eat frogs for breakfast and commute to work with the firm conviction that I shall go on strike to warm up for my 5-week paid holiday. Of course, we are not that ignorant.
So if we don't believe that, how do we imagine life in Paris?
Well, to be fair most people do not need an answer to this, because the vague idea they got from rumors is sufficient to understand jokes and cultural references. Now and then, they will do the occasional faux-pas and ask a guy from Austria if he plays boomerang with kangaroos. But overall, no survival threat.
The problem is: while in the first month it can be quite flattering to know that people value your country so much that they care about your workers' social initiatives, after a while Canadians get tired of being asked how often they drink maple syrup on the back of a moose, Indians of being asked if every Indian is gay because they hold hands, and Brits of being asked if these days they still wank to a map of the Commonwealth. Maybe they would be happy to share something more personal (or, less personal in the case of the Brits).
Maybe that personal thing will not be a generality and may not give you the high-level view that you demand as a Global Leader. Maybe it will not even be good material for a future joke. But that will be authentic, and potentially useful for future thinking.
Now we are in LBS, and almost no other people has direct access to 400 young, interesting and sexy people from so many countries in the world. How about we actually take the time to reach through the cloud of preconceptions, and understand the more authentic, more personal, more exact culture hidden behind it?
It's time to go beyond the baguette.
Published in LBS's newspaper, The Daily Nash (Feb 2015 - Issue 4)