Stefan, the founder of Bluffworks, also keeps a journal to share his experiences travelling the world. A few weeks ago he wrote a post that captured the essence of cultural differences, and I'd like to share his post with all of you. Enjoy!
"When I was in France last summer, I visited a mini-grocery store for items not found at more specialized shops like a patisserie, fromagerie, etc. I was looking for packaged things like cereal and milk.
I ended up visiting the grocery store a few mornings in a row, and each time I did I bumped into the employees stocking the shelves. They had boxes piled on large palette-sized rolling racks. And when the racks were empty, they broke them down, with a loud BAM, BAM, BAM.
I thought, “Wow, this is so disruptive, it would never happen in the U.S.” A few days later in Lyon... same thing. I faced a pile of boxes right in front of the incredible French hazelnuts I was eager to buy.
I thought, “This is kind of a mess,” and “Why is it like this here?”
So I tracked down an American Francophile - my wife - and asked her.
She explained that the French believe in providing a high quality of life for everyone, and that if the workers have to stock the shelves in the middle of the night - as we do in the US - they can’t be at home with their families.
I thought, wow… In the US, we prioritize the experience of the customer. But in France, it’s more important to look after the worker. It’s completely opposite.
I quickly ran down the list of cultures I have the most experience with, contrasting stereotypes of what each is considered to be “good at”, versus “bad.” And what I found is this -
Cultures are good at what they care about.
And what they care about affects how they do everything.
We all know France for its amazing food, love of the arts, and joie de vivre. It turns out, you can’t have that joie de vivre without the grocery store shelves being stocked while you shop. Because the same value system that created the finer things in life is unwilling to sacrifice the needs of the worker so shopping can be more efficient.
Now I apply this perspective everywhere I go. When I’m waiting in a dreadfully slow line in a foreign land, I catch myself thinking, “Why is this so screwed up?” Until I look at it the other way… I think about how much I am enjoying this culture’s pace of life compared to NYC. How people take their time doing things. That they love to dance whenever they can… and the music is so wonderful and… You get the idea.
You can’t have it both ways. Not in one culture. Not at the same time.
Try flipping your perspective. And let me know where you end up.
The photo is of all the local exchange students ice skating during my school's International Days Party. It was a great time getting out on the ice and providing some students the opportunity to skate for the first time!
For someone who has a minimal part-time job I feel remarkably unproductive. I write on this blog, I try to run 27GoodThings.com, and I try to do some writing. Most of my day is spent hopping from little chore to little chore; running our kids places, cleaning up a mess, making another mess to make dinner. It's cyclical and never getting off this merry go round of parenting doesn't bother me. It gives me time to think and often my thoughts are about the grocery store.
I wonder about eating well and inexpensively a lot. A few weeks ago we went as a family to Aldi, my favorite grocery store even though it's twenty three minutes away. Despite what I've written about taking my family and how embarrassing it can be, this trip went smoothly. As we left my wife asked if Aldi is a lot cheaper than Walmart and I scoffed at the naivety of question. Ha, I laughed from my perch of grocery shopping knowledge, of course it is. Then I thought it is right? Well I listed the 26 items we bought that day and compared them with Walmart prices the same week and it turns out that Aldi is about 25% cheaper than Walmart.
I like Aldi because it's easy. Even though I have to grab a quarter for the carts it's not that bad because Aldi parking lots are often much smaller and wrap around the store meaning that you're probably as far from the store as a cart corral at Walmart. At Aldi you also have to bag your own groceries. This means at check-out the store worker scans your items quickly and then places them right back into a cart. It makes the process go very quickly but then you have a cart full of groceries. I don't mind this because I have a huge Ikea bag which I can place nearly everything in and carrying that to my car and house is easier than all the little bags. Plus, no plastic bags to rip or pollute. The smaller size of the Aldi store means that my daughters can easily walk around and I can easily see them. At Walmart or Meijer they can easily get turned around and wander away or complain about being tired and then ask to ride on top of our bread and eggs. At Aldi they just walk.
There are a few drawbacks about shopping at Aldi. The first is the limited selection. On the day we went I also needed ink 125 for our printer and a perscription for our youngest daughter, there is no pharmacy or electronics sections. There are also times I need something more unique like panko breadcrumbs or shallots that Aldi doesn't stock. For me, Aldi is also not conveniently located although once my college schedule picks up more in late fall and throughout winter I'll be traveling to the same town and can pair shopping trips with work ones. Aldi's produce is also occasionally less fresh and closer to rotting than Walmart. I've noticed that examining food for soft spots takes much longer at Aldi.
Grocery shopping on a budget but also eating well requires some knowledge of what your family eats regularly and what prices those things sell for. We eat a lot of potatoes ($3/10lb) so that's something I know to look for on sale. The same is true for bread ($1/loaf) , pasta ($.88/box) , pasta sauce ($.90/jar) , and pork sausage ($2.50/lb). I can also make sure my Evernote Shopping List is up to date on my phone.
Believe it or not, Purple, Green and Gold go together. Don’t argue. They really do. I’ve been pulling out all of the Mardi Gras colors I can find to get ready for a family get-together this weekend in New Orleans. I have to dust off my umbrella. When it is time to Second Line and the band plays “When the Saints go Marching In,” I don’t just want, I need “to be in that number.”
I’ve been dreaming about a giant Seafood Boil, that’s poured out over newspaper, and sitting around a big table with family—laughing, catching up, understanding one another. I’ve been craving a shared history. I’m looking forward to the LOUD of it all… generations of LOUD… loud laughing, loud playing, loud loving … all part of the joie de vivre I need.
We never know when the weight of our challenges will cause us to crumble. We might see the cracks in our exterior that give us a warning that we need fortifying. And when those visible cracks emerge, we need someone to be our scaffolding.
Never underestimate the power of tenderness at just the right moment. Never underestimate the ability of the all-knowing GOOD to reveal itself just in the nick of time. Perhaps it’s a phone call from a dear friend, or a smile from a stranger, or a belly laugh with your child. Maybe it’s as simple and as wonderful as a warm touch on your arm that sends good shivers to let you know you are still connected. You are not alone. You matter to the heartbeat of the joie de vivre.
The last two months have required all of my strength due to some heavy lifting of circumstance. And yes, I could feel the buckling. I could see the cracks. But the GOOD scaffolding arrived just in time. The tenderness of a few has been the bridge to reconnect me to the GOOD. And for their words, their kindness, their laughter, and their touch I give thanks.