Oh Canada!

Tom Peters

“The future for us is the foreseeable future,” Edward T. Hall writes in The Silent Language, a book as fresh today as when it was published in 1959. “The South Asian, however, feels that it is perfectly realistic to think of a ‘long time’ in terms of thousands of years.” Hall goes on to examine cultures that have no sense of past or future (not even words for the past or the future) and cultures with different “rules of lead time”—for example, a 45-minute wait for an appointment is brief in some Latin countries (at the short end of the Latin “waiting scale,” Hall claims) and insulting to us.

By chance, I was reading Hall’s work as I landed in Toronto recently to present a seminar. I’d also been perusing novelist Mordecai Richler’s new non-fiction work, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Both books reminded me of how little I know about other cultures, including our northern neighbor’s. Canadians, for their part, are dismayed at the virtual absence of news about their country in the U.S. press, says Richler. They also complain that my lectures contain nary an example of a Canadian company. (Canada only makes the news in the U.S. when there are problems—such as the bankruptcy of Olympia & York, which is fouling up real estate markets from New York to San Francisco.)

All this underscores the chief barrier to Americans becoming “globalists”: our disinterest in things non-American.

Americans have little sense of history. (As Hall says, we act as if we have no past—which is true by many nations’ standards.) We are aggressive, action-oriented, abrupt (no time for small talk, which translates as “rude” in most societies) Our huge land mass and monstrous market have historically made it uncommon for us to visit or study beyond our borders. We are blithely unaware of how weird we are to others.

Canada, oh so close, oh so far: America’s 250 million souls lack much sense of global interdependence, while two-thirds of Canada’s 27 million people live within a hundred miles of the border. Talk about living in the shadow of a giant! All of which helps explain why, for example, I have such a hard time with Canadian immigration officials. I’m simply the latest arrival from the Colossus to the South, come to fleece the locals. Fair enough.

But the time for living in blissful ignorance of the rest of world is past. Our long-standing provincialism is (1) hurting us in many markets and, more importantly, (2) denying us enormous opportunities, from Toronto to Guadalajara to Lyon. This is particularly true for America’s parochial small-business owners, many of whose superb products could succeed “overseas” (or at least in Ottawa and Vancouver).

American business success “abroad”—in semiconductor equipment, financial services, popcorn, and pens—boils down to visits, study, patience and a willingness to let relationships unfold at their own pace and lead where they will. But none of that can happen without the first spark—intellectual and emotional curiosity about others, a curiosity seldom kindled in our K-12 education system, or even at most colleges and universities.

I see myself as a case in point: Despite two tours in Vietnam, a stint as a U.S. Navy midshipman on a British warship and eight years’ membership in a thoroughly international firm, the consultants McKinsey & Co., I’m no internationalist—not by the standards of my Japanese, German, Swedish, and British friends. I go “there” (wherever) a lot. But I don’t stick with it and penetrate the surface. I blame a lot of that on my schooling and, frankly, my age; if you’re in your late 40s, you grew up when America dominated the world. Why bother with outsiders?

We aren’t helped by our mother tongue either. Since much of the world speaks at least a little English, we don’t have to work that hard when we do travel. (Admit it: Aren’t you a little peeved by a Thai or German taxi driver who doesn’t speak a little English? What if the Japanese held our taxi drivers to the same standard?)

Our best hope is the somewhat salvageable young. ABB Asea Brown Boveri chief Percy Barnevik, whose exploits I’ve chronicled before, is building a thoroughly global corporation. Though ABB employs 220,000, Barnevik contends its success depends on just 250 or so young managers aiming to develop a truly global perspective. What a future they will have! In fact, what a future lies in store for the American, Japanese, German, or Canadian youngster who works to become a global citizen. The opportunities in any direction you look—Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, Eastern and Western Europe, Asia—are matchless and unprecedented. The bad news: America is not going to push “a bias for globalism” on its youth. They’re going to have to find their own path abroad (there are an increasing number of overseas programs for young men and women not bent on maximizing salaries their first year out of college).

I’m green with envy. I suspect I’ll never pick up a second language. I doubt I’ll rough it, living with a family outside the U.S. for a year or so. And I know I will be the poorer—as a human and a “person of commerce”—for the failure to do so.

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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