January 30, 2012

Process and Communication Styles in American Work Culture

Fernando Aguirre, Chairman and CEO of Chiquita, a company well known for bananas, was showcased in one episode of Undercover Boss. Fernando goes undercover as Manuel Gonzales, an immigrant from Mexico who is trying to earn a job at Chiquita. (I will refer to him as ‘CEO Manuel’.)
From Pinprick @Flickr
In the first part of this episode, CEO Manuel goes into a warehouse to understand the processes, procedures, and daily tasks of an employee. At this site, the name of CEO Manuel’s training coordinator is Fernando.

The main lessons noticed in this segment about an American workplace are: 

Small Talk
When CEO Manuel initially talks to Fernando, he asks him if he’s married, if he has children, etc. It is good that he poses as a Mexican immigrant. The first day, on the job, I have found this kind of conversation rare amongst Americans in the cities I have worked in. These kinds of questions are considered ‘too personal’ for the workplace. Neither would they be asked or answered as comfortably as between immigrants from cultures where this conversation is common. To understand how to make small talk with Americans, click here for tips.

Value for On-the-job Training
Fernando is training CEO Manuel on the operations and tasks of this distribution center. This is not done for the express reason of this television show. Regardless of the task level of jobs in America, a majority of jobs have some kind of on-the-job training program. Even, cashiers in grocery stores and gas stations go through a few days to a few weeks training program on the various tasks the cashier must undertake in any given work day. Even those who bag groceries are trained on the exact technique of doing this job. This adds value to the job and respect for the technique.

Need for Certifications
CEO Manuel drives the forklift. He mentions that he took a 45 minute ‘forklift certification’. The certification was either not comprehensive or the on-the-job and on-camera pressure of performing this task clearly got the better of him and he was unable to use the forklift. There are many tasks in many kinds of offices and manual labor types of jobs where some kind of certification and training ahead of time is required. As seen in this episode, one reason for this is to save time during the actual on-the-job training, and to make sure that valuable resources such as time, products, and customer service do not suffer or get wasted due to a break in the process.

Direct Communication
In this segment, CEO Manual becomes frustrated and wants to know what Fernando thinks of his work. He says to Fernando, “I hope I didn’t slow you down too much.” Fernando says directly, “Yes, you did.”Fernando is able to make a quick assessment of Manuel’s work and decide if he is suited for the job. This is a respectable management trait of many managers in a wide variety of jobs in the USA.

Expressing Frustration
Throughout this experience, both CEO Manuel and Fernando show frustration.
Fernando shows his frustration by rubbing his hand on the back of his head, and trying to speed up the process.
CEO Manuel shows his frustration by exclaiming “Oh boy!” and saying “I wouldn’t hire me.”

Idiomatic Expressions
There were a few idiomatic expressions used in this segment. Though we may be able to understand the meaning from the context, it’s not always possible.

When CEO Manuel is introduced to Fernando, the manager says “Please show him everything we do from soup to nuts.”
This idiom from soup to nuts means from the beginning to the end or from ‘A to Z’ or everything there is to know.

When CEO Manuel is flustered about his work on the forklift, he exclaims Oh boy!
He is not saying this because a boy is in the way or he is calling out for a boy. Oh boy! is an exclamation of frustration like Oh God! or Oh no!. When frustrated, in some parts of south India, people will exclaim Amma or Appa! or and in north India bapre!. These expressions mean the same thing.

When CEO Manuel exclaims that he does not want to talk to the driver because he slows down the process, Fernando says “It’s good for you; it keeps your blood going.”
This idiom keeps your blood going means it’ll keep you on your toes or it will keep you alert, ready, or interested.
I also think that in this context, Fernando is being a bit sarcastic to CEO Manuel due to his frustration.

These are a few cross-cultural lessons that I learnt and wanted to share with you from the first segment of this episode of Undercover Boss. Below, you can see an abbreviated clip from this segment.




Have you experienced any of these scenarios on-the-job in America? Please share your stories, or experiences.


Photo credit: Pinprick @flickr


Related Posts:
Introduction to this series.
American sayings used in the office place
How to Make Small Talk in the USA

Chris Sufi is a freelance editor who lives in Bangalore, India. Her personal interest in language and communication inspires her to contribute through proofreading and editing. 
She can be contacted here.  

Jennifer Kumar prepares distributed team members with the skills to interact with confidence with US counterparts. Training sessions can focus on topics as varied as small talk, email etiquette, phone skills and convincing strategies. 

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