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A consulting approach to resolving cultural differences

When Danna (D) and I were dating over a decade ago in San Francisco, it seemed like we had everything in common. We were mathematicians by training, growing into management consultants and we highly valued time with family and friends. And the indulgent California yuppie lifestyle of travel, foodie-ness and weekends in wine country suited us well. Did it actually matter where we were born? Or that we were raised on opposite ends of the globe? Or that our ancestors were definitely not part of the same tribe? Why was this stuff so important to so many people when it came down to tying the knot?

Getting married was still a huge step, and it made sense to be aligned on long term aspirations and expectations on the big stuff. Having kids and their spiritual upbringing, family holidays, mutually acceptable cities to live in, parenting split, work-life balance…no major gaps there. Time to make this real. Barring a few small surprises at the multiple wedding rituals and parties around the world, our families got on well, and we were proud to be a global couple bringing the world closer together (and we still are).

Fast forward 5 years and Maya was born!

Best moment of my life so far, but here’s the truth about how things went down. Maya arrived 5 weeks early, tiny, and loads of extra help needed. As the initial sense of awe wore off with the sleepless nights, I learnt something about myself: sleep deprivation is a highly effective form of torture. It broke me. My self-proclaimed positive quality of calmness rapidly diminished after a few long nights on the hospital floor with feedings every 2 hours. (In hindsight, it probably wasn’t a party for D either). I was irritable, impatient and I constantly glazed over the endless stream of directions that D gave me. As a result, detailed checklists were prepared on sterilizing instructions, shopping lists for pre-mees, special washing cycles with special baby detergent, and the other “mandatory” stuff that naïve first-time parents think is life critical. Apparently, I was also doing a terrible job at ‘being thoughtful’, and my ‘you should really chill out’ comments were not so well received.

Finally, paternity leave ends. A big thank you to my American employer at the time that it was only 2 weeks. A much less demanding day of executive workshops, a couple of hundred high importance emails, and impatient clients who sent me congratulatory notes with a ‘when the hell do you get back’ tone await me. But, I could sleeeeeeeeep. A full night of uninterrupted sleep in a separate bedroom. Just the anticipation of that Sunday night of sleep released endorphins like never before.

Or so I thought. Dialogue transcript from Sunday, Aug 9th 2015 at 9pm:

MG: Good night honey. I’ll wake up a bit early to help out with the morning stuff. D (seeming confused): Why are you saying good night? We’re going to sleep together. MG: It’s Monday tomorrow and I’m back at work, remember? D: So? MG: So I’m sleeping in the other room, that’s why I’m saying good night. D: Other room? What are you talking about? You’re helping me with the night feedings. MG: (thinking she is joking, but there hasn’t been much humour lately): Ha ha. Good night love – I’ll do my best to come home early tomorrow.

---Long bewildered stare---

D: We haven’t talked about this, I’ve been assuming you are going to help me at night with Maya. MG: Of course, when I’m on paternity leave and on weekends. D: So do you think you’re going to sleep in the separate bedroom every weeknight? MG (I know this a trap, so respond carefully): Only while you’re on maternity leave, and then parenting is going to be 50-50 like we’ve always talked about. And of course, on weekends I’ll take over. D: Wait a second…I’m expecting you to help me with the nights during the week too. MG: Are you kidding me? I need to be on top of my game for my clients in the morning, I can’t be a zombie. I’ll get fired pretty quickly. D: Well, I need your zombie help at night just as much as your clients need you in the morning. MG (poor choice of words, but I hope you empathize given my state): There is a dam good reason why we have something called maternity leave! Your company is paying you for the next 6 months so that you can deal with all of this! D: Yes, I have maternity leave. This means that during the business hours of 7am to 7pm, I am 100% responsible. From 7pm to 7am, it is 50-50. MG (thankfully only thought and not spoken): I have married a monster! ---

Emotions and hormones running high, we took a deep breath and applied our basic organizational behavior training. How do we resolve this glaring discrepancy in expectations? Had this been a consulting project, our recommendation to our clients would be obvious - benchmark against your peers to determine outliers. This seemed like a fair approach to conflict resolution to both of us.

So, in the spirit of two data scientists we once were when we met 10 years prior, we undertake this benchmarking activity in full earnest. To ensure we were comparing apples-to-apples, only data points from 2 working parents with no live-in domestic help were considered. A week of data collection from our global counterparts, we finally had a statistically significant sample size.

And the results were striking! If you plotted the data on a world map, it was almost as if you could draw a straight line between the eastern and the western worlds:

ASIA (India, China, Korea, Japan, Middle East): “Absolutely, we sleep in separate rooms for the first couple of months. Why should both of us have to deal at night if one of us needs to work the next day?”

THE WEST (US, UK, Canada, Western Europe, ANZ): “Our wives have made such a big sacrifice in their career to have a baby. The least we can do is support them as best as we can when we are not working.”

And just like Maya was a product of East and West, so was our home. The fair solution was I got to sleep 2 nights a week of my choosing in the other bedroom, bridging the two points of view.

Next challenge - we have an RFP out on best practices to explain Santa Claus to a 3 year old Hin-jew.

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