Thursday, June 5, 2008

My All-Time Favorite Story

On Tuesday, I posted a few stories that offered some simple lessons, and I asked others to share their stories as well - which they generously did. Stories provide a powerful means for us to connect with people and ideas. We remember them because of the emotional and intellectual impact they tend to have on both ourselves and others. There's just nothing quite like a great story. That said, I thought I'd share my all-time favorite story and one that has served as a guiding principle for my point of view on our business.

Over 25 years ago, I read an article as part of Dr. Sharon Scholl's Humanities Class at Jacksonville University. The anecdote contained within this article has stood the test of time as the greatest PR/Client Service lesson I've ever received. The piece has nothing and everything to do with Client Service. Here is the article in its entirety:

It’s not easy to understand how the “Third World” thinks

One of the difficulties in the so called “dialogue” between the industrial nations and the “Third World” is that the two simply do not speak the same language ― in far more than the surface meaning of that phrase.

This holds true at all levels ― whether individual to individual or government to government.

Fortunately, however, the gap is beginning to be breached. In part this is the direct result of increased person-to-person contact, in recent years, through the Peace Corps and similar programs “giving people” instead of merely giving money.

In many parts of this globe today there is poverty; there is widespread hunger which often approaches starvation; there is human suffering and misery.

There is, to begin, a natural humanitarian desire to help suffering fellow human beings.

But, even entirely aside from this, it is simply good international politics to remove the sources of unrest. For unrest can explode into open revolution which can spread.

However, to help someone, the would-be helper must understand the way the proposed recipient thinks, or the effort may flop.

The World Development Letter (Oct. 29 issue) cites an excellent example of such inter-society misunderstanding.

A development consultant (with a scientific background) observed, when touring an African village, that the yolks of eggs from the village chickens were white.

Ah, he reasoned, clearly a vitamin A deficiency.

His solution:

Simply let the villagers grow marigolds; feed the leaves and seeds to the chickens; the chickens will no longer have their vitamin A deficiency; and the eggs will be more nutritious.

Only, it didn’t work.


The development consultant, unfortunately, knew more about laboratory science than the psychology and mores of the native villagers he tried to serve.

A seasoned observer, who understood the people of that village, gave three reasons why the “bright” idea failed:

1) Eggs are taboo to most Africans. Villagers won’t eat them because they believe that, if you eat an egg, you eat what might have become a meal for an entire family. Therefore, eating eggs is like stealing food from other members of your family.

2) Most Africans never feed chickens, because chickens can forage and survive (albeit poorly) on the termites they find. This saves money (no chicken feed) and helps keep termites down to boot.

3) The women (who do such chores) refused to grow the marigolds. They would have had to carry water, for the plants, from distant wells.

The Old African Hand concluded:

“They won’t carry extra loads of water for flowers they don’t want in order to feed chickens that don’t need feeding so as to produce nutritious eggs which they aren’t going to eat anyway.”

Moral: The bridge to mutual understanding and cooperation needs more spans than merely “speaking their language.”

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