The United Nations of Chaos

The amoeba has struck again.  And it’s no wonder, because at this point, our project’s various suppliers, artisans and disciplines have to work together to determine what needs to be done when, how and by whom.  Of course this also includes what shouldn’t be done yet, a point worth mentioning, because if the sequencing of plaster, floors and windows isn’t correct, we’re going to be faced with an amoeba on steroids.  Even under normal circumstances this is a tricky phase, but a recent meeting on site with the prospective kitchen supply company had me wondering how we haven’t qualified as a unique subject for research on multicultural, multilingual projects yet.

Attending the meeting were the team of two from the Spanish kitchen company and a motley crew of Portuguese specialists and advisers already involved.  Between all of us, there several languages too many, but we were able to narrow it down to Portuguese, Spanish and English (funny how Afrikaans and Russian only come in handy when you feel the urge to curse…)

Of course the whole lost-in-translation business is a real concern, but that’s only one dimension of the dynamics of the meeting.  The second is style and work preference, an arguably more problematic issue.  Haven’t we all seen two kids from different cultures and languages get along famously if their goal is mutual entertainment or shared fun, but even for two who speak the same language, the interaction falls apart when one turns out to be a bully or simply doesn’t want to play?  So back to the meeting.  Each in their preferred language, one person would still be in salesman mode while another would be heavily into problem solving or recounting a funny story about what happened to him last weekend when the neighbour’s goat escaped.  Involved in our project are talkers, doers, thinkers, listeners, dreamers, attention-deficit sufferers, boasters, rubbish-talkers, clock-watchers, clock-ignorers and many more.  Is it just me or why does chaos theory come to mind?  Or the UN perhaps?

If you look at the charter of the UN, you’ll see that it aims to maintain peace and security, develop friendly relations among nations, achieve international cooperation and to be a centre for harmonising the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.  Bingo, that’s us!  Unwittingly we’ve morphed into one of the chapters of the organisation.  But, in the absence of professional translators and facilitators, how do we achieve harmony between a respectful consulting engineer of few words and a talkative, often off-topic expert, an argumentative floor guy, a procrastinating roof guy, a slow floor guy, a glass half-empty electrician, a workaholic foreman and a pernickety owner? (disclaimer: these are all imaginary people, of course…).

As far as I can tell it all boils down to two things:

The first is goodwill (maybe we’ve already surpassed the UN).  If goodwill doesn’t exist between at least a majority of the partners, you don’t stand much of a chance.  Secondly, it seems to be wiser to allow the chaos in (provided the goodwill is in place).  Yes, I know it sounds mad, but the chaos is going to take over anyway, so if you embrace it, you’ll at least feel somewhat noble about being so patient, understanding and lenient in the face of such mayhem.  Note that I only say reckless things like “embrace chaos” because chaos doesn’t seem to be a lasting state.  While it has the ability to persist for a good irritating while, it also seems to exhaust itself eventually, if not because of the desire of those present for more order in their world and work, then definitely because there’s always coffee or lunch break that will force the chaos to a point of semi-agreement.

For those of us who have a slightly more structured approaches to things, it can be a painful process, but there’s one side-effect of the united nations of house-building that concerns me more than temporary pain and it has a little something to do with this blog.  You may have noticed that I haven’t written here for several weeks and there’s a reason for that.

Remember that whole theory about women using three times more words than men in a day?  Well, my spouse (never a man of many words), who is the champion of this massive project and also the one who takes care of most meetings, most details, most everything, has recently, to my grave concern, run out of words.  He comes home after talk-filled meetings such as the one above and seems to have only three words left.  At some point, when enough time has passed (although he’ll probably disagree with my definition of “enough time”), I carefully ask, consciously monitoring my own word tally, how things went.  His answer?  “Oh, the same.”  Three words.  What can I do with three words?  And not even any lines to read between!

This leaves me, theoretically the wordier of the two, with very little to report and it also explains why it took me so many weeks to tell you the following things:
1) there are many men on site (as evidenced below)
2) they seem to be doing important things and
3) my freshest conclusion about building in a foreign country: amoeba meets benign chaos equals potentially exceptional international cooperation but almost certain loss of words.  And a few eerily quiet evenings at home.

PS.  That thing about women having more words available than men per day.  It’s a myth.
PPS.  Truman Capote once said that “a conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue.  That’s why there are so few good conversations: due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet.”  Enough said.

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