November 26, 2017
Maria Dixon Hall, Senior Advisor to Provost of Campus Cultural Intelligence
Before the 14 person contact sport that would be collectively known as "Thanksgiving Dinner with the Hall and Axtells," I decided I would take my three kids down to the heated pool.
Hotel pools are dicey. No matter the hotel brand, you are never sure of who is going to be there and what in the world they would be wearing. Luckily for me, there was a father and his two children splashing about when we arrived.
My middle daughter, Harmony dove head first into the deep end and popped up next to the gentleman. He greeted her with a big smile and shared that his name was Jeff and introduced his children as Royce and Becka. My other two, Carnell and Faith joined in the greeting ritual, and soon all of them were playing catch.
I watched as this very kind man with a familiar accent played and laughed with children one set white and the other set black.
Just as the game was reaching a fevered pitch, Royce announced he needed a bathroom break. His dad jumped out of the pool, scampered for his hotel key, grabbed the little guy, and asked, “Can you watch her? He is potty training.”
Ten minutes later, Jeff and Royce were back. Royce ran off to climb back into the water, while his dad sat down next to me.
I said, “Jeff if I didn’t know better I would swear you are a ‘home folk’!”
He laughed and confirmed my suspicion that indeed he was from Jackson, Tennessee and was only in Texas for his oldest son’s graduation from boot camp. Soon we began chatting about things Southern folks with home training tend to: where we went to church; possible family members and relatives we might know in our respective hometowns; identify our SEC Football allegiances, and tried to discern why Texans think brisket is BBQ.
Soon our conversation took a more serious turn. Jeff turned to me and sighed.
“You know there are people on the news who would be surprised that you and I are sitting here laughing with each other?”
“You mean a Tennessee and an Alabama fan?”, I said glibly.
“You know..”, he started.
“I KNOW, Jeff.”
“When did this all go so bad?”
I sat back. Not sure if mentioning anything about November 2016 would help or hurt our conversation.
“You know, I am a team leader over 8 men and women in my company. We are as different as night and day. There are a couple of black guys, a white woman, a Hispanic woman, a couple of good old boys, and a new engineer from the Middle East. I made it my job to figure out what really mattered to each of them. The truth of it is, I studied them. I learned about Ramadan, and then I had to learn that everybody in the Middle East was Muslim. I learned that Rosa would always sit in the corner of the room but would get a certain look when we were going the wrong way. I realized that she was never going to call me out publically, but if I asked her to tell me how she would do it while we were getting coffee in the morning, she would open up. Am I boring you? Sorry, I just get going and…”
“No, actually I need to hear this,” I said leaning in.
“I think my point is,” he began again, “is that it takes work. Not some damn seminar just some initiative to learn about people and who they are. Don’t have to agree or disagree but learn. Now when there is a disagreement on the team Mitch knows that James is not angry, he just states his points very clearly because he wants to make sure that he is heard—that’s really important for black men in the south.”
“Do tell,” I laughed.
“Did I offen..”
“No. I am sorry. But you are a living example of what I have been living and breathing for the last 18 months. So explain to me how did an old country boy like you learn about cultural intelligence?”
“Cultural what?” he looked at me like I had just grown a third horn.
“Never mind. How did learn how to lead your team like this? Did your company or another manager teach you this?”
“When you are in charge of making sure that your product is safe and meets the expectations of the customers, you don’t have time for stupid stuff. You learn what it takes to talk to each other and respect each other. We can’t sit around fighting every day or not speaking to each other. If your potato chips are not made right, you aren’t going to buy them. If the equipment is not working right, then the potato chips ain’t right. If my team of engineers ain’t working right then, the equipment ain’t going to be working right. I lose my job, they lose their jobs, and our plant closes. Look, I am just a guy from West Tennessee. I don’t have a fancy degree like some of the other team leaders, but in my small town, we had no choice but to learn how to live and work together cause none of us had enough live on a hill. When you needed a cord of wood, you didn’t care who brought it to you. You better learn to talk to people, or you were gonna go cold, hungry, or have a bunch of crops that wouldn’t get pulled in.”
Before I could continue my unapproved IRB interview, roughhousing at the end of the pool brought us back to the reality of childcare. As we each got up to convince our sons that throwing balls at their sisters’ heads was the way to end their time in the pool, we knew that our conversation was over.
After sorting out various pleas of innocence and injury, we decided that the kids had enough playing for the day. Gathering our respective flocks up to prepare them for re-entry to our temporary quarters, we each tended to our own.
“If you ever find out why Texans think that Brisket is BBQ, will you write a book on it to help all of us poor southerners understand their special brand of crazy?”
“Honey, I will write as soon as I understand why they have more Whataburgers than Waffle Houses!”