Know Your History and That of Your Clients

About 4 years ago, my friend Jessica and I were walking in Times Square, la touristas on our way to Central Park via 7th Avenue. Sidewalk entrepreneurs were pedaling their wares—vans displaying basketball jerseys, painters with racks of originals, and stand after stand of every accessory out there. Rap music blared out of a stereo; a song I’d never heard and didn’t seem interested in. Out of politeness I must have nodded to the artist hawking copies of his CD because he suddenly stepped right in front of me, putting his hand on my shoulder.

“Now hold up sweetie,” he said with a charming smile. “Don’t rush off so fast. No need to fear the black man.”

I looked down at his hand and then back up at him. “I have not fear of the black man,” I said. “I am from Compton, California.”

I was surprise how quickly he stepped back telling me that people from Compton were crazy. Jessica and I kept walking. I wasn’t sure how people from Compton could be anymore crazy from people in the Projects. Seemed pretty even to me.

Straight OutMexicanta Compton (the movie) came out this weekend. My son was eager to see it. He knew that my family had been raised between the cities of Compton and Southcentral L.A., and visited a few years ago with my white-bread husband who had gone to L.A. for medical reasons. N.W.A was played in our house as part of his cultural upbringing. It taught him that fear makes people behave irrationally, music (and all art for that matter) can cause a cultural revolution, and sometimes, despite our best efforts, life just isn’t going to play fair. I made sure he understood that my parents had worked hard to keep me out of that lifestyle and that we were working hard so that he could make something of himself. At the same time, I told him we should never forget or deny where we came from. All that history is what makes us who were are and explains how we handle situations.

In The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Green lists Law 19 as “Know Who You’re Dealing with-Do Not Offend the Wrong Person.” Growing up in 90% of the Northwest states, plus my brief time in Japan introduced me to all kinds of people. I’ve belonged to all sorts of civil organizations Girls Scouts, Explorer Scouts, Key Club, etc. And while these organizations shared the common goal of civil service, their individual approach attracted a different circle of personalities. Nowadays, I would refer to these different circles as demographics and markets, but when I was 12, these words hadn’t entered my vocabulary yet. I just know that my friends from Girl Scouts were a completely different breed than those in Explorer Scouts, and I tailored my social strategies accordingly.

In business I’ve learned to do the same. What works with one client, can rub another the wrong way. In that way it is much like raising children. They may share the same genes, but chances are they don’t want the same things in life. I am generally upfront about my cultural background with my clients, not because I think I’m gangsta. Far from it, my parents were quick to move me out of Compton to Alaska. And though I visited California frequently where I had my fair exposure to violence and poverty, my family settled in the Coeur d’ Alene area where we faced the discrimination of the skinhead movement. This history tends to make me really appreciate other strong, straight shooting personalities who tell it like it is. I may not always like the words coming out of their mouth, but I respect their honesty. At the same time, I’ve learned to tone down that directness for those who handle their business in a more subtle or delicate manner.

How has your history affected the way you handle business? Do you know who you’re dealing with and how to communicate effectively without creating problems between different worldviews?

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