In the Eye of the Beholder

Terry J. Soto, Author and President & CEO, About Marketing Solutions, Inc.

I’ve just returned from vacation in Central Europe. Over three weeks I travelled from Los Angeles to Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Austria, Germany and back. In spite of my efforts to learn a least the basics of each language, I realized I bit off more than I could chew when I only managed to convolute them. Oh well! BUT this didn’t prevent my travel partner and I from engaging with and meeting all sorts of wonderful people who were so willing to share their experiences, advice and directions—sometimes in English and sometimes, as we ventured off the beaten path, in Polish, Czek, Slovak, Hungarian or German. It’s amazing how even when you don’t understand a single word, expressions, motions and smiles communicate just fine and result in an even richer experience.

Truth be told, I hadn’t felt an interest in Central Europe before because it seemed so foreign and different to me; un-relatable somehow. But I travel to open my mind so off I went. Travel has always been a critical way to gain new perspectives and to understand culture as it applies to all facets of life. And once again, I was captivated by how similar we really are as human beings EVEN in Central Europe. I met all sorts of families, children, teens, executives, local store and restaurant owners. Everywhere we went people were warm. They smiled and laughed the same. They have their moods. They argue. They go about their daily work and school routines. They love their families. They cherish free time. They want to belong.

I was especially impressed by the similarities to Hispanic and Mediterranean cultures across many facets of life in central Europe and especially taken by the sense of family and community. I never would have imagined that as I walked through these cities on any given late afternoon, weekday or weekend, I would see parks filled with young people and young families with young children. Families (moms AND dads) picnicking, playing with their children or watching the kids run through and play in the multitude of fountains. I learned that many young families take advantage of flextime and typically go into work very early so they can be home with family by 3pm.

I also saw the importance placed on the freshness of food. They appreciate fresh produce, meats, seafood, grains, spices and flowers and plants as reflected in the large number of people shopping large food markets comprised of individual stalls. Bakeries, flowers stands and fruit and vegetable stands are ubiquitous. I’d say no different than what one might see and experience in any Latin American or Mediterranean country. These are the places I love to find, where I people watch and where I proceed to taste everything in sight. Supermarkets are smaller than those found in the US or Western Europe and while well assorted, specialty shops and stalls throughout seem to be preferred when it comes to shopping for freshness.

As someone whose profession is focused on sensitizing clients to multiculturalism and as one who often encounters resistance to diversity in the US, I was taken by the attitude towards diversity in many of these countries and especially in Austria and Germany where as a result of the privilege afforded to European Union citizens, people from all over cross borders to study and work where they please.

This diversity is evident in the mixed composition of families one sees throughout and in the faces of restaurants and business owners in city centers. Interestingly, it all seemed to fit seamlessly and as I was told by a local in Germany, “We love diversity and immigrants because it creates opportunity for different types of restaurants, supermarkets and other types of businesses to flourish and it helps make Berlin a more interesting, productive and fun place to live.” Who knew Berlin had such a large Turkish community. A Vienna local said, “We need immigrants for the health of our economy. Europeans are old and they aren’t having kids. If we didn’t have immigrants how would our society continue to thrive in good times and bad?” WHAT A REFRESHING OUTLOOK!

Those who know me well know I love to travel. I try to travel abroad for three weeks at a time at least twice a year. Yes, I go to see beautiful places but I also go to immerse myself in local customs and to participate if I’m lucky. It’s an introspective view and study of people. And, a big part of me is constantly looking for clues to understand what makes some Americans of a certain age and culture so resistant and uneasy with the diverse populations that call America home.

I secretly wonder what might open up for them if they could see what I see in the diversity within our own borders. I think they would see we are all the same. I think they would see that people are warm. They smile and laugh the same. They have their moods. They argue. They go about their daily work and school routines. They love their families. They cherish free time. They want to belong.

Terry Soto is President and CEO of About Marketing Solutions, Inc., a Burbank, California – based strategy consulting firm specializing in helping her clients dramatically improve overall business performance by optimizing their strategies to succeed in the Hispanic market. For more information please visit www.about or send me an email at: