Riding a Vespa and the power of intercultural training

coaching, Expat, global mobility, intercultural learning, intercultural sensitivity, TCK / By Elisabeth "Elle" Weingraber-Pircher

Riding a Vespa and the power of intercultural training

“The real voyage of discovery consists not of seeking new lands, but of seeing with new eyes”, said Marcel Proust. The significance of these words hit me one day riding my new red Vespa along an old canal in Milan avoiding the jammed main roads and feeling very “dolce vita”. It occurred to me that getting on a scooter after years behind a steering wheel was a bit like moving to a new country. You can scoot along or you can use the full potential by seeing the world with new “Vespa eyes”. Shifting from coasting to proceeding with joyful purpose doesn’t just happen by itself. To develop the adequate mindset you want facilitation and coaching. Let me explain.

After years of driving cars you no longer have to think about it because it has become second nature. When you switch to a scooter you have to go back into the active thinking mode, engaging your brain and your senses. As modern Vespas are easy to handle, after a few rides you believe to have mastered it whizzing through the city feeling like a pro. Of course there may be tricky moments, but in general you experience the change as relatively smooth.

Moving to another country as an expatriate is like trading the car for a Vespa. You turn off the autopilot and again are fully alert for some months. This state of full concentration to the little things in life is exhausting. You also have to put much energy into constructing a new social and professional support network before you feel connected and relaxed again.

So how does intercultural coaching and training matter? What occurred to me during my ride that day, was that I had been using my Vespa with the mindset of a driver. I kept taking the same streets on two wheels I had taken in four wheels. I stayed behind the traffic in front of me, used the same GPS, to give you just a few examples. By riding my Vespa with a car mind I didn’t use its full potential.

While this was still enjoyable, I was not as effective as I could be. So I observed other motorcyclists, took a lesson with an instructor to be up to date on Italian road rules and accepted the offer of an experienced rider to be my coach accompanying her on her outings. Amazing what I had missed; the special lanes for public transport and scooters bypassing long traffic jams, ancient streets too small for my SUV, a GPS for motorcycles, the best position at a traffic light to be the first one off and many more things. I had to develop a new way of being on the road depending on my means of transport. As expats we often also continue with our standard home world views missing out on equally legitimate viewpoints that add insights, creativity and joy to our work and way of being.

Living in different countries requires you to extend into different styles of interacting with the world around you. From a home country mindset to a host country one, from Expat in Asia to Expat in Latin America, from business consultant to spouse without work permit, in order to fully use the potential of these new roles and cultural contexts. An intercultural trainer functions like a driving instructor offering cultural relevant communication preferences and values, to become a better observer of these differences in your environment. Its a bit like being told about the special motorcycle lanes or the safest position at the traffic light, more effective than finding out by chance. Once you recognise them, you can look for them in different parts of the city to arrive quicker at your goal. An intercultural coach supports you to transfer those observations into your specific work and social context, serving also as a sounding board. Similar to when I went out with my Scooter friend who gave me feedback and helped me adapt my unique style “Fast, but not furious” to the Vespa. A coach supports you define your style as leader, manager, friend, partner among other roles. She offers insights on how to listen with purpose to understand others, acknowledge diverse takes on a  problem and provides new solutions. Coaching also creates a space to reflect on what to do and say differently in your particular context to make sure you are perceived how you want to show up.

The question is: to scoot along or ride the potential? What kind of “eyes” will you choose for your voyage?