Sunday, April 26, 2015

Direct face-to-face verbal communication is the secret of success in international relations. (Moscow 1976)

Dear Readers,

After spending more than 40 years in the business environment, I sincerely believe that “Communication” is an art. “Communication” is everything in business. The ability to communicate distinguishes human beings from all other living creations. It is the key in “International Relations”, and this is why we created shuttle diplomacy. This is also why “indifference” can be an effective weapon in defeating your opponents, and why “precious loneliness” is not a solution in diplomacy.

I was in a 3-month technical training program in Moscow in 1976, during the pure, romantic Brezhnev years. I still believe that Moscow was the real Moscow at that time, not like now, as it has become a city similar to those seen in the rest of the world. People were true believers of their system. I was one of a few westerners in the capital and was trying to learn Russian. However, most Muscovites were eager to speak English with me, hence I faced the same dilemma faced by countless foreigners who try to speak the language of their host country, wherever it may be. Therefore, I had no chance to speak Russian.

I was staying at University Hotel (Gastrinistza Universitetskaya) close to the monumental post-WW2 building that was Moscow University. It was a - very - cold winter, the city was blanketed in snow. But the Russians seemed to be comfortable with the snow and the cold. The city was host to immense stone houses, district heating, an excellent public transportation system, and reasonable accommodation, food, and secure jobs for everyone. Its residents had no idea about the outside world. They had vodka, they had books to read and records to listen to; they were happy.

By the way, they also had extraordinary art, namely ballet - Russian ballet. The very next day after my arrival in Moscow I went to the ticket box of Bolshoi Theatre to check the program and inquire about ticket availability. There was a long line, I cannot recall now exactly how long it was, but people waited day and night for these tickets, whether they were for an opera, ballet, or symphony orchestra performance. I could not understand how people could wait in that ticket line for so long in such cold temperatures, especially considering that sometimes they weren’t even able to get a ticket because they were sold out.

My expectations to see a real Russian ballet in at the Bolshoi Theatre were dashed. It was impossible for me to buy a ticket. I might have been able to buy a ticket on the black market but I didn’t have enough practice speaking Russian to do this.

I checked to see if our hotel facilities could help in any way and found out that they had a service bureau to help foreigners. This bureau was under the direction of (Comrade) Tovarish Nina, and it employed three ladies in its staff, Victoria, Natalia and Galia. Victoria could speak English, Natasha Spanish, and Galia German, yet each also had a fair knowledge of the other two languages that could be used in case of emergency. I communicated well with Victoria and she eventually came to help me familiarize myself with Moscow. She was married with kids and working in the hotel service bureau. I asked her if the service bureau could help me to buy a ticket to see a ballet, opera of concert at the Bolshoi. The answer was a resounding "Nyet!!" It was impossible.

We learnt that the hotel management received a few tickets for every performance and allocated them to special foreign visitors. The distribution of these prized tickets was unconditionally left to Lady Director Tovarish Nina. Yet Tovarish Nina was unapproachable. She was in charge of everything. She had power over everything including the distribution of the Bolshoi tickets. After one month in Moscow, I was completely helpless. I could not get my hands on a ticket to the Bolshoi despite having tried everything, connections, the embassy, even the black market. There was no hope. When it comes to ballet, you cannot bribe a Russian. This artform was more valuable than any other worldly possession. They could stand for days and days in a ticket line just to have the chance to purchase one ticket for a performance, regardless of which performance it was.

I had only communicated with Victoria as she could speak English. Yet one day I had an idea. I could speak directly with Lady Director Tovarish Nina in her own language. Since she was employed in the service bureau, she must be able to speak at least one western language. Yet which one? I found out that she could speak French. She had majored in French at Moscow University. I had taken some French courses at my university but had forgotten almost everything. I had to brush up on these skills as soon as possible if I were to be able to communicate directly with Lady Director Tovarish Nina. I then decided to turn to my foreign colleagues to help me in this endeavor. We had one engineer from a region in Africa that fell under French cultural influence, namely the country of Ghana. He had good command of written French but spoke French in his own local West African dialect. Anyhow, this was only a minor problem and I needed to polish my French as soon as possible. So I asked him to teach me some important French phrases to break the ice with the director. I practiced those phrases for one week in my free time and one early morning, when Tovarish Nina arrived in her office, I entered and greeted her in French, "Bonjour Madame, je m'appelle Haluk d'Ankara en Turquie. Comment allez-vous?" In the conversation that came to follow, I addressed her as "Madame Nina". Madame Nina was very happy that day as during that time, there were no French speaking guests in the hotel, yet today she was able to speak her foreign language with a foreign visitor.

She told me about her time at University, her work as a tour guide for French politicians, her meeting with the famous French pop singer Gilbert Bécaud, her current job, her family, her husband, and her kids. She was no longer Tovarish, she was my French Lady Madame Nina and I was one of her special foreign guests in the hotel. The next day I asked her about tickets for the Bolshoi, and even though I was expecting to receive, at most, only one ticket, she gave me one ticket each remaining week of that month I stayed in Moscow. Carmen, Prince Igor, LaBoheme, SwanLake, I had access to them all. Bolshoi Theatre was (and still is) a cultural temple, unmatched anywhere else. You should take a round trip to Moscow, just to see a performance at this site, whether it be a ballet, an opera or a concert.

I believe that face-to- face verbal communication is an art in international relations as well as in international business. Today, one foreign language is not enough. One should learn two, three or more languages. Learning one language does not hinder your ability to speak another. Verbal communication is the key to success in your business life.

Thank you very much Madame Nina after all these years.

Oberstdorf, Germany, 29 April 2015

Haluk Direskeneli, is a graduate of METU Mechanical Engineering department (1973). He worked in public, private enterprises, USA Turkish JV companies (B&W, CSWI, AEP), in fabrication, basic and detail design, marketing, sales and project management of thermal power plants. He is currently working as freelance consultant/ energy analyst with thermal power plants basic/ detail design software expertise for private engineering companies, investors, universities and research institutions. He is a member of ODTÜ Alumni and Chamber of Turkish Mechanical Engineers Energy Working Group.


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