Several years ago, I was in Berkeley, Calif., dining with a client at Chez Panisse, the legendary restaurant founded by Alice Waters, the patron saint of California cuisine. At Chez Panisse, you eat what they give you -- there's a single daily menu based on what's fresh in the market. That day, the bounty included squab. Now, my client wasn't what you'd call a foodie -- he would have been just as happy at Sizzler. So he turned to me, somewhat anxiously, and asked, "What's squab?" I couldn't help myself: I became a pretentious jerk. I told him about squab, then I went on to discuss the relative merits of quail, grouse, and other small game birds. I knew at that moment that I had lost a client.
I've been thinking about that incident these days, thanks to the incessant noise the media is making about the fact that we have become two Americas -- the red states and the blue states. While much has been made of the political and cultural implications of this divide, not enough attention has been paid to what it means for doing business.
Bridging these cultural and political gaps is more of a challenge than most executives realize, especially when it comes to establishing and nurturing the emotional connections that are at the heart of so many lasting and productive business relationships. When an executive in San Francisco tries to win a client in Kansas City, or a Kansan attempts to make a deal with a Californian, the click is harder to achieve. There's an unspoken values clash. Indeed, such chasms are almost as prevalent within single states, or even cities. "There are neighborhoods in Manhattan that are more similar to Milan than to Brooklyn," Michael J. Weiss writes in The Clustered World: How We Live, What We Buy, and What It All Means About Who We Are. "The yuppie on the Upper East Side has more in common with a yuppie in Stockholm than with a downscale person in Brooklyn."
The fact that there are (at least) two business cultures in America may seem obvious, but we sure don't act as if it is. We are creatures of our cultural milieu in ways we don't even realize. Blue America drops references to episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm as if they are national cultural currency. I've seen the blank stares that result. While it may seem as if all your friends are watching it, the HBO comedy has a relatively small audience, a fraction of the millions of Americans who have read, say, one of the Left Behind series of Christian apocalyptic novels. If a retailer in St. Louis brings up Glorious Appearing with a Seattle-based manufacturer's rep, it's likely to resemble one of my squab moments. One friend of mine, for example, has been mocked by a client ever since she asked for Earl Grey tea at a meeting in the Rio Grande Valley.
So excuse me while I make some statements sure to inflame people nationwide. In blue state meetings everyone seems to curse, while in red state meetings people say "friggin'." Blue state businesspeople are profligate smudgers of the work-life boundary, while in my experience red staters are much more protective of their family time. Blue staters tend to be provocative -- they pride themselves on shaking up a meeting by saying something outrageous, while red staters are more respectful of hierarchy and tradition.
Of course, I'm generalizing. But I'll bet that people who do business across America will agree that I'm not too far from the truth. How can we be more successful at navigating this tricky territory? There's no easy answer, but it helps to drop your well-crafted self-identity when you get on the airplane -- not to pander, but to recognize differences without stereotyping. It's hard but not impossible to understand the place in which you're doing business. If you're a blue stater, go online and read The Kansas City Star. If you're a red stater, subscribe to New York magazine.
We all seem to know about the Japanese custom of exchanging business cards. But how many Manhattanites know that in areas throughout the country, businesses close down on the first day of hunting season? Perhaps some enterprising writer will turn this into an idea for a book. And why not? It's easy to find titles like The New Silk Road: Secrets of Business Success in China Today and Hidden Differences: Doing Business With the Japanese. Where is, say, Succeeding in Rotary Club Territory or Mastering the Los Angeles Business Tradition? After all, just because you don't need a passport to get somewhere doesn't mean you're in familiar territory.
Adam Hanft is founder and CEO of Hanft Unlimited, a Manhattan-based consulting, advertising, and publishing firm.