I’m not a paragon of fashion, I know that. But, one thing I do love to do when I’m traveling, especially in places where I’m clearly from far away, is to find some local garb, wear it with pride, learn how to say “thank you” in the local language, and then say it often.
Maybe it’s partly because I grew up in the US with father who is American and a mother who is German. I spent a lot of time in Germany and I always thought the lederhosen and durndels were pretty cool and kind of cute, and just a fun expression of culture. I also have a kilt, to honor the Scottish side of me, and I’ve always been fascinated with local things. It’s not just clothes. I love local languages, customs and even local craft beer! Underneath this I think what I’m trying to do is demonstrate my respect for people when I’m visiting their part of the world, whether it’s Cincinnati or Mumbai.
After college I worked really hard so I could buy a plane ticket around the world and save $5,000. With that I spent about a year living and traveling through Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand (mostly surfing in Indonesia, which is heaven) and then I visited France, Denmark, Sweden and Germany on my way home. It was an absolute blast. And, one of the things I learned early on is that being able to say “thank you” in the most local dialect possible was like being able to cast a powerful magic spell.
In Java, in the region of Surabaya, the way to say thank you in the local dialect is “matur nuwun.” When I would buy street food or go to a restaurant or thank someone who had helped me with directions I would put my hands in prayer position, gently bow my head and say “matur nuwun.” The first few times I was completely surprised as their jaws quite literally hit the floor. They would give me a look of utter surprise and then their faces would light up like the sun as a huge smile took over their faces. It was beautiful and I quickly got addicted. It gave people a whole new appreciation for me. They would immediately want to talk a little more and tell me a little more about whatever I had asked about. It was like a magic spell and it was fabulous.
Something similar happened when I was in Yemen training the speakers and speaking at TEDxTaiz. When I arrived one of the gifts the organizers gave me was a lovely traditional local Yemeni outfit, complete with the ceremonial Jambiya knife that every Yemeni man must have. (They assured me there was no actual rhino horn used…)
As we were preparing for the show I asked Muhammad, my friend who was running TEDxTaiz if he thought it would be good for me to wear the Yemeni outfit when I went up on stage and gave my talk. He looked at me and his eyes went wide and he asked, “You would do that?” with an incredulous look on his face. I said, “Muhammad, of course. I’d be honored. I think it would be great and I think the audience might relate to me better, too, if I were wearing something that they were so familiar with.” He heartily agreed. So, right before my speech at TEDxTaiz I ran up to my room. A couple of the guys came up with me and they helped me get the outfit on just right. And, when I stepped out on stage there was a visible and audible gasp from the audience, and my talk went over really well.
Later, after signing autographs and doing selfies for what felt like hours, and feeling a little bit like Michael Jackson, I was about to go back up to my room and get changed for dinner when a young local Yemeni guy walked up to me in his Western suit and said, “You know John, thank you for wearing that outfit today. I have always resisted dressing in the local Yemeni clothing because I thought it would look silly or ridiculous on me, but seeing you in this outfit, looking so great makes me think I’m going to try it myself.”
For me, it was one of those perfect moments. It was one of the moments when I knew that, if for nothing else; just for that reason alone, it was worth potentially risking my life and coming all the way to Yemen was absolutely worth it.
People appreciate being seen. People appreciate being acknowledged. People appreciate it when you notice things about them and honor things about them and their culture. And, I think that’s a great lesson for anyone who is a leader, a speaker, and who wants to make the biggest difference they can make.