MediaNext: If You Can Play Donetsk, You Can Play AnywhereJune 24, 2009
I figured something would be different about this New Media training experience in Donetsk, vis-à-vis the west, since I had arrived with my share of preconceptions. Yet, I wondered, “Could I go a whole two days of trainings only to learn that there was nothing tangibly different? Did there need to be something different?” Certainly and no, of course.
It took me a while to put my finger on something that struck me as different about training New Media here. Everything began more or less like the other two, or at least it seemed to. But that could easily have been the fact that I had come in more focused on what I had planned to present, rather than how they were reacting when they first entered the room, or those first few sessions. I wanted them to come away significantly impacted by what we were there to teach. Since all I could really control was myself, I set my sights for that zone that we hear about in great athletes—that place where all ego strips away and all that remains is reflex. Assuming I was capable of this, of course.
It wasn’t till lunch that “it” started to sink in.
I joined the trainees at the big table, in the café where we ate lunch, to see if I could connect with them. If there’s one thing I have found it easy to connect on with Ukrainians, it is food. All I’d have to do is ask some questions, make some comments about food, get people talking food. Ice would be broken. Now was a good time to set the tone for the rest of the training, build those bridges that would open things up for the remaining 3/4s of the sessions. Time for some food talk.
But something interesting happened. Silence. Almost total silence. You could hear a pin drop. Imagine something like 12 people sitting at a table, no one talking to each other, eating, and then quietly leaving the table when they were through. I tried to break the ice by asking what I was eating. Someone told me it was a chicken kotlety. I responded that it was the first one made of chicken that I’d ever had.
Now, usually when I make comments in this way, it breaks ice. People usually follow up with a question. At least, in my two years in the west. In this case, it didn’t happen. Nothing. Full conversation stop. Which hit me like a sledgehammer.
Stunned, I looked for another opportunity. A woman sitting across from me very quietly asked if there was any salt at the table, almost as if she was really just asking herself, yet a little too loud for it not to be meant in some way to be directed outward. No one responded, which I found very surprising. I’m used to people acknowledging, then providing. Turns out, there wasn’t any salt. And no one volunteered to get some, they just carried on with their conversationless chewing.
I took action, popped up, scampered off to find some salt (which of course I had to pay for, 10 kopeks per packet, this being Ukraine). Surely, this would win me some “let’s have a conversation” points. Nope. If she said thank you, it wasn’t loud enough for me to hear. And no one else reacted as if I’d changed anything about the world in front of them. I felt like a ghost trying desperately to make contact with the corporeal world, to no avail. I gave up.
Vitaliy later brought up how quiet they seemed over at my table. He said that it was probably because there were so many people at one big table, that people probably feel like they are standing up in front of a room full of people, speaking publicly. The next day, he’d put everyone at smaller tables to break them up.
For me, in these situations of being a stranger at a table full of strangers, my natural inclination is to try to get to know people. Also, whoa, I’ve never experienced so much silence at a table in Ukraine before. Certainly not in the west. People in the west seem at least fairly open to the idea of talking to others when faced with a table full of strangers. I mean, it’s not like everyone at the table is so different from one another. Not like in America, where you can very easily have many cultures, races, and whatever represented at a single table.
I spoke to my wife about this later, via Skype, (ah, beautiful, wonderful, free Skype). She said, rhetorically, “Why do you think everyone who came to visit us in Dobrotvir (in western Ukraine, just north of Lviv) always raved about how friendly people were in our town?”
During the afternoon sessions of the first day, I noticed this theme continuing. At least, with me. I really just couldn’t engage people in any way. They mostly seemed, in general, like they’d prefer I didn’t interfere with what they were working on, as I walked around and offered help during the various tasks Sergiy was leading them through. It felt a little odd to me, because I felt like in Kyiv and Lviv, people took to me more quickly. Sure, there was the initial distance. It’s not like people were throwing themselves at me there. But, I never got an “I would prefer to do this myself” vibe.
It was also interesting how easy it was to tell when some of the trainees were frustrated that they were unable to do something. With some people, you could almost reach out and touch the frustration. These particular people would turn and bark, “Why isn’t this working!” In particular, this happened a lot with the people who struggled more to keep up. They’d fall behind, click the wrong links, a page wouldn’t load, some sort of error message would come up, and their reaction almost felt like it was placing the fault in my hands. Starkness. Coldness. Bruskness. I had to thicken my skin to let it bounce off.
Rule #1 when training New Media in Donetsk: Don’t let it get to you.
Rule #2 when training New Media in Donetsk: Remember that learning a new technology can be very frustrating.
Rule #3 when training New Media in Donetsk: People that get frustrated in the way that I am describing probably won’t apologize for being sharp with you.
Rule #4 when training New Media in Donetsk (which is also Rule #More Important Than Anything Else, Really): Understand why someone in Ukraine might be this way before you react—it will very much help you to not react in a way that could only exacerbate the situation.
Fortunately, I have a lot of experience with such people in Ukraine, and this “why”, so I can groove with it. Besides, Ukraine is the sort of place where you can drink a beer, or vodka, with this person later, and after some drinks, things will be very different, for the better, between you two.
This is not to say it was all starkness coldness bruskness. I was able to make people laugh at times (which is VERY reassuring when standing before a group of Ukrainians you didn’t know before that day—I can always whip out my humor stick for a little relief, or “beating”, to keep my metaphor constant). And a few people asked some GREAT questions. Like, why should they use Facebook, when they can so easily update people using Twitter? The idea being essentially, “Why use two tools when you can use just one?”
My answers to this involve, first, it being easier to create a more detailed profile of yourself on Facebook, giving you a chance to market your various links and preferences more elaborately, and in a way that is nicely congregated. Second, Facebook and Twitter together enable you to easily tap into two groups of people, instead of just one. So, if some people prefer Twitter, and other people prefer Facebook, you can connect the two sites so that you can update one and it automatically reaches the other—one message suddenly taps into to markets, basically. Of course, I can dig much deeper into this question, but that’s the gist.
Other than those moments of occasional laughter and great questions, I didn’t feel any real connection with the trainees on the first day. However, if there is one thing I am fairly sure of, it is that if you give it enough time, you can connect with even those most standoffish of Ukrainians. We just needed a little more time together. Things would likely be different come day two. At least, I’d hoped so.
It was probably a good idea that I went out for a beer with some of the trainees as part of the post Day 1 reception. If there is one thing that many a Ukrainian has informed me, it is that a drink can bring almost anyone together. My theory is that this helped a few people come to accept me, which could have a snowball effect for the others the next day.
We stopped in two fairly absurd yet anachronistically awesome restaurants, one called “Liverpool”, with a serious classic rock ubertheme (yes, you WILL find statues of The Beatles in action out front—Hard Rock Café, anyone?), and a “biker bar” that leaves one to wonder if there are any motorcycle-related paraphernalia left for the rest of the world to collect and admire. “Over the top” just doesn’t begin to describe these places.
My wife, in that Skype conversation, reminded me that there is something about Russian culture that really gravitates to what we in America might call tacky. They love extremes, particularly when it comes to décor and ambience. Apparently, when you have money in Russian-influenced areas, that means you REALLY want to immerse yourself in tacky. Which explains why the entrance to the biker bar was a giant version of the front end of a motorcycle.
The next day, I am happy to report, people started to open up to me. Yeah, I still got my share of frustration from some people. But, other people started to ask me for help in a nice way, too. As the second day burned on—and I continued the path of trying to be at least a little Michael Scott, and engage in a little public goofiness, while at the same time respecting people’s opinions, answering questions, and shamelessly bounding in their direction when they had questions, as if all I wanted to do was help THEM specifically—I was able to score more points.
When I gave my closing speech, people clapped, like they had at the other trainings. I was a little nervous that it might end in silence, just as it had begun. Not that it really mattered, just that it would have weirded me out a little, having finished on such a nice note with my previous closing speeches.
I will say this, though. If you can play Donetsk, you can play anywhere. You just have to remember—people are going to be slow to take to you if they don’t know you. Who are you? Why are you here? What do you want with them? What kind of risk do you present? These are the kinds of things that, in my experience, are often on people’s minds in Ukraine. They must be stronger in the east (especially if you are American, I think), I will conclude from this training, and back with anecdotal evidence from my Peace Corps friends.
However, once they know the answers to those questions, they will come around to you. As long as you are genuine.
Author’s Note: This is part of a series of posts on my experiences doing New Media trainings with Internews-Ukraine in June 2009, as part of their MediaNext initiative, in partnership with European Journalism Centre. These views are my own, and do not reflect those of Internews-Ukraine or European Journalism Centre. Just so we’re clear on that.
All photos courtesy of the author, who feels they illustrate the quintessence of good taste.