Reading People

Arabic is read from right to left, European languages left to right. Some Asian languages read in columns, while others are like pictographs; get all the info, then go back and build the meaning of the sentence (sort of like German, when you have wait on the verb).

With many ways to read books, can it be a surprise that there are even more ways to read people?

Sam (Samet) worked at our hotel in Istanbul; he used the book analogy when we had a lengthy conversation about the hospitality industry, its economic engine and the subtle nuances of human relations that meant the curtain between “you paid me to be a servant to you” and “how are you enjoying your stay” had to stay down–no matter what accents, expectations, or accidents.

“It is like, every person who comes in this hotel is a book, and you must read them, but not all the lines. They have a whole life elsewhere, but here they want maybe something similar, maybe something different. You have to read very specific lines, look for the messages that are important, and not be distracted by the rest,” he said–in amazing English.

(Sam’s a smart kid, age 25. He’s also tall and movie-star handsome with curly hair, so you can just imagine what the population of wealthy retired world-traveling women who frequent his hotel offered him to read. Jack and I got a real kick out of watching him in action.)

IMG_3876His insights were echoed by Mustafa (43), the carpet seller across the street who willingly spent hours with us recording interviews. From the outlying provinces, “Moos” had been in Istanbul only 18 months. “I was born on a carpet. My mother made them, my father sold them wholesale. My brothers and sisters and I, everything we knew was carpets.”

It became evident as we talked that Mustafa regretted for himself the university education he intends his son to achieve, but also that he and his cousin (and business partner) relished being “cultural ambassadors. We teach the Middle East. We know carpets, how they made, the dyes, who is making them. We teach people every day, we are not just taking money. But we must have money or the shop closes.”

Behind this, Mustafa and Ahmed actually relished discerning who was inside the customer standing before them, what he or she wanted from the whole experience of buying a carpet. “Some people rich. They want a carpet only to prove they rich. They don’t touch, just ‘what is most expensive? OK, that one.’ Some people see a color, they fall in love, some people you talk into buying, some people you can never talk into buying. It is half work, half fun, this talking.”

IMG_3925Selling books, Jack and I read the customers who present themselves, trying to get them right. Back to front, straightforward, any hidden messages? It seems that, in every country, no matter the product, reading people is what makes a good shopkeeper. So Jack and I traveled 5,000 miles to find mirror images of our daily life in the people we met and the work they did.

We kinda like that.

Friends or strangers?

Jack’s Wednesday guest blog returns –

Now that there is some time and distance between us and our Istanbul jaunt, we’re beginning to analyze our experiences. Although we greatly enjoyed many things there were a few bumps along the road as well and that’s what I’ve been thinking about.

Coming from a very small town to spend 12 days in one of the biggest cities in the world was always going to be a bit of a shock to the system and there’s no doubt that was a contributory factor, however there’s something else at play, I think. As tourists staying in a busy up-market hotel in the middle of a historic part of Istanbul surrounded by tourist oriented shops we were very conscious of being just part of a ‘passing trade’ and easily categorized as ‘rich pickings’. However we didn’t consider ourselves so easily pigeon-holed. We are ourselves shop-keepers who deal daily with customers (some of whom are tourists) and we like to think we treat them all as individuals and interesting people in their own right.

All of this got me thinking about the times we felt most comfortable during our Turkish adventure. Not surprisingly it was when we felt we were interacting with people as fellow human beings, talking about shared concerns. Mustafa the carpet seller in his shop across the street from our hotel; Okay and Samet who worked in our hotel; the manager of the tour office at Ephesus; the yarn shop owner who invited us in for tea after we’d bought from him and it didn’t matter anymore. Mustafa chatted happily with us about his family, hometown and world travels; Okay laughed when we named the local cats we’d photographed after hotel employees and took our concerns on board when we were fleeced by a restaurant; Samet talked of his ambition to study Sociology in the US; the office manager went from bland indifference when we arrived in the morning to real genuine concern when Wendy arrived back in the afternoon feeling unwell. It must be very hard to relate to strangers who cross your path fleetingly as customers when you are so dependent on them and very tempting to see them as ‘cash-cows’ to be milked and then forgotten about.

Maybe it’s because we live above the shop and the line between our personal lives and our business lives is fairly blurred, or maybe it’s because in a small town many of our customers are also personal friends, but we really appreciated those times when we seemed to emerge from the masses and be recognized as ourselves in the frenetic surroundings of Istanbul.

In the end these are the memories that will outweigh the blips – the counterfeit 100 Lira bill, the wayward hand in Wendy’s pocket in the Grand Bazaar, the heaving crowds and bizarre fashion show at Ephesus and the missed briefing when we arrived at the hotel – they will recede while the good bits remain.