The year was 2000.
I had just arrived in Seoul after 13 hours in the air and contorting my frame to the dreaded middle seat.
Normally, I would take the blue bus to the hotel.
But I was two hours away from speaking at a conference staged by a Korean version of PRSA. That’s why Sue Kim, our Korean GM and person who launched our office in Seoul, was waiting in a taxi.
I did my best impression of pretending to be spry as the taxi hustled toward the conference, roughly a 60-minute drive.
I can’t remember if it was my idea or Sue’s idea, but we decided to insert a very localized vignette into my talk on global communications. In addressing the cultural pluses and minuses when it comes to Asian companies building global brands, I would point out that “Asian modesty” could at times hurt a company’s PR effort. To accentuate the point with local flavor, I would recite the Korean phrase, 모난돌이 정맞는다, which loosely translated means, “The nail that stands out gets hammered.”
Now that I think about it, this had to be my idea. Sue has way too much common sense to hatch a plan that required memorizing a Korean line and learning how to properly pronounce it in the space of 60 minutes in a fatigued state.
Mark Zuckerberg must have a gift for linguistics, learning enough Mandarin in a relatively short period of time to deliver a speech in Mandarin at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
I don’t have this gift.
So there we were in a taxi — Sue playing Korean language tutor and me playing back the words with a concentration typically reserved for figuring out what’s the fastest line at Whole Foods.
Sue would say the phrase, breaking down the pronunciation by syllables.
I would do my best to mimic Sue. Not easy — Korean, like Hebrew, includes certain sounds that don’t exist in English.
This type of ping-pong teaching carried on for 60 minutes.
Finally, we’re arriving at the conference hall. I take one final try at the pronunciation which triggers a howl of laughter from the taxi driver.
Not exactly a confidence builder.
Sue has a spirited conversation with the driver as she pays him.
I ask Sue what the taxi driver said. “He said he can finally understand what you’re saying.”