Clients, Students and Parents  – Dealing with all the “Crazies”


Being a freelance harpist and teacher, I get the opportunity to encounter a diverse spectrum of individuals. We all have our war stories dealing with personalities – the aggressive demander, the indirect-manipulator, the whimsical mind-changer.  The ones oblivious to time who thinks it complies to their needs. The ones, who despite how friendly and agreeable, end up writing a huge complaint letter. Are all these people crazy or are there underlying patterns for understanding and navigating our client’s personalities?

I recently read the book, “Foreign to Familiar – A Guide to Understanding Hot and Cold Climate Cultures.”  This book investigates patterns that go beyond personalities to their root cultural causes that are tied to the geography and climate where these cultures exist and grow.

Being in the people-business, these concepts are key for freelance musicians and teachers.

Hot and Cold Climate Cultures The author Sarah Lanier presents two general categories which most cultures fall under. Hot-Climate Cultures are relational based. This group values connection, good feelings, and people before goals and business. You will leave feeling connected even if the task didn’t get completed. The connection is prioritized over accurately. For example, a student/ parent may appear agreeable and pleasant without sharing their needs or frustrations. Then out-of-the-blue they let you know that due to x (art class, sports, school) they will be taking time off. This could even be done in a text or email to avoid “confrontation.” As Lanier says, “No one is willing to jeopardize the friendliness no matter how superficial.”

The Cold-Culture group is task and goal focused; “communication must provide accurate information.” You will leave with business completed in a timely manner to show respect for people. For example, a client may come off confrontational, with a list of expectations they want you to solve. When you explain what’s provided in your services, they may bluntly discuss if their business needs are met or they may simply move to a new musician. These clients will not “waste” your time; they will value truthfulness over their friendliness.  

Direct and Indirect Communication The next distinction between these two groups is communication style. With Direct Communication (Cold-Culture), people mean what they say. It is simple and straightforward. They will share their opinions without considering it offensive. Their communication is informational not personal. These people sound like critics, who tell you negative things, or seem to be “in-your-face” and aggressive. With direct communication, it is helpful to see communication is a means to an end; give the information and get the results.

Indirect Communication (Hot-Culture) shares in a subtle and open way as to avoid negativity, displeasure or dissatisfaction. The answer, “Yes” or “Ok” is applied to everything regardless of if they will do it or even understand. Indirect reasons are given instead of “No.” Many cases people will go out of their way to leave things open ended to avoid the disappointment that comes with “No.”  Such indirect responses such as, “I’m sick,” “My fiancé is busy or booked someone else,” “We are not sure what we want,” “Maybe check with this person” or “Yes of course” – but never will reply again.

Although these could be labeled as “excuses” their goal is your satisfaction, connection and happiness. When we see that the Direct Communication isn’t personal, and the Indirect Communication prefers to avoid disappointment, more harmony is achieved and less crazy people seem.

Individualism and Group Identities For this distinction, I find the best examples in teaching. The concept of Individual Identity may be more familiar to us in the USA than in other places in the world. Students are encouraged to have opinions, be their own person, to be independent and take charge. Responsibility is placed on an individual. Even the scenarios where students are “in-charge” and their parents defer to their requests. Alternatively, if the student’s enthusiasm fluctuations, then the teacher’s skill is questioned. These are examples of Individual Identity.

Group Identity finds its strength, pride or success in the family or community. Students are encouraged to conform to standards, and expectations. Responsibility is placed on the institution, group or family. Scenarios where students bring shame to parents if assignments are not completed or competitions are not won. Or where students are fantastic at following direction but miss the musicality or subtleties of something. Or when students do not share their opinions or feedback.  These are scenarios where families have a group identity.

High-Context  and Low-Context These distinctions are defined as degrees of formality, traditions, rules, and etiquette.  Older cultures (those who have been established for centuries) such as many European, Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern culture are categorized as formal and High-Context. Classical music training come from a High-Context cultural. Details matter – status, dress codes, gender roles, respect, systems, manners, and rules. We encounter this in our Classical systems, in our performance etiquette, and in our orchestras. People with this background have expectations of others to follow systems. Extreme offense is taken when these rules are bent or broken.

Low-Context groups are considered informal and newly established societies or nations such as the USA, Australia, or places of cultural immigration and diversity. Silicon Valley, where I’m from, is one of the most informal, open, casual, familiar, first-name-basis cultures. Whether you are a CEO or waiter, people dress casually, are oblivious to rules and most etiquette, rarely parade status symbols and can be generally obtuse to basic manners. What is natural for all of us, can be taken as highly offensive to many other cultures. Understanding the level of formality your client is from and being able to apply a higher or lower degree of formality is key to a successful working relationship.

Time and Planning. Lastly, is the concept of time. This is a very relevant category we all encounter and probably know which group we fall into ourselves. Cold-Climate groups, like direct communication, are inflexible with time. Five minutes early is late. Not being prepared is late. Not planning ahead is late. We all know those weddings we performed that ran like clockwork. We have those families that show up 5 minutes before class and begin glaring if their child is not sitting down playing the moment their lesson time starts.  The “on-time families” where if call-time is 5:00, they are there at 4:00 and suggest you may be late. Ask these people to be spontaneous, change their plans, or do something different, and they probably look at you with a mixture of fear, disgust and indignation.

Then there are the Hot-Climate groups which experience and respond to all of life, focusing on the spontaneity and people. These are the weddings we perform that upon arrival, the building is still locked, the wedding party is getting dressed at the start time, and the guests don’t show up until the reception. These are the families that always seem 10 minutes late for their 30 minute lessons; the ones you need to tell the recital begins an hour before it does. These are the flexible, spontaneous, people that hold commitments as suggestions. Here, a set time is almost an insult, a burden and unnecessary pressure.

Understanding the concept of time and how it reveals personal convictions, help us to respect and work fluidly with each other. The people who come off as crazy, who use different values for things we thought were fundamental givens, now make more sense. It’s a marvelous thing to gain insight into the diversity and cultural practices of the people we serve every day. 

Inspired by the book, “Foreign to Familiar” by Sarah Lanier


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