Chanchika’s Birthday

Last week, I realised something important about Georgian working places.

It was one my colleagues’, Chanchika, birthday, so, as is the custom in Georgian offices, he brought kachapuri (some sort of cheese pastry) that his wife had made for the event, some wine, that one of his friends had made, and one of my female colleagues brought a big cake. At lunch, unlike the usual romantic face to face with our computers, we all gathered in the meeting room, and turned the meeting table into a birthday table. As always at a Georgian table, although it seems fine to start eating without every one being served, no one would start drinking before a first toast was made, which was dedicated to Chanchika. Throughout the lunch, every one made toasts: to Chanchika, to his wife, to children, to peace, to CENN (the name of the NGO), to love, to future love, to good friends, to past colleagues, to our boss who just had a baby, etc… Every toast got the attention of more or less every body at the table, and people would answer or continue one toast with another toast, all of this with, what seemed to me as, a lot of eloquence.

Georgian ‘Supra’, Traditional Super

Toastmaking is embedded within a lot of rules. For instance, my boss[1] explained to me that, if a toast was said in one’s honour, it was rude not to answer back with another toast. Furthemore, being a good toastmaker (‘tamada’) is a valued skill, and people know who the good toastmakers are.

My first weeks at CENN had been quite frustrating, as I felt ignored by my colleagues. After a few weeks, I still didn’t know what some of my colleagues names were (and there are only 15 of us in this office), what their role in the NGO was, what projects they were working on… I felt like I didn’t even know what CENN was about, all I knew is what I had read on the webpage. When I would see people in the morning, my hello’s would be ignored or not heard, and I would spend a lot of time just trying to catch someone’s gaze. I had not really been introduced to the office, and no one seemed to wonder or to be curious about why I was there. I wasn’t being included in any of the projects and had not much to do except stare at my computer screen. Little by little, this changed, and I was slowly given more work to do. However, I still felt frustrated that I hadn’t had a face to face with someone representing the office as an entity, telling me what was awaited of me and somehow acknowledging my arrival in this office, which would then allow for the other colleagues to situate themselves in relation to me, and me to become part of this team. I guess I was being too anthropological about this to a certain extent, and that I was thinking about it too much. I did indeed have a lot of time to think since I didn’t have much to do.

On Chanchika’s birthday however, a toast was said to welcome me and thank me for being in the office, and to wish me a good and fruitful year in Georgia. This was the face to face that I had been waiting for.

My interpretation of this is that this face to face that I needed, and which I expected to take place within the office structure, for instance at a meeting or at a desk, or even by e-mail, would have not made sense to my colleagues in that way. Welcoming me and acknowledging my entry in their team could only be done within the toast discourse, and with wine and food.

I think I am going to learn a lot about the anthropology of business this year. Offices seem to be structures that are proliferating well around the planet, and have become an important platform for most decision making and most of the thinking about today’s issues. However, I feel that my experience of CENN  shows that it is not so easy to implement this structure, as it’s roots are embedded within values and cultural meanings, which maybe don’t find it as easy to invade the planet?

When my female boss the toast for me, she also explained that she felt comfortable around me. Regardless of whether she was honest or not, to a certain extent, what was implied in this, was that sometimes she doesn’t feel as comfortable with non Georgian’s as colleagues[2]. I think the language barrier is an important aspect of this discomfort. However, something that I am curious to find out more about this year, is the possibility that these alien office structures change the way people relate to each other and can make the working platform somehow uncomfortable. Structures are comfortable when people know how to play with their limits and boundaries to suit them. In these cases they act as springboards that enhance the imagination and the actions of groups. But to be able to play with these limitations, one has to, at least subconsciously, be familiar with roots and the meaning behind them, or their context.

In all of the discussions that I had here about Georgian colleagues, foreigners have expressed some sort of frustration. Georgians don’t make an effort to speak English at lunch time and they talk behind your back. One of my foreign friends told me that when she has a lot of work and is tired and therefore doesn’t spend as much energy ‘looking after her colleagues’ (enquiring about their lives, about how they are, etc…) they will start being very cold to her again. My boss however[3] told me that when he was first working at CENN, he was very stressed because CENN has a very unusual way of working, different from all other NGO’s, and that is what makes it special and ‘groundbraking’. For instance, he was stressed by the weekly Monday meetings, where every one presents their ‘Job Assignments’. This meeting, in my eyes, is simply a meeting where every one explains what they are up to, what their coming deadlines are and how the projects they are involved in are evolving.

Mother Georgia, She overlooks Tbilisi, and has a glass of wine to welcome guests, and a sword to fight enemies

One of my foreign friends told me that she cannot understand how Georgians can be so welcoming, and willing to share their food, their wine and their culture, but at the same time so difficult to get along with at work. I think that to a certain extent, this is simply due to the fact that, [and here I am going to make a big provocative generalization [4]] in the first case, the relationship is clear, we are guests, they are the hosts, they know how to play with the rules of the game, and they are proud of what they have to give. In the other situation, they are not so comfortable, feel a lot more easily threatened because less confident, and still seem to lack some flexibility with the rules of the game… and the sort of ‘unconscious hierarchy’ which is created between foreigners and Georgians is probably accentuated by the field where I work: development.

[1] I have three bosses, the main one isn’t there because she is on maternity leave, and then there two sub-bosses, a man and a woman.

[2] I can explain further why I think this is what was implied in that sentence, as I realize I am not backing up this point very well.

[3] CENN is a Georgian NGO and all of my colleagues are Georgian. However, I haven’t yet met the main boss, who is also the founder of the NGO, so it is hard for me to understand CENN fully without meeting her. However, I know that she is married to a Swiss person, and I can tell from the way the office is decorated that she is probably quite skilled in playing with the rules of the game… And I have been told by every one that she is very smart J

[4] This is not only a generalization, it is also quite an unethical generalization, as I don’t feel confident yet to share what I wrote with my Georgian colleagues, so this is really to take with whole spoon of salt.