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Know Your Audience: Offer the Right Gift

At the end of the Yalta Conference where the allied powers met to discuss their final strategy in the battle against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, FDR met with the King of Saudi Arabia–Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud–to secure American access to the vast oil reserves that lay under the sands of the Kingdom. The King, wounded as a young man, in many battles he led to unite the tribes of his kingdom, found walking painful. FDR, paralyzed from the waist down, used a wheelchair. 

The two world leaders met secretly on an American destroyer anchored in the Suez Canal. At the conclusion of the meeting, FDR, seeing how painful it was for the King to stand and walk at length, because of his war wounds, gifted the King one of his spare wheelchairs. He also presented the King with a DC-3 aircraft for his personal use.

When the British, who also wanted exclusive drilling rights within the kingdom, heard about the secret meeting, Churchill hurriedly arranged his own meeting with King Ibn Saud. Arriving for his personal audience with the Saudi king, Churchill came bearing a diplomatic gift of perfume from the prestigious British firm Asprey. When Churchill found out about the gifts FDR had offered; especially the DC-3 aircraft, Churchill pivoted. 

Churchill announced that the minute that the Rolls Royce works opened after the war, the first limousine off the line would be the King’s. Churchill made good on his promise and the British delivered a beautiful Rolls Royce limousine to the Saudi monarch. 

But they’d not done their cultural and diplomatic homework. In Arab, especially Saudi culture, the King does not sit in the back–making the space within the car “backwards”–too little up front, especially as King Ibn Saud was a large man and too much in the back–where he would never sit. To make matters worse, the British had built the car, understandably, with the steering wheel on the right-hand side. But Arab leaders, especially Kings always sit on the right-hand side of a vehicle, never on the left. The King exited the vehicle and disposed of it to a family member.

If you’re going to build a relationship with someone, whether you’re doing it at the level of Presidents, Kings or Prime Ministers or at much more everyday levels where most of us live, it is important to approach the opportunity with the other person in mind. When a gift or an offering of friendship is substantially or even totally created from your point of view, with little or no attention to the other party’s needs, expectations or traditions, you may find–like Churchill–that what you honestly expected would advance the relationship ends up harming or even destroying it.

Some of us may have heard the phrase that something was “filled with good intentions” but still went terribly wrong. There are no guarantees of a smooth ride in any relationship, but attention to working and building the relationship “with” the other person or group is an excellent place to start.