Language and cultural difficulties with an international podcast
How to have a successful international podcast
A trip to Egypt
Life in Bahrain
Korean Airlines horror story
When Travis started the Nonprofit Architect Podcast, he had no established audience, no company structure, no vision, and no established brand name. Starting the show while deployed to the Kingdom of Bahrain, a small island nation in the Persian Gulf, he took the show to the #4 spot in the US within three months of launching. Now his show is in the top ten in seven countries in his niche and the top 5% of podcasters globally.
He and his show have been featured in Podcast Magazine as a top veteran-hosted show and recognized by Feedspot as a top-ranked nonprofit show. His show has been downloaded in all 50 states and 84 countries.
Hello and welcome to Global Gurus! Every Friday, we explore stories of international business and speak with industry leaders around the world. I’m your host, Philip Auerbach of Auerbach International (www.auerbach-intl.com). Thank you for joining us.
As most of you know, we start each podcast with a running segment called Faux Pas Fridays, where we explore a funny blooper or mistranslation that does not quite convey the professional image that your organization wants to project. And since a lot of bloopers come from China, I thought we’d start with one from there. This sign is in Chinese and English, and the English sign says “Because the toilet is being fitted up now, it cannot be used. Please to the West, please give us for giveness.”
And one has to figure out what that means, but that is what professional translations are all about.
Today’s guest is Travis Johnson, a retired naval officer, married with two children, and on move #50.
His humble beginnings included 36 moves before graduating from high school at the age of 17, with 12 schools, six states, five foster homes, two murder attempts, and a mother with Type 1 bipolar disorder.
Although all of this was very rough, there was always an organization willing to keep him sheltered, clothed, and fed. Now he’s in a position to give back, and he’s made it his mission to help the helpers.
Travis is the host of the Nonprofit Architect podcast. He’s traveled to 12 countries. His podcast is heard in 86 countries. As many of our guests have pointed out, nonprofits are businesses in a different format, but they operate in the same way that businesses do, and Travis’ company is a for-profit company that serves nonprofits
Travis, I’m delighted you’re able to join us.
Hey Philip, I’m glad to be on the show. Thank you so much for inviting me today.
Thank you so much. Your background is amazingly impressive, and of course, I’d love to spend an hour just exploring that with you. But perhaps you could tell us a little bit more about your upbringing and what you learned from some of your global experiences.
Sure, my mother’s bipolar disorder was the root of most of my childhood problems. So, every time she needed treatment in a full-time facility, my sister and I would have to go somewhere else, either with a family member or into the foster care system, and then every time that she got out of treatment, she still maintained custody.
However, she’s not paying rent while she’s in the hospital, so every time she got sick, it involved another two extra moves at a minimum, and that didn’t include landlord disputes, not being able to pay, and all these other scenarios that happened so often. We were upfront about where we lived. I attended three different schools during the school years of kindergarten, second grade, fourth grade, and seventh grade.
Oh, wow, and was your father in the picture?
He is in the picture now.
He wasn’t in the picture during that time, and it is very hard to maintain a sane relationship with someone who suffers from bipolar disorder.
So, with every relationship that we have out there, there are those friends that you’re like, you know? Maybe we give them a little better room, and they just happen to be with my parents, so that has its special group of challenges.
Definitely, and I presume that after high school or college, perhaps you transitioned to the Navy, and that took you abroad. Was that your first time traveling internationally?
Yeah, so I did a lot of road trips across the United States, and one of the best things about living in the United States is that it’s so big and so accessible via the Interstate System, so we did a lot of road trips before we did international travel.
I graduated high school at 17, as we mentioned. Then I joined the Navy at age 18. And got my first taste of travel, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I actually went to college and was able to afford some international travel on my own, and then much later, near the end of my career, I was stationed in the Kingdom of Bahrain for a year.
It’s a little island in the middle of the Persian Gulf. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Bahrain, it is one of the few countries where you can type it into Google Maps and hit search, and it will automatically zoom in because it is so small.
Sort of like Liechtenstein, except that it’s bigger.
Yeah, I think Bahrain is essentially 10 miles by 30 miles, which is as big as the island is.
Well, just FYI. Liechtenstein is 30 minutes by 20 minutes. That’s quite right. It’s wonderful.
So, Bahrain launched you in your international career, and then how did you transition into the nonprofit architect podcast?
It was pretty interesting because in childhood I had a lot of different touch points with people in the charity world, the nonprofit world, and social work counselors, and I got to a point in my adult life in my career where I felt more stable and I wanted to know how to give back, and that discovery led me into the journey that I am on now.
I started volunteering with nonprofits in the United States to then include philanthropy and eventually served on a few nonprofit boards. Then, when I got stationed in the Kingdom of Bahrain, I wanted to ensure that I had something productive for myself to do. My family stayed here in Oklahoma City, and I traveled abroad by myself for a year. I had a backpack and two pieces of luggage, and that was it. I left for the year.
When I got over there, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I was very interested to find out that only bad news makes it overseas, so although I didn’t know what to expect getting over there, I learned it was far, far more accommodating, and a much nicer environment than I had envisioned.
But they only get bad news about the US also. Only bad news makes it overseas, so they were very interested in learning things about the US directly from me as opposed to just watching the news, but I had a friend in Bahrain who advised, “Well, you should start a podcast.” He said, “You’ve got kind of that podcast voice,” and I didn’t believe him because when we hear ourselves internally, it sounds much different than when other people hear us. It’s like I don’t have a podcast voice. He ended up tricking me and recording me, and it was a whole thing.
Eventually, he convinced me that I should start one, and I knew I wanted to do some nonprofit things. I wasn’t sure what to talk about, so I had some experience, but I did some research and found that there wasn’t a dedicated show teaching people how to do things in the nonprofit world.
And we started that in the fall of 2019, and here we are just a few months shy of that three-year point. And from the moment I started that thing, I didn’t know all the answers, so I interviewed experts in the industry, and it took our show from zero followers up to being ranked #4 in the US within three months of starting.
So, there was a lot of success, even early on.
It’s remarkable, it’s extraordinary, and your interviewees are all primarily nonprofit executives, people who work with nonprofits, or both?
I have maybe a little less than one third of them who are nonprofit professionals, and I talked to business leaders and people in the industry who do great things that also apply to the nonprofit space. I’m a big fan and a big believer that you have to run it as a business specifically designed and geared to generate revenue to meet your mission.
And the others are consultants and experts in other industries. I’ve had guests like Ira Bowman, who has 200,000 followers on LinkedIn. He’s a top-ten guy and uses LinkedIn to talk about how to do things on social media like build relationships and utilize LinkedIn.
I had a guy who leads a nonprofit called Keep Music Alive. He shared with us how he gets in contact with celebrities to leverage their talents and their passion to help grow and sustain his nonprofit. He had Jack Black, Sarah McLachlan, and Julie Andrews come and do a few things for his nonprofit. Help get it on the map. Get the attention it needs and generate some quality revenue.
We’ve had gurus that worked in advertising at Facebook teach you how to use the Google ad grant, which, for those not familiar, gives you free $10,000 worth of Google advertising every month for your nonprofit.
So, we have all these different industries with different levels of professionalism, but everyone is teaching you the thing that helps them make money. What do they do that helps them earn a living that they’re willing to share, so you’re getting a master class with an expert that can help you further your cause just with a few minutes of listening?
That’s remarkable. That’s truly outstanding. On the international front, you have listeners in 86 countries. What kinds of issues arise when you’re talking to them, conversing with them, or contracting with them in different ways?
Of course, we have all sorts of different issues.
In Nigeria, for instance, we have language barriers, even though they speak English. I spoke at a conference, a WhatsApp conference, about all the most interesting things I’ve done in the last year or so. And there was a little bit of a translation error that they didn’t understand all of the stories I used and the words I chose had to be very specific and deliberate so they would understand what I was trying to convey.
We frequently use stories that aren’t 100% translatable: You started the show with gaffs in translation, and I know a lot of Americans that have Oriental-style tattoos that have some meaning, and I’m sure when they read it, they’re like, “What on Earth are you guys putting on your body?”
It’s some of these things, but, you know, getting into, you know, the Kingdom of Bahrain, and being in a few different countries. You know, I wasn’t sure what to think, and I was walking around by myself. It was very hot. I got there during Ramadan.
And I was sitting in a park across a bridge from the main area of the main part of the island, and a family rolled up, and they had a mom and a dad and a couple of kids. And the kids got out, went around, and had a lot of fun. And it was at that moment that I understood most of the problems we have from different cultures, they’re at the government level, they’re at the international relations level, they’re at the religious level, or whatever level the religious leaders are speaking at, but it’s not really at the people’s level.
People, no matter where you go, or simply because they want to be with them. To make a decent living, be reasonably safe and secure. If they’ve got kids, they want their kids to do better than they do and largely be left alone. Build whatever kind of community they want to build, and everywhere I’ve gone, whether in Spain, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Turkey, Dubai – Dubai is not in the same league as the UAE – Bahrain, Honduras, Belize, Mexico, or Canada. People just want to be people; they want good food, they want to share their stories, and they want to connect wherever they go.
People are just people.
That is what brings us all together. That is very true.
What do you think has made your podcast so successful with such a broad international reach? Is it that you’re teaching, primarily, nonprofit executives worldwide how to make money?
Is your appeal How to Make Their Non-Profit Podcast Financially Stable, or is it something else?
Well, it’s a great question, Philip. I think it’s a couple of things.
One is when you’re in your description of a podcast, whether it’s the written description or Episode 0, and you say what the show is going to be about, I believe that’s your promise to your audience that you’re going to deliver the things you say you’re going to deliver, and I say in there that we’re going to teach people how to work with nonprofits.
We say it’s going to be a weekly show. And other than when my family came to visit me in Bahrain over that first Christmas, I haven’t missed a single week. I’ve been able to pre-record enough episodes that even if something does occur in my life, they’re still able to be released.
I believe I am doing what I say I am going to do. I’m showing them how to do it. I’m telling everyone it’s going to come out every week, and I’m delivering value to all my guests that come on and are delivering the value that I promised my audience.
I’m relaxed, having fun, and being myself. They know they’re not going to get any, like, this is how we do it. That’s not how I interact, right? That’s not the kind of person I am. You know I’ve had the chance to meet you in person, and you were a fantastic tour guide around Philadelphia.
Very much appreciated.
I’m largely myself and I do what I say I’m going to do. The combination of when you do that, it draws people’s attention. You are who you are, and you do what you do. Say you’re going to do it, yeah.
It’s very true. It’s about honesty and integrity and following through with your commitments.
What other cultural issues have arisen in your interactions with people around the world?
So, I got invited to a wedding in Alexandria, Egypt. I was out walking in Bahrain, and I sat next to a guy on a bench, and he looked like he was sucking some air. I was huffing a little bit, and I sat down. He is just too hot here to exercise. He’s talking about it with my friend. It is far too hot. The sun is not fully up yet. I’m not sure how these people keep going. It’s like they’re insane. I was like, “I could see that we just had a great conversation, and by the end of it, I thought he was hilarious.” He said he would love it if I came to his wedding. We assumed it was local, you know. I said, “Oh yeah, sure, I’d love to come.” He replied, “Good, it’s in Alexandria; I’ll send you an invite.”
I was in Egypt, and he said, “Yeah, something Mediterranean is beautiful. You’ll love it. You adore my friends and family, and they will continue to adore me.”
It was fantastic, and there were a couple of things that I wish I would have known before going to Egypt. one I didn’t realize. The tipping custom in the US is very specific to a few organizations, and it’s a couple of bucks.
I understood the tipping culture, but at the time I didn’t have a lot of cash on me, and I was not interested in using an international ATM because that worried me. I was concerned about it. I don’t know why. I don’t know if the fear was well-founded; it just bothered me.
As I was leaving. I ended up taking a train down to Cairo. A wonderful man took me in his cab to the pyramids. He locked my luggage in his taxi, and he let me take the keys with him on the tour, and he sat there and waited.
I got a private tour of the Pyramids one-on-one on horseback. I had a fantastic experience. I couldn’t have said it any better than I could have had someone plan it for me, right? This guy took me on horseback. We each had our horses. He showed me all this stuff. He was even my tour guide. It was almost telling the guards to back off so I could take some photos that I probably shouldn’t have taken, like standing on the pyramids and stuff. I don’t know. I was sure I was in trouble, but my guide told the others, “Get out of here,” like he was a very important man or something. Whatever he said, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it worked.
The taxi driver in particular drove me around. I mean, a phenomenal, fantastic experience. I didn’t have the money on me to make it worthwhile for him to work during this time. So, I did not do well in this scenario, right? I didn’t exactly know. I wasn’t exactly sure of the exchange rate or what would have been a worthwhile tip for him.
I do know that he did not feel like he got the short end of the stick, and I’m sure he did, so I feel really bad. I felt terrible about missing out on that fantastic tour guide. I missed the boat on that, and then, you know, during the days leading up to the ceremony. I didn’t understand how everything was casual until they discussed plans and said, “We’re going to do this and that.”
It’s just an idea, and not so many are set in stone, with me being in the military and needing to get things done, especially leading up to a wedding, pretty much anything they say we’re going to do. I assumed that it was a 100% plan that we have to do this, then this, then this, and what I didn’t realize was that it was more of an idea or a suggestion.
And so, I had expected he’d say, “Oh yeah, we have to go to the mall.” We’ve got to do this, then we’re going to go out to the club, then the other. And I just expected it all to happen, so I was kind of upset. I don’t know; I think upset might be too strong a word, but kind of confused, like I don’t understand why we didn’t. Is that what you said? And I had no idea how relaxed I was. It was that everyone kind of talks in that manner without intending to follow through, not as if they were lying to me. That’s just kind of how the culture works.
That was one of the coolest aspects of the experience for me. Their culture is very intense, and I don’t know if it was the time of year or if there was something special, but when I was there, people were staying up all night. Restaurants were open all night long. I went to a place; we got there at about 10:30 PM. And by 3:00 AM, I was worn out. I usually get up at 5:00 AM. I’m completely gassed, and they’re like, “You want to go home now?” It was so early, and there were hundreds of people at this place. Families and children were running around, and I later discovered that they are essentially awake all night and go to bed around sunrise at least, I don’t know if this was a specific occasion. Someone from Egypt right now is listening, and could say, “This is not true at all.” I’m not sure if it was because it was summer vacation and all the kids and families were gone, but this place was full of families. And they were awake all night, until 3 AM.
Tons of kids are running around.
Was it a weekday, a weekend, or something else?
I don’t remember I’ve slept since then, Philip, and I don’t remember.
But then I got back to the hotel, and I was a little wound up, so I went to go walk a little bit. I wasn’t sure how safe it would be. I was walking by when I noticed children ages 7 to 8 riding their bicycles with training wheels in the middle of the night.
On the beach, a guy was selling something that looked like an oven, and I passed by and asked, “Hey, what are you doing?” What do you think he said? Are you American? I never say I’m American. I was saying Canadian, and he responded, “Oh, I love Canadians.” For whatever reason, everyone around the world does not have a problem with Canadians. I would have said American. I’m not sure what I’m saying. Canadian, he’s like, “Oh, I love Canadians. I’m roasting corn. Do you want some?” I said yeah, so I got beach-roasted corn on the cob at 4:00 a.m. On the beach in Alexandria I’m eating this thing, knowing that I grew up in trailer parks and foster homes and all sorts of craziness. And I thought, “I don’t even know what to do; what’s happening right now?” I’m just going to enjoy this moment of eating corn on the beach at 4:00 a.m.
Amazing, and did you have similar experiences in Bahrain?
Bahrain, I was surprised.
So, this is my first real interaction with Muslim culture. I kind of expected a couple of things. I didn’t expect that women would talk to me, especially if they were with their husband or their family. I found that not to be true.
I found out they have a black curtain area in the supermarket. Then behind the Black Curtain, the forbidden area, are delicious pork products. I didn’t know for many months that I could go get bacon at the grocery store that was hidden by the Black Curtain. That was pretty interesting.
Bahrain is a lot like New York City in that people flock from all different cultures to Bahrain for a multitude of different reasons. So, I met a lot of people from South Africa. A large number of people from here are from another culture, Ireland. I met a whole bunch of people from Ireland proper, and then there were Aussies and Kiwis and Brits and Canadians, and people from India and Pakistan were all over the place, and it just reaffirmed that people are just people.
One of the big things they do in Bahrain is to run on a Muslim workweek. So, Friday and Saturday are days off, with Friday being the holy day.
If you weren’t in the mosque, all of the hotels had brunch, and brunch in Bahrain is fantastic if you find yourself listening to this and you’re a traveler and you end up in Bahrain or Dubai. They both do it in both places.
Brunch gives you two options. First off, the spread of food is amazing. Everything there is top quality. If you’re American, it’s not like Golden Corral in the slightest; it’s like they’ve prepared a wedding feast every week that you have to pay for two options. It’s either unlimited food for like five hours or unlimited food and unlimited alcohol.
For a lot of the young Americans that were over there, Friday was a sacred day of drinking and debauchery, so you would find them in different places. Big Texas BBQ and Waffles serves a brunch that is similar to a freshly smoked brisket that they slice up as much as you want. They’ve got a pool outside, but this is all over the island, so many different places have their idea of brunch. Get a group of friends together, and you all go out and have quite the party every week. It can get pretty expensive. It’s not cheap, but doing it at least once is 100% worth it.
It sounds amazing. You know that we’re now in a global food crisis in many countries due to the Russia-Ukraine war and a wheat shortage, for example. So, I’m not sure whether this is continuing at the moment, but that’s certainly wonderful.
I see pictures of my friends in Bahrain having brunch every week.
And they are great.
I don’t know if every hotel is still offering it or what that looks like, but they find a brunch every week.
Are there any other specific cultural barriers, issues, or difficulties that you’ve encountered with the countries to which you’ve traveled, traveled in, or interacted?
I did find something quite interesting.
I traveled to the Middle East before I traveled to Europe, and what I didn’t know is how much I spent. I spent quite a bit of time, obviously, in Bahrain and then made a couple of trips to Dubai and during my week long excursion to Egypt.
The vast majority of people speak English in those countries.
Which was very surprising to me, and then I ended up going to Vienna to meet up with a friend. And I found out that in more European countries, they do not give a rip about learning to speak English at all.
Arabic-speaking countries need to speak Arabic and learn English. But in Europe, you don’t speak their language, and they’re not particularly caring or forgiving if you don’t speak their language, which I thought was interesting.
So, I stayed for two days in Austria with a friend of mine and a few days in a small village outside of Budapest and had a fantastic time. My friend speaks English, German and Hungarian so it’s very easy to get around as long as he’s in the room, but without that, then it’s super tough.
You can’t just kind of guess your way through the country, so making sure you understand which countries also speak English, unless you know the language of the place you’re going to, is something to prepare for.
Absolutely. Around 72% of the world does not speak English, so the Arab countries you visited were all occupied by the British or had treaties as British protectorates.And that’s why they speak English. Tunisia and Algeria, on the other hand, were occupied by the French, and French is the other business language in the Middle East and North Africa.
Right. Well, there are a couple of industries that have been busy for a long time. If you wanted to succeed in business, you had to speak English as your second language, and now it’s becoming Mandarin, I believe. However, English is also the language of shipping and flight planes. You have to speak English to coordinate with people with shipping and on airplanes.
Yes. Do you know the story of Korean Airlines?
I do not.
A Korean Airlines plane was destroyed. I don’t remember where it was, but the story was about the pilot and the co-pilot. I think it was toward nighttime, and they crashed into a mountain or something, or a huge stone wall of some kind.
The issue was that the co-pilot was speaking Korean to the pilot and wanted to warn the pilot. However, because he was a subordinate, a junior, he lacked the authority to question the pilot.
Ah, I did hear about this, and I saw the video, so I used to fly for the Navy and I went to aviation safety officer school, and this was one of the videos that we used for teaching, and when you’re in the flight deck culture, it doesn’t matter what culture you’re from; you have to be able to speak up.
There were also a few major incidents, including the most serious.
The biggest disaster in aviation history included this, where the cover boy for Pan Am Airlines was a guy who was making a bad decision, and the rookie pilot was trying to point it out.
He got told to mind his business, and they killed some 500 people on a runway incursion with another airplane in a fog because he wasn’t listening to someone telling him to speak up.
Between that, Korean Airlines, and a couple of other high-profile situations where that occurred, the cultural differences created problems for safety, and a lot of people suffered and died because of that.
And the issue became one in Korean as well as in other languages.
The word “you” is hierarchical. You’re aware that you only use one word to express your affection for a friend or family member. Another word for you is when speaking to someone politely, to someone your senior, whatever, and the junior doesn’t necessarily question the senior, so that’s the reason that pilots now use English universally. We have one word for “you.”
And therefore, English has no hierarchy in that way, and it’s become a neutral language.
There were no other cultural issues that you encountered? Either that or you have success issues that you’ve encountered ?
In my international career, another thing I want to emphasize is that it is not common in some cultures. Is it ever appropriate to talk business in the first meeting?
If you speak about business and you want to just get down to it and get it done, you’ve essentially ended that relationship.
There are a few people that I’ve talked to, and I can’t remember which country they were from, but I mentioned business. The face turned angry, and they essentially ended the call as quickly as they could. I had been rude by not following their culture, which I wasn’t familiar with at all.
Yeah, that’s very true, especially in most cultures, certainly throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. It’s important to establish trust and rapport in your liaison with your potential partners and discuss everything except business. You know: family, sports, and music, books, whatever the case may be, without discussing business.
I think Americans could probably learn a thing or two from that ideal.
I can’t tell you how many networking events I’ve attended where people don’t believe you can help them or your company or a potential client does not apply to their company, they leave in a hurry, and you and I both know what that means in relationships.
Real relationships are the focal point and bedrock of any quality business relationship on any level.
It’s very true. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
This is a big part of the platform that I’m currently building. If you’re listening to this, I want you to know that you are worth far more than you think you are.
Whatever it is that’s preventing you from moving forward with your life is within you and is essentially a mental block. And the only thing standing in your way is you. You are the creator of your life. You can do whatever it is that you want to do. Being in trailer parks and foster homes should not have allowed me to understand society’s rules. Being able to become a naval officer, have a global business, and be ranked #4 in the US while podcasting like that shouldn’t be possible. I didn’t let what people told me hold me back, and neither should you, especially if it’s you who is stopping youself from moving forward. You are far more than you think you are.
That is fantastic advice, and people can indeed take it, especially in the United States—not so much the world as in the United States.
People in this culture have a greater ability to create their reality and break down barriers more easily here than people in other cultures. So, thank you so much for that. That’s wonderful. To conclude with such excellent advice. So, thank you very much for joining us today, Travis.
Yes, thank you very much, and please look for podcasts for nonprofit architects wherever you can find them.
That is Travis’ podcast, and ours, of course, is Global Gurus. This has been Philip Auerbach of Auerbach International (www.auerbach-intl.com). Please join us again next week for another edition of Global Brewers and their stories of international business. Thank you.
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *