by | Feb 28, 2019

Betty Cogswell knew how to travel off the beaten track. In 1952, when she was a college sophomore, she flew to Madras (now Chennai) and spent a couple of months touring India. After she got her Ph.D. in sociology, joined the faculty of family medicine at UNC Chapel Hill, and became the Director of International Programs at the Carolina Population Center, her research took her to developing countries all over the globe.

Betty Cogswell was my mother and she passed away (obit here) last week, at age 88. She may not have been larger than life, and was in fact barely over 5′, but she sure could fill a room with her energy. I’ve been thinking a lot about the things she taught my sister and me when we were growing up.

She was different from most people’s mothers. For one thing, she was gone a lot. She’d be in Tehran or Karachi for weeks at a time, in the days before FaceTime or even mobile phones. She’d leave a stack of those very thin blue paper airmail letters on the kitchen table, each one with a date pencilled beside the stamp. Our grandmother or great aunt or her research assistant or whomever was staying with us would nag us to write her before that date. In return, she would send us postcards of her hotel with her room window colored in with ball point.

Some of her rules for business travel and life itself are charming, in a dated sort of way. Others are brilliant advice that I use all the time in my own life. Here’s a selection:

• Always carry a Swiss Army knife in your purse, because you can’t count on gentlemen having pocketknives anymore.

• Always have food in your purse or briefcase, in case you wake up in the middle of the night starving because you’re in a vastly different time zone.

• If you must check a bag, have a change of clothes, toiletries and any medications in your carry-on bag. (Also, she liked to have a bikini and a flask of bourbon.)

• The smoking section of the plane is more fun. People are just more sociable back there.

• Eat where the locals eat, not where they send the tourists.

• Always talk to strangers. Any stranger, of any walk of life.

• Walk fast and look like you’re going somewhere important.

• Buy expensive shoes, but wait until they go on sale.

• Accept graciously any hospitality offered to you — even if it’s tea made with water so dirty that it’s brown even before the tea leaves are added.

• Find an excuse to tip the hotel housekeeper early in the trip — by asking for an extra towel or some small favor — so she’ll know you appreciate her.

• When meeting a gentleman, a woman extends her hand to shake. It’s up to the man to decide whether to turn her hand over to kiss it or simply give her a handshake.

• When getting out of a car or taxi, swivel your hips toward the open door so that your legs remain closed until you stand. (Britney Spears could have used this handy tip.)

• When traveling to a new city, the best way to learn your way around is to walk everywhere.

• When putting your hand out to stop an elevator, use the left one, just in case the doors close on you. (Same goes for the garbage disposal at home.)

But more important than anything she ever said was the example she set by the way she worked. She showed us every day what it means to be thoroughly engrossed in your work, to be exploring new ideas, to be constantly learning. She demonstrated intellectual rigor. She approached other cultures, and other people, with curiosity and acceptance.

At Tribe, we made the shift from consumer branding to internal communications in 2009. That was three years after my mother’s first debilitating stroke. Earlier in my career, she never understood what it meant to be a creative director in an ad agency. But I think she’d appreciate internal communications and probably have some useful advice. In fact, one tidbit just occurred to me.

She told me once that she was good at getting in-depth information out of focus groups because she played dumb. She said the trick was to act like you just don’t get it, whatever it is, so that people work harder to explain it to you.

Her focus groups were on topics like contraception and family dynamics and healthcare for women, largely in developing countries. Tribe’s focus groups are on the culture of large organizations. But I’m sure my career has been influenced by hers, more than I know. And I do always use my left hand when I’m holding an elevator for someone.

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