After I came to the United States, I settled into my new community in San Diego and began my first full-time job in October. I can still remember what it was like to walk into that building for the first time. Everything seemed so fancy from the wood paneled walls to the expensive furniture. Everyone stood tall in their suits and walked around with a purpose, and I was thrilled to be a part of this company. As I sat at my desk, full of nervous excitement to start my first week, I received an email from one of the company’s executives; he was in charge of all San Diego locations. The email was an invite to all employees for an office Halloween costume party. I was so excited because I had never celebrated Halloween before, and I had always wanted to dress up as a genie! So, I ran to the store that evening and picked out this awesome pair of purple baggy pants, a matching shirt with gold buttons down the front, and a tall genie hat with fabric flowing from the top. I then bought the perfect pair of gold flat shoes to match. The morning of the party, I had the opening shift, so I woke up early, got dressed in my costume, and headed out to start the day. I couldn’t wait to see what everyone else was wearing!

After opening up the office, I began my day of work and waited in anticipation for my colleagues to slowly arrive. When the first man walked in, he was wearing jeans, a cowboy hat, and cowboy boots and had a fake plastic gun strapped to his waist. Shortly after, another coworker walked in wearing jeans, a button down, cowboy hat, and a bolo tie. I thought the coincidence was funny and assumed this was just a popular costume in the U.S. Next, a woman walked in wearing a jean skirt, a cowgirl hat, and cowgirl boots. Then, right behind her, in walks the executive who sent the email invite. Can you guess what he was wearing? Jeans, leather vest, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat. As more people arrived, I realized that everyone was dressed similarly and that I was receiving odd looks. I quickly pulled up the email and read it again, and everything looked right to me – the date, time, and all of the details. Well, all of the details but one. I read a line again that I didn’t think was very important before: “Wild Wild West theme.” 

As a new immigrant to the U.S., I was not aware of the cultural reference, so I assumed the theme meant we should dress as something wild. I thought, “What would be wild for me?” To me, dressing up as a genie seemed pretty wild. At the time, I was mortified, and I actually left work early and didn’t stay for the party. Now, I can’t help but laugh to myself each Halloween when I remember this firsthand experience of culture shock. 

While this mistake might seem like a small embarrassing moment, for me it was actually a great lesson. It taught me the importance of clear communication and how it is critical for ensuring everyone is aligned. It also taught me that it is ok to ask questions when we don’t understand something. In fact, it’s something I strongly encourage because speaking up can help us to avoid certain mistakes. But, most of all, I realized that it’s normal to make mistakes and that it’s important to learn from them and laugh at ourselves.

Dima Ghawi is the founder of a global talent development company with a primary mission for advancing individuals in leadership. Through keynote speeches, training programs and executive coaching, Dima has empowered thousands of professionals across the globe to expand their leadership potential. In addition, she provides guidance to business executives to develop diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies and to implement a multi-year plan for advancing quality leaders from within the organization.

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