I have spent a lot of time in recent years explaining some very
mundane, practical things to newcomers to the US. What’s
the difference between "Bake" and "Broil"
on my oven dial? What’s a "maiden name" and why
is the bank asking for my mother’s? Why do I see so many
signs for "garage sales" -- don’t Americans want
to keep their garages?
I admit, occasionally, to asking myself, "For this I got
a PhD?" But in fact I have a very convincing rebuttal:
Even in the best cases, in which overseas moves are seen as a
wonderful opportunity by the transferees and their employers adequately
support them, people who move to a new country face hundreds of
confusing mundane, practical challenges every day.
I was reminded of this last week when I traveled to London, where
I used to live. Within the first two hours, I’d struggled
with: how to use a pay phone, which side of the car to get in,
how to flush the toilet, how to heat up water for tea, how to
set the wake-up alarm, how to turn on the TV and find international
news, whom to pay for dinner in the pub, how to keep the shower
water from spraying all over the bathroom, and how to lower the
heat in the hotel room (which led to the problem of how to open
the window). All that before I went to bed or started my business
Maybe "struggled" is a bit strong (except in the case
of the heat adjustment). I figured it all out without too much
pain. But in each case, that which I do without a thought at home
took some element of "brain energy" on my part. Those
elements add up and pretty soon weigh a lot.
Consider the relocating family. They’re facing these mundane,
practical challenges while on the emotional roller-coaster that
relocation brings – the concern (or exuberance or confusion)
about a new job. The kids’ needs, which certainly don’t
diminish just because they’re on the other side of the world,
and often increase instead. All in a foreign language. During
jet lag. With funny food.
I call it "death by a thousand cuts." Then, on top
of this exhaustion, is the loss of a sense of mastery that comes
from feeling inept at every turn. One woman put it this way: "One
minute, I’m a competent executive, making important decisions
a mile a minute. And the next minute, I’m not even able
to find the traffic signal on my way to work. It makes me feel
like a fool."
Happily, these practical challenges are the easiest to learn.
Hey, by the next evening there in London, I was flipping switches
and pushing buttons with the best of them.
This is all part of the natural course of relocation -- people
need help with the practical challenges at the beginning of their
assignment before they can move on to the next phase, developing
a deeper cultural understanding. In this light, knowing what to
explain, and explaining it clearly and in a timely manner, is
actually quite interesting and psychologically important work.
Two weeks ago, a young Swiss man I know wrote to
his American father-in-law: “It’s getting lonely on
the bridge. You know, the bridge where we live, connecting Swiss
and American cultures. No one’s walking on it, everyone’s
staying home, with their backs to the other side. Please write to
What a vivid way to express how these weeks have felt to those
of us whose work focuses on building connections across cultures.
Our work has never been more important, the stakes rarely as high:
to help people understand how the world looks from a different point
of view. Interpreting American culture to others, and others’
culture to Americans, under conditions of war, is a challenge that
we must accept.
I myself spend a lot of time looking down from the middle of that
bridge at what writer Barbara Kingsolver calls “the space
between.” It’s the space between cultures that we must
try to map and explore and describe, because that’s where
intercultural interaction happens. Cultures will be the shape that
they are. We can’t and shouldn’t try to change that.
But if we have a clear understanding of the shape of the space between
cultures, we will know how to navigate those intercultural waters.
To do that, it’s not enough to study other cultures. We must
know the shape of our own as well.
The time is right for us to walk back on the bridge. Toward that
end, we’re launching a new Training of Trainers program this
month, to teach people how to deliver cross-cultural orientations.
If you have experience in training and/or intercultural issues plus
two days, and want to get the skills and materials you need to help
people map the space between, I hope you’ll check it out.
Go to http://www.interchangeinstitute.org/html/CCC.htm
See you on the bridge, I hope.
A few months ago my family got new cereal bowls
and the result has been a major disruption in our family life. Here’s
The bowls are an odd shape, so just a few of them
completely fill the top of the dishwasher. So the dishwasher is
full before dinner. So the daughter whose turn it is to do the dinner
dishes has to wait until the pre-dinner dishwasher load is finished.
So she goes off to do her homework instead of doing the dishes.
So the other daughter, whose turn it is to clear the dinner dishes
from the table, doesn’t bother to clear them right after dinner.
And then they both forget and go to bed and the dirty dishes are
everywhere. And since there are dirty dishes everywhere, it’s
hard to get motivated to keep the rest of the house tidy. So the
mom and dad are grumpy and you can imagine the rest.
I’m telling you, when we had neatly-nesting
cereal bowls, this didn’t happen.
If cereal bowls can do this to a family that has
not even moved, think what an international move does to family
dynamics. And I’m just talking about housewares and architecture
here. Consider, for example:
- How many televisions are there now, what rooms are they in,
and what does that do to who watches what, with whom, and thus
to what shared experiences family members have?
- Where are the children’s toys kept, how close is this
to the kitchen, and what does that do to how much supervision
the children get?
- How many rooms are in the home and how many floors are there,
how many people can comfortably sit in each room, and what does
that do to the casual conversation that family members have with
- What is the layout of the kitchen, how many people can stand
or sit in it, and what does that do to who comes into the kitchen
and to the mood of the person doing the family cooking?
- Are there doors in each room, do people close them, and what
does that do to people’s sense of privacy?
The answers to all of these questions, for people
moving to a new country, is likely to be “different from what
we had at home.” It’s the difference – the stress
of change and its impact on family patterns – that puts a
strain on families. Don’t think that having “better”
conditions is always easy on a family. Having more TVs, more rooms,
and bigger kitchens than you’re used to challenges a family
just as does having fewer and smaller ones.
Those new cereal bowls we got are really pretty
– they’re “better” than our old ones. But
they gotta go.
Last year, I was asked a bunch of questions by
parents of school-age children who had moved to the US. I answered
them, of course (and also referred them to the book I co-authored
with Georgia Bennett, Understanding American Schools: Answers
to Newcomers’ Most Frequently Asked Questions).
Here’s one of their questions: Why
do teachers use blue pen when they are grading papers instead of
red, which shows up better?
And here’s my answer (Please note how even
the most superficial-sounding difference reveals rich and deep cultural
values that people moving to a new country have to come to understand):
Some American teachers do use red, of course
– in fact, it’s rather traditional. And because of that
tradition, the red pen communicates what feels like an old-fashioned
hierarchy in the teacher-student relationship. To the American with
an aversion to social inequality, the red pen feels like this: “I
am the Teacher, with Superior Knowledge, who will instruct you about
what you have done wrong. Bang [red red red] – that’s
wrong. And bang – that’s wrong, too.”
By choosing to use a blue pen (or one that
matches the student’s), the teacher is saying, “You
and I are partners in your learning, and I will help shed some light
for you as you learn. Oo-oh look over here [blue blue blue]; can
you think of a different way to answer?”
It’s a huge cultural difference in the process
and philosophy of education. Of course, in all cultures, teachers
try to instill a love of learning while insisting on excellence.
But they put things on the balance differently, and our children
have to sort out the meaning of the messages they receive.
Here are some other questions I have been asked,
the answers to which are similarly revealing about our deepest assumptions
- Why do teachers write “Great!” at the top of my
child’s papers, even when the work isn’t that good?
- Why doesn’t my child’s first-grade teacher correct
his spelling? How will he ever learn to spell?
- My child’s school refuses to tell me her class rank. How
am I supposed to know how she is doing?
- What is the point of Show and Tell?
- Why are the schools in one suburb so much better than schools
in a neighboring one?
- Why do teachers allow parents into the classroom? Shouldn’t
we step aside and let them do their job?
- My daughter’s class got to go to the class parent’s
glass-blowing studio to see how glass is made, but her friend’s
class did not get to go. In my country we believe in equality
- Why is this tolerated in the US?
These are the day-to-day concerns that expatriate
parents struggle with. Georgia Bennett and I tried to answers as
many as we could in our book.
Comments on this E-note:
Red is a happy color for Chinese. Wedding invitations are
often red or pink. Red envelopes are used for inserting money,
especially for Chinese New Year's gifts to children. However,
red has a different meaning to Koreans. If a person's name
is in red it means the person has died. Some of the traffic
signs in Seoul, Korea tell how many accidents there have been.
The number of fatalities are in red. So teachers in Asia or
teachers with Asian students should pay special attention
to the colors they use to write on students' papers. (We have
lived in Asia for more than 30 years, mostly in the Chinese
world. We didn't realize that using a red pen would be so
offensive when we moved to Korea.)
I’m collecting examples of when something
that I like or am proud of turns out to irritate people from other
They invariably illustrate the points I make in
our new Train the Trainer program, Crossing
Cultures with Competence, a 2-day workshop for experienced
trainers or international HR managers wanting to learn how to develop
and deliver a top notch cross cultural orientation.
Here are a few examples:
1) Once in England, I stood to make an end-of-the-year
toast at a faculty dinner marking the close of a very trying term
with American study abroad students. I was, I thought, articulate,
heart-felt, and sincere in enumerating all the things that had gone
wrong, all the ways people had been helpful, and how I felt through
it all. Dozens of pairs of embarrassed eyes stared back at me for
a very long, silent time. Only later did I come to understand the
features of communication styles that don’t cross cultures
2) A very successful, fast-track American marketing
director was planning his upcoming assignment to Germany. He would
be meeting his new staff at a meeting on his first day on the job.
He asked what I thought of his wearing his cowboy hat and toy gun,
to demonstrate the action-packed program he had planned. It was
a good chance to discuss how the history of one’s country
influences its current social values (and how not everyone shares
the same history…).
3) An English-as-a-Second-Language teacher recently
told me, with great pride, how he had learned the given names of
all his Korean students, mostly middle-aged women, and used their
names frequently to show what a committed teacher he was. I showed
him an essay a Korean friend had written: “In Korea, we don't
use adults' names or seniors' names. We call other by their role
designation. For example, I would refer to an unfamiliar married
woman, ‘Ajumoni¡’ (which is hard to translate
but roughly means ‘Ma'am’ or ‘Aunt’). When
a young man uses my name in America, I am very embarrassed because
I am unfamiliar with that situation.” Here, in vivid color,
is an illustration of what it means to come from an individualist
vs. collectivist culture.
These aren’t “ugly American”
stories. In each case, the American had an idea that was good…
but good only within its cultural context. Take the idea out of
the culture, and you get embarrassment, disdain, and a sense of
Send me your examples – I’d love to
And if you’re interested in learning how
to present these ideas (and many more) in a coherent cross-cultural
orientation for people moving to a new country, please check out
The program covers how to put together a host country overview (with
complete materials about the US as a sample), culture and communication
in the workplace and at home, and how intercultural transitions
affect individuals and families. You’ll end up with lots of
new insights plus a full kit of materials (slides, workbooks, training
guides, games) and the license to use them.
A recent participant wrote, “This is ‘the’
training workshop for intercultural professionals…Excellent,
high-quality, highly-motivational. Worth a trip around the world
to get to this seminar.” (And hey, that wasn’t even
Hope to see you soon!
Comments on this E-note:
As I might have told you before, I ran sales for X, now Y,
in London for most of the 90's. The Chairman of that company,
Joe, also a former Ohio boy like myself, and I conducted many
sales calls together on new corporate clients throughout the
UK. I had to counsel Frank on more than one occasion not to
look and act so optimistic when meeting with these clients.
It became obvious to me early on that most of the people I
was calling on were shy, introverted, and generally saw the
glass as half empty. The typical answer from a mid western
boy when asked, "How are you" is to say "Great".
Our dog could have been hit by a car that morning and we would
say the same thing!! I learned to turn the volume down and
to act as if things were not so "Great" when meeting
I also instructed Frank to never let them know that the company
"Great". If we were doing "Great" we probably
didn't need their business. We started acting more British
on our calls and our success rate increased substantially
because of it. I even found myself using their colloquialisms,
which to this day still sound strange coming out of my mouth,
even though I have been married to a Brit for 21 years!!
- Tim Hagan, CRP
While living in the backroads of the Netherlands from 1993
to 1998, I
went one day to purchase a nice desk chair for my husband
for his birthday.
After finding the perfect specimen in a discount retail outlet,
I asked the
young, male sales clerk if there was any remote chance that
he could assemble
the chair for me before I took it home, as it came unassembled
in a box, and
neither my husband nor I relished the prospect of putting
He replied without hesitation that he would be happy to assemble
it for me.
I reacted with heartfelt appreciation and said, "Oh,
thank you so much.
You're very kind. I really appreciate this."
To this he responded in great, obvious defense by raising
his hands in front of my face and saying, "Whoa!!!"
I gasped, "What's wrong?"
That's not normal," the young Dutch boy said.
"What's not normal?" I quipped. "We don't thank
somebody so much here,"
he informed me.
"You mean to tell me," I continued in amazement,
" that your supervisor doesn't tell you when you've done
"No, he doesn't. It's not normal."
"No one tells you when they appreciate something here?"
I continued to
query in disbelief.
"No, it's not normal," he insisted.
And off I sheepishly went with my chair, assembled nonetheless,
a little disjointed over what had just happened.
Live and learn. Even the simplest gestures can be misintrepreted
in a cross-cultural setting.
- Shirley Agudo, Pro/PR
I know some interesting things about accompanying
spouses who move to the US, but I can’t tell you.
I know how they feel about being asked to move
here. I know what they think of the Americans they’ve met.
I know whether they’ve received cross-cultural training and
whether they think it made a difference. I know how they think their
children are doing. I know what they see as obstacles to their employment.
I know what they think they’ve gained from moving here. And
what they think they’ve lost. I know how, specifically, they
think they affect their spouse’s productivity at work. And
I know lots more, too.
But I can’t tell you.
Not yet, that is.
Here’s the deal – about a year ago,
we released the final report from the Many Women Many Voices study
(conducted by The Interchange Institute which I direct, and underwritten
by Prudential Financial). This was a study of accompanying spouses
living in 17 countries around the world – but not the US.
From it we learned – and shared with the HR community –
many of the factors that influence family adjustment on overseas
assignment. Our 82-page report includes dozens of recommendations
for sponsoring corporations and for families themselves about what
they can do to maximize the potential of an international experience.
The widespread notice the report received gave me hope that the
research will make a real difference in people’s lives.
Now we’ve launched a follow-up study, this
time focused on accompanying spouses moving to the US. We’ll
be able to compare experiences in the US and other parts of the
world. And we’ll be able to describe the topics listed above,
and many more. Already, more than a hundred people have completed
the on-line survey. But we want as broad input as possible.
And so I’m asking you to help – if
you know a person who has moved to the US primarily (or even, in
part) because of his/her spouse’s jobs or education, would
you please pass this message (or just the paragraph of Study Details
below along? A word of recommendation from you could make a big
difference. Besides the satisfaction of contributing to a body of
knowledge, they’ll receive some concrete benefits too (see
below) – plus my many many thanks.
Watch this space – I WILL tell you what we’ve
found, I promise. (If I gave you a sneak preview now, it might influence
the responses of future participants. So we’ll have to wait.
Do you think other families could learn from your experience as
a relocated spouse? We do! Please share your experience
Last year, we conducted a study of accompanying spouses living all
around the world (but not the US). From this work arose many widely
publicized recommendations for families and corporations about the
things they can and should do to help international relocations
Now we are asking you for your insight. We invite
you to participate in Part Two of our study, as we examine what
it is like for spouses who move to the United States.
Some important facts:
- The study is designed for accompanying spouses and partners
(male or female) who have moved to the US primarily because of
their spouse/partner’s jobs or education. BUT we’re
happy to hear from singles, or people in couples who moved here
for both their jobs. You’ll have a place in the survey to
make your situation clear.
- Your responses will be completely confidential and anonymous.
You will submit them directly to The Interchange Institute, a
non-profit research organization. You will not be asked your name
or the name of your spouse’s employer.
- We will avoid simplistic, superficial conclusions about family
experiences that are not helpful. To do this we will ask detailed
questions so that your responses can really help us produce a
study that will make a difference for relocating families.
- The survey takes about 30-45 minutes to complete, but you do
not have to complete it all at once.
- When you complete the survey, we’ll immediately send you
an electronic copy of last year’s 82-page report of accompanying
spouses’ experiences around the world. And we’ll send
you a copy of the current report when it’s prepared, too.