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The blog-like periodic musings of Anne Copeland, Director of The Interchange Institute. Most of these comments are related to intercultural issues, but don't be surprised to see comments on technology, travel, food and other subjects of interest. Return to our home page.

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  logo CCWC

  December--Global Values Quiz
  October--How Do You Say...
  September--Debunking School Myths
  August--Summer School
  June--The Stories We Tell
  May--Backpacks, Moral Reasoning and Culture
  March--Pictures and Stories
  February--Close Neighbors
  January--You're Wearing That??


Global Values Quiz

December 2013

Quiz time! The Pew Global Attitudes Project has released their 2013 findings, and it’s fascinating to pore over the results – it’s so easy to stay encapsulated in our own society’s news feed, and so important to open the window occasionally to check the weather out there. The Pew site has a very simple user interface where you can search for results from any of 60 countries on a range of dozens of topics (although not every question is asked in every country every year).

Let’s see how well you know your global attitudes. Make your guess first then see the answers below. If you get five out of five, call me – we should talk!

People around the world were asked how much they agreed with this statement: “Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others.” In which of these four countries did the highest percentage of people completely agree with that statement? Which of these was least likely to completely agree? China, France, India, Japan, US.

Europeans were asked: “In which European Union country, are people considered the most trustworthy?” Which country did most people name? Which country was called “most compassionate?”

People around the world were asked: “Have there been times during the last year when you did not have enough money to buy food your family needed?” In which of the following countries did MORE people say “Yes” than in the US? Poland, Russia, China, Malaysia.

The US has seen a fairly steady increase in positive views about homosexuality in recent years. Name a country with the opposite trend, that is, of decreasing positive views.

People around the world were asked, “Do you think that global climate change is a major threat, a minor threat or not a threat to your country?” In which of these countries did the highest number of people say “major threat?” Egypt, Greece, Japan, US.

Indians were most likely (64%) to completely agree that their culture was superior. The French were least likely to completely agree (6%). 14% of US Americans, 30% Japanese and 34% of Chinese completely agreed.
The Germans were seen by their European peers as most trustworthy. When rating compassion, people tended to pick their own country, which is sort of nice.
None of the above. In the US, 24% said yes, they’d been short of money for food. In Poland, 16% said yes, 23% in Russia, 8% in China, and 15% in Malaysia. And by the way: only 9% in Canada said they didn’t have enough money for food; and 8% in Germany, 5% in Israel, 2% in Japan, and 1% in Lebanon. See a similar pattern for health care and clothing.
In Turkey, acceptance of homosexuality as a way of life has decreased from 22% to 9% since 2002. In Russia, acceptance has decreased from 22% in 2002 to 16% in 2013.
Greece was the country where the highest percentage (87%) said global climate change was a major threat. 40% said so in the US. 16% in Egypt and 72% in Japan.

Interesting, no? These findings capture some complex interaction of history, geography, cultural norms and values - understanding that is our work. Let’s keep that window for understanding open.

Turning data (and stories and observations) into intercultural insight is one of the things we do at The Interchange Institute. To explore how to base cultural orientations on a solid, professional basis, please join us for our next training of trainers workshop.


How Do You Say...

October 2013

A New York Times op-ed piece last week on Germany’s adoption of English words (app, laptop, blog) and, more generally, about cultures’ stance toward cosmopolitanism, caught my eye*. Noting that linguistic borrowing can go both ways, the writer suggested Americans consider the term Zeitgenossen, roughly translated as contemporaries (people who live at the same time), but carrying a deeper meaning of mutual understanding and responsibility – to each other and to their time. More than just a reference to a similar birthdate, the term refers to a set of shared experiences and outcomes. I do not just share a birthdate with my contemporaries, but we have, together, been shaped by Leave it to Beaver, sputnik, the Beatles, Birmingham, Earth Day and Vietnam. I love this idea and love that there’s a word for it.

Cultures put ideas, emotions and relationships into very different kinds of “word packages,” which reflect a lot about their values. One language will have a single word to describe a complex concept that another needs a sentence or two to explain. Hearing the whole description, members of each culture will recognize the feeling – “Oh yes, I know about that.” Some examples:

A Dane tries to translate hygge and finds he must use a string of words — cozy, comfortable, warm, pleasant, shared connections with those you love — to express the same meaning in English. English speakers know this feeling, but we need more words to capture the full meaning.

In Japanese, the word sumimasen means some combination of I’m sorry, excuse me, and thank you. This is the word you would say to the nurse at your doctor’s office after you asked her to go to the back room to see if you left your umbrella there. It expresses a combination of appreciation and regret at her inconvenience. English-speakers surely know this complex emotion, but, again, we do not have a single word that expresses it.

Edith Wharton, an American novelist, wrote that to understand the French, one must understand la gloire, l’amour, le plaisir, and la volupté, but not simply as English glory, love, pleasure and voluptuousness. Americans are taught that to do something for glory is selfish, while la gloire in French means doing one’s duty, with elegance. And love (pure and poetic, and assumed to be lifelong), writes Wharton, differs from l’amour (the same poetry, plus sensual and romantic feeling). In English, voluptuous carries a meaning of excess — too much sensuality. But la volupté, with le plaisir, wrote Wharton, is the basis of French charm, creativity and imagination.

In Japanese culture, amae is the desire to depend on another person, with the comforting assumption that the other person will respond to that desire. In healthy adults, amae works in balance with the desire to become independent. In Western individualist cultures like the US, dependency is seen as something that one should outgrow. While healthy adults in the West do develop deep and comforting dependencies, these are considered background to the more important independence.

In her exquisite narrative about learning to speak English, Eva Hoffman (Lost in Translation) explains the deep sense of tesknota she felt on hearing the Polish anthem being played by a brass band as she sailed to Canada as a thirteen-year-old girl, noting that the English translation of tesknota as nostalgia does not capture the full Polish meaning, which includes sadness and longing. She offers other examples: in English, kindness is a wholly positive virtue, whereas in Polish there is an element of irony to the word. In that vein, she learns “the tug of prohibition, in English, against uncharitable words” – the person she might, without being judged as harsh, call silly or dull, she learns to translate as kindly and pleasant. She writes, “The cultural unconscious is beginning to exercise its subliminal influence.”

And that’s what makes the study of culture so very very interesting. I’d love to hear your own examples – Reply to this Enote or, better yet, comment on The Interchange Institute’s Facebook page for all to enjoy.

This piece is adapted from Newcomer’s Almanac: Newsletter for Newcomers to the United States, which I’ve been writing since 1994. If you are in the business of giving cultural and/or language support to international newcomers to the US, please check it out as we approach our 20th year of publication.

* The article caught my eye because I’m off to Germany in a few weeks to give my training of trainers workshop. Check out additional details about Crossing Cultures with Competence. Would love to see you there.

Debunking School Myths

September 2013

You have enough work to do helping your newcomer families settle into the US without battling misleading misinformation. Here are some myths about American education that your international newcomer families may bring with them (and some facts you can have at your fingertips to deepen the discussion):

Myth #1: American schools are not as good as schools in the rest of the world.

It’s true that in international comparisons (like the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), the US gets some disappointing scores. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get an excellent education in the US. In fact, for example, in that TIMSS study, students in Massachusetts scored better than the average student in every country except Singapore. Minnesota and Colorado students also score in the top echelon, along with Finland, Russia and Hong Kong. So it’s not so simple. Newcomers are well-advised to search for and expect top notch teaching for their children.

Myth #2: Asian countries score high so you should look for a school that teaches the Asian way.

Yes, many educators are examining what teachers in high-scoring countries do; one recommendation gleaned from this study is to cover fewer topics in more depth, for example. But while we're looking east, China is looking west, too – its Ministry of Education recently urged China’s educators not to focus so much on test scores, saying that that fixation “severely hampers student development as a whole person, stunts their healthy growth, and limits opportunities to cultivate social responsibilities, creative spirit and practical abilities in students.” (NYT, 9/3/13)

Myth #3: Some students are just bad at subjects like math or art; there’s not much they (or their teachers) can do about this except choose others subjects.

It’s not so. These subjects may be easier for some than others, but effort and the belief that effort makes a difference have been shown to improve student scores and student success. One Japanese educator told me she was surprised to hear American kids say, “I can’t draw so I don’t even try.” In Japan, she said, a teacher would no more accept that self-judgment of defeat than a student saying, “I can’t read so I don’t even try.”

Myth #4: American schools emphasize sports and clubs more than academic excellence.

It’s true that American teachers value being a well-rounded learner, open to the lessons that team work, non-verbal expression and leadership teach. The US university admission system reflects this value as well, unlike some countries where the sole admission criterion is a test score. Being part of the US education system will include a broad definition of “excellence” but that doesn’t exclude the need to push for academic excellence, which newcomers should still pursue.

Feeling pretty good about your own science knowledge? Take this quiz, designed by science teachers around the world. Full disclosure: I had to ask my daughter to explain a few of the answers. But hey, that says something good about the status of US schools!

For more answers to newcomers’ most Frequently Asked Questions about US schools, check our book, Understanding American Schools: The Answers to Newcomers’ Most Frequently Asked Questions (co-authored by Georgia Bennett and me). As low as $15.95/book. This valuable book guides newcomers from around the world through the challenges of understanding the US school system, from pre-school through high school. Written by two internationally-known experts in international relocation and education, this thorough but user-friendly guide is packed with information not found in any other single source. Includes the latest statistics, web sites, and international comparisons, and a discussion of the new and sometimes controversial role of the federal government in overseeing education in the US.
1-24 copies, $18.95/book
25-45 copies, $17.95/book
Case of 60 copies, $15.95/book (includes FREE SHIPPING until September 15, 2013)

Summer School

August 2013

The new school year is just weeks away and those of us who support newcomers to the US are gearing up to provide answers to their FAQs about American schools.

But wait. It’s still summer. Chill… To get your brain ready for learning while still maintaining your summer cheerful groove, check these oh-so-educational (but fun) clips:

The missing square puzzle: Count with him as he points to the each block in the array. Keep your eyes open the whole time. It’s a miracle…unless you’re a mathematician. Here’s an explanation: but warning: don’t watch it unless you’re ready to pop your sense of wonder…

Our amazing and delicate interdependent world: Don’t watch this if you’re in a hurry; it will drive you nuts. But mellow and contemplative, it will amaze you. Be sure to watch to the very very end, for its profound lesson about the delicate balance within which we live.

In the Bach woods: And while you’re in that quiet zone, check this music appreciation moment. I’m full of awe at the level of exacting attention required to pull this off. OK, it’s an ad, but I say they earned my attention.

The US-Canada border: Not a topic you’ve been mulling over lately? Just watch this and you’ll be signing up for a geography course soon. At 2:51 watch why we have that bizarre blip between Minnesota and Manitoba and at 3:52 why some US children have to cross international borders four times a day to go to school.

Dancing optical illusion: This one’s just fun. If you really concentrate, you can de-mystify it. But why would you do that?

Enjoy the freedom of summer! When you’re ready to get serious in helping families move to the US, check our book, Understanding American Schools: The Answers to Newcomers’ Most Frequently Asked Questions. As low as $15.95/book and free shipping.

The Stories We Tell

June 2013

Say you wanted to explore more fully the values you have about, say, money.
I'd ask you to tell your "financial autobiography." As a child, did your
family have enough money? Did you have an allowance and if so, did you have
to earn it? Do you remember the first thing you bought with your own money?
Were there fights in your family about money? Were the people around you in
a similar financial situation? And getting older, how did you deal with
financial discrepancies around you? Did you ever lose money? Ever do a job
just for the money?

You get the idea. In the telling of these stories, you - and your listeners
- would begin to see the pattern of values that shape every decision, every
day of your life, and that lead you to the current expression of your
deeply-rooted values.

We can use the same process to explore our "intercultural autobiography." By
dusting off our memories and seeing those details again, we catch a glimpse
of the roots of our experience with difference and the foundation of our
adult values that shape our reaction to life in our global community.

Do you remember the first person from another culture you ever met (or did
you grow up surrounded by cultural diversity)? Can you remember the look on
your mother's face when you met a person different from you? Do you remember
the first time you heard a language other than the one you spoke at home (or
were you so young then that that memory, and the understanding that there is
more than one language, is just part of your intercultural DNA)? Who in your
family told stories about far-away places, and were they happy or scary
tales? Have you traveled to places where you were the stranger, and what was
the course of your emotional journey?

"Storytelling" might sound intimidating if the word makes you think of
prize-winning memoirists, best-selling authors or stand-up dramatists. But
we are each the best teller of our own story and can be enriched and
empowered by discerning the pattern our own stories reveal. The twists and
turns in our lives are what make each story unique and compelling; with
guidance from a group of interested listeners, these can be formed into a
coherent whole marked by continuity and nuance.

I'm offering a one-day workshop at the Summer Institute for Intercultural
Communication this summer, Storytelling in Intercultural Training, in which we'll explore this
approach, and several other storytelling techniques, too. Would love to see
you there! Details on the course follow..

Storytelling in Intercultural Training
Saturday, July 13, 2013
The Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC) in Portland, Oregon.

Course Description: Telling stories about our own lives is an ancient way to
convey values, share history, and explore meaning. Ask people to tell a
story about something important that happened to them, and you set them
aloft into an exploration of things they didn't know they knew. We will
explore a number of ways to use storytelling in training to help people
reflect on their cultural values and intercultural experience.

The Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC) offers
professional development opportunities for people working in education,
training, business, and consulting, in both international and domestic
intercultural contexts. One of the premier gatherings of professionals in
the field of intercultural communication, SIIC presents a unique opportunity
to explore the field and network with others in a stimulating and supportive
environment. I've taken workshops there over the years and always come away
with a thousand ideas and insights. Contact SIIC or me for details about
this workshop.

Backpacks, Moral Reasoning and Culture

May 2013

Consider this:

You are riding in a car driven by a close friend. He hits a pedestrian. You know he was going at least 35 miles per hour in an area of the city where the maximum allowed speed is 20 miles per hour. There are no witnesses. His lawyer says that if you testify under oath that he was only driving 20 miles per hour, it may save him from serious consequences. What right does your friend have to expect you to protect him? And what do you think you would do in view of the obligations of a sworn witness and obligation to your friend?

This dilemma was posed to people in 50+ countries around the world by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner* and the results have become part of the canon of intercultural understanding.

My mind jumped to this study this week when I read about the three college friends of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect, arrested for allegedly trying to destroy evidence of Tsarnaev’s involvement in the blasts. Let me be clear – I am no apologist for the crime. It happened just two miles from my home and I’m as shaken and dismayed as anyone; the drone of helicopters overhead has only recently stopped its continual reminder of the tragedy.

But can we use our intercultural knowledge to understand these college boys’ actions? Here’s what Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner found: Across the globe, people responded to the driver/pedestrian dilemma very differently. In countries they labeled “universalist” (because they make decisions based on universal standards), people said that the friend had no right to expect protection and/or that the friend might have some right to expect it but even so, they wouldn’t lie under oath to protect him. In countries they labeled “particularist” (because they make decisions based on obligations to particular people they know), people were more likely to say they would testify to the lower figure to protect their friend.

The US, Canada, Australia and virtually all of northern Europe all scored strongly in the universalist direction – 87% or more of the participants from these countries (93% in the US) said they would not lie in court to help their friend. But in other parts of the world, more than 50% of the participants said they would testify to the lower figure. Why? Out of their obligation to a close friend and/or to protect the friend from what they feared would be unfair treatment by the police.

And there’s more: For universalists, the worse the pedestrian injury, the more likely they were to say they would tell the truth in court. But for particularists, the worse the injury, the more likely they were to protect their friend. Everyone’s moral reasoning was deeply shaped by their notion of competing loyalties to relationships vs. abstract principles.

I witnessed this myself one time during a training, when a co-trainer from a particularist culture (who, by the way, was the participants’ minister) virtually led his trainees (from his own culture) to conclude that protecting the close friend by lying in court was the right thing to do. Universalists say, “I wouldn’t trust a particularist – he’ll always help his friend first.” Particularists say, “I wouldn’t trust a universalist – he wouldn’t even help his friend.”

It’s this turn-the-world-upside-down perspective-taking that is the crux of the intercultural training we do.

Back to Boston: Two kids from Kazakhstan and one from the US figure out that their close friend was involved in the bombings and they set out to help him by throwing away incriminating evidence. Under police questioning, the Kazakhs tell the truth (perhaps because they mis-understand how egregious their conduct will be considered in universalist America) but the American compounds his crime by lying to the police about this involvement (perhaps understanding quite accurately how he will be judged).

In our discussion of how to explain the behavior these young men, I hope we can use our cultural understanding as a lens for focusing on some of the roots of this otherwise inexplicable act.

* Trompenaars, F. & Hampden-Turner, C. (1998) Riding the Waves of Culture. McGraw-Hill.

Pictures and Stories

March 2013

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool quantitative researcher, by training and temperament. I love tables of numbers brightened up with the occasional chart or regression analysis. Nothing’s more fun to me than curling up by the fire with a glass of wine and the latest census figures.

But I understand that’s a bit, well, odd, and so I have a growing collection of tools to convey intercultural concepts in formats and media that are more engaging to normal people. Here are a few tools I use to supplement my training discussions about the concept of individualism and collectivism:

An anecdote described by a Japanese mother living in the US, about the way she has learned to respond to compliments in the US vs. in Japan. It’s in these kinds of family moments that children learn their values.*

Here we can actually see that family training in action: a 30-second capture of a big brother taking care of his little sister’s need. This could happen in any culture, of course, but I don’t think it’s a surprise that these two siblings appear to be from [collectivist] Asia, where one’s loyalty and obligation to family are taught at an early age.

Five minutes from the film Fountainhead, a quintessential depiction of raw individualism – sure to get a discussion going.

One of a set of 100 photos chosen to depict various aspects of intercultural transition. There are a few images that especially draw out thoughts about individualism.

If you want to stick a little closer to the academic description of the concept, here’s a nice visual depiction of individualism and collectivism, from a series of 3-minute youtube clips on intercultural concepts. I think the dots make a strong visual impact and the narration is a succinct way to convey the concept.

How about a song? Here’s Fred Astaire singing and dancing to “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free”). OK, this one’s a bit of a stretch. Use it in your training after lunch when people are snoozy…

I include these vivid illustrations in my cross-cultural training workshops and make them available as part of my training of trainers course, Crossing Cultures with Competence, too. I’m always eager for more tools – if you send me your favorites, I’ll post them on line for all to share.

Close Neighbors

February 2013

No one is surprised when it’s hard to move to a new city that is very different in language, history, geography, culture or economics. Chennai to Chicago? Nairobi to Nanking? Riyadh to Rio? People making those moves are braced for the challenges, and prepare with language and cross-cultural training, books and local support. When they stand out, or interpret the world differently, or are treated as strangers, at least they know why. While it’s hard on one level, their differentness explains their separateness in a way that makes sense to them.

But what happens when people move to a place that is quite similar – at least on the surface? Salzburg to Stuttgart? Taipei to Shanghai? Tampa to Toronto? George Bernard Shaw called the US and England “two countries separated by a common language” and how right he was. Challenges of a different sort take these transferees by surprise.

I’m collaborating with Dwellworks on a new research project on this interesting topic – for now, we are focusing on the experiences of people who move between Canada and the US (either direction). We’ve already gotten some interesting results, which I’ll share with you when the study is over.

For now, I’m asking for your help – could you please forward this email or these links to anyone who has made a move (for 6 months or longer) from the US to Canada or Canada to the US? The anonymous survey takes 10-15 minutes to complete.

For Canadians who have moved to the US

For US Americans who have moved to Canada

Participants tell us they have found answering the questions thought-provoking and interesting, reward in itself. Still, as a way of saying thanks, we’re offering the chance to win a $50 amazon gift card to anyone who completes the survey – we’ll give away one gift card for every 100 surveys completed. Thanks – watch this space for our findings.

You're Wearing That??

January 2013

I’m happy to announce that our latest research study, “What to Wear Where: Mishaps in the Presentation of Identity Across Cultures,” is now available. In it, we explore an important mode of non-verbal communication: our physical appearance and the messages we send about our identity, both knowingly and unknowingly, when we get up in the morning, fix our hair, slip on our shoes, pick out our jacket and walk out the door.

People transmit signals about who they are in countless ways – including fashion and physical appearance. Bright colors vs. black, neatly trimmed hair vs. scruffy-chic, modest vs. revealing clothing – all of these choices send a message about the kind of person we are, at least within our own culture. But what happens when we move to a new land?

Drawing on the participation of 152 men and women who spanned a range of nationalities and ages, all of whom had lived in a country other than their own, this study first confirmed the fundamental hypothesis that people make assumptions about others based on their physical appearance. When asked about their first impressions of six photographed models, there was a striking consistency among the participants in their assumptions about the models’ personality, interests and skills.

When crossing cultures, however, physical appearance signals can get misinterpreted. The message received may differ from the message that was intended. Losing this non-verbal mode of communicating identity can be unsettling, especially when it takes one by surprise. “What to Wear Where” seeks to quantify this issue and highlight its importance both for those living an expatriate life and those seeking to support them.

When asked what they were trying to convey through their appearance, the participants from 32 countries around the world most often reported the desire to project an air of elegance, competence, and beauty, but recounted many stories about how their appearance had been mis-interpreted when in a new country. The suit that felt chic to the wearer was met with disdain by co-workers in a new country who saw it as inappropriate for the workplace. The casual shorts and T-shirt, comfort clothing to some, were met with jeers by neighbors in a different culture.

Cultural values clearly play an important role here. Respondents judged the appropriateness of others’ outfits more leniently if they were from cultures that value individual freedom and emphasize egalitarian relationships with peers and superiors. For participants from collectivist, communitarian cultures, clothing was an inherent aspect of identity, to be protected and defended, whereas, for those from individualistic cultures, clothing was less connected to their core identity.

Read our Executive Summary of this report now, or download the full 25-page research report, including a description of research methods, a detailed discussion of findings, and summary of participant responses.

By the way, this issue is one I cover in my Crossing Cultures with Competence training of trainers workshop, where we go beneath the surface and ask why it can be so challenging to move to a new country and how we can help others do so more successfully. Next offerings: January 24-25 in Boston, February 5-6 in London, April 8-9 in New York.









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