2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007


February: The Weight of the Little Things
April: Lonely on the Bridge
June: Cereal Bowls and Other Family Crises
July: Red Pens, Blue Pens
September: Misshapen Reflection
November: A Moving Portrait

February 2003

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 there.

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.


April 2003

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 me.”

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 for details.

See you on the bridge, I hope.


June 2003

A few months ago my family got new cereal bowls and the result has been a major disruption in our family life. Here’s why:

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 each other?
  • 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.


July 2003

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 about education:

  • 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 of education.
  • 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.)

- Anonymous


September 2003

I’m collecting examples of when something that I like or am proud of turns out to irritate people from other cultures.

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 very well.

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 being insulted.

Send me your examples – I’d love to see them!

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 http://www.interchangeinstitute.org/html/CCC.htm. 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 my mother.)

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 new clients.

I also instructed Frank to never let them know that the company was doing
"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 anything together.
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 something well?"

"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, but feeling
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


November 2003

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. Sorry!)

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 succeed.

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.


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