2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007


January: Weighty Matters
February: Red, White, and Blue through a Cultural Prism
March: Giving It Away
April: The H Word
May: Global Babies
July: 190 x 0.6
August: From Kindergarten to the Workplace
September: What a Decade
November: Seeing Purple
December: Good News

Here is what "an average person" (of the same height) weighs around the world:

North American: 162 pounds
Southern European: 156 pounds
Eastern European: 150 pounds
Western European: 147 pounds
South American: 145 pounds
African: 137 pounds
Asian: 128 pounds

Newcomers to this country surely notice this difference. Many have told me they've never in their lives seen such overweight people as in the US. And, they say with dismay, they (and their children) gained weight while living here.

They're not alone. Research studies show that children of Asian and Hispanic immigrants are much more likely to be overweight than their foreign-born parents. And, while obesity is quite rare for Japanese people living in Japan, it is higher for Japanese living in Hawaii, and higher still for Japanese living in California. More contact with US culture seems to yield bigger waistlines.

An interesting study* has just been published about what its authors call the "French paradox" - the finding that people in France eat more total fat and more saturated fat than people in the US, yet the mortality rate from heart disease is lower in France than the US. Yes, yes, maybe it's all that red wine they drink. But these researchers also quantified something that any visitor to the two countries has surely noticed: The French eat less. Specifically:

· The researchers weighed the food delivered in 22 fast food and local restaurants in Paris and Philadelphia. Of the 35 dishes compared, 25 of the portions were larger in the US - and much larger (25%), at that.
· They compared the descriptions of restaurants given in Zagat guides for Paris and Philadelphia. Big portion size was mentioned more in Philadelphia, and all-you-can eat options were mentioned in 18 of Philadelphia's 637 restaurants, and zero of Paris' 891.
· They compared recipes for meat, vegetables, starches, and soups in two common cookbooks (The Joy of Cooking in the US and Je sais cuisiner in France) and computed an American: French ratio of portion size directed by the recipes. American recipes yielded much bigger soup (1.68) and meat (1.53) portions, slightly bigger starch portions (1.05), and, no surprise, smaller vegetable portions (0.76).
· They compared the size of individual-serving food products sold in French (Carrefour) and US (Acme) supermarkets - things like candy bars, ice cream bars, yogurts, fruits, and frozen dinners. In 14 of the 17 cases, American portions were bigger (ratio 1.37).
· They watched how long Americans and French people sat in McDonald's - 22.2 minutes in Paris and 14.4 minutes in Philadelphia. Americans may eat more but they gobble it up on the go.

This month, in the newsletter I write for newcomers to the United States (Newcomer's Almanac) I'll be discussing this issue, and will include behavioral tips for how readers (and their children) can avoid new weight gain. Other topics: an update on the Presidential election campaign (with background information Americans take for granted but is rarely spelled out for newcomers), historical background and tips for the February holidays, and lots more. For information on the cost-effective ways you can get this monthly newsletter - and other support materials - for your international transferees to the US, please see www.interchangeinstitute.org/html/relocation.htm.

Interested in collecting this kind of data in other countries around the world? Let me know and I'll organize it!


February 2004

How does "rugged individualism" look to a person from a culture built on valuing group loyalty? Why does American-style friendliness feel like intrusiveness to some? How do Americans come to be so optimistic about their ability to control the future? What is the "honest" thing to do (and why are Americans' answers to this question so different from those from other cultures)?

These are some of the questions I'm going to be answering next month at the Families in Global Transition conference (http://www.figt.org/conf2004), at my talk (called "Red, White and Blue Through a Cultural Prism").

It is relatively easy to understand how the problems of US culture - materialism and violence, for example - are viewed from the outside. But what about those aspects of US culture that we US Americans hold dear, the ones we love? Besides the questions above, I'll be talking about how we try to:

1) TREAT EVERYONE THE SAME. I know, I know. We don't actually succeed at this - that's a whole other important issue. What I'm focusing on is that Americans tend to BELIEVE that equality is possible, and get upset when someone gets preferential treatment. The daughter who is admitted to a university because her father donated a library. The cousin of the mayor who gets the city's contract for snow removal. The politician who used family influence to avoid military service. These situations are embarrassing when they come to light in the US because they conflict with the value that everyone should be treated the same. But it's not universally so - in some cultures, there's an acceptance and expectation that power will be distributed unequally.
2) BE VERBALLY ARTICULATE. In the US we put a high value on the ability to express what we are thinking - on being an articulate speaker. In other cultures, a similarly high value is put instead on being able to read between the lines, of discerning the nuances of a communicated message - on being an "articulate listener" if you will. And in these cultures, it's rather insulting to have everything spelled out in words.
3) NOT WASTE TIME. Ben Franklin wrote that "Time is money" and we've been working to save both ever since. We show our respect to others by being careful with time - by being punctual, sticking to the agenda, and making appointments a polite interval in the future. But this view of time is not shared around the world. Elsewhere, respect is shown by engaging with people as long as necessary (even if it makes you "late" to see someone else), and by listening to their input (even if it is not on the agenda).

Frankly, I find the colors I see through this prism (that is, the multi-faceted view of values and attitudes we see when we understand other cultures) to be brilliant and stimulating - more interesting than plain red, white, and blue (or any other short list). The Families in Global Transition conference is a prism too - it draws attendees from many walks of life, including institutions with centuries (literally) of experience in sending families around the world - foreign service, corporations, military, and missions. These attendees come with a common concern for helping families move to new countries in a way that facilitates their lifelong growth. But they bring many differences too - in policies, obstacles, goals, and values. And therein lies the prism, and the stunning outcome, as these differences reveal a new array of possibilities and solutions. It's the "conference with a heart," in my book.

(Full Disclosure Department - I'm on the conference's Board! But this enote reflects only my personal views, not necessarily those of FIGT or its Board.)

March 2004

My work is really important to me. And so it's very hard for me to picture what I would do if I were suddenly told I would not be able to work for a few years so I could accompany my husband overseas. Imagine that situation - your spouse or partner has the job offer of a lifetime overseas (or … an offer she/he doesn't dare refuse) and, because of visa restrictions or other aspects of your career that make it non-portable, you're faced with the prospect of an employment-free period.

Certainly, lots of couples decide to embrace this opportunity for all it has to offer, with joy and excitement. Others "just say no," and accept the consequences. But there's a big group that decides to give it a try even though they're somewhat skeptical or worried about how it will work.

In our research study of accompanying spouses (Many Women Many Voices, underwritten by Prudential Financial) living in one of 17 countries around the world, we found that women who had previously been working but could not work while living abroad chose one of three labels for themselves: "homemakers," "not-currently-employed" or "volunteers." I've recently done some analyses comparing these groups and found some interesting differences.

It's important to note that, in general, this was a highly-educated, career-oriented sample. These not-currently-employed and volunteer groups were just as career-oriented as those who were working, and they had all had similarly high salaries in the past. But on assignment, they were taking different paths, which led to different ends.

In fact, these paths started differently. The not-currently-employed group felt more coerced into accepting the assignment, and said they spent less time before the move talking with their spouses about how the assignment would affect them personally.

The groups approached the assignment differently too. We asked the participants how they coped with the various challenges of living in a new country. The volunteers used a "problem-solving" approach more than any other group in the sample - that is, they said they faced challenges by doing things like this:

- I just concentrated on what I had to do next - the next step.
- I made a plan of action and followed it.
- Changed something so things would turn out all right.

That is, they treated their situation like a problem to be solved, and solved it. This was the coping strategy related to best adjustment in the sample.

The volunteer group also reported having more local friends than any of the other groups, especially friends to whom they could turn if they needed advice, and who supported them emotionally. The not-currently-employed group, in contrast, relied more on email and international telephone calls. This reliance on long-distance support was a red flag in our study, a consistent sign of adjustment difficulties.

As you might guess, the not-currently-employed group scored in consistently troublesome directions on our measures of satisfaction with the assignment, too.

We do not know all the factors that led to some women in this sample to describe themselves as "homemakers" and others as "not-currently-employed." In some sense, this is a matter of self-definition - both groups included women who had had careers and who were now not working, but who summarized their current situations differently in these labels.

In the same way, we do not know all the factors that led some non-employed women to seek volunteer opportunities, and others not to. The volunteer group may have had more portable skills, or less need for income. It's possible that their local friendship networks led them to volunteer work (rather than the other way around).

But we do know that the women who took control of their lives and found meaningful work - even if it was unpaid - were doing better emotionally than the ones who described themselves as not currently employed. They were maintaining their professional identities, meeting and being supported by friends, and contributing to their communities in meaningful ways.

That's why we included an article in the April 2004 issue of Newcomer's Almanac (a newsletter for newcomers to the US) about volunteering - why many newcomers do it, what kinds of work they might do, and how to find organizations that need their skills. If you're in the business of helping people make a successful move to the US, check us out.


April 2004

"History is bunk," said Henry Ford, focusing America's turn-of-the-20th-century eye on its promising future. Look forward, plan ahead. Don't cry over spilled milk. Nothing ventured nothing gained. If at first you don't succeed, try try again. It's part of the US cultural fabric to target future opportunity.

This explains, I guess, the resistance I used to get when I began the History of the Host Country unit in my training of trainers seminar, Crossing Cultures with Competence (which prepares trainers to offer cross-cultural orientations for people moving to a new country):

"I'm not good at history." And "there's so much else that's more important than history." And "history is boring." OK. So now we don't have a History unit anymore. Instead, we have a unit on "The Roots of Current Social Values and Issues" -- and I have to work hard to limit the discussion!

What does a newcomer to a country need to know about a country's past to understand today's current events and its laws and unwritten rules? For those moving to the US, for example:

· how is it that the US is the most individualistic country in the world (hint: figure out what the colonists didn't like about King George III, plus what it took to survive in the pioneering days of western expansion)
· how and why did the US end up with the gun ownership laws it has (hint: check out the secret weapon of the American Revolution and learn about law and order in the Wild Wild West)
· how and why did the concept of "political correctness" develop in the US in the 70s and 80s (hint: study the 50s and 60s and the forces that led to and from the civil rights movement)
· why do Americans react as they do when politicians are dishonest (hint: start with cherry trees and log cabins and don't stop when you get to Watergate)

Are you involved in helping people who are moving to another country besides the US? Focus on that country's pivotal moments that shaped lives and values there. Suddenly, when the implications for today's news and values are spelled out, the Meiji Restoration, the Greek resistance movement in World War II, and the Raj are no longer just topics in a history lesson, but vital aspects of a culture to understand.

I've stopped using the H Word. But I haven't stopped trying to understand where we've been or helping people understand how this affects the choices they make.

In our training program, I have a list of 10 Moments That Shaped A Nation - 10 individual dates (years) that, I suggest, had a profound influence on American culture (and why). What dates would you list and why? Send me your list - I'll send a free copy of our book, Understanding American Schools, to the person whose list most closely matches mine!


May 2004

Do you know anyone moving to a new country with an infant? Are you sure they know:

· That immunization recommendations and requirements differ from country to country, even among countries with similar medical systems and philosophies? And that saying, "my baby's shots are up to date" will not mean anything to a doctor in another country? And that pre-schools in a new country may require adherence to local immunization regulations?
· That medications differ from country to country, too? What is sold over the counter may require a prescription elsewhere, and vice versa. Both brand and generic medications differ, so they really need to bring detailed information about any antibiotics or other drugs their infant has successfully or unsuccessfully taken.
· That they might need that old-fashioned thing, the fax number, of previous doctors, for across-the-time-zone, reading-in-a-foreign-language, fast transmittal of information.
· The pro's (many) and con's (few) of buying Baby his/her own seat on the airplane?
· The rules of their host country's medical insurance system? Ha ha ha. That's a joke. No one knows the rules to any country's medical insurance system. I should say: Do they have a way to get help managing the host country's medical insurance system, from the very day they arrive?
· The status of the host country's regulations about water cleanliness, fluoride in water, and lead in the ceramic glazes used in dishes? All these can have profound effects on a baby's health.
· The things they absolutely must put in their carry-on bag for the plane trip? Hint: not everything is for Baby; parent sanity is the name of this game. For example, enough diapers for a 24-hour flight delay. Zip lock plastic bags in a variety of sizes to hold the smelly banana peel. Or other smelly things… Medical records (too precious to trust to checked luggage). A tiny flashlight to find things in the bottom of the carry-on bag without waking Baby.

Can you tell I write from experience? It's been a few years, but a while ago I moved to London with one infant and moved home with two. Living there at that point in our family's life was the defining feature of our assignment, and for that, I'm very grateful. Where we went, whom we met, what we did - all these were colored and enriched by our having very young children with us.

But still, there was stuff I wish I hadn't had to learn on my own. So I've written Global Baby: Tips to Keep You and Your Infant Smiling Before, During, and After Your International Move.


July 2004

Quick, multiply 190 by .6. That's how fast we were going (in miles-per-hour, converted from kilometers-per-hour) when I lost it. My multiplication skills are not enhanced by panic, but I was pretty sure I didn't want to be there. Last week, my family and I were in a country where we spoke hardly a word of the language, and where we were being hosted by a lovely guy who was trying to be very, very nice to us because of a business connection to my husband. We were returning from a day trip to a fascinating historical site. My daughters and husband were in the back seat. A driver who spoke no English, hired by our host, and I were in the front seat. We'd taken a wrong turn, according to our map (which my husband and I tried, unsuccessfully, to communicate to the driver), which meant we were on a back road (with tractors and hairpin turns) instead of the motorway, and were running an hour behind the assigned schedule. The "190" on the speedometer shouted, "Do something!"

Despite all apparent odds, we survived and now I can afford to intellectualize a bit about this experience. That endless car-ride was, in some ways, a microcosm of the intercultural transition experience:

· As often happens while crossing cultures, we started questioning whether our own knowledge was reliable. We had the map and it was clear we were turning south when we wanted to go north. But maybe the driver had been instructed to take us the scenic route, or knew of road construction delays on the motorway. We were frustrated by our lack of knowledge and our inability to address it.
· We also knew that people in other countries drive faster than we do in the US, and were trying to be cool (i.e. conform to local practice). But at some point (along about 130 kph) we also didn't care about local practice, sure that a slower speed would be safer. (In fact, traffic fatalities in this country are significantly higher than in the US.) Being in intercultural transition means finding the line between openness to new ways and commitment to one's own values.
· We were in a country that values the guest-host relationship highly and it seemed important for us to be "good guests." That, I assumed, meant not screaming "SLOW DOWN!" at the top of my lungs, but I was struggling to find a way to play my role gracefully.
· And we were in a country that interculturalists describe as more collectivist, hierarchical, polychronic, and patriarchal than the US. Our host had not consulted us about where we would visit, how long we would stay, when we needed to be back to the hotel, or… how we would travel there. He arranged what he felt was best and our job was to enjoy and, presumably, be grateful. The ensuing (and preceding) interlinked obligations for my husband's business were thick and complicated. In the US, we might have said, "Tomorrow, we'd like to make our own plans, thank you very much" but saying that here would have complex consequences.
· Our inability to communicate with the driver taught a powerful lesson. This was a country whose language is not spoken in many parts of the world, and I had gone on our 4-day visit knowing how to say only "thank you," "please," "hello," "good-bye," "yes," "no," "I'm sorry," and "coffee with milk but no sugar" - my bare minimum. I'll never go anywhere again without adding: "Please drive more slowly or I'm going to jump out of the window."
· Finally, we caught a glimpse of what those in intercultural transition often face: the challenge of keeping one's family safe under novel and occasionally careening circumstances. As the countryside barreled by, I was thinking, "Every day I take a teeny weeny aspirin to prevent heart disease; we all apply sunscreen before going outside; I buy organic lettuce - all to improve our chances of living a healthy life by some miniscule amount. And now we find ourselves in this situation!"

The lesson? Even well-prepared people get in situations they'd like to revise; even with knowledge, new challenges need new solutions. Next time, I vow to marshal my understanding of the culture and local practice, and come up with a coordinated plan that balances obligations with our own needs. Plus carry a dictionary…


Yesterday I worked with a group of American business people who had recently signed a contract to work closely with a Korean company. They wanted me to review the important cultural differences between the US and Korea and to help them understand how to sustain a smooth relationship with their new partners.

I drew on the usual intercultural resources - research studies on value differences, descriptions of how business is conducted in the two countries, case studies, and the like.

But I also had access to an unusual, perhaps unique, resource - writings from a group of Korean women who are raising their children in the US and who are working hard to understand the cultural differences they see. These women meet with me monthly for cultural, emotional and language support. They give contemporaneous accounts of how deep cultural differences develop and show up later, in the business place. For example:

- The mothers write about how odd it seems to them that American "play dates" include only one other friend, and about how American mothers step in to resolve squabbles much faster than they do. They ask, "How will children learn to work in groups and to negotiate with their peers?" That individualism-collectivism difference that so characterizes US-Korean interactions begins to be taught in a child's very early years.
- They write about how strange - but appealing - the concept of "Show and Tell" seems, where children get the spotlight to talk about their own lives to the applause of their friends. They link this activity to the self-confidence they perceive in Americans, and to Americans' willingness to voice their opinions. Is it a surprise that Americans tend to prefer work situations in which individual achievement is recognized publicly, and the expression of unusual suggestions is seen as a mark of a creative mind, while Koreans tend to prefer work situations in which team consensus and team achievement are rewarded?
- They write about how American mothers' way of talking to their children feels blunt and even rude: "Stop making all that noise!" In the same situation, they would find a way to signal, indirectly and maybe even silently, that their children should play more quietly. I sum it up this way: Americans value being an articulate speaker; Koreans value being an articulate listener. So are we shocked to learn that, in a recent research study, when presented with a manager's evaluation ratings of his staff, Korean participants were better able to read between the lines and understand what the manager really felt, compared with Americans?

These simple cultural situations go a long way to illustrate the intercultural differences we see in the business world - in how employees talk to their managers, how bosses treat their staff, what employees are expected to do with their perceptions and suggestions, how decisions are made, and what constitutes a "good leader." Without a good handle on these roots, business trainees just learn a list of do's and don'ts and are ill-prepared to handle the specific issues they encounter in the course of their work.

The work we do at The Interchange Institute is some amalgam of all the experiences I've had - as a child and family psychologist and as an organizational trainer and consultant. I'm the luckiest person I know, to have found a way to use all these seemingly disparate threads of expertise at once. I'd love to hear your stories about how you have woven apparently-unrelated sources of expertise into a new endeavor!


September 2004

Please - think back to September 1994 for a moment. Were you doing your work the same way you do it now?

This month marks the tenth anniversary of our newsletter for newcomers to the US (Newcomer's Almanac - no, not this e-note you're reading here, but an actual 8-page newsletter). Ten years ago:

· I literally cut and pasted the pictures in. With scissors and rubber cement.
· I knew the reference librarian really well. Now I know Internet Explorer really well.
· My five-year-old put the stamps and labels on the newsletters. Today most people receive it electronically, stripping my daughter of employment, but hey, she's 15 now and too busy anyway.

More importantly, what I wrote back in 1994 was a little…well… happier. It was before having to explain to my readers what was going on in the OJ Simpson trial (1995), the Monica Lewinsky scandal (1998) or the shootings at Columbine high school (1999). It was before narrating three presidential campaigns (1996, 2000, 2004) for newcomers and trying to explain campaign financing, low voter turnout and - ee gads - the electoral college. It was before having to explain the background to the assault weapons ban (1994), the Family and Child Leave Act (1995), or the No Child Left Behind Act (2001). It was before I really studied international comparisons of kids' school achievement, drunk driving, gender equality, and energy usage - some of which made me proud and others sad, but all of which helped me understand how the US looks to newcomers' eyes.

And of course, this was before September 11 (2001) and all that has followed in its wake.

The events of this decade have colored my work indelibly, as perhaps they have yours. I find myself writing about why the bureaucracy newcomers face is so slow. Or why their American neighbors react to them as they do. The movies and books I recommend now are ones that show the roots of the choices American voters make. I work hard to explain the background to events without a political bias, to give the kind of information I would want if I had just moved to the US.

Interestingly, though I'm sadder but wiser on one hand, I have a renewed and deeper sense of the importance of the work you and I do, helping others to live and work within the intercultural space. And from this understanding comes hope and optimism.

An anniversary can be a time to celebrate (see below) but also to reflect. I'd love to hear stories about how your work has changed in the last 10 years. Write to me!

November 2004

Well now, don't we American interculturalists have our work cut out for us right here at home? The 2004 Presidential election campaign revealed the kinds of differences within the US that we surely should consider cultural - in attitudes, values, beliefs and behavior. The media seemed to delight in putting these differences in high relief. The name-calling, demonizing, recrimination, and vilification was almost enough to make me afraid to venture out of my own little insulated world, and I don't like it. I don't like the implication that I am deeply and morally estranged from my cousins, neighbors, colleagues and compatriots. And I don't like that map they keep showing on TV of the red states and blue states, with the connotation of looming dominance and submission.

What if all of us in the intercultural field turned our professional heads to the problem of how to improve the level of dialogue with each other?

What would we do if we were consulting to a group of people from two different countries rather than people from "red" states and "blue" states? We'd look for the roots of the two groups' values - the historic, geographic, political and economic forces that led to growth in different directions - and use this knowledge to improve mutual understanding. We'd watch for and challenge mistaken assumptions. We'd help people listen to each other, and make sure that light shone on shared beliefs. We'd recognize and accept the real core differences that exist, but focus attention on the benefits (to the US and the world) of working together rather than competing against each other. We'd marshal evidence that, in fact, most individuals' beliefs are complex and nuanced, not simplistic and combative, leaving room for many points of connection and agreement.

You know that red and blue map I hate? Well, here are two better ones, produced by some folks at the University of Michigan (www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election). In the first, they drew the states proportional to their population size not their acreage, with the result that the red and blue look more equal in size, an accurate reflection of the popular vote:

And second, they fought back against the forces of division and …remembered the color purple. They colored the counties on a continuum from red to blue (with purple in the middle), reflecting the percentage of the vote in each county.

Note that there are some true blue and some true red spots, but mostly not. Mostly we are not totally divided. Mostly, we can have this conversation together.

That's our work. Our most recent research (commissioned by Prudential Financial) shows that expatriates who have had cross-cultural training have more positive views of host nationals and better adjustment to the assignments. (Let me know if you'd like to see the report.) Hope you'll join us in our efforts to increase intercultural dialogue and understanding!


December 2004

Researchers are supposed to be objective, boldly pursuing truth and facts regardless of their implications. I think I do that as well as anyone (although, really, who lives in a vacuum?). But sometimes my research results make me happy, ee gads I admit it.

In a recent study I conducted of accompanying spouses who had moved to the United States from one of 26 different countries*, I asked whether they had received any cross-cultural training. Here's some of what I found:

· Those who had gotten cross-cultural training had significantly better mental health than those who hadn't, and they reported that their children were happier too. (Nice!)
· They also said their spouses (the ones whose jobs instigated the move and who, presumably, had the cross-cultural training too) enjoyed their co-workers significantly more. (That's what companies are paying for!)
· Indeed, those who had received training described "the typical American they had met" as significantly more patient, friendly, respectful, polite, and less verbally aggressive. (Hooray! All that work we trainers do to interpret the cultural context of Americans' approach to time, values about interaction with others, and communications style pays off!)
· And if the training included direct mention of common emotional reactions to moving (and not just topics like US business practice, and American attitudes and behavior), the participants were significantly less depressed. (Yes! That's what we've been saying! Normalizing culture shock - communicating that it's common and explaining why it happens and how to manage it - really helps.)
· We also took a look at the experiences of those who did NOT receive cross-cultural training. Some said they really hadn't needed it - their home countries were pretty similar to the US, their English was good, and they had a lot of American friends. Makes sense. Or does it? In fact, 63% of the participants from Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand who did not get cross-cultural training said that, in fact, it would have been very helpful.
· And thinking that cross-cultural training would have been helpful and not having been offered it was a nasty combination - those in that situation were significantly more depressed, said their children were having a less positive experience in the US, and (get this!) felt their spouses were less productive on the job.

OK, I'll put my white lab coat back on in a minute. But for now I am going to enjoy the moment of validation - I have built our Training of Trainers program (Crossing Cultures with Competence), designed to teach people how to develop and deliver high-quality cross-cultural orientations, on the belief that, if we help expatriates understand their new cultures, see the world through their hosts' eyes, and understand the reasons it can be hard to move to a new country, they and their families will be better off. They'll be more productive at work. They will be better able to take advantage of the opportunity cross-cultural living provides. And they'll be more likely to have positive relationships with their hosts.

And it turns out I was right. How cool is that? (Let me know if you'd like to see a copy of the 57-page research report .)


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