Last week, an acquaintance Ive known casually
for several years asked me what I did for a living. I couldnt
believe it. I know everything about her consulting business. Who
her clients are, what kind of work she likes, where she has traveled
recently, her ups and downs.
How could she not know what I d
In this territory of developing friendship, she and I each are
apparently acting on a [different] deeply-engrained value
for me, its that one should wait to be asked about oneself
(and reciprocate by asking about the other); for her, its
that one should be free and open with personal information (and
expect others to do the same). While this happened to be an encounter
between two Americans, its characteristic of what happens
in cross-cultural encounters.
In my Training of Trainers course (Crossing
Cultures with Competence which, by the way,
was recently approved to award 12 CRP credits through the Employee
Relocation Council see details below), I use a metaphor
of mis-matched jigsaw puzzle pieces to describe this phenomenon
of clashing cultural values. Picture two puzzle pieces, with facing
out-sticking arms (I call them out-ies), trying to
link together. One puzzle pieces out-ie (a particularly
strong value to talk openly about oneself without prompting) meets
a conflicting out-ie (a particularly strong value
to wait to be asked before self-revealing), and
confusion and frustration on both sides.
I think its why some cultural values are harder for us to
adapt to than others. In some [easy] cases, one persons
out-ie encounters anothers in-ie
or even just a curve; the conflict is relatively easy for the
two to absorb. Its only when the interaction involves particularly
deep, conflicting values the out-ies head to
head that trouble ensues.
Now, if I find myself particularly challenged by someones
style or habit, I try to ask, Whats the opposite value,
and do I hold it? What specific, deeply-held value of mine might
be in conflict with theirs? Does culture explain it all? Is there
something in my background that makes this particularly tough
I still have to deal with the conflict in styles, but by owning
half the equation, it ceases, in my mind, to be about the others
character and becomes one of differing cultural and personal histories.
Would love to hear examples of this phenomenon from you. Ill
post them on our website, with your approval.
Comments on this E-Note:
I think you're on to something it made me think
of two situations from my family's experiences of training
for and living in Romania (we lived there from 1994-1999).
1) During the last few months before we left for Romania
in 1994, we hired a Romanian-speaking doctor/researcher
to help us learn to speak the language as well as possible
before we left (it didn't work, but it was a noble effort).
She made a very interesting comment one session "Americans
are so RUDE!" We were perplexed ... why on earth did
she feel this way? "I have been here eight years in
your country, and my English is still terrible. No one ever
corrects me!" We were still perplexed as to the connection
between these two comments. Indeed, her English WAS terrible...but,
being kind and polite Americans (in our view our
"outie"), we tolerated her English and tried to
make the best sense of what she was trying to communicate.
"When you move to Romania, everyone there is VERY
POLITE!" Great, we thought we like polite
people! "They will ALWAYS correct your Romanian
everyone in the city will be your language teacher!"
And she was right ... every person we met in Romania felt
it their bound duty to make sure we spoke Romanian correctly.
Even when we were tired, irritated, and downright angry
about it ... it didn't matter ... they would still persist
in correcting our EVERY mistake!
Our teacher's perception was that POLITENESS dictated
that she and all of her fellow countrymen would correct
every mistake we made in speaking their language in order
that we might speak it more correctly, in a shorter period
of time. To us in the US, we deemed that POLITENESS dictated
that we should be tolerant of others' English-speaking ability,
and not to interrupt them when they were speaking to us,
unless they formally engaged our services as language teachers!
Our "out-ies" were colliding on a daily basis
Practically the first thing transferees to the US have to do,
if they have young children, is pick a school. Faced with a dizzying
array of private schools (and limited admissions opportunities
there) and a huge range in quality among public schools, parents
are understandably perplexed. (That's why school-placement expert
Georgia Bennett and I have teamed up twice, first to write Understanding
American Schools: The Answers to Newcomers' Most Frequently Asked
Questions, and second, to offer a special package price for those
who buy both our book and her new BER Guide to International Education
in the United States - details below).
Those who work with families moving to the US try hard to guide
them to the "best" schools in their communities. But
wait - what we consider "good" educational practice
surprises many newcomers.
Here is a partial list of educational "best practices"
from an American perspective (and the concerns I hear from international
American best practice: There should be lots of time for
students to experiment with ideas to see which ones are true,
rather than direct instruction from teachers. For example, a science
teacher might spend a lesson hearing hypotheses from the students
about what might happen when you mix Chemical A with Chemical
B, rather than teaching them what will happen. (Concern: But there's
so much to learn; why let kids flap in the wind? Just tell them
what they need to know.)
American best practice: In a classroom, most
of the time the students - not the teacher - should be doing the
talking. (Concern: But then kids will be hearing mostly-wrong
information, from the other children. Better to let them hear
only correct information, which can only reliably come from the
American best practice: Emphasis should be
on understanding concepts and how to solve problems. Rote memorization
and worksheets, in which students practice one skill over and
over, should be kept to a minimum. (Concern: But if students don't
have the skills they need, they'll never be able to advance their
understanding and solve real problems.)
American best practice: Textbooks are to
be avoided. Better to let teachers pick primary sources or literature
and history books that allow a depth of discussion, and that speak
to the interests of their own particular classes of children.
Concern: (But then it is hard to have national - or even state-wide
- accountability, since each school is probably teaching from
different material. Isn't this leaving too much discretion to
American best practice: Children learn and
develop at different rates. Especially in the early years, it's
best not to compare children to each other academically - that
is, no grades, no class ranking. Just demonstrate that each child
is developing and learning. (Concern: But I want to know how my
child is doing - and for me, that means knowing if he/she is at
the top of the class.)
Well, you get the idea. A look inside classrooms around the world
reveals many subtle differences - in how often tests are given,
in what children read, in how teachers teach, in whether math
students use calculators, in whether parents are involved, and
Bravo to all the children who enter a new educational system and
master these new rules of how to learn! And hats off to the parents
who keep their expectations flexible in order to embrace a new
way of learning.
A picture frame, a hammer, and a nail. If you're looking for a
house-warming gift for an international transferee, it seems this
would be the best choice, for a host of reasons.
And I say that with good, statistical authority. We've just completed
a research study called Moving Matters, commissioned by Graebel
Movers International, on how to help international transferees
relocate smoothly. One of the topics we focused on was what people
actually do when the moving truck pulls away empty, and whether
some activities are more effective in helping people feel settled
than others. Here are a few highlights of what we found:
As you would probably guess, there were some settling-in tasks
that virtually everyone did quickly, and others that were more
optional - some did them quickly, others not. Did what people
do first make a difference in how quickly they felt settled or
in how they felt about their assignment in general? You'll find
the details in the full report, but here's a peek: the one settling-in
task that was most consistently related to all our outcome measures
how quickly they had displayed family photos.
It seems there are two very different approaches to settling
in. One group in our sample, whom we named the Practical settlers,
quickly unpacked boxes, organized the kitchen, bought food, and
set up their computers. But another group said the most important
things were to meet their neighbors, find a place to do their
hobby, find medical care - we called these the Nest-maker settlers.
I suspect that photo display turned out to be important because
it was important to both groups - if you're a Practical type,
getting those photos out of the box and bubble wrap and onto the
table is an important accomplishment. And if you're the Nest-maker
type, having reminders of your family surround you is emotionally
Men and women differed in whether they were Practical or Nest-maker
settlers, but perhaps not in the direction you'd expect - the
women were significantly more likely to be Practical settlers
than Nest-makers; men were more evenly split between the two.
(Note: always read the data!)
Singles took a lot longer to feel settled than married respondents.
It probably takes as long to arrange a one-person kitchen as a
family kitchen, and singles have only one set of hands to do the
arranging. And those hands are busy at work. Singles also were
slower to make personal connections in their new communities.
From an HR perspective, it may feel easier to move a single employee
than a married one; but singles need different kinds of assistance.
There's more - but I'll save it for another Enote. Hope you'll
take a look at our final report. There are recommendations for
organizations and for transferees at the end that I think you'll
It's exam time everywhere you look. Here too. Below are 10 questions
that readers of Newcomer's Almanac (our monthly newsletter for
newcomers to the US) will know the answers to - these topics and
many more were covered in the March, April or May 2006 issues.
How many could you explain to your international clients? There's
a prize waiting for you if you do well
1. What is the difference between "dish washing liquid"
and "liquid dishwasher detergent" and why is it really
important not to get them mixed up?
2. What are "mid-term elections" and why are Americans
watching them so closely in 2006?
3. Why doesn't the US celebrate May Day, either as a spring festival
or a kind of Labor Day, the way much of Europe does?
4. Why is it a good idea to have at least one non-cordless telephone
in your home?
5. Under what circumstances (if any) does the IRS ask for financial
identification information, like a PIN or your mother's maiden
6. Where does the short stop stand on a baseball diamond?
7. Where are three places you can go for information or free help
in filing US taxes?
8. Who chooses the winners of the Academy Awards?
9. What is the most common national ancestry group of US Americans?
10. There are lots of on-line pharmacies. What is one sign that
a site is legitimate, and one sign that it might be fraudulent?
Send me your answers to as many questions as you can. We'll send
one of these prizes to the top five scorers (winner's choice):
-a free 3-month subscription to Newcomer's Almanac and its accompanying
English Practice Worksheet (to help readers practice English while
reading about US culture), shipped to your or a person of your
-three copies of our newest publication, A Smooth Beginning: 20
Suggestions to Help Your Family Feel Settled in a New Country
for you to share with your client families.
Ready, set, GO!
NOTE: Our prizes have already been awarded.
I know it's July and the new school year may feel far away. But
this is the time when your international families are moving into
place for fall, the time to prepare them for the surprises they'll
encounter when school opens.
Consider one simple hour - the "Open House" or "Back
to School" event that most schools in the US hold in the
fall, when parents visit their children's classrooms to meet the
teacher. In 60 short minutes, teachers - and I'm talking about
the very best ones here - can flummox international parents into
a high state of concern if they don't understand what they're
seeing. (To address these and other educational concerns, in fact,
is why Georgia Bennett and I wrote Understanding
American Schools: Answers to Newcomers' Most Frequently Asked
Questions.) Here are some examples of what happens
The teacher does this: circulates the schedule for parent-teacher
conferences and invites parents to volunteer their special skills
with the class.
The teacher intends: to welcome parental involvement, a
mainstay of good education in the US; she wants to work as a partner
with parents and to use their skills to enhance the classroom
experience in creative ways.
But some international newcomers think: education should be
left to the experts. (One mother said to me, "In my country,
we leave the teaching to the teachers, just as we leave surgery
to a surgeon. We don't expect to be invited into the operating
room and we don't expect to be invited into the classroom.")
In a recent worldwide survey of school principals, 90% of American
principals said they expected parents to volunteer for school
projects and trips, compared to 44% in Belgium, 49% in South Korea,
29% in The Netherlands.
The teacher does this: tells a cute story about a boy
in her class who corrected her description of something they were
The teacher intends: to communicate to the parents that
she encourages independent thinking in her students.
But some international newcomers think: the teacher was risking
losing the students' respect; with so much to learn, they think,
it is best for the teacher to do the explaining, describing, lecturing.
The same worldwide researchers asked eighth grade students how
much they agreed with this statement: "In my mathematics
class students do exactly as the teacher says." In the US,
48.8% agreed or strongly agreed with that statement. Compare this
with 73.8% in Taiwan, 79.8% in England, 69% in Japan, and 85.1%
in Jordan. While this might reflect a difference in teachers'
abilities to maintain discipline, I think instead that it reflects
a difference in teachers' willingness to allow - even encourage
- challenge and interruption.
The teacher does this: says that children will be expected
to read books of their own choosing, both in school and at home.
The teacher intends: to encourage student-driven learning
(which presumably will be more meaningful to the children) and
expand the range of information present in class discussions
But some international newcomers think: it would be better
for teachers, as experts, to select the best works to be read.
When researchers asked fourth graders how often they read a book
during school hours that they had chosen by themselves, 71.9%
of American children said they did this every day or almost every
day. Compare this with Argentina (58.2%), Czech Republic (35.7%),
France (52.7%), Germany (50.5%), Israel (63%), The Netherlands
(53.3%), Russia (53.3%), and Sweden (61.8%).
The teacher does this: displays a bulletin board of recent
student essays emblazoned with stickers and "Great Job!"
written at the top.
The teacher intends: to encourage children to feel like
competent learners, and to solidify their base of self-esteem
so they will grow into adults who love writing.
But some international newcomers think: the teacher seems to
be rewarding mediocrity; truly, some of the essays on the board
are not "great" - not outstanding, not perfect. They
worry that if all students are told they are "great,"
the potentially motivating element of competition will be missing.
By the way, the parents whose reactions I mention above soon
appreciated what the US educational experience offered (even if
they sometimes continued to be concerned about the child's ability
to return to their home educational systems). They loved joining
their children's class, they became regular parent volunteers,
they understood the benefits of emphasizing each child's individual
progress. But it took a while and they needed some cultural interpretation
along the way.
A recent study* tells us that in Japan, 30% of high school principals
say dress code violations are a problem "at least weekly,"
compared to 77% in the US. The difference won't surprise anyone
who's been in a US and a Japanese high school. But get this -
the principals were then asked whether dress code violations were
"a serious problem." In Japan, 34% of the principals
said it was - presumably, this was all of the principals who dealt
with it weekly and then some. But only 5% of the US principals
named it so - the other 72% were apparently shrugging it off.
This strikes me as a wonderful metaphor for what people moving
to a new country have to juggle. There are "the rules"
- the ones in the handbook - and then there are "the real
rules" - the actual social norms that guide behavior. And
then there's what you bring with you, what you believe, deep inside,
to be the right thing to do. One Japanese mother living in my
town was shocked at what girls wore to high school - "They
wore tank tops like lingerie. I think individuality is valuable
but in school, students should wear clothes suitable for study."
Neither the rules nor the real rules were as important to her
as her core belief about proper dress. This distinction is part
of what I teach in our training of trainers course, Crossing Cultures
with Competence. (See below for details.)
What's the announced starting time for a meeting, and when does
the meeting really start? (And what do you feel about the person
who arrives "late?") What's the stated basis for job
performance reviews, and what really leads to job promotion in
this organization? (And what do you really value in job performance?)
What are the rules about using personal connections to get what
you want, and what really happens when personal connections are
used? (And what's your gut reaction to the use of personal connections?)
What is the legal thing to do in a moral dilemma, and what does
the culture really expect its people to do? (And what's your reaction
to those who behave in that way?) Most important, what are the
underlying cultural values for each of these issues?
There's no way to prepare an expatriate for every single issue
that will arise in a new country. But there is a way to explain
some guiding principles, and some core cultural values of their
own and of the host country, that will help explain the discrepancies
they see among the rules, the real rules, and their reactions
to them. That's what happens in an effective cross-cultural training.
Well, the dress code issue is just a metaphor for these more
important concerns, but I was intrigued. I asked my 17-year-old
daughter if there is a dress code at her [public] high school.
"Yeah, you have to wear clothes." That's the "real
rule" and seems to sum up the extent of the limits I see
when I drop her off. I looked up the "rule" - it says
that the 14th Amendment allows students to dress however they
like although there are a few limits - undergarments should not
be visible, an excess of skin should not be revealed, and footwear
must be worn. I say, "Define 'undergarments.' And define
'excess.'" But then I'm an old fogy.
* The dress-code study was part of the Trends in International
Math and Science Study - let me know if you want more information