2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007


January: Out-ie vs. Out-ie

February: Bravo to the Children

April: Picture Frames and Other Moving Matters

May: Exam Time

July: The Teacher Does This

November: The Rules and the Real Rules


Last week, an acquaintance I’ve known casually for several years asked me what I did for a living. I couldn’t 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, it’s that one should wait to be asked about oneself (and reciprocate by asking about the other); for her, it’s 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, it’s 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 piece’s “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…there’s confusion and frustration on both sides.

I think it’s why some cultural values are harder for us to adapt to than others. In some [easy] cases, one person’s “out-ie” encounters another’s “in-ie” or even just a curve; the conflict is relatively easy for the two to absorb. It’s 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 someone’s style or habit, I try to ask, “What’s 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 for me?”

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 other’s character and becomes one of differing cultural and personal histories.

Would love to hear examples of this phenomenon from you. I’ll 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 ...

Scott Richardson
Franklin, Indiana


February 2006

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 newcomers):

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 teacher.)

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 the teacher?)

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 more.

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.


April 2006

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 was…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 settling.

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 find useful.


May 2006

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 name?
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 choosing.
-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.


July 2006

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 that night:

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 studying.
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.

November 2006

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 about it.

© 2014, The Interchange Institute

Contact Us     Home