December:It Takes One to Know One

October:Insourcing Expat Support

June:Turquoise! Azure! Salmon!

May:Voices from the Road

April:An Open Floor Plan and a Wireless LAN

February:Quiz Time

January:Learning from Other Points of View


December:It Takes One to Know One

We have all heard that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii to a white American mother and Kenyan father, and lived for a few of his childhood years in Indonesia. Some have called this background “exotic.” Others are suspicious of it, or dismiss it as unimportant. These commentators* clearly have not heard of “Third Culture Kids” but they’re about to, because Obama is a TCK and he’s invited a whole bunch of them to move to Washington to work with him.

TCKs are people who spent some or all of their childhood outside their passport country, usually because of a parent’s job or education. David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken’s book on TCKs** notes the following benefits to this lifestyle:

An expanded worldview (because they have experienced, first hand, at their mother ’s knee, that not everyone in the world speaks, thinks, acts or feels alike)

An enriched, three-dimensional knowledge of other cultures (sometimes even making it hard for them to really know their own)

Adaptability (they learned when they were children how to be and act in very different circumstances – school rooms, neighborhoods, homes)

Good observational skills (because they have spent some time at the sidelines, watching as outsiders)

(There can be downsides to the lifestyle too – difficulty settling down, difficulty in figuring out one’s identity, for example.) TCK skills seem quite relevant to me for people in the business of making the world a more peaceful place!

Besides Obama, the following appointees (all natural-born US citizens) are TCKs:

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (grew up in India, Thailand and Zimbabwe, where his father worked for the Ford Foundation)

Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett (born in Iran and also lived in London, where her father was a pediatrician, then moved back to Chicago)

National Security Advisor General James Jones (grew up in Paris)

Likely Commerce Secretary Bill Richardson (spent childhood in Mexico; three out of four grandparents are Mexican)

And, while the following are not technically TCKs, I expect they learned some TCK lessons at an early age:

Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel’s father was born in Jerusalem

Attorney General Eric Holder’s father and maternal grandparents were born in Barbados

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Daschle’s grandparents were ethnic Germans from Russia

White House Counsel Greg Craig’s father was the first Director of Training in the Peace Corps

Another feature of TCKs is that they often feel more connected to each other, regardless of where they lived, than they do to others of their own country – that’s the “third culture” they share. It would be interesting to know if Obama knew about these appointees’ TCK backgrounds, or if, using his well-honed TCK skills, he just intuited this connection.

Obama continues to make appointments – if you notice any more TCKs, let me know; I’m keeping a list!

* An exception is The Daily Beast’s article this week, by my friend and colleague Ruth Van Reken -- www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2008-11-26/obamas-third-culture-team.

** Pollock, DC and Van Reken, RE, Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds. (Nicholas Brealy)

October:Insourcing Expat Support

Should people be taught about cultural differences before they depart (so they don’t make mistakes in their first few days) or will it be more meaningful to them if you wait till they’ve started to encounter difficulties?

When is the best time to talk about culture shock – before people leave home or after they arrive?

What is the best way to ensure that accompanying spouses get the information they need?

How do you handle the fact that some people like to read and plan ahead, and others only want information in response to a current question? Or the fact that some people learn best from books, some from the internet and some from other people?

How can you design a program that starts out great and stays great over time?

What if someone asked you to answer all these questions for them? To design an expatriate support program from scratch? To plan everything, from the ground up, so they could deliver the program in-house, save money and maintain quality at the same time?

I had this wonderful opportunity this summer, for a corporation who wanted to bring the expatriate support function back in house as a quality and cost control measure. I met for a day and a half with all the HR staff who interface with expats, and with a group of their engineers currently in the US on assignment. I asked a ton of questions and learned a lot about their operations in six countries, about the parts of their program that were going well, and the parts that needed bolstering.

Then I went home and proposed an internal structure, including a plan for how they will maintain it in the future. It includes:

a plan for hiring an in-house cultural trainer (with the skills I think are most important, and some tips on how to conduct an interview so the skills are revealed)

a training course for new expats (and a plan for webinar training for the trainers who will deliver that course)

written materials about how to move to each of the six countries where they do business; we wrote as much of these as an outsider can do, marking the rest for their in-house local staff to complete, with the result that they’ll have six parallel, consistent manuals without overloading their local staff in preparing them.

It was a great chance to put into place all the pieces of our work at The Interchange Institute.

June:Turquoise! Azure! Salmon!
I just got home from a week in central Mexico. At dinner one night, a friend asked what I had seen that day in my journey to Guanajuato. I think she expected a report about the magnificent theater, the many lovely churches, the huge mercado, the dozens of inviting plazas, and the under-the-city maze of tunnels dating from its silver mining days.

But what I saw – and what I reported – was “Turquoise! Azure! Salmon! Lime green! Mustard yellow! Terra cotta! Sky blue!”

All the senses could go crazy there – serenading guitarists, grilled chicken aromas wafting from doorways, bumpy cobblestones underfoot, cool mango ice cream. But for me, on this trip, in this place, the purely visual predominated, and it encoded a memory of warmth, affection, and intensity that I won’t soon forget. The color was on the buildings, in the sky, on the people’s backs, in the shops and in the food, in one huge fabulous bouquet.

This use of color to encode novel experience reminded me of a technique I recently used with a group of newcomers to the US – I asked them to describe their moves here in terms of color. Some responded concretely –
“Green; I love spring in the US.”
“Blue; because the sky is blue when I drive in the highway.”

But most responded metaphorically –
“Red, but not a “sexy lipstick” red. An intense red, not a calm red. It’s not a sensual red but an alert red.”
“It was gray when I came here at first, because I didn’t know anything about America, and I was not sure of anything. Now it is yellow. I like yellow. Nowadays I am very happy adapting in American culture.”
“White: I’ve lived in this country for some time, but I don’t think I’ve fully experienced everything of this country; I have the possibility to be any color.”

We live in such a verbal, word-filled world, one that is difficult to navigate out of our home language and culture. Capturing a sense of place through the visual image cuts through those words to a different kind of experience. It certainly intensified and distilled my brief visit to Guanajuato. And, importantly, in my work with international newcomers, it has given me a way to access a range and depth of feelings that their limited English vocabulary – and their relative lack of familiarity with me - might have camouflaged.

We will be exploring this and other innovative ways to capture and enhance peoples’ experience crossing cultures in our training of trainers course, Crossing Cultures with Competence – details below. Would love to see you there!

Here are just a couple of photos from this trip. Anyone want to see the other 747 photos??

May:Voices from the Road

Some call them Extreme Travelers. Or Road Warriors. In my snazzy way I call them People On Unaccompanied Short-term International Assignments and Extended Business Travelers. Whatever – I just finished a new research study (Voices from the Road) about the personal and family side of their lives, and it’s pretty interesting.

After years of studying the challenges (and opportunities) expatriate families face when they move along on i`nternational assignments, it was time to focus on what many hoped would be a solution to these challenges – having the families stay at home while the employee travels alone.

I heard from 1461 employees on these unaccompanied assignments, from 50 countries, assigned to one of 57 countries. (This is Phase I; this summer in Phase II, I’ll report on what the spouses of these employees have to say.) Participants completed an on-line survey about their work and family lives. Here are a few key findings:

There are tangible things employers can do that really make a difference in employees’ attitudes about their jobs, their willingness to take another similar assignment, and their ability to work effectively across cultures. Many of the things that made a difference are free or cheap – clear and consistent information about HR policy, more control over timing and frequency of trips home, personal contact between the employer and the family.

  • Other important factors cost a bit money but they weren’t asking for the sky -- they wanted reasonable living situations that allowed for a healthy lifestyle, family visit regulations, a fair per diem. Employees who felt better supported financially reported better work-related outcomes. And those who received cross-cultural training said they had significantly less trouble working and communicating effectively across cultures.
  • These same factors made a difference to the employees’ personal and family well-being as well. Those who felt better supported by their employers had better mental health, fewer alcohol/drug abuse problems, fewer marital difficulties, and (by their report) spouses who were more positive about the assignment.
  • Maybe the most consistent take-away from this study is the stunning way in which employees’ personal and work lives are inter-related. When one is positive, so is the other, and vice versa. Provision of support to families can help productivity, and work-related support improves employees’ personal well-being. What to do seems clear.

There’s more, much more, in our 45-page report, sponsored by Full Circle International Relocations. Report now available from our webstore.

April:An Open Floor Plan and a Wireless LAN

An open floor plan. A wireless LAN that only works in the kitchen. A nearby enclosed park. A dining table that will only fit right next to the front door.

These are some of the home design changes I've heard about in our newest research study, At Home Abroad: How Design and Architecture Influence Overseas Living. Kate Goggin and I are trying to document the importance of home environments to overseas living, and examine the relationship between housing choices and expatriate adjustment. I'm especially interested in how some of the home, furniture and appliance changes that expatriates inevitably face influence the interactions they have with their families. Like this:

The open floor plan? One participant noted that it forces her husband and her to whisper all evening so their children can sleep - could be nice, could get old, if you ask me. Another participant dearly missed the open floor plan of her previous home, because she used to be able to keep her eye on her kids; now they're each in their own closed rooms.
The kitchen-only wireless LAN? That participant was in a country with no English programming on TV so she was spending a lot more time in the kitchen - better cooking? weight gain?
The nearby enclosed park allowed one participant's children to play safely outside without her for the first time in their lives, but introduced some awkward interactions with her neighbors.
And the dining table had some amazing ripple effects. This participant remembered happy family meals around a large kitchen table in their previous home; in the new home, the only place the table would fit made it magnet for junk, and so now the family eats, silently, in front of the TV instead.

Of course many of these could happen in domestic moves too, but expatriates are likely to face a larger number of potential changes because of different cultural and architectural styles that reflect countries' different social histories. They may also have restricted choice in where to live, by virtue of housing policies, finances, and available information.

We're eager to document if and how one's home is related to one's adjustment when living in a new country. If you are currently living outside your passport country, we'd love you to participate in this survey; or please pass this email on to someone who is. It takes about 20 minutes and, we hope, will be thought provoking to you - and of course helpful to us. We welcome digital photos that illustrate your input, if you have them. To show our appreciation, we will award one $100 amazon gift certificate to one participant for every 50 people who complete the survey. Just click here to get started - and thanks.

February: Quiz Time

OK, it's exam time. How many of these questions could you get right? You'll find all the answers in the hot-off-the press Third Edition of our book, Understanding American Schools, co-authored with Georgia Bennett. Every statistic and fact, phone number and figure has been updated, and there's an expanded section on High School issues, which is what I'll feature in today's quiz.

Which of these statements is true:
A. There is a national requirement that high school students must pass four years of English and math, and three years of science and social studies.
B. There are no national requirements for high school students; each state makes its own rules.

One “credit” in a U.S. high school:
A. is given to a year-long course that meets 40 minutes
B. refers to the number of days per week the course meets; a five-credit course meets five days per week
C. either a or b could be true; each system makes its own definitions of what a “credit” means

About _____ the states in the U.S. require high school students to pass a state-wide exam in order to graduate.
A. 25%
B. 50%
C. 75%

The G.E.D. (General Education Development) high school equivalency certificate requires proficiency in:
A. essay writing
B. interpreting literature
C. the arts
D. all of the above

Which of these Advanced Placement courses is not one of the three most common offered in the U.S.?
A. English Literature
B. Biology
C. U.S. History
D. Calculus

A “dual credit” course:
A. earns both Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate credit
B. earns both high school and college credit

Which are the three most common high school sports?
A. basketball, ultimate frisbee and swimming
B. swimming, American football, and soccer
C. American football, basketball and swimming

Send me your answers; if you get them all right, we’ll send you a free copy of the book when you order ten others – do the math on that one and you’ll be delighted!


January: Learning from Other Points of View

If you could, wouldn’t you want to:

  • look at the issues you deal with every day from a completely new perspective?
  • meet hundreds of people who are simultaneously just like you and very different from you?
  • spend the better part of three days thinking about issues that are right smack in the center of your professional (and maybe personal) life, with people who will broaden your perspective and offer encouraging suggestions?
  • drink from a well of heart-felt ideas that inspire your career?
Well, you can do all that, at the 2008 Families in Global Transition conference, just a few weeks away (March 6-8, 2008, in Houston). This unique conference brings together professionals from a wide range of sectors that move families from one country to another – probably your sector and maybe sectors you rarely interact with – corporate, foreign service, military, education, missions, and humanitarian NGOs. The approach to family support, the reason for the moves, the individual experiences differ widely. But at the center of the conference, at its heart, we commonly ask what, “What’s it like for the accompanying spouse and children?” “What can families and organizations do to maximize the success of the assignment?” “What are the long-term benefits and challenges these families face?”

I’ve been going to FIGT since 2001, never skipping a one. In many ways I’m very different from most people who go, but in core ways, in values and goals for my life’s work, I’m totally at home. This year, I’m the Program Director and I can vouch for the lively, exciting program we've got planned -- keynote speakers, concurrent sessions, and brief and extended discussions.
Early Bird (discounted) registration ends January 31. I hope you’ll register right now and let me know you’re coming – I’d love to say hello.

P.S. FIGT’s 2008 program is again recognized by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) / Human Resource Certification Institute (HRCI) as an excellent resource and opportunity to earn from 6.5 to 12.5 credits for your PHR, SPHR, GPHR professional certification.


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