December: Fugitive Facts, Found!

September: International Study on Math Achievement and Teaching Methods

July: Long Term Solutions for Short Term Assignments

April: Making Numbers Come Alive

February: Square Pillowcases, the Television Tax, the Dutch Golden Age, and Other Dumb Mistakes

January: Presidential Inauguration

December: Fugitive Facts, Found!

In the last few days I’ve sent people to our website for a few fugitive facts, and I thought these might be useful to you too:

- One person asked if I had any research that shows the value of cross-cultural training. Our Many Expatriates Many Voices study* does just that. (This report is available for free on our website - see the chapter starting on page 43.) Participants were expatriates from one of 26 countries and were currently living in the US. Those who had received cross-cultural training viewed Americans more positively (as more patient, more friendly, more respectful, more polite, and less verbally aggressive) – presumably because they learned to frame Americans’ behavior in different and more understanding ways. Those who received cross-cultural training also described themselves, their children, and their spouses as having a more positive expatriate experience – they had better mental health, said their spouses enjoyed their co-workers more, and said their children were more positive about their lives in the US as well.

- One trainee told me that, even though she knew her audience would be interested in and persuaded by various kinds of statistics and demographic information, she found it hard to include data in her training workshops because it always seemed so…well…boring. Ah, no! I list three sites (go to “Around the World in Numbers”) that make statistics interactive, visual, compelling and so not-boring. At the Pew site, scroll down and take some of the quizzes on the right. Worldmapper has just posted new data about carbon emissions – it’s a good way to see how these maps work, then look at the 700 other maps, many of which cover intercultural differences. At gapminder.org, I suggest you start by watching one of the videos in which co-founder Hans Rosling uses data to talk about a current issue of the day that interests you (click on “Videos”), and then the 2.5 minute video tutorial so you can use the [very extensive] data yourself.

- Another interculturalist referred colleagues to my discussion of how languages select different emotions to wrap up into single words (scroll down to “Apologies”). The essay by Noriko Watanabe on this page is as clear an example of how culture and language are intertwined as I know.

- A newcomer to our field asked me what she should do to prepare for an intercultural career. I get asked this a lot, probably because of my work in training cross-cultural trainers. I’ve posted some suggestions about how to get face-to-face experience talking and working across cultures, where to get some formal training, and about several conferences I recommend. I also have listed a few books to get people started – if you have suggestions for other books that grabbed you at the beginning of your intercultural journey, would you send them to me?

I hope this is useful to you – please feel free to forward these links on to colleagues and friends who might find them helpful too.

September: International Study on Math Achievement and Teaching Methods

School bells are ringing and I’m reflecting on what and how we teach in the US. With some trepidation, I just reviewed the latest findings from the TIMSS study (an international study of math achievement and teaching methods in fourth and eighth grades). It’s always a bit depressing to see the US’s standing among the 36 countries in the study. But this year there was some good news – overall the US was #11 at fourth grade and #9 at eighth grade – that’s better than in the past. Two states (Massachusetts and Minnesota) were competitive with the very top-scoring nations. And in half the nations, there were virtually no gender differences in math achievement; where differences did exist, girls outscoring boys was about as common as boys outscoring girls.

Still, there’s some striking data that grabs one’s attention. Some sites scored consistently higher than all the others on virtually every math indicator – Hong Kong, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, and Japan. (South Korea, Kazakhstan and Russia were also there in the stratosphere on many indicators.) And they didn’t just eek by the US, they walloped us. For example, 11% of US Americans scored at their highest benchmark score; 41% of the students in Singapore and 40% of those in Hong Kong did.

So what are they doing in the classrooms over there? The TIMSS study reports on that, too. Couldn’t we learn some lessons and apply them here. Here’s where it gets interesting – take the following quiz and let me know how you did.

What kind of training do 4th-grade teachers in the countries with high math achievement have?
a) Education degrees with no special mathematics emphasis
b) Education degrees with special mathematics emphasis
c) Graduate degrees in mathematics

In which of these countries do the 4th grade teachers feel most prepared to teach the mathematics skills they are expected to teach?
a) Singapore
b) Hong Kong
c) Chinese Taipei
d) Japan
e) South Korea
f) USA

The US average fourth-grade class size in this study was 23. What was the average class size in the countries with high math achievement?
a) 12-15
b) 20-24
c) 30-40

True or False: The high-math-achieving countries’ 8th grade teachers emphasize memorizing formulas much more than the US American teachers.

True or False: Eighth graders’ math achievement is highest in countries where students spend more time listening to teachers’ lectures.

Did you answer like this: 1c, 2a, 3a, 4 True, 5 True? If so, you’ll need to stay after school and write “I will not make unwarranted assumptions about education” 100 times. Check below for the answers!

The cultural values underlying these differences are the kinds of things we talk about in our Crossing Cultures with Competence training of trainers course (see details below – next workshop is in Chicago on October 15-16). And in our book Understanding American Schools: Answers to Newcomers’ Most Frequently Asked Questions (on sale through September 30 - see more information below).

Here are the answers to the quiz:
1b – In Hong Kong and Singapore, 51% of the teachers had a degree in education with a specialization in mathematics; in Chinese Taipei: 27%, Japan: 19%. In the US only 8% had this background; 70% of American teachers had education degrees with no special training in mathematics. Graduate degrees in math were rare except in Armenia (90%), Kuwait (62%) and Qatar (53%) – and Kuwait and Qatar were among the lowest-scoring countries on overall math achievement. Knowing math and knowing how to teach math are clearly different things; it’s good to know both!

2f – Yes, despite US students under-scoring all of these other countries, 90% of its teachers felt “very well prepared” to teach math – the second highest in confidence in the world (after Denmark). Compare Hong Kong: 57%, Singapore: 85%, Chinese Taipei 61%, Japan 35%. Modesty as a cultural value? A difference in knowing what you don’t know?

3c – Specifically: Hong Kong: 35; Singapore: 38; Chinese Taipei: 31; Japan: 31. Striking, since the better US schools brag about smaller class size – so important for their individually-tailored curriculum. Imagine the difference in teaching method required by a 50% larger class.

4 False – In the US, 37% of 8th grade teachers say they emphasize memorization. Hong Kong: 24%; Singapore: 27%; Chinese Taipei: 12%. The exception is Japan: 56%.

5 False – That’s right US American students said they spent 21% of the time listening to lectures in math class. Compare with Hong Kong 11%, Singapore 12%, Chinese Taipei 13%, Japan 7%. So much for the stereotype of Americans emphasizing application and reasoning, while the Asian teachers emphasize rote learning and lecture.

July: Long Term Solutions for Short Term Assignments

Short-term assignments were supposed to be the solution to expatriate families’ problems. Uprooted careers, disrupted educations, distant relatives, upended networks. Couldn’t these be avoided if only the employees moved and the families stayed at home? It seemed appealing to the sponsoring organizations too – certainly moving families was expensive and time-consuming for them, so how about letting the families stay at home while sending the employees overseas for shorter periods of time? And so was born the Unaccompanied Short-term Overseas Assignment. Between a quarter and a third of companies are now planning policies for extended business travel, commuter assignments, or short-term assignments. So do these in fact solve the family problems?

Of course not, at least not for everyone. We have just released the second of our pair of research studies on the personal and family ramifications of these assignments for married and single employees – Voices from the Road (from the employees’ perspective) and Voices from Home (from the spouses’) (both sponsored by Dwellworks). Here are a few of the findings:


Only 35% of the spouses felt their family was being adequately compensated and only 39% said the employer had done all it could to protect them financially. They noted new financial costs as a result of the assignment (communication, household help, transportation, child care).

But those who did feel well taken care of were happier about the assignment themselves and said their children were happier. They reported that their spouses enjoyed their work and co-workers more; worked more efficiently; had fewer cultural complaints; and were more loyal to the employer. Both the employees and at-home spouses said they were more willing to take another similar assignment when they felt adequately compensated.

They were not asking for the [financial] sky – they wanted the assignments not to cost them money. They wanted visits home to be easy. They wanted not to have to stay over on a Saturday to save the company a few hundred dollars on travel expenses. They wanted to be whole in terms of taxes. Employers are urged to give serious weight to these requests.


Both spouses and employees with more input into some aspects of the assignment (especially whether families could travel to the assignment site, length of assignment, and timing of trips home) were more positive about their jobs, employers, and the assignment in general. Spouses complained about amount of travel less and were less likely to be contemplating divorce when they had more input.

Both employees and spouses who felt coerced into accepting these assignments had worse outcome. If the spouses had input into the decision to take this assignment, they voiced fewer complaints about the amount of travel their spouses did, they gave higher ratings of their marriage, they were less depressed, and they reported fewer behavior problems by their children.

Employees are urged to ask for as much input and flexibility, especially about trips home and family visits, and about assignment length, as possible. Employers are urged to allow spouses to travel to the assignment site at least once (and early on), if at all feasible.


Few respondents were offered cross-cultural training, but the employees who did have it reported less trouble with working with host nationals, better communication, an easier time with relationships and friends on site, and an improved sense that their home office understood their cultural challenges. Cross cultural training, even (or especially) for these short assignments, allows employees to hit the ground running.

Families invited company involvement and check in. Indeed, many resented the lack of communication from the employer. Employers may feel family concerns are beyond their reach, but our research suggests that families want to know the employer understands and appreciates their sacrifice.


If spouses found more advantages to the assignment (e.g., free travel, quality time, finding new skills, easier parenting) then both the spouse and the employee were much happier.


These assignments inevitably change how a family works, but some make more changes than others. We found that it was better for the couple to feel that there had been no change in their marriage, for “his” jobs to remain “his.” But in some cases it seemed better for the children if the at-home spouse took over some of the child-rearing decision making as her own.

Employees who found a way to do some of the housework while away (bill paying on line, elder care, leisure planning) and who made up for their absence by doing more when home had spouses who were less depressed and who rated job as better, the assignment as the best solution, and their marriage as more positive.

Clearly, these assignments work for some couples and singles, and not for others. Kudos to the organizations that can identify the factors that improve the likelihood that the assignments work all around.

April: Making Numbers Come Alive
When you see a bar graph in a news story, do you (a) turn the page as quickly as you possibly can, (b) read the text next to the graph to find out what it really means, or (c) say “Cool!” and wonder why the graph isn’t broken down into even more subgroups?

I’m unashamedly in group (c) but most people I train are not. Even so, I believe that everyone wants to know that what they’re being told is based on solid information. So when I get a specific training request – like the one last week from a woman in charge of US sales and marketing for a European jewelry company who requested information on international and domestic cultural differences – I head first to the data.

Perhaps you’d be interested in some of my usual sources:

General Social Survey: Every two years this group interviews thousands of Americans about attitudes (e.g. about abortion, gun control) and behavior (e.g. attendance at religious services, voting); you can compare responses by gender, where people live, income, etc. It’s a little tricky to use but I can send you instructions if you like. Did you know that only about a third of the people in South Central US say they have a “main romantic involvement” while almost 43% of those in the Middle Atlantic states do? But get this – over half the respondents in New England who do have such an involvement said they were “very likely” to marry this person, compared to one quarter of those in the Mountain states. Now where would you target diamond rings?

Gallup World Poll: Access a lot of interesting international Gallup polls for free here. I’ll be showing my client how to use this site, so she can study country comparisons of home internet access, perceived changes in standard of living, or my personal favorite – answers to the question “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?” – (a sampling: Namibia 89%, US 81%, Germany 72%, Iraq 46%). All of these are displayed on a world map in a visually easy-to-access way. Or look at their analysis of state differences in “well-being” (hint: on an index of life evaluation, healthy behaviors, work environment, physical health, emotional health, and access to basic necessities, Utah, Hawaii and Wyoming are the big winners – who knew?)

World Values Survey: You can download responses from over a quarter million people (!) all around the world, over almost 30 years, or if that is overwhelming, they have a pretty intuitive on-line option for non-statisticians. Pick a handful of countries whose responses you want to compare, select the questions that interest you, and presto, there are the comparisons. Did you know that 11% Americans said it is important for people to always behave properly, compared to 25% of Britons? Is marriage an outdated institution? 13% in the US say yes, compared with 6% in Japan and 22% in Sweden.

The Pew Research Center: · The center’s president calls this a “fact tank” (where facts are collected and shared, as opposed to a “think tank” where policy is recommended). There are eight divisions of the Center – I find myself most often turning to the one focused on current events and the one focused on global attitudes. Last week’s study on what Americans perceive as a luxury vs. a necessity will be of interest to my jewelry marketer (hint: just about everything is being re-evaluated as a luxury not a necessity, regardless of people’s individual financial security).

It’s not the job of a cross-cultural trainer to prepare marketing data for clients, of course. In this case, I used the findings to quickly and colorfully focus our attention on how regional and national cultural differences affect our lives. The creativity comes in the crucial step of understanding the meaning of the numbers in the context of known cultural values, history and geography – why are Americans, Japanese or Britons as concerned as they are with proper behavior? Is the smiling indicator a proxy for the core value of optimism? What values underlie a proclivity to marry vs. not? That’s what deep and rich cross-cultural training is about.

February: Square Pillowcases, the Television Tax, the Dutch Golden Age, and Other Dumb Mistakes

Here are some dumb mistakes I’ve made as a cross cultural trainer:

--In one of my earliest cross cultural workshops, I asked the couple (newly relocated to the US from Belgium) to begin the session by asking me any questions they hoped I would cover in the workshop. They had only one [perfectly reasonable] question: “Where do you buy square pillowcases in Boston?” I was in the awkward position of not having a specific answer for their sole question, plus having to convince them that what I had planned for cross cultural training (e.g., an in-depth look at US values and attitudes that affect work and interpersonal relationships) would be useful. I went home that night and wrote a pre-training questionnaire, including an outline of our agenda, which I now send to every trainee (and spouse) ahead of time. It’s a description of what I will cover, plus an invitation to hear their questions. Now, if someone asks about square pillowcases, I can come prepared with the answer and a list of other resources they can use to help them settle in. But mostly the agenda orients them to the workshop and their questions are more in the domain of cultural conflicts, confusions and information. (By now the questionnaire has evolved to both an on-line and an interactive Word format.)

--When preparing an employee to move to another country, I always have a host country expert join me for part of the day. Early on in my life as a trainer, I invited a British young man to join me in working with an American couple moving to London. He started off all right, but then began describing how to avoid paying the full television tax! I thought I had been clear about expectations but…I forgot to tell him not to give any illegal advice. I now have a ready-to-go memo for host country experts, including expectations for content and…behavior.

--Another time, early on, I was preparing an American employee moving to The Netherlands. I delivered my usual overview of the host country history and political system, which he listened to politely. Along around the time I was talking about the Dutch Golden Age, he mentioned he’d been a European History major at Harvard. If I’d known that, I would have made that part of the training shorter or deeper, one or the other! The pre-training questionnaire I mentioned above now has questions about the trainee’s knowledge of the host country, and I plan accordingly.

I share these (and other) mistakes with the interculturalists who attend my Crossing Cultures with Competence workshop, who seem to appreciate an honest history of learning. It’s a little embarrassing but hey, if someone can benefit from standing on my pile of dirty laundry, I’m happy. Better for them to know why as well as what to do!

Do you have any “golden mistakes” that led you to be a better supporter of those in intercultural transition? Send them my way and I’ll post them on our website with your name or anonymously, as you like!


January Presidential Inauguration

Dear Friend,

I was just writing an article about the presidential inauguration for our newsletter for newcomers to the US (Newcomer's Almanac) and was surprised at, well, how much interesting background stuff I didn’t know.So, how much do you know? Get as many as you can, then click here for the answers. No peeking till you've tried for yourself!

1)The Constitution originally set a new President’s inauguration to be held on March 4.
a) Why was the date originally March 4?
b) Why and when was it changed?
c) This year, it will be on Tuesday, January 20 – what is the current rule for setting the inauguration date?

2) The Constitution requires the new President to say: I [name] do solemnly swear [or affirm] that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States …etc.
a) What is the difference between swearing and affirming?
b) Which wording have most Presidents chosen?
c) Does the Constitution require the words “so help me God” at the end of the oath?

3) The ______ [name of role] has usually administered the Presidential oath. Only once was the oath administered by a woman – when and why was that? 

4) Usually a Bible has been part of the ceremony.
            a) True or False – The Constitution specifies that a Bible will be used during the presidential oath.
            b) Will the Bible be open or closed?
            c) Obama will be using the “Lincoln Bible” – how many other Presidents have used this one? Was this Lincoln’s family Bible?
5) The music at an inauguration is highly proscribed by military tradition.
a) After the oath, you will hear a military band play some “ruffles and flourishes.” What are ruffles and what are flourishes? How many will be played for the President?
b) What song will the band play after the presidential oath? Does this song have words?
c) What song does a military band play for the Vice President? For a past President? For a President-elect?

6) What kind of “guns” are fired in a 21-gun salute? Why 21 guns?

7) Barack Obama has invited a poet to read a poem at his inauguration. Whom did he invite? Only ___ [how many?] Presidents have included poets in the past —who were they (the Presidents and the poets)?

8) Obama will give an inaugural address. In history, these have ranged in length from:
            a) 20 minutes to 40 minutes
            b) 10 minutes to 60 minutes
            c) 5 minutes to 90 minutes
            d) 90 seconds to 2 hours

9) After the inauguration there will be a luncheon inside the Capitol. This will be one of the very few times when the President, Vice President, and all of Congress ______.

That’s it – how did you do? If you got all nine questions right, send me your resume!


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