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The blog-like periodic musings of Anne Copeland, Director of The Interchange Institute. Most of these comments are related to intercultural issues, but don't be surprised to see comments on technology, travel, food and other subjects of interest.

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December: Graph Candy - Sushi, Beethoven, and Cross-Cultural Training

Just a quick enote here before the year ends, mostly pictures, to give you something fun to think about over the next few weeks! Google has entered into a database the text of thousands of books published in English every year since 1500 (and in other languages, too) and put this online for people like you and me to play with. Enter a word or phrase, and it will graph its usage over time. Use it to track trends over time in social issues, economic concerns, historic references, etc. Here are a few (from books published in English in the US) to get you started:

First some excellent news about the phrase "cross cultural training:"

(Hooray!! Join the rush! Meet me in New York City on January 10-11, 2011, for my next Crossing Cultures with Competence training of trainers workshop (details below)!

Feeling holiday-ish? Take a look at food fads…:

(Remember the fondue period in the mid-80s?? It's back – who knew?)

…music discussions…

(What happened to Beethoven??)

…or the so-called culture wars:

(Were people talking about the decline of Christmas parties from 1950 to 1970?)

Feeling Scrooge-ish? Play Grammar Police…:

Or eager to keep working in the intercultural field? Here are some of the classic terms used by interculturalists:

…and some more good news:

Hm, are people writing more about cultural sensitivity because of increased awareness or increased need?

The utility of these graphs, of course, is in their interpretation – send me your thoughts or the graphs you've made (instructions below) – I'd love to hear from you!

To make your own graphs, go to ngrams.googlelabs.com and enter up to five words or phrases, separated by a comma. No hyphens. Capitalization matters. Pick your time frame (back to 1500, although the data base is smaller back then; better to pick a start date when some action begins) and your language. Presto! You've got something new and fun to think about!


December: Getting Beyond Sort of Kind of..

Could you answer these questions I’ve been asked by international newcomers?

1. I am trying to compare school systems for my high school-age son. On line, I see comparisons of SAT scores, college entrance rates, and per student expenditure rates. I guess I should just pick the system with the highest numbers, right?

2. What immunizations will my child need in order to register in school?

3. When I visited a school we are considering, the fourth grade teacher described the month-long unit they were doing on “wolves.” Why do Americans put so much emphasis on wolves?

When I first began in this field, I sort of kind of knew what to say and did the best I could. But my answers were full of annoying caveats – “I think it’s because…,” “Well, in my town, it’s like this but I think maybe it’s different in the next town over,” and “When I was a kid, it was this way but I don’t know, I think it’s changed.”

That’s really not good enough. If you’re like me, you’re paid to be an authority on issues of concern to those moving from one country to another. You need clarity, precision and professionalism. Now I can answer:

1. Well, be careful about comparing school system statistics. Some school districts encourage all high school seniors to take the SATs (including those who will not go to college) while in others, only the college-bound students take them; it’s not fair to compare them. College entrance rates are often as much an indicator of a community’s social class as of its educational quality; your child might get an excellent education in the college-bound track of either school. And while it is reassuring to be in a school system that is financially well supported, in fact, research has not shown a very strong relationship between per-student expenditure and academic achievement.

2. Immunization requirements are set by each state and/or school district. It’s important to get precise answers for each child’s situation, so check with the school district office. But for starters, here is a site that gives each state’s general requirements: www.immunizationinfo.org.

3. A unit on wolves, rather than, say “mammals,” is designed to give students a sense of how to study a topic in depth, integrating complex ideas like habitat, migration and the interconnected web of life. Another teacher, or another school system in the US, might address these ideas in a very different way. “Wolves” are not especially pertinent to all Americans; rather, this unit illustrates the way in which individuality, creativity and integration are valued in both teachers and students.

Our book, Understanding American Schools: The Answers to Newcomers Most Frequently Asked Questions, gives this kind of information and much more. While we originally wrote it for international newcomers to the US, we’ve learned that many organizations also buy a copy for their [American] staff, so that they, too, can answer their clients’ questions with clarity, precision and professionalism.

So that’s an easy resource for you, for questions about US education. A special sales price of 30-40% off our regular price is available through December 2010..

More generally, I hope you’ll consider coming to our training-of-trainers workshop, Crossing Cultures with Competence, where I’ll help you develop authoritative, research-based, historically-grounded answers to general questions about moving from any one country to any other – why countries have the values they have, how to work with people with very different communication styles, and why it can be so challenging to cross culture. Upcoming locations: New York, Boston and Europe.

No more " sort of kind of.." around here!

PS See the Table of Contents for Understanding American Schools for a complete list of the FAQs covered. And see our Testimonials section for the response to our Crossing Cultures with Competence course.

September: Tiny Things, Huge Cumulative Impact

Consider this:

- The 10-pt Century Gothic font on your computer uses 30% less toner ink than an 11-pt Arial font. (The lines are thinner.) How much financial difference could that possibly make? Just ask the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Computer Print Center. They were spending $100,000/year on toner (for the papers of its 6500 students). Does 30% of $100,000 get your attention?

- Email is green, right? Well, sort of. All that data in your email is stored somewhere – in server sites all over the world (which, if put together in one place, would be 20% the size of Manhattan). Worldwide, the amount of data being stored is almost 1 zettabyte. (I had to look it up – it’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes.) One of the biggest consumer offenders, apparently, is emailed photographs – four photos of your summer vacation, left undeleted in your friend’s Inbox, uses 5MB (5,242,880 bytes) of storage. It takes real space and real energy to store this stuff.

- What about those ATM receipts? Do you really need one every time you go? If everyone in the US said “no” for a year, it would save 2 billion linear feet of paper, enough to wrap around the earth 15 times.

I’ve been mulling over these examples of “Tiny Things, Huge Cumulative Impact” as I write and speak about what makes it so hard to move to a new country. One of the challenges that makes international moves so difficult is the loss of knowing how to do the myriad simple, practical acts of daily living. I call it “Death by a Thousand Cuts.” What’s the difference between “Bake” and “Broil” in your oven? What is a “bounced check?” What is a “bridal shower?” Why is your boss asking you to “hit a homerun?” What is a “co-pay?” What is an “open house?” If everything seems fine, should you bother to go to your 8-year-old’s parent-teacher conference? Why are you being asked to buy gift wrap at your child’s school? What are the SATs? Etc. Etc.

One expat said to me, “You know, I used to be a competent adult.” After living in the US for two weeks, this senior executive for a multinational company felt like an uninformed, incompetent child. Sure, he eventually learned how to work his oven, write a check, not sprinkle the bride with water, and do well at work. But the cumulative impact of all of these tiny frustrations was (a) enormous fatigue and (b) an undermined sense of mastery, both with far-reaching consequences.

The thing is, it’s so simple to help. Expats in the US just need information in a usable format. That’s what we offer in our books and publications.

July: It's Not All 'Location, Location, Location' After All

Below are some questions you should ask before choosing a new home. They’re not the usual suspects but their importance is documented in our latest research study, At Home Abroad: A Study of Expatriate Housing and Its Ties to Assignment Success.

1. How many TVs will you set up in this home and how far away will they be from the kitchen? How far away will the kids’ toy box (or computer) be from the parents’ favorite sitting place and is there a close-able door in between? How many chairs will you be putting in the most comfortable spot in the home? These questions capture the “centripetal vs. centrifugal” dimension of a home – whether its room size and layout promote interpersonal togetherness (centripetal) or separateness (centrifugal). Participants in our study (130 expatriates from 24 countries living in one of 48 countries around the world) weren’t aware of this dimension (we coded it from their open-ended remarks about their homes). But those living in centripetal homes were happier on the assignment. Interestingly, they didn’t always see centripetal features as good or centrifugal ones as bad – one woman wrote, “My daughters used to share their bed rooms previously; now with their own rooms they seem to be happier” (a centrifugal description that is positive). Still, living in a centripetal home was the best predictor of whether they’d choose their same home again – better than whether they liked the space, whether they had more vs. less space than their previous home, whether the space was open vs. closed, or whether the home was good for entertaining. Of course, we can’t be sure about cause and effect here -- it could be that people who enjoyed being with their families and were prone to liking their expatriate lives chose centripetal homes, rather than that centripetal homes caused higher ratings of satisfaction. Nevertheless, it’s a question to bring to the surface when making a home selection.

2.Next, think about your favorite home in your whole life. Was it the one you live in…right now? If so, you’re going to be particularly sensitive to the features of your next home. If you’re like our participants, satisfaction with it will likely be tied to your mental health, your rating of the assignment, and your sense of feeling settled. Note – this doesn’t mean that you’ll be any less (or more) happy on the assignment than those whose favorite home was from earlier in their lives – you might like it, you might not. It just means that your new home is likely to be a more important determining factor in whether you’re happy than it is for other people, so choose carefully.

3. How’s your new home’s location, location and location? Be careful how you answer this one. “Quality of neighborhood” was, indeed, one of the most important factors in satisfaction with a home. But its proximity to shopping, work, schools and transportation were, surprisingly, not related to outcome whatsoever.

4. All these home considerations matter, because those who felt more settled in their homes had better mental health, were happier about the move, felt more loyal to their employer, would move again under similar circumstances, and felt more positive about the move. That’s huge.

Our report details the ways in which relocation assistance, settling in support, and housing policies are related to expatriate adjustment. Check our Executive Summary for starters. If your company would be interested in printing customized versions of our full report (with your own cover and a note from you inside), please contact us now – we think we’ve documented the importance of home finding and settling-in in an unprecedented way, and that it’s news you might want to share with your prospective clients!

May: What I Learned from a Guatemalan Hospital

Last month, while on a service trip to Guatemala, I got hit with a bout of dizziness. I now believe it had nothing to do with being in Guatemala (I have a history of intermittent vertigo) but while we were trying to figure out what was going on, I spent 24 hours in a hospital there. Nothing like a hospital stint to intensify your cultural experience. Here's what I learned:

1) If you pour warm milk on Frosted Flakes, you end up with little floating bits of cardboard. Hot mushy plantains are Comfort Food Devine. Not everything that looks like a potato is a potato. Guatemalans export their good coffee.

2) Sick people get better faster if the nurses don't come in every 20 minutes to check their vital signs, if they let them sleep all night, and if they provide a bougainvillea bush outside their window. American hospitals,
take note.

3) Spoken language is a good invention. One can, with a little imagination, communicate the concepts of "dizzy," "nausea," and "the IV doesn't seem to be dripping" through pantomime, but all told, words are efficient. (I only got through Lesson 17 of my Pimsleur Spanish tapes before the trip.) While there was a translator available for brief moments, my understanding of what was going on was largely intuitive. And the doctor surely was "practicing veterinary medicine" (as Anne Fadiman put it in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down). I've traveled frequently in countries where I haven't spoken the language, but my need was never as great as this time, and I was humbled. Hats off to all those we work with who move to new countries without their usual communication skills and who manage to build new lives and communities for themselves.

4) Yes, cultural differences exist. The nurse handed me a pill and, through a translator, I asked what it was. "It's what the doctor ordered for you." "Yes, but what is it?" "I'm not allowed to tell you. Only the doctor can tell you." [Wait for message from doctor.] "He said it's to make you feel better and bring more oxygen to your brain." As it happens, I'm in the middle of preparing a workshop about cultural differences in the practice of medicine, for American and foreign residents in Boston. You can be sure this anecdote will find its way into the course. The power distance and status relationship between doctor and patient; the amount and flow of information that is considered normal; the expectations of a low-context patient in a high-context culture; the issue of informed consent.

5) Sometimes you just have to let go. I had made reasoned and careful choices up to this point - I was with a reputable program in Guatemala, this was the hospital they had a relationship with, we had checked in with their medical director and he approved the plan. Letting go isn't easy for those with a deeply-embedded internal sense of control (as Americans tend to be and I surely am). Life happens. I took the pill and then I did feel better (though I can't verify any change in brain oxygen).

6) All this for a total bill of $335, which I promised to pay the next day when my program's office manager was back in the office, walked out into the sunshine, and came home.

I wouldn't choose the experience again, but it was invaluable to my understanding of culture and to my level of empathy with all those who cross cultures and thrive.

April: Bridge the Gap

In the last few weeks I’ve heard the following stories about people inching across a bridge that spans the gap between them:

- John Shook described how, in 1983, he trained the first group of 30 American auto workers to work for Toyota. By the end of a trip to Japan, the group had been transformed from being in opposition to management to being team members with them. This involved making a profound shift in workers’ perceptions of management and of the Japanese at the same time. (Hear the story on This American Life’s NUMMI podcast.)

- Barbara Smuts, a professor of animal behavior at the University of Michigan, described the two years she spent living among baboons in Kenya, and how one day, caught in a rain storm, she ducked into a tiny abandoned fisherman’s hut for protection only to realize, as her eyes adjusted to the dark, that fifteen wild baboons had had the same idea. One baboon moved over and made room for her, and she reflected on the smallness of the gap between them and her. (Hear the story, The Shy Baboon on a RadioLab podcast.)

- Sarah Vowell, a writer and public radio producer, described the enormous gulf she’d always felt between her (an avid gun control advocate) and her gun-smith father. She decided to try to close that space. He had just designed a new cannon that he was very excited about and she flew to Montana with her audio equipment to see him demonstrate it. A passerby commented on cool machinery they had with them and – here’s the point of the story -- she realized he meant her microphone (not her dad’s cannon); it hit her that she and her dad shared being “smart-alecky loners with goofy projects and weird equipment” and the gulf between them was bridged. (Hear the story on This American Life’s Guns podcast.)

These stories of crossing great gaps caught my ear because I’ve been worried about this chart (from the Pew Research Center) for some time now:

The chart shows how the values gap between two important groups in the US - Republicans and Democrats - has been growing steadily and, I suspect, has gotten even wider in the past few months. Last week’s Gallup poll shows Republicans blaming Democrats and Democrats blaming Republicans in roughly equal numbers, for the violence that followed the passage of the health care bill.

It is the work of interculturalists to listen intently to those with different worldviews, and point out (or build) a bridge between them. Where he sees lying, she sees loyalty. Where she sees arrogance, he sees forthrightness. Where one sees an uneven playing field, another sees a natural network. Where you see timidity, I see respect. Where she sees irresponsibility, he sees relationships being built. Where he sees articulate elegance, she sees insult and infantilization. There’s a bridge between each viewpoint, and it’s built out of knowledge about how culture shapes values. Our work is to make these bridges available to people and help them across.

Smuts found that bridge between baboons and humans. Vowell found an important point of connection between her and her father, and Shook between labor and management. Surely we can point the way to connection between those with profoundly different perceptions and heartfelt interpretations of life and truth.

NOTE: This is what we train trainers to do in our Crossing Cultures with Competence workshop. Hope you can join us in Boston (May 6-7) or New York (July 26-27; co-sponsored by USA Girl Scouts Overseas). And here’s a cool way to show you what past attendees have to say about our workshop (the bigger the word, the more times it was mentioned) – contact me to find out how to make one of these word graphs!


January: Gimme One Good Reason

My favorite professional conference – Families in Global Transition – is coming up and I’d like you to know why YOU might find it interesting. (Full disclosure – I’m the conference Program Director. That means I’ve had a close-up look at all the presentation plans and can speak with authority that this is going to be a great one!)

(By they way, keep your suitcase handy – I’m offering a Crossing Cultures with Competence workshop the next week – March 9-10 – in Washington, DC (co-sponsored by Dwellworks; details below) and the day after that, giving a talk at the Intercultural Management Institute – all this learning in so little time!)

So why would YOU want to come to FIGT (Houston, March 4-6, 2010)? I have an answer for you, if you’re:

- An entrepreneur developing a new business
- A global life or executive coach
- An educator/school/university counselor
- EAP/mental/medical health professional
- Are living or have ever lived as an accompanying spouse on expatriate assignment
- An HR or global mobility manager

If you’re an entrepreneur developing a new business based on your personal and professional experience, at FIGT you’ll be able to:

- explore how expat experience can enhance career opportunities
- network with others who have successfully built businesses

- network with and learn from potential clients

- network with potential employers or employees

- learn how to write a business plan, find tools and resources for building business

- present your product and service

- establish a professional network of peers and mentors in a sharing, non-competitive environment

- learn about the range of business opportunities in global relocation

If you are a global life or executive coach, at FIGT you will be able to:

- fill in expertise about relocating families’ transition challenges and workplace cultural challenges
- network with other coaches and potential organizations
- explore how coaching can dovetail with other support services
- explore best practices in coaching
- establish and learn from global coaching community

If you are an educator/school/university counselor, at FIGT you will be able to:

- explore possibility of careers in international schools
- explore possibility of careers after experience in international schools
- fill in expertise about relocating families’ transition challenges and workplace cultural challenges
- learn best practices for supporting TCKs and repatriating students
- explore how to support international and “cross-cultural kids” in the classroom
- explore the role of schools in supporting global families

If you are an EAP/mental/medical health professional, at FIGT you will be able to:

- fill in expertise about relocating families’ transition challenges and workplace cultural challenges
- network with other mental health professionals
- explore how EAPs and counseling can dovetail with other support services
- explore best practices in medical and mental health provision to global families
- establish and learn from global mental health community

If you are now or have ever lived as an expatriate accompanying spouse, at FIGT you’ll be able to:

- learn from other spouses and professionalsconnect with similar experience/find community
- discover, articulate or validate strength or skill
- develop new coping tools and resources
- learn how to help children and spouses
- find others with international experience
- explore how expat experience can enhance career opportunities, including portable careers

If you are a human resource or global mobility manager, at FIGT, you’ll be able to:

- learn about expatriate experiences directly from spouses, children and service providers
- learn best practices in supporting families from other sectors and corporations
- have access to range of services and products to help do their job
- developing an understanding of the soft issues in an international relocation
- learn about different challenges in different regions of the world and under different circumstances
- learn how cultural differences and transition challenges impact transferees’ productivity and assignment outcome
- learn how to balance the costs of supporting a family, make wise financial decisions

Hope you’ll decide to come!

























The essays quoted in this article can be found in their entirety at International Writers Club, and a collection of 60+ of the essays, with intercultural commentary, will be available in February.




©2014, The Interchange Institute