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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. Return to our home page.

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Stories for Life

November 2012

I'm taking a course in which we are all exploring the roots of our most deeply held values. If the leader had said, "Tell me about your most deeply held values," I would have stared dumbly at her, or mumbled a few esoteric terms I know from my work, or quietly slinked from the room.

Instead, she said, "Write down a story that happened before you were 12 years old, about a time when you were deeply moved." We all went home and over the course of the week, each wrote our 500-800-word stories and then read them aloud to each other. Mine found me in western Pennsylvania at the Girl Scouts' Camp Redwing, around the campfire. Here are a few snippets:

… John Jacob Jingle Heimer Schmidt…Homesickness lurks in the trees on the far side of the rock circle, held at bay by the silliness and camaraderie of campers and the nurturing counselors…Now the impending darkness draws us closer into the fire circle…Today While the Blossoms Still Cling to the Vine… Pensiveness pulls its cover up to our chins. We stoke up the fire and pull the draw strings on our sweatshirts… The air is dry and clean and fresh and a bit cold, enough to direct our attentive gratitude to the campfire. There's silence between each song now, each of us watching the campfire sparks pop and fly… Each campfire lights anew, The flame of friendship true...

A little schmaltzy, I know, but it helped me articulate the value I put on shared community and its ability to de-fang the metaphoric cold and the dark.

Story telling is an ancient way to convey values, share history, and explore meaning. Ask a person to tell a story about something important that happened to them, in the first person and in the present tense, and you set them aloft into an exploration of things they didn't know they knew. Ask them to read theirs aloud, and the group will be drawn in and connected in a profound and lasting way.

This is the basis of our newest training tool: Reflection Photos: Facilitating Intercultural Reflection with Visual Imagery. It's a collection of 100 photographs that I chose for their ability to get people to talk about their intercultural (or other) transitions. I used my own research on intercultural adjustment and a variety of transition models as the foundation for my collection. The cards have also been used to get groups talking about their successes and challenges, families sharing each others' journeys, and to discuss a range of transitions. Because some people think more metaphorically than others, there's a range from pretty transparent images (a brick wall, a roller coaster) to quite symbolic ones (a fragile spiders web in the rain, a lion behind a fence). Click the link above to see some sample photos and a few suggestions for how these cards can be used. Sit back and prepare to be intrigued by the way stories touch people's self-understanding.

In my course, the next week we had to write a story from adolescence and I was back in the woods, on my first white-water canoe trip. But that's another story…



Talking Politely about Religion and Politics

September 2012

Did your mother advise you never to talk about religion or politics in polite company? Mine, too, but – sorry, Mom - I can't help it. When have we ever needed to understand each other's values and beliefs more than now, and how do we come to that understanding if the issues are off the table?

I won't add to the many pixels that have been spent on the reaction to the offensive anti-Islam video that has captured the world's attention, except to note that this is a perfect clash of competing values - freedom of speech vs. Muslim proscription against depicting and insulting Muhammad – and competing beliefs – that government interference should be minimal vs. the belief that the US government must have sanctioned the film.


We must urgently continue to learn about people whose experience, history, religion, and values are drastically different from ours. That's the work of interculturalists – and what I train trainers to do in my workshop, Crossing Cultures with Competence.

And so I'm always drawn to ways I can learn about religion. The Pew Research Center has an amazing and absorbing collection of reports about beliefs that I find fascinating – you might, too. For example:

What do Muslims believe? That's a trick question, of course. There's near-universal agreement among Muslims on some beliefs (that there is one God and his prophet is Muhammad, for example). But in a Pew study of more than 38,000 Muslims in 80 countries based on face-to-face interviews, we see there is a big range within the Muslim world as well – in the importance of religion in their lives; in the importance of the differences between Sunni and Shia; in beliefs about whether there is only one true way to understand Islam or whether the Quran should be read literally; what Muslims believe about angels and fate; and in religious behavior like fasting during Ramadan or giving alms, for example.

Where do Christians live? Pew's study of 200 countries reports there to be 2.18 billion Christians around the world – or about on third of the global population. At its point of origin – the Middle East/North Africa – we now find the lowest proportion of Christians (4%) in the world. 61% Christians live in the "Global South" compared with 39% in the Global North. But – because the population of the Global South is 4.5 times greater than the North – the proportion of the population in the Global North is much higher (where 69% of the population is Christian, compared to 24% in the South).

There's plenty to learn about religion within in the US, too:

What is the religion of most Asian Americans? Another trick question. The most common religion of Indian Americans is Hinduism (51%). For Japanese and Korean Americans, it's Protestantism (33% and 61%, respectively); for Vietnamese Americans it's Buddhism (43%); for Filipino Americans it's Catholicism (65%); and for Chinese Americans, the biggest group is Unaffiliated (52%).

Who knows most about the religions of the world? Take the test yourself then view the results. (Anwer: Atheists. Go figure.)

Which state in the US is the "most religious?" Click on the tabs for a ranking of states in terms of belief in God, frequency of prayer, worship attendance and importance of religion. (Answer: Mississippi, on all four metrics. Least religious: New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts and Alaska vie for last place. Upper corners of the country…)

How do religion and politics intersect in the US? At this interactive site, you can compare different religious groups' views on Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, and compare political preferences among those who attend religious services weekly, monthly/yearly, or seldom/never.

These sites provide a data-based way to explore the range of beliefs among us, and jolt us into remembering how different we are. Then comes the much richer, more complex task of getting to understanding. As the bloggers say, "It's harder to hate up close." That's our continuing work…


Youtube? Not yet.

July 2012

Over the weekend I heard a Pew Research Center report that more Americans are now getting their news from youtube. TV news report clips, eyewitness accounts, 911 calls re-played – these are supplementing Americans' understanding of current events.

So I wondered whether youtube offers support for newcomer to the US. Mitu, a network on youtube, specializes in Latino health, beauty, food, family, home and pop culture, with clips in English and Spanish. With September just around the corner, I wondered what kinds of information a person would get about American schools if they relied on youtube as their source?

It's slim pickings, so far…

Here's one made for Japanese students moving to an American high school. www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ofzucjzpao&feature=related. (It starts in Japanese but flips to English quickly. Beware, the music selections in the background are – to my ear – inappropriate for kids of any age, although teens would probably roll their eyes to hear me say that.) Shows what a locker is, how a cafeteria works, where kids hang out, what girls wear, what sports and arts activities are like, etc.

Most of the clips that come up after a search for "American schools" are like this one: an up-close and personal (and painfully adolescent) blog about a kid's first day of high school, reporting things like which make-up to use and what jeans should look like… - www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MQkf01RXRM&feature=related.

But wait. I was looking for something a bit more…well, substantial. Something to help parents plan and prepare for their children's entrance to an American school. To answer the specific, concrete questions parents surely have about curriculum, requirements, norms and practices, teacher qualifications – topics I cover in my book (co-authored with Georgia Bennett), Understanding American Schools: The Answers to Newcomers' Most Frequently Asked Questions.

This one is cute: www.youtube.com/watch?v=LuxCYGtpmqY – it looks as if it might have been a student project at Stony Brook University, a re-enactment of the kinds of cultural clashes that can occur in a multicultural school. It raises some important issues about what is accepted and expected in a US class.

I think there's an opportunity here – using Mitu as a model. Professionally-prepared clips showing what a school looks like, interviews with teachers and students, quick comparisons of curricula and home work expectations – anyone in? Call me…

Meanwhile, if you're looking for ways to help your newcomers understand American schools, I think our low-tech book is still your best bet: Understanding American Schools: The Answers to Newcomers' Most Frequently Asked Questions. We're having a sale, from now through mid-September. Buy a case (or more) of 50 books and you'll not only get the 15%-off discounted price but we'll ship them for free, too. Order directly from our webstore.


Tiger Moms, Bébés, and Warm Eskimos

April 2012

Learning how to parent from people in other countries is all the rage on the best-seller list. From Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Americans are learning how to help our children get all A's and play Bach with fervor. From Bringing Up Bébé, we are learning how to sit and chat with a friend in a café while our bébé plays happily at our side, crunching some arugula for fun. And from How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm, we are learning how Kenyans live without strollers, Lebanese families stay close, Japanese let their children fight, and more. As a parent (of daughters in their 20s), I read this literature with a certain bemused distance. Alas, it's too late for me to use the tips to Improve My Girls.

But as an interculturalist, I'm at once fascinated, excited… and disappointed by these accounts of parenting in other cultures. Their descriptions of what parents say to and do with their very small children are a virtual gold mine of information about how cultural differences are formed … but they leave it to us to connect the dots.

In each case, the message is roughly, "Here's a new and superior way to raise your children; the result is better than what you're doing; try it, you'll like it." But nowhere do they describe the deep values underlying the parenting choices, the ultimate goals for the kind of adult parents are trying to raise, or the cultural milieu into which the children will be expected to grow.

Take Pamela Druckerman's engaging account in Bringing Up Bébé of how she got her preschool son to stay in the sandbox area so she could sit and chat with her friend rather than continuously chase after him. Her friend teaches her to be authoritative with her "Non!" and pretty soon bébé is, indeed, sifting sand safely at her side. The reason the French approach is a surprise to these American authors – and strikes such a chord with the American reading public – is because Americans parents have been so focused on something other than obedience. They've (we've) been busy tending to Junior's independence of thought, ability to express himself, sense of mastery and self-esteem. Note: this is how, for better or worse, the US became the most individualistic culture in the world. Alas, many think we've gone overboard, and are attracted to advice on how to attend to the collective needs of a family, which Druckerman beautifully provides us: believe that your child is not the center of the universe and communicate it clearly.

Or take Mei-Ling Hopgood's description in Eskimos of "how Buenos Aires children go to bed late." Her emphasis is on how her social life changed when she began to allow her 2-year-old to stay up to midnight – something that doesn't hold much appeal to me. But hidden within this description is the blueprint for how polychronic cultures differ from monochronic ones! She writes of her fellow parents in Argentina: "…spending quality time with relatives and friends is more important than getting their kid to bed at the same time in the same place every night." Interculturalists, extrapolate! Having solid, known, deep connections with business partners is more important than sticking to the agenda and starting meetings on the dot.

Plus, she tells us how it's done. Argentine parents don't enforce a bed time; they let their toddlers fall asleep wherever they like (including in their arms, their bed, at restaurants); they let them (!) sleep in till 9 or 10am; they and their friends entertain them to keep them happy. From infancy, Argentine babies are nurtured into a different sense of time and relationships than US American ones. When they grow up and run their businesses to a different drummer, why should we be surprised?

Nobody thinks cultural differences are in born. They're learned, somehow. These books tell us how! I'm having fun mining these books for their insights about how cultural differences are formed. Send me your thoughts!

These kinds of insights about how cultural differences are learned are what we've tried to highlight in our latest book, In Their Own Voice: Intercultural Meaning in Everyday Stories, a set of stories written by international newcomers living in my community in Boston, and that we explore in our training of trainers workshop, Crossing Cultures with Competence.


Gold necklaces, earrings with feathers and other signs of identity

March 2012

Big gold necklaces. Sensible walking shoes. Short tight skirts. Long funky earrings with feathers. Purple hair.

Be honest – don't these fashion descriptions suggest something to you about the person sporting them? They do for me. Within US culture, I read many messages into how people present themselves through their physical appearance, even though I sincerely believe – in my head – that it is better not to pre-judge people in this way.

But when I travel to other countries I learn just how mis-guided my assumptions can be. I see professional, serious women wearing clothes that I think look provocative, and men wearing jewelry that doesn't fit my template for a professional guy.

I have just launched a new research project to study this issue – in what ways does our physical appearance communicate something about our identity, and does this cross cultures effectively? If not, what challenge does this pose to expatriates who are trying to live and work authentically in a new culture?

I'd love your participation. (The study is designed for people who have spent 3+ months living outside their passport country, but is open to any adult.) As an added inducement, we'll give away, by random draw, one new Kindle reader for every 100 surveys completed. People who have filled it out say it's actually fun (something not all researchers can offer…!). We'll ask you to describe a few situations where physical appearance was relevant, then rate six photographs for the first impressions they make. It takes about a half hour, but you don't have to do it all in one sitting. Participants will be the first to hear the results.

For years, in my Crossing Cultures with Competence training of trainers workshop, I've included this challenge to identity in my list of Nine Reasons It Can Be Hard to Move to a New Country. I'm eager to hear your own experience and to be able to include data to explore this important aspect of intercultural transition.

Can you help? Hope so! Click here for the link to the research survey. And thanks!

NOTE: This research project grew out of conversations we've had at the Boston affiliate of Families in Global Transition (FIGT). The national conference of FIGT is coming up – March 39-31, in Washington, DC. I'd love to meet you there – come introduce yourself to me at my exhibit table or breakfast discussion where I'll be discussing this topic!

Finding the Z

February 2012

Quick! (Time yourself if possible.) – Find the Z in the first column of letters, as fast as you can. Then do the same in the second column.


Most people are much faster with the second column, where the shape of the surrounding letters – all those roundy Os, Gs, and Qs - is very different from the strongly-diagonal Z. The distraction of the diagonal-heavy Ws, Vs and Xs in the first column makes the Z harder to see.

I was thinking of this classic study in pattern recognition last week when I was talking with teachers in a bilingual school in Central America. At the headmasters' urging, I asked about any cultural differences they'd observed in how teachers teach, students study or parents parent. Some could rattle off a long list, consistent with what I'd expect.

But to my surprise, others really couldn't. (Yes, I'm aware that some power, status, and cultural factors were at play and that the host national teachers naturally felt protective about their school. And, although I tried to be as respectful and culturally sensitive as I could, my questioning approach surely felt more trustworthy to some teachers than others.)

But I witnessed a similar surprise recently when my intern interviewed American doctors who work in multicultural settings in Boston, asking about any cultural differences they'd seen. Most could come up with exactly NONE, even though they were immersed in them every day.

Why do some people recognize cultural patterns more easily others? And, importantly, what can we do to help people see them more easily?

As the Z-finding exercise above illustrates, if the pattern is just slightly different from your surroundings (or you're only seeing a fragment of the difference), it will be harder to note than if the pattern is loud and starkly different. This is why people who are living in a new culture rarely say there are no cultural differences – they're the Z amidst Os and Ds and it's very clear to them.

Practice, experience and motivation are what lead to expert pattern recognition. Through repeated exposure to closely-matching sequences, the doctor gets expert at recognizing patterns of symptoms, the musician at detecting composer-specific riffs, the graphics designer at distinguishing Arial from Century Gothic.

That's what we do in cross cultural training – we help people recognize cultural patterns and pick them out of the chaotic array of their lives. We set the stage for legitimate, sensitive inquiry about difference. Then we introduce a concept; define it; compare it to other related values; and then offer a range of examples in different settings – in the workplace, with neighbors, between parents and children. In this way, we train people to see its core, skeletal features so they can pick it out themselves when it shows up in the office or on the street. With time, the Z pops out of the Vs and Ws as clear as a bell. Hope you'll join me soon as we explore this topic together – details of my next training of trainers course, Crossing Cultures with Competence.









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