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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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  March - The Roots of Difference: Help Us Understand
  August - The Other Guy's Shoes

The Roots of Difference: Help Us Understand

March 2016

Dear Friend,

I've been intrigued for a number of years by the thought that early experience with being different may be protective when living, later in life, in another culture. This is the advantage Third Culture Kids and Cross Cultural Kids have, but I don't think it's restricted to them.

A few months ago I invited you to participate in an exploratory study of this question, and I learned two things: I was right and I was wrong.

I was right in that participants in the pilot study offered lovely, thoughtful examples of how their childhood experiences of difference, while maybe difficult at the time, had given them strengths and options they felt they wouldn't have had otherwise. Differences in religion, race, nationality, economic status, physical or mental health, family constellation and more - people were inclusive in their reflections about their childhoods.

But I was wrong, too, in that people without such childhood experiences also enumerated strengths and options that they felt came from having been raised as a majority member, with a sense of belonging and acceptance that they could leverage for good.

Both can be true, of course, and that's what I'd like to explore now. How do early/childhood experiences affect expatriates' adults lives?

I can't say more about the preliminary results now, or it might influence future findings. I look forward to sharing the insights in a future Enote, and having them continue to deepen the content of the training materials we offer (see details below).

For now, I am asking you to help by completing our survey if you meet the criteria, and by sharing the link with anyone you know who does, too. Share on Facebook, LinkedIn groups, listservs – any way you know to reach this group.

Participation criteria:
- you are 18 years old or older
- you are now living, or have ever lived as an adult, in a country other than your childhood passport country
- have spent a total of at least six months outside your passport as an adult

The survey takes about 15 minutes to complete. Many people have told me they found it a reflective and useful exercise. Here's the link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/KYF2PT9

It's a crazy world out there these days. I am hoping this study will contribute to our broader societal understanding of how we can live effectively and meaningfully with those who are different from us. Thanks for your help.




The Other Guy's Shoes

Dear Friend,

I have been writing for some time about the power of being able to take another person’s perspective as the core skill needed for intercultural communication. Not being able to do this – or not bothering to, or more kindly, not remembering to try – is at the root of so many intercultural clashes today. We label behavior as “arrogant” or “dishonest” when, if we understood a difference in worldview – rooted in different history, religion, geography and/or personal experience – we might label quite differently.

Our research has shown, for example, that people moving to the US who had had cross-cultural training (which, after all, is training in seeing the world from a different point of view) rated “the typical American” as more polite, more patient, more friendly, more respectful and less verbally aggressive than those who had not had such training.

We know that children develop the cognitive capacity to take another person’s perspective at around age three or four. Before that, they can’t imagine that someone else’s view point could be different from their own, or that someone doesn’t know what they know. Psychologists call it a developing theory of mind. In the side bar, I’ve listed some youtube clips of children on either side of this understanding – take a look; they’re fun!

Before they go to school, then, most children are cognitively on their way to understanding this all-important perspective-taking skill. They continue to refine it, even as they pass through a common stage of “adolescent egocentrism” (when they think everyone is thinking about them; remember??). Those with autism and narcissism continue to have difficulty, but they too can be taught the skill.

So adults are generally able to take another’s point of view. Why don't they do it more often? I think it’s because we don’t hear each other’s stories any more. Unless we are reminded that people have different life experiences that lead them to have different attitudes and values, it’s easy to slip back to that comfortable, three-year-old’s belief that everyone sees the world as we do.  That reminder is getting easier and easier to miss, as we surround ourselves with like-minded people, and watch TV and read op-ed pieces and Facebook posts that reinforce our own limited experience.

I’ve listed a few pieces about the power of perspective taking and listening to others’ stories in the side bar. I find each of them very inspiring and I hope you will too.

So if we need to listen to others’ stories, those stories have to be out there to be heard. That’s why I’m re-doubling my efforts to help people tell their own stories through my Storytelling for Intercultural Reflection workshops, held in person and on line. My focus is to help people reflect on their own lives and understand more clearly how they developed the beliefs and values they hold dear, and then to experience the power of sharing these stories with others. See below for details.

This is a tough moment in the world. I don't mean to naively suggest that if we all sit around the campfire, hold hands and tell stories, our very real differences will disappear. But I do believe there'll be less hate if we let our perspective-taking skills do their work.

I’ll close with this delightful little experiment with taking another’s perspective: thanks, Sally Fisher, for Here in the Psalm. (Click here if you need a refresher on the [King James] original.)



Children's Development of Perspective Taking

  • A classic demonstration of the “false beliefs” young children show before developing perspective taking skill
  • Another pair of children, one who “gets it” and one who doesn’t yet understand a different point of view
  • A more detailed look at aspects of theory of mind, narrated by Alan Alda
  • A 30-minute webinar I developed about the opportunities international schools have for increasing their students’ perspective-taking abilities in the process of supporting the growth of tomorrow’s global citizens
Shining Examples of Perspective Taking and the Power of Storytelling
  • Amaryllis Fox, a former CIA undercover agent, has produced a 3-minute video that has been watched almost 80 million times. She starts with: “Everybody believes they are the good guy” and urges us to listen to the stories of those we don’t understand. “The only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them. If you hear them out, if you’re brave enough to really listen to their story, you can see that more often than not, you might have made some of the same choices if you’d lived their life instead of yours.”
  • The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delivers a TED talk on The Danger of a Single Story, about the mistaken perceptions we have when we have a constricted, limited set of stories about people who are different from us.
  • Maybe the most brilliant piece of perspective switching I’ve ever read is Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a book about a Hmong girl with epilepsy told, in alternating chapters, from her family’s point of view and that of the US medical establishment.
  • Need hard evidence? Paul Zak, a neuroscientist, is doing fascinating work showing that good character-driven real-life stories actually increase the level of oxytocin (the neurochemical responsible for empathy) in the listener’s body, and that stories that successfully sustain the listeners’ attention and transport them into the character’s world enhance subsequent empathy.



©2016, The Interchange Institute