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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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  June - What I Agree to Attend To
  April - April Note

June 2017

Dear Friend,

"My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind - without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos."
-- William James, 1890

This notion, from one of the world's first psychology textbooks, returned to me recently:
  • Last week, I visited a Botanical Garden in Maine with my cousin, a bird-watcher. I walked by lavender, day lilies, and begonias while he, at my side, walked by a peewee, two gold finches and a woodpecker.
  • This winter, I sat in a crowded, noisy, colorful airport café in SE Asia with my husband. At the same moment, we noticed [different] things that didn't seem to belong – for me, it was a Muzak recording of a 1970s Simon and Garfunkel tune and, for my husband, an American military plane that had just landed way across the airport.
Our experience is what we agree to attend to. Only those items which we selectively notice shape our minds. We all have a lifetime of agreeing to attend to some items and not others – I love this idea of volition in the shaping of our minds.* We're all the richer for it. May it ever be thus. (Although, see the sidebar for some fun examples of how limiting selective attention can be.)

But what happens when these differences in attention lead to fiercely-held differences in attitude, behavior and belief? The question for interculturalists who work in this space is, "What shapes what we agree to notice?" "How malleable are these influences once we have reached adulthood?" "Can adults learn to notice new things in the service of intercultural understanding?"

That is, can a person raised to believe fiercely in equality learn to notice (and respect) the signals of social power and status necessary to living in a more hierarchical culture?

Or, what happens when a person who's been taught to 'say what you mean and mean what you say' encounters a person who's been taught that 'he who knows does not speak; he who speaks does not know?' Can the former learn to interpret the latter's silence as something other than ignorance, passivity or timidity? Can the latter learn to interpret the former's verbal directness as something other than rudeness and arrogance?

The short answer, in each case, of course, is 'yes.' But it helps to start with a healthy respect for the enormity, depth, and steely strength of the convictions we have, based on our own experience. The first step in intercultural understanding is to take in William James' words – My experience is what I agree to attend to, and if you have attended to different things, which you surely have, your reality – and your mind and values and choices - will be different. Learning to selectively notice your world will help me understand it.

PS. Actually, for you students of William James, I should note that he probably would be surprised - and maybe object to - my application of his idea to cultural training. He also said, '...we never make an effort to attend to an object except for the sake of some remote interest which the effort will serve.' Well, times change... I say the interest of cultural understanding is not remote.

April 2017

Dear Friend,

Well, here's some good news. In a research study I just conducted, newcomers living in the US during the 2016 presidential election – you know, the one marked by unprecedented accusations and mind-boggling rhetoric - say they have more new respect and admiration for American values than newcomers in prior years. And hold on – these newcomers are from either Muslim-majority countries or former Soviet Union countries.

Is that possible?

I've been doing springtime workshops for the past few years with high school exchange students studying in the US, preparing them to return to their home country. ("Re-entry" is a known challenge for many people who return to their home country after living elsewhere, regardless of the circumstances of their home and host culture and lifestyle – see sidebar for some reasons why.) Because of the special program they're on, about half the students in our workshops are Muslim; about half are from former Soviet Union countries.

We do a pre-training online survey asking about values that are important (a) to them, (b) to people in their home country and (c) to US Americans. And we ask them to say how much they agree with these three statements:
I have grown and changed in positive ways.
I have new respect and admiration for my home country and its people's values.
I have new respect and admiration for the US and Americans' values.
I have been concerned about what thoughts about the US these 16-18-year-olds are taking home, having lived here during the 2016 presidential election rhetoric. (About half, we learned from informal discussion, are placed with host families who voted Democrat, half with Republican-voting families.) What do they make of what they read in the US news and social media? What are they hearing from their classmates? From their host families? Have they experienced hurtful comments or actions and if so, how have they handled it? And bottom line, what are they going to remember about their year in the US?

In short, how does living in this current political environment affect you when you're young and away from home, and supposed to go home to be global leaders of the future?
Preparing to share the values survey data with the students last week, I realized I had a data-based answer at my fingertips. I compared the 2016 and 2017 students (who were in the US at the peak of the election discourse) with those (from the same countries, here through the same sponsoring organizations) who were here in the prior year. And here's the good news:

The students who lived in the US throughout the 2016 presidential election have significantly MORE new respect and admiration for the US and Americans' values than those who studied here in the previous years.

Wait, what? I know. I went back and double checked, to be sure I hadn't mis-coded something. But it was right.

And furthermore, when you look at how they view US values, it makes sense. Students who said they had more new respect and admiration for US values also tended to say they thought the following values were among the most important to Americans
Helping other people
Trying new things
Standing up for what you think is right
And that these values were less important to Americans:
Working hard and being productive
Gain goods and wealth
The students I spoke with about this finding said things like, "Yeah, the election has forced Americans to put into words what their values are, and to fight for the things that are important to them. They're really passionate about their beliefs." They seemed to be hearing the 'resistance' loud and clear. And they said the practice they'd had in explaining their religion, describing their country and defending their values – which they'd had to do a lot - was invaluable to them and led to a positive view of the US. Whew.

I still worry about them. But this finding gave me hope for the wisdom of the next generation.

Upcoming Workshops
Crossing Cultures with Competence teaches you how to put together an effective host country overview, how to explain core cultural differences in attitudes and values, and how to help people understand the family and individual challenges they face when moving to a new country (and home again). Leave the training with all the kit you'll need to start offering your own orientations, plus a site license to reproduce materials for your trainees. The training is designed for people who already have significant intercultural backgrounds of some nature, and who are:

  • trainers and coaches wanting to add new cross cultural skills to their toolbox
  • international school counselors and teachers wanting new ways to help families make a smooth transition to a new country, and return home again
  • human resource managers wanting to ease global employees' transitions while keeping training in house
  • relocation professionals wanting to offer additional services
  • interculturalists wanting a ready-to-go kit to offer cultural orientations
  • mental health professionals wanting to supplement their skills and tools
Upcoming schedule
May 1-2, 2017 in Washington, DC (co-sponsored by CORT)
September 21-22, 2017 in London (co-sponsored by ACS International Schools)
November 6-7, 2017 in Washington, DC (co-sponsored by English Now!)

(Sidebar) Why Re-entry Can Be So Hard

(adapted from Crossing Cultures with Competence materials)

  • You have changed in ways you don't realize. And so have people at home. You might want different friends.
  • What you think of as "home" has changed and is no longer familiar and all-accepting.
  • All the ways you learned to adapt to your new culture have to be un-learned.
  • You're not treated as 'special' any more.
  • Your interpretation of your home culture is different and may be unflattering.
  • People are generally unsympathetic with your re-entry challenge.
  • You are met with general lack of interest in your experiences.
  • Your job/school may not know how to take advantage of your new intercultural skills.

Contact us for information about doing re-entry workshops for your employees or students, or to be trained to do these workshops yourself.





©2017, The Interchange Institute