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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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  July - Is what I am reading a fact or an opinion?
  October - Sorry!

October 2018


Dear Friend,

This summer, I found myself trying to entertain my two grand-nephews, age 4 and 6. On a dusty shelf was the boardgame Sorry! that had belonged to my daughters a generation ago, and so I introduced them to it. But I was, well, sorry I'd done so.

In case you're unfamiliar with Sorry!, it's based on the ancient game Parchisi and is one of the first board games many American (and English) children learn. It's pretty simple – you pick a card that tells you how many steps to move one of your pawns; you win if you are the first to move all your pawns around the whole board. It introduces kids to important life lessons like taking turns, not cheating, counting, and dealing with mild disappointment.

But. Its gimmick (and break from utter tedium) is that some of the cards say "Switch places with an opponent, who you bump back to Start." (And then you're supposed to say, "Sorry!" Fun, right?) Basically, trade one of your pawns with one of your nephew's pawns in a way that advances you and sets him back. The worse you can hurt him, the better for you. Pretty much, the way you win this game is to hurt the other guy.

Now, that causes a dilemma for the great aunt who's just trying to keep two little boys from bouncing off the walls on a rainy afternoon. Even if I weren't trying to let them win (which I was), I'd have to choose one little boy to hurt over the other. And the game would last even l-o-n-g-e-r than it already does if you don't use this rule. It's what's called a zero-sum game. Any advance you make hurts me and vice versa. (I can hear some of you reminding me that it's a jungle out there and we have to prepare children for the battle. Please keep reading.)

The belief that the world is a zero-sum game is one of the roots, I believe, of the social and cultural challenges facing the world today, and that's why it stopped me in my tracks during a silly children's game this year (but not a generation ago).

You can have a zero-sum view of economics, especially if circumstances have led you to a scarcity mind-set and a sense of having been cheated out of what you see as rightly yours ("anything that advances your economic well-being by definition hurts mine, and vice versa, so I'm going to fight anything that's good for you"). But I remember when another view was more dominant ("a growing economy that's good for you will also be good for me"). The consequences of these different world views extend far beyond politics and into societal and cultural values.

For example, researchers have identified two different kinds of sexism – "hostile sexism" and "benevolent sexism." Hostile sexism is the perception that any gains to women come at a cost to men (a zero-sum viewpoint); benevolent sexism is the belief that men have a responsibility to help women in their traditional gender roles. (Note: you can be low on both these scales. Just sayin'.)

Data from voters in the 2016 US Presidential election show that Republican (men and women) were more likely to have 'hostile sexism' views than were Democrats or Independents. Important to my observation of an increase in zero-sum thinking, this connection between hostile sexism and political views was more true in 2016 than it was in 2012. People are affected by prevalent points of view in the media, from politicians' rhetoric and…by the games they play with their great aunt.

Pertinent to your work and mine, a zero-sum view of intercultural interaction is "if someone from another culture benefits from an arrangement of some kind – a policy, a law, a government benefit – well then, I must be the loser." An alternative, positive-sum view is, "if someone from another culture benefits from said arrangement, the world is likely to be better for all, including me." Until we are all free, we are none of us free, said Emma Lazarus in the 19th century. I'm squarely in the positive-sum, a-rising-tide-floats-all-boats camp.

Next summer, I'm getting out paper and crayons for those boys.


PS Join me in December for my next Crossing Cultures with Competence training of trainers workshop, where the fundamental premise is that intercultural understanding is good for all.

PPS Read a summary of the research on hostile sexism and politics here.

July 2018

In today's news environment, we have to ask, all the time, "Is what I am reading a fact or an opinion? If it's presented as a fact, is it accurate? And if it's an opinion, do I agree with it?"

Imagine having to do that in a new country, without understanding any of the history or context known by the locals.

It turns out locals are not very good at making these distinctions, either. And that's a huge problem.

The Pew Research Center just completed a study of 5,035 adults living in the US. The researchers read participants a series of statements and asked them to say whether each was an "opinion" or was "factual." They first explained that a "factual" statement is one that can be proven true or false by data; thus, a "factual" statement might be wrong. For example, "The sun is 2,000 miles from Earth" is a factual statement, not an opinion – it's just a wrong one. And "Saturn is the prettiest planet" is an opinion – you may agree or disagree with it, as you like.

A bit confusing, I admit – but it's a skill readers of today's news (and crossers of cultures) have to have. What's opinion, and what's being presented as fact? We can – and should – fact-check factual statements and should recognize opinions for what they are.

Take the Pew test yourself. Or see the test items below.

Note, in this Pew study, all the "factual" statements were, in fact, true.

Overall, participants in the study were not very good at knowing what is opinion and what is something that could be fact-checked. For example, only 54% Democrats and 63% Republicans recognized that this statement was a factual statement that could be proved or disproved by data: "Spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid make up the largest portion of the US federal budget." (It's actually true, but you don't have to know that to correctly label this NOT an opinion.) It's as though people have trouble hearing a fact they disagree with, instead concluding it must be an opinion, rather than a fake fact.

Notice that both Republicans and Democrats were more likely to label a statement "factual" if it was something they (or at least their party) tended to agree with.

This is a big, big problem for a democracy. (Is that a fact or an opinion?!!)


P.S. All of our work at The Interchange Institute focuses on giving people the facts they need to make their way in a new culture, and to help them understand why others have the opinions they have. Making this fact-opinion distinction is crucial to crossing cultures with sensitivity, compassion and competence. Join us at one of our fall training of trainers Crossing Cultures with Competence workshops, to learn more about how you can help others do this, too. Or check out our publications, described in the sidebars here.



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