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What I Agree to Attend To

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.

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About us

The work of understanding others and helping others understand us is our mission. 

We design and deliver specialized cross-cultural training workshops, train and consult to professionals in the field, conduct research on the process of intercultural transition, produce publications to assist newcomers to the US.

The Interchange Institute is a not-for-profit research organization established in 1997 by Dr. Anne P. Copeland. The work of smoothing intercultural transitions has never been so critical.

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Dr. Tasha Arnold is an experienced leader and researcher in the field of education specializing in cross-cultural training, transition support, and program development for schools, universities, and global teams. She co-founded The Academic Achievement Bureau where she worked with international schools and universities conducting research on their organization and providing services to aid intercultural understanding, transition adjustment, and student achievement. She is currently the Executive Director of The Interchange Institute, a NEASC and CIS school accreditor, and serves on the board of The Namibia Project.  

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Terri McGinnis, M.S.

Senior Trainer​

Terri is an independent cross-cultural trainer specializing in helping families moving overseas, assisting those coming from overseas to live and work in the U.S., and providing group business briefings on China, Brazil and USA. Terri has worked with large automotive companies, automotive suppliers, oil companies, national office supply and furniture companies, the construction industry, electronic companies, IT companies, chemical companies, not to mention many other national and international companies.

A well-read and traveled individual, Terri has lived in and navigated different cultures successfully. Ms. McGinnis lived with her family as an expatriate in Beijing, China. In China, she conducted cross-cultural training programs, studied Mandarin, worked for the International School of Beijing providing classes to their staff, and provided Pilates training to individuals in the expatriate community of Beijing.

In addition to her overseas experience in China, Ms. McGinnis also lived with her family as an expatriate in Brazil for three years where she studied Portuguese. In addition to her language studies, she worked for Fiske School teaching English as a second language to Brazilian nationals. While in Brazil, the International School of Curitiba engaged her services for curriculum and staff development.

Prior to her international assignments, Ms. McGinnis was a high school teacher teaching vocational business skills. She also has eight years of experience in the automotive industry working in various HR positions.

Ms. McGinnis graduated with a Master of Science degree in Instructional Technology and a Bachelor of Science degree in Education.

Her experiences in Brazil and China have taught her to appreciate the world’s diversity and to cross cultures successfully. Her hobbies are reading, sea kayaking, paddle boarding and travel. She has two daughters attending university. She actively volunteers for her a local national club swim team.

alt="Tasha Arnold Executive Director of The Interchange Institute"

Tasha Arnold, Ed.D.

Executive Director

Dr. Tasha Arnold is an experienced leader and researcher in the field of education specializing in cross-cultural training and development for schools, universities, and multicultural teams. As the Executive Director of The Interchange Institute (TII), Tasha is responsible for overseeing the administration, programs and strategic plan of TII, while also serving as an evaluator for the Intercultural Training Expertise Certification (ITEC) Board and being actively involved in the training of emerging and experienced interculturalists through the Crossing Cultures with Competence Train the Trainer program.

Tasha is a certified teacher and principal/head of school and accredits schools worldwide with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges and Council for International Schools.

Prior to her work at the Interchange Institute, Tasha held positions in both public and private schools and co-founded The Academic Achievement Bureau where she worked with international schools and universities conducting research on their organization and provided services to aid intercultural understanding, transition adjustment, and student and staff well-being.

Tasha has directed several research studies in the UK and Qatar on educators’ experiences and perceived needs with regards to transition at their international school in order to improve the transition experience for educators, students and families in these cultural contexts. These findings have helped her to develop and deliver school-wide transition and intercultural development programs.

Originally from the USA, Tasha relocated in 2011 to the UK and currently resides with her husband near London. She serves on the board of The Namibia Project Charity.

Anne P. Copeland, Ph.D.

Founder of The Interchange Institute

Dr. Copeland is a clinical psychologist with expertise in family and cultural transition. During her tenure as Executive Director of The Interchange Institute, she provided cross-cultural training for individuals and families moving to and from the United States. She also trained almost 500 interculturalists around the world to deliver tailored, individualized cross-cultural orientation programs through the Crossing Cultures with Competence program that she developed.

Dr. Copeland has written several books on families and transition (Studying Families, Sage 1991, Separating Together 1997, and In Their Own Voice 2011), and has authored over 90 research articles, chapters, and professional presentations.

Prior to founding The Interchange Institute in 1997, Dr. Copeland was Associate Professor of Psychology at Boston University, where she conducted research and research supervision in psychological aspects of family process assessment, ethnicity, cultural influences, immigration, development, developmental disabilities and affective development. During her tenure at the University, she relocated with her family to work in London in 1988, where she was the academic advisor for Boston University’s British Programmes.

Dr. Copeland has directed many research studies on expatriate families’ experience, including multinational in-depth analyses of the social, familial, and personal aspects of moving to a new country, including a focus on the personal and family side of international short-term assignments, the role of one’s home – its design and layout – on one’s expatriate experience, on the challenges of moving to a country that is perceived as very similar, the experiences of high school exchange host families, and the ways in which having experienced being different as a child has an impact on the expatriate experience. Recent work focuses on how interculturalists have built and nurtured their careers.

Dr. Copeland lives with her husband in Boston, MA, and Barters Island, ME.