Tag Archives: communication

And now for something completely different…

This is a more poetic take on living abroad, written a while back, but posted here today to commemorate the start of the National Write Your Novel in a Month initiative, which is a real kick-start for all those wannabe creative writers out there (we know who we are!).

I am running on the border between France and Switzerland.  This scraggly bit of grass could be French and that root I just jumped over might be Swiss.  I don’t have my passport tucked into my running tights, so I shouldn’t stray too much onto the Swiss side, but the French side is a bit shadier and therefore muddier… and who can tell where the exact border is anyway?  In my many runs through these woods, I have come across deer and wild boar, but only once did I see an old stone border marker from the 19th century.  And the borders have been subtly redefined since many times over.

Hard to believe this area was fiercely contested in the past between the Savoyards (on the French side) and the Swiss.  It is now so peaceful, just a few runners, cyclists and elderly people walking their dogs.  I rejoice in the warm autumn sun, crane my neck to catch a glimpse of the Jura mountains to the left, then automatically turn to the right to see if Mont Blanc is visible today.  Shame, too hazy.  But it will still be there tomorrow and the day after.

As I jog through the vineyards pregnant with fat grapes, I give myself a mental hug and congratulate myself for living in such a beautiful place.  I feel grateful, not smug, even as I boast on Facebook about our perfect mountain view from the balcony.  It has taken me more than a year to adapt to my surroundings, but now I wish I could live here forever.

 I arrived here with visions of instant gratification and integration.  After all, Geneva has a thriving international community, I have lived in many different countries and speak French, English, German, all useful languages in this part of the world.  More importantly, I wanted to ‘fit in’ with the local population, meet the ‘real’ Swiss and French people.  With my background in social anthropology and two small children going to the local school and crèche, I thought I had it cracked.

 However, Geneva is not quite a city of ‘real’ people.  It is a city of migrants, attracted by its wealth and opportunities.  It is a-buzz with languages and nationalities, so it is possible to never leave the confines of the international organizations and its magic circle of employees.   OK, CERN is arguably in the second rank of international organizations, because scientists are just never as important as financiers and policy-makers, but this is still the exclusive club for scientists and engineers, a pinnacle of achievement or an opportunity to launch your career.  Geneva is a city of the super-rich and super-leisured, and somehow all this wealth is more visible than in London.   If you are happy to exist in an expat bubble, you can certainly do so with impunity in Geneva.

View of Geneva's 60s blocks

The ‘common’ people exist here as anywhere else, those depressing grey tower blocks in Meyrin are a reminder of that – but it’s not Council estates as we know them in the UK.  It’s a ghetto of self-discipline, rules and regulations, where you cannot have parties or even use your washing machine after 9 p.m., where neighbourhood watch means you get reported for hosting friends for longer than a weekend, where communal areas are spick and span, and there is a neat place for everything: bikes, laundry, pushchairs…

Fortunately, we live just across the border in France, where rules and regulations can be waived if you do it charmingly enough.  I cross the border several times a day in my battle-scarred Honda Jazz with the steering wheel on the wrong side.  My youngest son goes 2 mornings a week to Swiss nursery, 2 mornings to French nursery, while my older one goes to the French maternelle.  French government is supportive of working mothers, but I am not French nor in full-time employment, so it’s been a struggle to find a regular crèche place for my youngest.  However, the state garderie (nursery) in France is a new, purpose-built, lovely building, and so cheap I cannot believe it, even without government subsidies for low wages.  The Swiss do not encourage women with young children to work (although the French-speaking part of the country is not quite as evangelical about this as the German-speaking part), so nurseries and schools have extremely complicated pick-up and drop-off times (no two the same, as far as anyone can tell), to discourage anyone even contemplating part-time employment.  Besides, both nations agree that families should have lunch together at home, so I spend most of my time driving from one place to another.  That’s why I relish every minute I get to stop somewhere on the border and go for a run.

But why do I say ‘fortunately’ we live across the border…?  This might once have been the case, as rents and house prices used to be cheaper on the French side.  But now Swiss regulations about owning a house abroad have relaxed and house prices and rents have shot up.  This is the second most expensive area in France after Paris, as everybody keeps reminding us.  It is nearly as expensive as the South-East of England, where we used to live before.  And St. Genis is anything but a pretty, traditional Haute Savoie village.  It is probably the place with the highest density of physicists per inhabitants in Europe, but it lacks a cosy campus atmosphere.  Instead, ugly concrete apartment blocks were hastily erected in the 1970s to deal with the sudden influx in population.  More recently, developers have cottoned on that expats prefer to live in houses which at least create the illusion of a better life, so they have built endless rows of soul-less little houses with postage-stamp gardens.  The kindest thing anyone can say about the village is that it is ‘convenient’ for commuting to CERN and Geneva.  Most of the families who are staying here for more than 2 years choose to live in more remote, but prettier villages, like Thoiry, Sergy, Crozet, St Jean de Gonville.

Yet I feel sorry for the much maligned St. Genis (current population 8,600, up from 900 in the early 1960s), which has so heroically been putting up with the hordes of barbarians invading it for four decades. It has so many facilities for a place of its size: two primary schools, a theatre, a cultural centre, a library, a sports centre, an athletic track and stadium, as well as shops, restaurants, post offices and no less than three boulangeries/patisseries. As I wait for my children at the school gates, I discover that there are a few authentic local parents after all.  Many of them are in far less prestigious jobs than the incoming strangers, and the good proportion of Dads at the gates (so unlike the primary school in the Home Counties that I am used to) indicates that perhaps quite a large number of them are unemployed.  How do they feel about ‘these foreign people’ coming and taking their jobs, their school places, using their medical services and so on?  They smoke and scowl, but I am determined.

I smile and join in the conversation.  The men are mildly flirtatious, the women polite and pleasant, even as they correct my French.  Quick aside:  French people will always prefer someone who makes an effort to speak French, but their way of encouraging someone struggling with the language is to pounce upon them with the correct grammar or pronunciation, even to the point of making you repeat the correct forms in public until you get it right.  But I am not invited to their home, nor are my casual invitations for coffee ever taken up.  I join the PTA, I bake cakes and help out at the school fairs and carnival parades.

Children's Carnival in St. Genis Pouilly

I go to toddler gym, skiing and music lessons, share snacks and recipes with the other waiting Mums.  It’s an uphill struggle, but after about a year, people are starting to open up.  I chat with the librarians about my sons’ preferred BD (comic books). I discuss Sarkozy with my physiotherapist.  We meet at the sandpit in the park and follow it up with crepes. I have shown commitment, I have shown my desire and effort to belong.  I am beginning to gain their trust and acceptance.

 So now I can rejoice and relax in this cross-border run of mine, past a hidden chalet straight out of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’.  I try to breathe regularly, yet also take in all that wonderful fresh air.  To last me forever, even after I am gone, in just a few short months.  Through no fault of my own, my time in Geneva is strictly limited.  So I too will betray my ‘natives’.  I too will leave them.   Now I can understand their reservations, their unwillingness to make friends.  Every time they let one of these passing strangers in, they open themselves up to hurt.  These strangers leave, and they leave nothing behind them but memories.

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Top Qualities of a Cross-Cultural Communicator

I’ve been writing several papers and talking about how to communicate successfully across cultures lately.  I’ve come up with a list of essential qualities for cross-cultural communicators, but I am sure there are many more that I could have added to that list.  I am not claiming, by the way, to be proficient at all of the qualities below – there is always more work to be done and more to be learnt, after all.

1) Openness and genuine curiosity – by that I mean, a warm, caring curiosity rather than its nosy twin

2) Asking questions instead of assuming you know all the answers – perhaps a touch of humility

3) Flexibility and adaptability

4) Leave your ego at home (but not your values, you don’t have to agree and condone everything you see)

5) Patience – it can take a long time to break down barriers

6) Resilience – to recover from leaving your friends as soon as you’ve made them and to find ways to keep in touch even so.

7) Be prepared – do your homework before you go to another country. 

BUT be prepared to be surprised – no matter how well you do your homework!

8) Humour – ability to laugh at yourself and at others, although you don’t have to share your jokes with foreign audiences.

Anything else I should have mentioned?  What has been the character trait or quality that has kept you sane when travelling, moving, negotiating or marrying abroad?

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Enjoying the holidays

Confession time: for the first time in a long while, I was actually sorry to see my children go back to school this morning.  Although my clients, collaborators and other work-related partners will be relieved to see me head back for my computer, coaching sessions and training courses.  Not to mention the relief of my bank account after an income-less week!

Yet I actually enjoyed this half-term holiday, achieved a good combination of external and home-based activities, barely screamed at the children and just relished their remarkably well-behaved, helpful and amusing company.  So what was different?  I suppose the answer was ‘my attitude’.  Instead of looking upon the holidays as a nuisance interruption of my work and forever being with one eye on my Inbox, I deliberately chose to keep my laptop switched off.  I threw myself wholeheartedly into playing, laughing, chatting and doing silly things with the children.  The result?  I felt like I had swallowed some Wonka-Vite pills and turned twenty years younger.

I don’t think the comparison is entirely forced if I say that I felt I had fully embraced their culture and their world, instead of judging them from my grown-up perspective and culture.  I had entered their perception of time (i.e. we have all the time in the world), their concept of value and status (i.e. you may play tennis better, but I have superpowers).   It wasn’t an entirely one-way process either.  We played lots of board games and by winning some and losing some, by crying some and laughing some, we all learnt to cope and move on.  I like to believe that some of my grown-up messages were thus reinforced.

I don’t think that this ‘total immersion’ thing is possible or even desirable all the time, but, while it lasted, it refreshed us all, created even stronger bonds and mutual understanding.  Now, let me think of a way or replicating this in cross-cultural coaching and training…

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Of Course, the Election!

What else can anyone in Britain talk about today?  Like everyone else, I find it hard to focus on my work and tear myself away from the TV.  Although the process is maddeningly slow and has all the charisma of a car crash in slow motion. 

Three personal observations that struck me this morning:

1) Trying to explain the British electoral system to my friends and family from abroad makes me realise just how complicated and frustrating it is.

2) Unlike some of my acquaintances who live in the UK but have not got British citizenship, I cannot watch this dispassionately, like in a horse race upon which I have placed no bets.

3) If a coalition is formed, the parties involved will have to learn a LOT about cross-cultural communication.  Despite the deliberate vagueness and therefore similarity of their policies, it seems to me that the cultures of each political party are very different.  Will they be able to find a common language beyond the hunger for power and self-interest?

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Two Cultures: Male and Female?

Last night we had a rare Mums’ Night Out and one of the topics of conversation was (inevitably) our children and whether it was easier to have boys or girls.  I think that we came to the conclusion that both sexes had their fair share of joys and challenges, but we also ranted a bit about the gender stereotypes that we felt children were being forced to fit into, even from an early age.

By concidence, at the British Psychological Society’s annual student conference today, one research paper shows that even 9- month-old babies choose gender-specific toys.  

Researchers at City University, London found that, when presented with seven different toys, boys as young as 9 months old went for the car, digger and soccer ball, while ignoring the teddy bears, doll and cooking set.

And the girls? Hmmm, let me see if you can guess… At the same age, they were most interested in the doll, teddy bear and miniature pot, spoon and plastic vegetables.

Well, from personal experience, that was not true, as my older son adored dolls and teddy bears, while my younger devoured imitation food and pans.  But of course, what am I, a single exceptional example, in a sea of data that shows the opposite?

 However, it is also fair to add that from birth (and maybe even before that), parents and other carers respond differently to boys and girls, in words, gestures, behaviours, way of thinking.  These young creatures are like sponges, absorbing so much information in those first few months of life that it is difficult to determine exactly how much is innate and how much is learnt behaviour and preferences.

Lise Eliot’s recent book Pink Brain, Blue Brain:  How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps critically examines all of the scientific evidence to date and explains in very clear language how modest differences at birth between the brains of boys and girls are amplified by social factors and eventually  produce greater anatomical changes in the brain of mature women and men.  So then we arrive at the conclusion that ‘women are from Venus, men are from Mars’ – two different cultures, speaking different languages, with different values and meanings, never the twain shall meet.

Book Cover

Latest research on gender differences

What I loved about Eliot’s book is its optimistic assertion (which every parent wants to hear) that the brain is remarkably plastic and can remodel itself constantly based on its experiences.  In other words, we are not stuck with our gender roles, we can make boys more socially and linguistically gifted, we can make girls more analytical and spatially aware. 

The two cultures are not incompatible or unbridgeable.  The two cultures are not even two separate cultures unless we deliberately seek to make them so.  And, as with all national or minority cultures, as long as we are open, flexible, curious and eager to learn more, we will find ways to ensure fair and equitable treatment of all.

Have you found boys and girls to be very different from an early age?  Do you find yourself responding differently to boys and girls?  What can we do to ensure our children grow up with fewer gender stereotypes?

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Avatar and Anthropology

I must be one of the last people to see Avatar (in full 3D, which made me quite dizzy), so I have missed out on some interesting discussions about its portrayal of indigenous people and military politics.  The most interesting of these is David Price questioning the ethics of ’embedded’ anthropology.   http://www.counterpunch.org/price12232009.html

However, I have some other bones to pick about the film’s portrayal of ‘the others’  and – spoiler alert – I may have some issues with the ending!

1) Why are tribal societies always portrayed as ‘primitive’?  And why are we fascinated with precisely those aspects of their culture that make them seem more childish and irrational?

2)  Why is primitive perceived as being closer to nature and therefore inherently better?  Hunters/gatherers can be quite ruthless plunderers of the forests as well.

3) Why are the Na’vi studied and examined like exotic butterflies to be pinned down, even by the scientists who are supposedly so empathetic?

4) Why are the Na’vi not invited to the negotiation table and treated as equals?  Because they do not have a programme for building nuclear weapons?

5) Can you think of one happy ending when a tribal culture has been discovered by us Westerners?  As such, I agree with the film’s expert consultant, Dr. Nancy Lutkehaus, that it is an elegy to a lost world… http://uscnews.usc.edu/arts/a_world_all_their_own.html

but the operative words here are ‘lost’ and ‘irrecoverable’.

One issue the film does address and which deserves to be discussed more is the ambiguous fascination and danger of ‘going native’  (although they do reduce it to sexual attraction). It’s not just anthropologists, but also many expats who, once they become familiar with a different interpretation of the world, feel so changed by it that they can never go back to being their old selves.  I happen to think that this is a very valuable quality in a human (or even alien) being, that this ‘switching between worldviews’ leads to really in-depth communication, understanding and connection.  But in a world where the majority value clear-cut answers and black-and-white solutions, this is clearly tricky terrain.

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