Tag Archives: culture

First Impressions in a New Culture

Three friends who have not seen each other since high school twenty years ago are chatting late at night.  One has since moved to Canada, US and now France.  One has lived in Geneva, New York and is now back in Romania.  The third has lived in the UK, Germany and Greece. 

Friends' Reunion

They are comparing notes about their first impressions of their new cultures – and their first impressions whenever they go ‘home’ to their birth country.  What did they find most ‘different’ at first sight?

1) Rules of hospitality.  How to behave as a guest, how generous (or not) to be as a host, subtle rules and assumptions about present-giving and receiving – these are the most immediate eye-openers.  Food running out at Western parties is often mentioned by Mediterraneans and East Europeans as an example of lack of hospitality.

2) Gallantry.  How men behave towards women in public.  All three of them said they missed the gallantry of having doors opened for them and seats offered to them, even the odd wolf-whistle, in the Anglo-American or Germanic cultures.  The feeling was that these latter cultures were not necessarily less sexist, but just less interested in women.  Particularly in those that were not available.

3) Levels of friendliness can be hard to interpret.   You have to be prepared to deal with rejection and not take it personally.  And not confess too much to the first person who wishes you a nice day.

4) Speaking the language of your host country is tricky, even if you previously thought you were fluent in it.  Regional accents, colloquial expressions, new slang and cultural allusions that you are unfamiliar with (cricket or baseball metaphors, anyone?) can make you feel like a beginner all over again.

What about your own big ‘eye-opening’ moments when you moved to a new culture?  What did you find interesting, exciting or perhaps frustrating?  And did your first impressions change after spending more time in that country?

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Making sure you get found on the web

It’s very nearly time for the ‘year in review’ articles and special supplements and I have come across an early one: the top 10 Internet searches of the year according to Yahoo.   You can see the full list  at http://yearinreview.yahoo.com/2010/us_top_10_searches#Top%2010%20Searches

but here are the top 3: BP Oil Spill, World Cup and Miley Cyrus.  Also in the Top 10 are 5 more celebrities, a ‘celebrity’-making show and the iPhone.  So my question to you is: do you want to be right up there in such elevated company?  In case you are wondering, the search data for 2010 for Google is not yet available, but Bing also has predominantly celebrities on its top searches list.  My own unscientific sample shows that the most popular of my blog posts is the one entitled ‘Avatar and Anthropology’ – and I bet you can tell which of the two words has got people enthralled, can’t you?!

So here’s the rub.  Entrepreneurs and consultants, retailers and, in short, all those  who need to have an online presence are told to do search engine optimisation, think carefully about keywords, write exciting copy, attend this-and-that sales or marketing course…  All with the ultimate purpose of being easily found by as many people as possible.  But what if people are not really searching for your serious-minded business anyway?  Do you stick to your small audience or do you jump on the bandwagon of popularity and use those trigger words creatively?  For instance, in my case, should I say something like: ‘Justin Bieber is a good example of globalisation and intercultural communication’ (and tag it under ‘Justin Bieber’ rather than ‘globalisation’ – which has a far smaller audience and a different spelling anyway in other parts of the world)?

The temptation is always there to broaden our appeal.  We even find ways to justify it to ourselves (and others) by saying that ‘research needs to come out of its ivory tower’.  Or ‘management gurus need to speak plain language instead of jargon’.  And I completely agree with both of these statements.  But it’s a question of how we do it.  I can think of a handful of people who do it well, but many more who don’t.  Can you?

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Does language matter anymore?

We are all aware of the potential dangers of misinterpretation in translating and interpreting, but what about the dangers of misunderstanding even when participants share a language?  And is it really true that English is the world language of the future?

One of my ‘favourite’ arguments about globalisation and how small our world is becoming is that English is becoming the preferred language of business worldwide.  This has been used as an excuse to delay (or do away with) language teaching in schools, or for failing to translate materials at conferences and in multinational organisations.

Native English speakers, however, would have trouble recognizing the emerging universal English, or ‘globish’, a term coined by a French businessman and expat in 1995 (and which most recently has led to a book with that name written by Robert McCrum).  This is ‘English-lite’, a simplified version of English, which foreigners understand much better, devoid of accent, jargon, puns or emotional baggage.  It may not be the language of Shakespeare, but it’s a far better bet for you as a presenter at an international conference.

However, if you do want to convey nuances, if you do want to be subtle, or if you simply want to impress your foreign counterparts and build a relationship, nothing beats learning their language.  It’s not easy, but it’s a sure sign of interest and respect, and will bring you all sorts of additional benefits.  Be sure to learn not just how to translate your sentences in a linguistically accurate fashion, but also your meaning.  Because sometimes concepts do not travel well from one culture to another, even when the words seem to be perfectly clear.  ‘Decisive’ Japanese managers, anyone?

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Being made redundant

When I introduce myself as a ‘culture broker’ at networking meetings, I sometimes get the reaction: ‘ Well, we won’t be needing the likes of you for much longer!  Everyone is travelling abroad so much now that we all get to understand other cultures better.  And besides, everyone speaks English nowadays.’  And then they point to Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Google as global brands which demonstrate how the world has become a much smaller, more familiar, more inclusive place.

Ah, yes, this would be the global understanding and togetherness that has seen the rise of far-right parties in countries previously praised for their egalitarianism and liberalism, such as the Netherlands and Sweden, would it?  Or the openness to other cultures that has led to the strongly incentivised (dare I say ‘forced’) repatriation of Romas from France (and not just France)?  Or the corporate domination of the world by American companies, while the American people have become figures of ridicule or symbols of oppression in many parts of the world? 

So we retreat into our gated communities and tut-tut about the unpleasantness of other countries.  We stick to what we know until we need a bit of sunshine on our holiday.

In the long run, I would certainly like nothing more than for my job to become redundant.  I would like to further cultural awareness and understanding so successfully that I could then retire gracefully.  Here’s to hoping… but, in the meantime, here’s to acting and working and talking about it!

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It takes a global village to raise a child

Traditional mountain village, Romania

Romanian village, from aboutromania.com

The title of today’s blog is a good example of globalism. The origin of the saying ‘It takes a whole village to raise a child’ is disputed – generally attributed to ‘Africa’ (as if a whole continent would have the same proverb), it has also been claimed as a Native American Indian proverb, and it was recently popularised by Hillary Clinton, as well as being the title of a book by Jane Cowen-Fletcher.  Regardless of its origin (which can probably be ascribed to more than one source), we can all understand its sentiments and wish we could recreate that village for our own children.

Certainly, when I was a child and spending the whole summer in my grandmother’s village in the Sub-Carpathians of Romania, my cousins and I roamed freely throughout the village.  Everyone knew us, ‘the daughter of the son of the wife of So-and-So’, and my Gran would get regular status updates of our whereabouts and activities, as good as anything that Yahoo or Facebook can offer nowadays.  All of this was detrimental to our fruit-stealing ventures in the church orchard, but it allowed us to fish and swim, climb and hike, taste honey fresh from the hives and dried prunes fresh from the ovens, while hearing fascinating gossip and stories of war-time bravery.

Those idyllic villages have gone.  Yet even as we move between the big cities of the world, we would like to build new, safe villages for our own children.  Except these villages will be ‘communities of the mind’ rather than have real physical presence.  What do I mean?  Well, imagine the following scenario.  Country A national (who is, however, a third culture kid and grew up in 3 different countries) meets Country B Dad in Britain – they marry, have children, live for a while in Countries C and D.  Then come back to Britain, perhaps with the grandparents coming over to help out with childcare for extended periods of time…  What parenting advice, style, values are that family going to adopt?  Can they create a ‘best practices village’ scenario, choosing the most promising approaches from each culture and what really resonates with them personally? 

So what is it to be?  A village replete with a rich variety of rituals, colourful people, diverse stories, curiosity and transparency?  Or will those poor children be confused and overwhelmed by the conflicting attitudes and pressures?  When is choice too much choice?  And when do we start building walls around our village in an effort to protect it?

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It only took 3,000 years…

It sounds like a joke, but 3,000 years is really very quick indeed, in fact the fastest genetic change ever observed in humans.  What am I talking about?

In the latest issue of Science, researchers comparing the DNA genomes of Tibetans and Han Chinese found that it took only a few thousand years for Tibetans to develop gene mutations that enabled them to cope better with the high altitude, low oxygen environment they live in.

This is the random sort of information that I love, because it gets me thinking about time and our perception of it.  It’s a well-known fact that some cultures are more focused on immediate results and are short-term thinkers, while others prefer the long-term view.  But which culture would think 3,000 years is ‘incredibly fast’?  Oddly enough, it is the culture of science, if I am allowed that seeming contradiction in terms.

Science has progressed at such a rapid pace in the last century – and, in fact, seems to be accelerating every decade – that it feels strange that it should also be the one that thinks of 3,000 years as being extremely fast, or that our solar system is so young.  But scientists realise something that perhaps only parents are aware of:  you can’t rush nature.  You have to let things run their course and then, when it’s over, when the kids grow up or the gene has mutated, it feels like it was all over in a flash.

Meanwhile, economists, social scientists, managers and CEOs try to rush human nature.  It’s understandable – they want to see results now, not in 3,000 years.  But the short-term results may not be predictive at all of the long-term.

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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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