Tag Archives: globalisation

Top 7 Cultural Generalisations and Beliefs

There are some pervasive beliefs about cultural similarities and differences that I hear bandied around not only by people I meet casually, but even (bless them!) by some family members who should know better after living with me as an aunt, cousin or daughter for so many years.  While none of them are downright racist or malicious, uninformed good intentions can be just as damaging. 

Multicoloured and multicultural

Variety is the spice of life

1. Live and let live, I always say…

Great in theory, but in practice it often covers the sin of not being at all interested in the Other, and wishing to banish them to some kind of ghetto.  Out of sight is out of mind, but that is not living together in good cultural integration.

2. Underneath it all, we are all human…

Again, beautifully idealistic statement, but how often is this used to deny difference?

3. Everyone travels nowadays, so we all know different cultures.

I’ve written a blog post about this before https://sandaionescu.wordpress.com/2010/09/28/being-made-redundant/ but I will just reiterate that, although travelling does broaden the mind, it depends on whether you travel with an open mind and try to get to know the different countries on a more in-depth level than just the beach, the Hilton, the Margarita…

4. Everyone speaks English, so why should I bother to learn anything else?

Estimates vary (and figures can change rapidly), but indications are that between two thirds and three quarters of the world’s population does not speak English.  Besides, the English that does get spoken in different parts of the world may be quite different from what native speakers might be used to.

5. English is THE language of the Internet.

It certainly used to be, but the percentage of Web content that is entirely in English has decreased dramatically in recent years, while Chinese, Spanish, Japanese and German are catching up.

6. I have nothing against these people in general, but why can’t they be more like us (when it comes to democracy or religion or crowd behaviour or business etiquette or…)?

This is the big one and a source of frustration to many when interacting with different cultures or setting up a business abroad.  All I can say is that my parents, husband or children are not very much like me either… although I have nothing against family in general!

7. I’ll be fine when I move abroad, I don’t need any preparation.

Some will be and some will not.  Those who are fine may be so purely by chance, or because they have a company or spouse or friend who makes life easy for them.  Some may be ‘in survivor mode’, rather than truly enjoying their life in another country.  Some may be counting the days until they move back.  Isn’t that sad?  Aren’t those years too part of your life?

While it is true that no one can prepare you for every single eventuality and emergency of your life abroad, having some idea of what to expect will ensure that you don’t rely entirely on luck to thrive in your new location.

What other generalisations have you heard which amused or frustrated you?  And how do you respond to them?

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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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Marrying abroad

While chatting to a Russian friend the other day, we remarked on the number of international marriages we have seen failing lately.  (I had written a blog post about the challenges of international divorces and it struck quite a chord with many of my acquaintances.)  We were wondering why that might be the case.

The easy explanation would be that – in our East European countries, at least, and possibly even more so in certain Asian countries – marriage with a foreigner was perceived as something aspirational, glamorous, a great opportunity to get out of the country and make a life and career for yourself.  For both men and women. Although the  image that most readily springs to mind is that of good-looking young women hanging off the arms of weedy expats with no obvious qualities other than their thick wallets.

Fast forward a few years and now that the more basic needs of Maslow’s pyramid have been satisfied (security, warmth, food, the chance to be treated with respect or at least civility), perhaps the appetite has increased for those higher-level needs.  We no longer want a secure provider, but a soulmate.  We no longer crave the narrow two-bed flat in London but a detached house overlooking the sea.  Which, by the way, some of our former classmates back home have by now obtained!

Life abroad, marriage abroad, has disappointed us.  But we cannot go back – we have been away for too long, we no longer fit in, people back there treat us with suspicion or greed.  We now want the lifestyle, the wealth and the ideal partner. 

But there could be another explanation:  Could it be that our partner has tired of us and our foreign ways?  Or that we have over-adapted to our host country and they can no longer see the quirkiness and uniqueness in us that they originally fell in love with?  Did both partners enter the marriage thinking more in terms of national stereotypes rather than the actual indvidual?

I know I came to the UK expecting to find the perfect English gentleman.  Or a tall, dark  Norwegian (my favourite ‘type’ combined with my favourite country but, sadly, almost an oxymoron).  Luckily, I found my husband, who confounded all those false ideals and expectations.  Nor did he find me to be the typical Romanian lass (whatever that might be).  So we had to make it up as we went along.

I’m sure we both occasionally revert to national stereotyping when we get cross with each other (especially with each other’s families) but most of the time we rejoice that we are neither fish nor fowl and enjoy living between worlds.  Which is probably the secret of success – we live in a neutral ‘third’ country.

What is your experience of marrying abroad?  Would you agree that it’s a taboo to admit the ‘selfish’ reasons for doing so? Do you think there are always some false expectations and stereotypes going on there? 

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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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Fish to live or live to fish?

A lovely story that I have heard many times in different incarnations (nationalities and personalities differed slightly) has been doing the rounds on blogs again lately, perhaps as a criticism of the capitalist economic model:

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellow fin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The fisherman replied, only a little while.

The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life.”

The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15-20 years.” “But what then?”

The American laughed and said that’s the best part. “When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”

“Millions.. Then what?”

The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

But the truth is that some of us are driven by the money,  power and status symbols, and perhaps only regret life passing us by when it is too late.  What is also true, however, is that some of us love our work so much that we would do it even if we weren’t paid for it.  In fact, some of us subsidise our ‘real’ work by doing other, lesser work – so we actually ‘pay’ to be allowed to do the work we feel passionate about.

I know scientists and researchers who are so passionate about the work they do that they still come into the lab each day, even after they retire.  That is employee engagement!  That is what employers dream of!  But that is commitment to the work itself, to the profession, rather than to a specific organisation.

What kind of worker are you?  And how can an employer best capture that passion and commitment from its employees (or freelance associates, for that matter)?

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