Funny how an image can stick with you and open a dialogue in your mind.

This image did that for me:


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The Ability to Recognize “No” When we Hear it.

How frequently do people decline gifts?  Is it an easy thing to do?  When people are offered a present do they often respond “I don’t want it.  Of what possible use could it be to me?”  To the contrary, universal gift giving protocol requires the acceptance of the gift and the appropriate expression of gratitude.  Hold this observation in mind and let’s explore the concept of offering aid to developing nations.

Is it any wonder that so many projects are undertaken in developing nations without local “buy in”? Locals often report that when foreign nationals come to their countries to try to “help” them, the locals are primarily interested in developing  relationships with the foreign nationals and getting to know them. Locals are eager to learn from foreign nationals.  Seldom do locals report any desire for the “things” that foreign nationals leave behind.  The objects foreign nationals bring quite often increase group tension and actually have a negative impact within a collective society.

Some aid given is really much more about power and exploitation.  It may be more about expanding capitalism and creating markets for goods that the locals do not really need.  

Conversation matters.  In order for assistance to be helpful, locals need to actually want the assistance. 

The absorptive capacity of the locals needs to be assessed first.  As Cohen Levinthal states, “the ability to evaluate and utilize outside knowledge is largely a function of the  level of prior related knowledge.  At the most elemental level, this prior knowledge includes basic skills or even a shared language but it may also include knowledge of most recent scientific developments in a given field.

The question must be asked:  Are experts pushing the assistance on the locals or are the locals pulling the assistance in?  Are aid workers able to recognize “no” when they hear it? Do those being offered assistance want it? Or are they simply interested in getting to know foreign nationals?

It is critical to assess the client’s  abilities to metabolize assistance (Tichy, 1997)  They may not be ready to be helped.  What does an organization or group need to shed or stop doing to create more space and opportunity for development? These considerations need to be explored prior to implementing any aid effort abroad.

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Leaving “Home” Wherever That Is

When a child has grown up abroad and suddenly it is the moment to leave “home” and head for university, what unexpressed concerns might that individual be coping with?

When my children made this life transition, I didn’t have a clue.  I thought I understood what was going on but I really underestimated the challenges they were privately facing.  My kids were trapped between two impossible choices.  They knew they weren’t Singaporean, being US nationals who had lived in Singapore for six years.  And they privately feared that they were no longer US Americans because they had spent so many of their developmental years living abroad.

They were supposed to be elated. “They were going home” finally.  Privately they were alienated and very alone as they faced  this life transition. At 18, they realized they couldn’t stay; the “host” country wasn’t “home”.  Paradoxically, they were confronting the realization that the home country wasn’t “home” either.  So there they were silent and unable to voice all that they were attempting to assimilate.

Leaving the expat community and one’s family is a pivotal point in the life of an individual.  It is particularly challenging because few expat families ever have honest discussions about alienation and lack of belonging.  The pain is unexpressed and viewed as some personal inadequacy. The assumption is “you’re supposed to be happy”. Many parents of expat kids haven’t grown up as expats.  They can’t relate to or even imagine what they children are experiencing.  The parents have “roots”.  Expat adolescents do not share that sense of truly belonging anywhere.  While the parents believe they are sending their children “home” to school, the graduate may feel completely alone as they face another perplexedly “foreign” world. 

I wish as a parent, I had been aware of these issues.  Instead I allowed myself to be swept up in the logistics of such a move.  Perhaps you will do better than I.

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A Global Education

Northeastern University is located on Huntington Avenue in Boston, Massachusetts.  By 2017 the university intends to raise 1 billion dollars.  They are seeking $500 million in philanthropic support and $500 million from industry and government partnerships.  This effort is called “Empower:  The Campaign for Northeastern University.”  They have deemed this a “pivotal moment” in the life of the university.

Northeastern was founded in 1898 and the core of it’s programs has focused on co-operative education or “the integration of study and real world experience”. In the beginning   those real world experiences were domestic in nature or generally happened within the USA.  Today Northeastern students are placed all over the world as Northeastern’s faculty collaborates across disciplines and forges partnerships worldwide. Northeastern is poised to “redefine the global research university”.

If you are considering pursing higher education, investigate Northeastern.  You just might find yourself riding on a wave of innovation and globalization never before experienced!Image

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Little Soldiers

childhood friends

childhood friends (Photo credit: eltpics)

What is it like to be an Expat Kid?

I never really considered how my children might react privately to lives of repeated relocation.  I guess in my mind I saw the opportunities and the advantages our mobile lives offered.  The business of raising “global citizens” was pretty heady stuff.  And I, just like all parents, had a way of putting a spin on the events of our lives that made each decision we made “the best of all possible choices”.

What I really never objectively considered was what was being sacrificed in the process.

Just recently, the telephone rang and a voice from the past inquired.  “Is this Eleni Angelopoulos LoPorto?”   “Yes” I replied.  “I have been looking for you for almost fifty years.”  “This is Cathy Connelley.”  We had lived next door to one another when we were 14 in Newport, Rhode Island and had become childhood friends. Then I moved, and moved again, and moved again…18 times in all to be precise.  And she had been missing me and I, her for all those years.  And I never told a soul.

Did the moving matter? Not on the surface.  I was resilient  in each new destination, reached out, made new friends, and left them  time and time again.  I learned to be remarkably flexible and adaptable.

We were a positive family.  Our glass was half full.  We saw the opportunities in each new location and the universe of my life was ever expanding.

Privately, I felt very alone.  Paradoxically, I simultaneously felt that I was , the one who abandoned others and the one who was abandoned.  That is a difficult concept for a child to verbalize let alone come to grips with.

What was the problem?  It was the effect of all those repeated relocations.  Honestly, I just wanted “normal”.  I wanted “ordinary”. I wanted “boring”. I wanted to know the kid next door for more than two years.  I wanted to have a friend that I knew “from childhood”so long that I didn’t like him.

The interesting thing about Expat Life is even if I stayed, even if I didn’t move, the Expat world changed around me.  There was no solution to so much mobility.  Staying didn’t matter because everyone else moved away.  This is the enigma of Expat life.  How does one gain a sense of stability when the very foundations of an Expat life are predicated on movement, constant movement, and change?  Maybe that stability comes, when one is 62 years old and unexpectedly the phone rings and we are validated by the fact that we were missed and mattered.

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How to be a Good Indirect Communicator, Part II

A sign commanding silence and respect at Arlin...

A sign commanding silence and respect at Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, the District. (Author: David Bjorgen) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Beyond Words

If we are accustomed to functioning in a direct culture, there may be much that we are unaware of or that we simply take for granted.  In order to become more cross-culturally competent, we need to raise our levels of awareness.

The Use of Our Eyes

In a direct culture, one unspoken rule is that we “should look each other in the eyes”.  Looking into someone’s eyes “works” in an egalitarian  and classless cultures where all individuals are perceived to be “equals”.  Looking into someone’s eyes during communication in a direct culture says “I am open, attentive, and can be trusted”.  Conversely, in a direct culture, when an individual avoids looking into someone’s eyes, that person is sometimes perceived as “having something to hide” or as being “untrustworthy”.

In an indirect culture, hierarchy is important.  Showing proper respect is important.  People from direct cultures when functioning in indirect cultures, are called upon to let go of their egalitarian sensibilities and show proper respect to someone judged to be of a higher rank.  Elders are respected simply because they are elders and your character will be judged by the measure of respect you accord to elders as well as to those in higher rank.  It is respectful to defer looking into someone’s eyes.  Lowering your eyes in an indirect culture is a sign of necessary respect.

When is a Smile not a Smile?

In indirect cultures humility is essential.  Understand that being humble is a code of behavior.  It may be genuine or it may be creating a situation when you are “unguarded” and therefore,  more easily taken advantage of.  In an indirect culture, sometimes a warm smile is a gesture not to be taken at face value.  It is a good idea not to read more goodwill into a situation than may actually be there.  People in indirect cultures are generally polite. Some will have genuine warm feelings for those from other cultures.  Some may not.

Silence is Golden

In indirect cultures, not speaking is often valued.  A person who “speaks too much” is considered a fool.  It is admirable to be able to communicate effectively without words.  A certain facial expression, a slight movement of the body, a certain use of the eyes all may communicate meaning in an indirect culture.  Refraining from idle chatter is valued in indirect cultures.

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How to be a Good Indirect Communicator

high vs low context

high vs low context (Photo credit: nchenga)

The essence of becoming effective when working cross-culturally involves being willing and able to do things differently from what one is accustomed to doing.   It requires us to stop doing what we are doing and do something else in its place.

There is a significant difference between communication styles between “High Context”and “Low Context”  Cultures.  “High Context” cultures employ indirect communication styles while “Low Context” cultures are more direct in their communications.

Direct communicators like those from Israel, Sweden, and Germany, for example, are comfortable directly stating their wants, needs, and impressions.  They value speaking as directly and as honestly as possible.  Words and the selection of words carry the meaning in these cultures.  The correct use of words is important here.

Indirect communicators in “High Context” cultures factor in another dimension of communication.  While they value honest communication they also equally value maintaining harmony and courtesy.  They are very aware of the delicate nature of human communication and they avoid causing anyone to be embarrassed (losing “face”)  or lose the respect of others because of something they have said or done.  This concept of avoiding embarrassing themselves or others and maintaining harmony affects the words they chose and how they elect to communicate meaning.  They will often imply something rather than state it directly and they allow their listeners to draw their own conclusions.  They will avoid dealing with conflict directly.  They may enlist the help of a “go between” or third party to deal with conflict to insure that no one loses face.

In indirect cultures, the rudest thing one can say is “NO” to a request.  If you come from a direct culture and you ask a direct question in an indirect culture you probably will misunderstand the response you may be receiving. If you ask a direct question like, “Can you complete this project by Friday?” in an indirect culture,  you give your audience only three possible responses:  “Yes”, “Maybe”, and “No”.  Considering that it is rude to say “No” to anyone’s request in an indirect culture, the audience is left with only the two choices of “Yes” or “Maybe”.  The astute cross-cultural listener will understand that a response of “Maybe” in an indirect culture, most probably means “No”.  For sure,  if you ever hear “It will be difficult” as a response in an indirect culture, that does not mean that something is going to get done albeit with difficulty.  In fact in an indirect culture, “It will be difficult” as a response to a direct question means “No.”   Remember, saying “No” causes someone to lose face in an indirect culture.  Saying “No” is to be avoided at all costs.

Generally, cultures that are indirect are often very “high context” cultures. In these cultures the group is valued more than the individual.   In “high context cultures” group members communicate in ways other than by using words:  the use of body language, the use of time, the use of space, the tone of an utterance — all of these things can speak volumes even though one has never even spoken a word.  “High Context” cultures read the meaning in gestures that members of “Low Context” cultures are completely unaware of. Cultures that are indirect and display “high context” often have long histories and traditions.  This embedded shared understanding  supports and communicates “high context” meanings.  We do not find this shared understanding in younger cultures that are subject to rapid changes.  In these young and”low context” cultures ,like the United States, meanings must be spelled out in words much more implicitly and communication, if it is to be successful, is much more direct in nature.

A useful tactic in indirect cultures is learning to ask indirect questions.  If you would like to know if a project will be completed on Friday, you might ask an open-ended question like “What are the demands on your organization at this time?  What kind of support would you require in order to complete our project?  What things must be accomplished before you are able to finish our project? or When do you think it might be reasonable to expect that our project might be completed?” These are open-ended questions intended to solicit a wide array of information.  From the data obtained by such open-ended questioning, you will be able to form a more accurate assessment of the likelihood that the project will be completed by a specific time frame.  The final open-ended question might be, “What would be necessary to enable you and your organization to complete this project by Friday?

What does not work in indirect cultures is for us to be asking direct questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.  The data produced by such questioning in indirect, high context cultures is often incomplete and unreliable.

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