Intercultural Memories

Please join us here in sharing the stories that make us who we are.

Sometimes people need a story more than food to stay alive.

(Barry Lopez)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Review: Rethinking the Power of Maps by Denis Wood

Today they are scribbled on the back of business cards, delivered with admonitions by our GPS, or arrive on our desktop from Mappy or Google. Most of us, if we reflect on maps at all, are likely to think of them as aids for getting from one place to another without getting lost, happy not to risk roadway suicide refolding their bed sheet-sized ancestors to fit the glove compartment! In the newspaper or on the Internet maps may also seem to be easy ways to digest data, viz., the red/blue state maps used to explain the 2008 US elections or tracking the spread of influenza. However, Denis Wood’s sequel to The Power of Maps, takes us far, far deeper into the substratum of how we come to have and use these tools. It examines the assumptions we make about them and their import for both local and global communities.

Wood subjects what we call “a map” to a strict historical scrutiny. At least in the West, maps are with few exceptions a product of the age of nation building. To quote the author, “The things we recognize as maps gained currency only in the last 400 years or so and within this period only in relatively stable states with entrenched, centralized bureaucracies and well-established academies.” In truth, far from being passive reflections of geography, maps help construct the state as we know it.

How does this work? Drawing boundaries and naming places are ways of affirming the existence of a state and its reach. The resulting maps, then, both affirm and are affirmed by the authority of the state. The existence of the map offered a sense of identity to both the population within and a claim of proprietorship against those without. Maps are used to tell us that “things are,” and that they are “there.” At their absolute worst, as history shows, they often give legitimacy, if not a sense of absolute righteousness, to engaging in seizure and genocide.

Maps are not passive pieces of paper or pixels on your computer screen that they at first seem to be. While they present themselves as simply representing facts of nature and society, maps, whether gerrymandering local voting or school districts or staking a claim to territory, are in fact propositions supporting both local and geopolitical agendas in search of acceptance.

Besides chronicling this power and agency of maps with numerous historical and contemporary accounts, Rethinking the Power of Maps contains a brilliantly written, major case study, the mapping and counter-mapping and counter-counter-mapping of Palestine. The focal point of this history is the claim to existence of the State of Israel and propositions as to its geographical reach. I started reading the book from the beginning, but found the cartographic language a bit daunting, so followed the author’s suggestion of jumping to this illustrative chapter, whose story line and impact helped me make much better sense of the rest.

Maps share in the power of culture, in which the making of maps has in fact become a part. They are social constructs shaping our reality. They operate like the most influential levels of culture, those that speak to us from below the waterline of consciousness about what we should believe to be real and meaningful. Maps easily close our minds and eyes to conflicting or competing realities that might challenge implanted values and attitudes. Whether justifying contemporary Israeli expansion or motivating the century long march of the “Manifest Destiny” of the white man in America, maps ease the conscience of both their creators and users. Who can argue with “what is?” Here as well as elsewhere rapacious abstraction has the power to gnaw at our humanity.

Beyond tracking the basic story of the development of mapping and its purposes, Wood explores the impact of the legend and symbols and colors used in designing maps, what they tell us and what they hide, as well as how they advertise. The incisiveness and precision with which he examines elements that we take for granted on maps is at once a sociological and epistemological analysis of the minds of both makers and end users of maps. It explains the results of the employing them and gives us clues to the interpreting the language and codes they embody.

Maps are about relationships, how one landscape or feature of what is being measured and presented relates to or elbows another aside in the style of presentation, relative size and importance. Far from innocent notes and symbols, the legend placed on maps (or its absence), too, inevitably bear intentionality. Though we might generally agree that even the most lavishly illustrated menu is not the meal, when it comes to maps, we are far less likely to disentangle reality from its representation by the cartographer or fathom the intentions of his or her patrons.

Given the political, military, financial and social influences behind the creation and use of maps, it is not surprising that elevated consciousness about their actual sources, origins and nature would result in resistance to propositions they espouse. Inevitably this leads to counter-mapping as an expression of criticism and protest.

Wood looks at the rise and fall of cartography as a scholarly discipline, both in the making and classification of maps. He points to a decline of sustainability in this academic venture, due to both internal and external criticism and the fact that technological tools are democratizing the ability to make maps. He provides numerous examples of “home grown” mapmaking taking on a life of its own, embodying both artistic elegance and a sense of affection for the places in people lives.

Google, the blabbing GPS, et al, are now automating the past intentions and assumptions of mapmakers. Recognizing this, Wood becomes an unabashed advocate of “talking back to the map” and, in a populist sense, “taking back the map.” This perspective and tone resonates through the entire the book, but is most explicit in Chapters 5 to 7 where alternative propositions, everything from activist criticism to Dada map art are explored. Wood argues that we need to get beyond the fictive “public participation” that is often championed with a political agenda of balancing support and interests for projects if we are to enter into real democratization of maps.

Rethinking the Power of Maps, is not an easy read, but an eye opening one. The language can be daunting even for US English speakers, not just in the use of vocabulary but in the broadness of the conceptual frame—I read it with my browser open to Wikipedia. The end notes are a copious resource not only listing and explaining references but providing additional commentary on the part of the author that would have overburdened the text.

In sum, I can do no better than quote from the first pages of the book: “Maps are engines that convert social energy into social work,” whose outputs include the framing of social space, social order, and social knowledge.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

plus ca change redux

Rebranding the same old stuff is the best way to guarantee non-recognition of the fact that more of the same will result in more of the same

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Review-Cultural Mythology and Global Leadership

Kessler, Eric H. and Diana J. Wong-Mingji (Eds), Cultural Mythology and Global Leadership
2009. Edward Elgar Pub. ISBN-10: 1847204031

Reviewed by Dr. George Simons at

My mouth watered when first I saw the publication of this title, as it promised a next step in the exploration of cultural phenomena from within a culture’s

view and vision of itself. It has been my perception that the intercultural field has suffered from a plethora of models and mental paradigms that impose alien structures on the cultures to be studied and understood, and that the next task facing us is to see how different cultures define themselves and how they tend to look upon and evaluate others from their own cultural perspective.

Myths are an important part of the construction of a culture. Their telling creates, reflects and confirms, as well as continually adapts the values of a culture to the moment in which they are being retold. One might call them the constructive-instructive tools of culture. They are too often left behind in the research, analysis and codification of what we call intercultural knowledge.

This book brings together twenty studies that attempt to relate the myths of the country or region to the indigenous concept of leadership and its development in contemporary theory and practice. The framework of each study is identical, i.e., first, an exposition of the cultural myths or larger-than-life stories that speak of each people and of their leaders. The mythic characters may be anything from gods who shaped the universe as seen by a specific culture to real characters that shaped its history and have achieved mythic proportions in the cultural memory.

Secondly, there is an overview of how leadership is perceived in each culture. This generally takes the form of seeing how some of the values in the mythology may be reflected or used in current leadership thinking or in the behaviors of select leaders in politics and commerce.

There follows a look at the global and practical implications of leadership philosophy and practice within the culture. These are illustrated by one or more “commentary boxes” offering quotations from noted leaders. Each chapter is abundantly footnoted and referenced citing everyone from Aristotle to Ziber. The contributors to this book are by-and-large business and management scholars who see the relevance of both ethnic and organizational culture to their work rather than interculturalists, though they have some familiarity with theories of Hofstede and Trompenaars and occasionally cite where these theories break-down.

That being said, there is great diversity in the approaches taken by the various authors to the selection of the mythological content and to their perceptions and recommendations for contemporary leadership. Some authors underline characteristics (and failings) in terms of mythical prototypes while others use these as a jumping off point to suggest or recommend the relevance and applicability of current management theory to the development of today’s leaders.

While the mythological summaries are of varying quality and depth, it was interesting to read these summaries in the context of leadership and the various opinions of how the myths were relevant to flesh and blood leaders of our times. On the other hand, the book as a whole tends to suffer from having an “undistributed middle,” that is, there is in most cases a lack of concrete evidence that the heroes of mythology provide models or types for the leaders of today. Rather, from an intercultural perspective, one is forced to ask more complex questions that seem beyond the perspective or at least the task of the various contributors, e.g., chicken-and-egg questions:

  • How do myths and heroes create cultural values? vs How do cultures create and continue to shape their mythologies?
  • To what degree is a leader (or anyone else for that matter) shaped by the heroes and myths in his or her cultural ambience? vs How do we make choices about our heroes in order to further the values we have chosen for ourselves or our group?
  • How much is hero identification, where it exists, a matter of intrinsic instinct and calling? vs How much conscious choice and reshaping occurs when leaders are chosen for their political or commercial value?

Case in point. I was stunned that the editors, who are authors of the first chapter on the USA), chose “superheroes” as the mythic typology for understanding US leadership. There were were two cohorts of superheroes cited, those created around the startup World War II (1938-42), e.g., Superman and Wonder Woman, and those surrounding the height of the Cold War confrontations (early 1960’s), e.g., Incredible Hulk and the X-Men. I found no significant mention of the socio-cultural context of their genesis.

While the authors of this chapter do offer a table of advice about leadership behaviors taken from the strengths and weakness of each superhero, and, while archetypal US heroism may be reflected in these individualistic, usually loner-saviors of comic book and silver screen, they are not per se our prototypes, at least once we have outgrown our Halloween costumes. These are actually found in the frontier mentality and continue to be reflected in the Hollywood heroes and political posturing ad nauseam. The theme repeats itself beginning with the cowboy who drives the bad guys from town to the sci-fi world saviors, and currently, in videogames where the players can themselves play the role of the superheroes.

While in many cases the mythology cited has archetypal religious roots religion is taken most seriously by the authors of the section on India. Surprisingly, though the author’s of the US chapter mention that Superman echoes the Moses story, there is no mention of the role of religion in the most “born-again” of all countries where political and military leaders as well as commercial capitalists often ooze piety. Perhaps this is implicit in the choice of superheroes and myth, in that they represent the importance of reinventing oneself in this culture.

While there is too much in this volume to comment on in detail, it is appropriate at least to offer some examples of insights produced by its reading. I bullet a few of them here:

  • Canada is nicely distinguished from the USA by its sense how the land and multicultural realities have shaped leadership.
  • The chapter on Israel traces the impact of the transition from a socialistic to and individualistic culture and the consequences on leadership.
  • The impact of external domination in Poland and Islamic ascendency in Iran are both illustrate how deeper, older cultural roots remain powerful forces even when they have been suppressed or superseded by other ideology.

We know that within the same culture, the wisdom found one proverb (take risks) may seem to be contradicted by that found in another (be careful). Yet these complement each other in the big picture. So too, the gods and heroes of myth do not provide a consistent story but a rich locus from which we may draw the values and behaviors needed for our times and our exercise of leadership. In this regard, this book seems more illustrative than instructive and invites a closer look at how we make our choices of leaders and how leaders make their choices.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Surviving in the Civilized Jungle--review

Given the nature of the human beast, or perhaps the often beastly nature of humans, it is not surprising that philosophers have often cast commentaries and advice into bestiaries and fables. In the tradition of Aesop and La Fontaine, the latest on the scene is French consultant Bernard Nadoulek’s  Survivre Dans La Jungle Civilisée - Essai de stratégie à usage personnel  [Survive in the Civilized Jungle: A Guide for Personal Use].

This delightfully well written book casts the denizens of the organizational workplace with telling animal names for the roles they play. There are CEOs like Twisted Crocodile and Grumpy Bear, marketing directors like Ferocious Rhino, and other characters we are all likely to know from experience such as Irritable Baboon, White Goose, Golden Gorilla, Single-minded Ram, Putrid Hyena, Presumptuous Coyote and the like. I admit to a feeble French zoological vocabulary, so these names are literally my rendering aided by a friendly Larousse. They could no doubt be heard and translated more vividly by a native speaker.

The book in fact deals with common workplace situations, binds that we are thrust into by bosses and colleagues and our attempts to deliver ourselves safely from them without too much loss of honor, fur or plumage.  Our guide is the Eternal Owl, who has been invited to lecture at the HEC (acronym of the Grande Ecole de Commerce in Paris, but in our fable, the “Toads Institute of Higher Studies”). Owl (May we view her as a consultant guest lecturer?) rivals Allah in having close to 99 names each touting her insight and wisdom delivered incisively as the pages continue.

The situations could occur anywhere, but they are cast in a French organizational jungle for the most part where hierarchical relationships have their rules, practices and protocols. In later pages, in a more explicit analysis of strategy, Nadoulek will treat interactions from the perspective of their cultural context, with comparative Latin vs. Anglo-Saxon scenarios. It is here that the author, who is also a martial arts master, treats cultural values much as if they were the flow of energies in combat. It is a metaphor that I am quite attached to having spent some years as a student of Aikido.

Survivre Dans La Jungle Civilisée is, despite its scant 185 pages, far too rich to be captured in a two page review. My preference is to highlight a few of its insights of value for the intercultural field. Nadolek’s survival advice consists of five strategic principles:
  1. Think in terms of the opposite. In a jam, examine the strategies that run contrary to your knee jerk inclination.
  2. Put yourself in the other person’s head. What are they after, what do they want to protect, what do they expect or fear will happen?
  3. If you can’t solve a problem, deal with it. Many problems in organizations cannot be solved, but most can be treated or dealt with appropriate steps to avoid or eliminate their damaging consequences.
  4. Take local culture into account. What values dominate and need to be served if you are to succeed in your influence attempt?
  5. Cooperative strategies pay off better than conflictual ones. Be ready to cooperate when the other party is ready. What is proven in game theory is also proven in life.

While these principles are offered as advice for surviving in the “civilized jungle,” they are in fact tools of cultural competence, since we might recall that culture can well be defined as a group’s strategic lore for survival and success in a given environment. While our ethnocentrism may insist that a certain value is at stake in a given conflict, say truth, for example, this will not help us in a conflict that is set in a context where, say, relationship is the prime value, or order, etc. Framing one’s influence attempts on “the truth” or on rationality in one of these other contexts may result in the glories of martyrdom as seen from another vantage point, but will hardly ever yield the desired results in the current scene. Cultures, Nadoulek reminds us, are not based on rationality, but on history, traditions, beliefs, religions, and the like. The foundations of rational thought themselves are not rational but contextual. If you must engage, pick your battles but know full well the terrain on which they will be played out.

Influencing requires a clear picture of one’s objective—not always obvious, and there are choices here. You must decide how to pursue the objective both directly and indirectly with full awareness of the outcome you expect, all of this within the cultural context. An effective strategy also depends on ones having performed beforehand the same analysis on the potential objectives, strategies and expectations of the other(s) you will be engaging. Depending on the ambient culture, the satisfactory resolution of a dispute may occur by sharing the prize or the pain, following the letter of the law, or a shootout at OK Corral. For a strategy to succeed it needs to be based on full knowledge of the fundamental values that shape the collective identity of the culture in which you are immersed. Beliefs must be dealt with as facts upon which to base your strategy. 

The book ends with the parable of a King in search of invincibility with the lesson being that it is not found in force or terror, which lead to self destruction on a grand scale, but in simply not being where the adversary expects you to be. Want to know more…? An appendix defines and summarizes the critical matters of strategy.  It is a very good read. 

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Shocking Cultures--a review

Only a few pages into this slight book, I was already seeing it as a screenplay of Hollywood proportions. A surefire box office hit. With the perspective gained by his own experiences of coming to the USA from Cameroon as a school teacher of French, Dr. Ngomsi details the experiences of newcomers from abroad, his own and others’. While the book lays bare what the newcomer has to learn do and set aside to succeed and survive in a new environment, it also exposes, with the US as an example, the disastrous nature of the unconscious assumptions of the countries to which he or she may come.   

At the outset Shocking Cultures is intensely humorous as the newcomer goes from gaffe to gaffe in the hope of eventually making sense out of the environmentand the people in it. It is not just a matter of laughing at the ignorance of the newcomer, but in fact it is the obliviousness of the USians to their own cultural assumptions that creates the loudest laughs and in subsequent stories the most tearstained disasters.

The book opens with a scenario in which, accidentally “flipping the bird” while counting words on his fingers in a third grade class, the eager teacher is trapped somewhere between prudery and political correctness, and becomes the butt of both snide and explicit ridicule as well as accusations of criminal impropriety.

Cultural studies have long been strapped with distinguishing “high” context cultures from “low” context ones. This is a Western academic bias. Rather, what is required is knowledge of the contexts of various cultures.  Ngomsi’s tales make it eminently clear that US contextual assumptions and language can be as mysterious to the newcomer as are lore of a secret society. The context is too high and takes the newcomer too long to climb. One can often not find foothold on the cultural escarpment even with lively curiosity and earnest questions.

The danger of a serious fall is magnified by unfamiliarity with the language if one is speaking the local tongue as a second language speaker. When an US American says, “Tell me about it!” it is not a request for information but an emphatic statement that one already knows from experience what the other person is saying.  Calling someone “smart” is not always complimentary. Shocking Cultures is laden with these puzzling words and phrases that create painful moments for the newcomer. As the Hindi proverb would have it, “Fell from the sky, landed in a tree”—things go from bad to worse—the newcomer digs a deeper hole trying to climb out of a first mistake.

US addiction to law and order and a follow the rules mentality can be frustrating for USians and visitors alike. They provide the most painful stories in this collection. Let me be very blunt. I suspect that a number of US readers of this book will have a chuckle and dismiss the author’s dilemmas as did his colleagues in the story, “What can you expect of a ‘nappy-headed’ African?” To sober this racist reaction, I can simply cite the case of an intensely familial and culturally sophisticated French mother (now a CEO in an important company). She was detained and interrogated by police in a small Midwestern US town and threatened with losing custody of her children. Her crime? Leaving them in the car for five minutes while she went into the drugstore to get change for the parking meter. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, one more time, “It’s your culture, stupid!”

The book is eminently readable. Ngomsi nicely provides a list the topics issues dealt with in the stories of each chapter on its first page. I found these valuable to review after reading the chapter as they sharpened up the learnings that the engaging stories brought home. It is also intensely personal and one is left with the eternal human dilemma of the expatriate and the immigrant, the struggle between following one’s heart and finding one’s way in the dark woods of another culture.

Shocking Cultures is a strong argument for intercultural training not only for expatriates but for those who welcome them.  It also argues for very explicit and clear introduction to those parts of a culture that are highly contextual as well as those people would rather not speak about. I would recommend it as a must-read for people who do expatriation training as well as using it as a give-away to arriving expats and their hosts. 


Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Healing Wisdom of Africa--a review

The Healing Wisdom of Africa by Malidoma Patrice Somé is very much about ritual and is an initiatory ritual experience in its own right.  As I started into it, I was discouraged and beset with the temptation to lay it aside. It felt like a mix of 1980s New Age californication with reminiscences of a Catholic boyhood.  Being my stubborn self, however, I dragged it on bus trips to the market and schlepped it to the swimming pool to prelude my afternoon sieste provinçale. Willy-nilly I pushed my way deeper into it and achieved a breakthrough at about the two-thirds point.

I can’t say exactly when or how this happened, but the shift was one that I had experienced on occasion before. Once was at an Easter Vigil ceremony at St. Meinrad Abbey in the middle of the night. It started slowly and tediously with the lengthy chanted biblical history of salvation interspersed by our joining the rhythm of the monastic psalmody. At a certain point my spirit entered a new space where time was no more, tiredness disappeared and the distracting realities of daily existence had vanished.  We were no longer individuals attending a service but a community of healing spirits.

Another ritual entry into sacred space happened in the company of 200 hundred men, as we gathered to remember our fathers. Each of us began telling a story of loss in regard to the men in our lives. For some separation by death, for others the fatherly love they missed out on, and for many the bitter awareness of having betrayed their fathers for their mother’s affection. As the stories continued to pour out, tears and lamentation began to flow until the sound of the wailing, grieving mass was too large for the room, passed through the walls and entered the universe. Later we wondered if it were heard by the women who had so stridently complained that men were without feelings… Trained to mistrust and compete with each other, we were transformed into brothers by our common grief in the presence of the spirits of our fathers, who continue to walk with us as we walk with each other.

I cite these experiences in a bit of detail because they illustrate not only what the book talks about but what it does: ritual, and symbol that draw on our ancestors’ wisdom, live in our community, and are remembered in our bones. Like ritual, the book is repetitious rather than climactic. Its aim is not brilliant ideas but glowing human beings. A blinding light is not a once-and-for-all fix, but perhaps betimes a starting point.

Ritual experiences reposition our viewpoints on life, who we belong to and how we must act. Somé frequently contrasts contemporary “Western” life with the “indigenous” tribal world. On one hand, one senses that this is unfair and that the geography of it is incidental. On the other hand, the recognizable social dynamics are present in what he says. There is ample evidence that spiritual experience, ritual and its powers and human solidarity challenge our accepted practice of everyday values and behaviors. Unfortunately spiritual and religious perception has suffered from academic snobbery, the transformation of religious ethic into colonialism and capitalism, and the deadly politicization of religion to serve purposes of power, conquest and consumerism. Abuse of religion becomes excuse for not facing the fear of ritual, feeling, and spirit, forces that might enter our lives and contribute to them in ways we cannot know beforehand.

At its best, when not perverted by such powers and perceptions, the ritual experience and the spiritual community can allow us what seem like dangerously radical perspectives. For example, I have long been agitated by and agitated against the law and order driven penal system in my native country. It creates and perpetrates injustice to the disadvantaged while it reinforces damning bias in the general population. This ritual reading of The Healing Wisdom of Africa brought out of my bones a deeper memory of the purpose of community and its primary role of healing itself by healing its members and their divisions. I belong to a country that excommunicates and punishes “badness” at great expense. with little being done to forgive, heal, integrate and enhance our lives with reconciliation with brothers and sisters who have “transgressed.” Whether behind Leavenworth bars or in plush Wall Street offices, being right and being a winner appear to trump being together at every level. We forget what we are here for… Ritual reminds us.

Lest you be tempted to see either the book or my review of it as a paean to the noble savage, forget it.  It is about how wounded community and its members can go about healing, whether in Burkina Faso, Berlin or Beverly Hills. You don’t have to buy the cosmology of Somé’s Dagara tribe to share their wisdom and experience or benefit from the initiations that our own lives insist we enter. The take away, in the author’s own words, is the “intensity of human connection,” something countless numbers of today’s individuals desperately tweet for like a caged bird.

Monday, April 27, 2009

True Colors--US values under stress

Since culture is developed so that a group can survive and succeed in a certain enviornment, and since under stress we tend to revert to our most basic (survival) values and behaviors, it is interesting to me to inquire about what the stress of the financial meltdown in the USA tells us about US values. It helps us see our "true colors," so to speak. It is also interesting to question at what point does an envrionmental change become so significant that a cultural value can come into question or a paradigm shift take place. 

With these questions in mind, I have asked friends and observers to reflect on this with me and share their perceptions. The following came from a friend and colleague on the West Coast, Diane Asitimbay. Some of you may familiar with and perhaps use in training newcomers to the US her very fine book, What's Up America?. Diane writes:

"First, I think the American workers' productivity is directly related to job security. In other words, we work so hard because we know that our jobs, and to some extent, ourselves, are a disposable commodity that employers can eliminate at a moment's notice. In other Western industrialized societies where there is more job security, more identity is invested in their job, and so they are out on the streets protesting the employer's practices and lay-offfs rather than blaming themselves. This has to do with the U.S. value of self-sufficiency and it's our fault that we lost our job rather than the forces outside our control or channeling the blame to excessive executive pay or poor labor or investment practices on the part of the employer.
"Second, people in the U.S. are so in mired in credit card debt that they feel guilty about this and have their nose to the grindstone working like dogs that they seldom get out on the streets and protest anything in measurable numbers. When people have so much debt, they have less choice, or none at all if they are not willing to risk a great deal.
"There is an interview segment in the Michael Moore movie "Sicko" that is particularly acidic and honest when legendary British Labour leader Tony Benn is interviewed by Moore. Benn says: 'Keeping people hopeless and pessimistic--see I think there are two ways in which people are controlled--first of all frighten people and secondly demoralize them.'  
"Third, since government help is interpreted not as a good thing but a bad thing by the majority of people worried about losing their individual freedom and choice, most of us have a love/hate or an ambivalent attitude toward government helping them out, even in these economic times. It has to do with our self-sufficiency value again, the idea of " I don't need anybody," whereas the majority of us feel guilty if weneed help. 
"More particularly, I love what Obama is doing, given what he inherited from Bush. But I think Obama is riding on his charisma with his government stimulus package and his government intervention. Once this personal halo fades away, a lot of independent, middle of the road people who are currently supporting his policies will probably turn against the government protesting the welfare.  That's not the way I feel but I've heard a lot of business-minded people say negative comments about government regulation for his stimulus packing and in particular, in the banking industry and saying that the government shouldn't be involved at all.
"Many middle class people who I talk to say 'Things will get better next year," which to me, reflects that eternal optimism of our people, that it seems nearly impossible to imagine, 'Things could get worse.' I ask them why they think it will get better, and they say, 'It can't get worse.'
"Finally, to sum up, our values of self-sufficiency and distrust of government directly influence how we interpret our personal financial failures, foreclosures, credit card debt (guilt, not anger) etc. So an interplay of forces is at work, making it hard to distinguish when one personal value  begins and a cultural value ends. Amen."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Whither the weather "we"?

Watching the weather reports on the news channels, I have noticed an increasing tendency for the weather reporter to speak about "we" as the recipients or victims of weather trends. This is neither the editorial nor the royal "we" but a sort of symbiotic traveling "we" as the report moves from country to country. What makes the weather reporter one of us? If the reporter were speaking of the place in which he or she was located, the "we" might make sense, but when a Brit working in Qatar remarks of the Philippines, "We will be enjoying a respite from the seasonal rains..." I start to wonder about the internal conversation that results in this verbal expression.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Medical culture US Style, advice-less and priceless

Everybody is an expert in our egalitarian world. No one should be blamed for being wrong, unless they are supposed to be an expert and have the professional certificates to show for it and can therefore be sued for it. For example under threat of expensive malpractice suits, doctors no longer give advice. 
"Mr. Simons, the tests seem to show that you have contracted stercomyopia which often develops into a chronic condition in people your age. Currently there are three possible treatment options for this condition, you may chose a frontal lobotomy, get a second opinion from your financial advisor, or do nothing and allow the condition to take its course."
"Well, Doctor what should I do?"
"Mr. Simons, the choice is entirely up to you."
"But Doctor, if you were in my shoes, what would you do?"
"Mr. Simons, I can't choose for you. I have spelled out the options as best I can. The choice is yours. Think it over and let me know what you [and your insurer] decide."

US American Viagra--the psychological potency pill

Frequently I am asked to coach individuals about their cultural profile and to give examples of how that profile may fit or conflict with the cultural values of others. Take control, for example--the value here is being in charge of one's own life and then environment in which one lives. 

I suggest, for example, that many USians have been reluctant to act against environmental degradation, despite the evidence, not because we don't care about the environment, but because we have the belief, that "If we break it, we can fix it." In other words, we, the "can-do" people have the know-how, and if not, the investigative imagination to solve any problem and meet any challenge, environmental, educational, scientific, financial or political, if we put our minds to it. Demagoguery can easily dole out this psychological viagra for a variety of special interests. 

The evidence against this omnipotence, seems to be mounting against us in these many areas. Not that we cannot solve problems and exercise great creativity. We have frequently done so, and our great diversity has been our asset, but the assumption that we are on top of things effortlessly ever needs reexamination. Optimism is perhaps better than pessimism, but perhaps a bit more skepticism and criticism are needed to keep them in line. Fortunately there are a few politically incorrect shots are being taken at excessive optimism in the land of no small eggs. A pill to counteract US chirpiness?   

Friday, April 24, 2009

Management by Emergency--why it feels good.

Some years ago it was popular for OD consultants to observe that many US organizational cultures "managed by emergency." People in these organizations rushed about in a constant state of urgency, "putting out fires." I won't repeat the literature on the effects of this kind of management on planning, productivity and morale, but I do want to share an observation about it that I did not remember seeing in this kind of discussion. It is much more of a cultural and personal insight.

It has been clearly pointed out that USian culture values time as money and wasting time as at least secularly sinful. We were taught in the the Calvinistic vein that "idleness is the devil's workshop," rather than that "Leisure is the Basis of Culture." We are unleislurely, according to Aristotle, in order to have leisure. But why then do we resist leisure when we have adequate resources to take it and profit from it. What is the compulsion, greed, insecurity that leads to chronic workaholism?

I suggest that one of the psychological mechanisms that drives us to live in and perhaps revel in states of urgency is that it provides identity and hence importance, making us significant and needed. In a culture where we are largely defined by what we do rather than where we are from, doing is the key to identity. Urgency is the attitude that broadcasts to ourselves and others that we are here to do what we do and to be heroes at it. Having something to do helps me sense my worth; having something urgent to do undergirds my sense of capability as well as tells others that I have a role, an identity in something that concerns us all. 

This is, also, I suspect related to a refusal to be seen as victims, those helpless in a moment of need or emergency. Hence also the cultural tendency to look down upon those who feel victimized as in fact lazy, lacking imagination and initiative.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Valley Girl--look for the pain

This story was recounted to me first hand by a student who attended one of my courses in the years when I was working in Santa Monica. 

Jennifer had a part time job in a department store in the San Fernando Valley (Los Angeles above the San Santa Monica Mountains for those not familiar with the area). Her Japanese ancestry was visible in her face. 
She recalled that a customer had stared at her a bit and then asked, "Where are you from?" 
"Here in The Valley," she responded.

"But where are your parent from?" the woman continued.

"Oh, they're from The Valley, too, Jennifer answered, trying not to show annoyance.

The customer persisted, "But, then where were your grandparents from?"

"Oh, they weren't from The Valley," Jennifer continued, "They were from Fresno."
One of the things I learned from this story is to "look for the pain." Frequently US Americans are quite vehement in denying culture and roots, and, for me in the context of intercultural work,  quite resistant to talking about culture as a factor in employment and social life.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Where does culture end and choice begin?

When pondering this question we generally frame it in terms of "culture vs. personality," the unwritten assumption perhaps being that, while formed in the community or communities in which we grow up and live, the power of culture in our lives somehow diminishes as we individuate. And, this individuation is seen as an inevitable or desirable process in which we pick and choose those values and contexts that will be our own and differentiate us from those about us in the same community as well as from those in outside groups. 

In the USA children are trained for choice from the outset of consciousness. I never fail to be amused by seeing tourist parents in a French restaurant asking a 3.5 year-older, "Now honey, do you want the escargot en croûte or the  soupe de poisson aux croûtons et sa rouille à l'estragon?",  while the waiter smirks, pad in hand, shifting from one foot to the other.

But then, does culture not run deeper than these choices between cultural artifacts and behaviors? Certainly it affects how and when we make as well as give us input into which choices to make. Perhaps how we have and hold choice is also quite cultural, as well as related to the the amount of choice available to us as we shape our culture. Maybe culture is more like an infinite matriuska, where, lifting off one layer after another, we find the same thing or something similar at the heart of it?

I found the TED presentation by Barry Schwartz, which I have inserted below, to be very much to the point and was particularly struck, at the very outset, by his clear articulation of the core belief system, "the official dogma" of US (aka Western) individualistic and capitalistic culture, and dares to call into question from the perspective of its behavioral results.  Have a look. Then a couple questions worth discussing:
  1. Will the current financial crisis result in less choice and more satisfaction with what we have? Will it make us more communitarian?
  2. Are we at the "fooling ourselves" (a la Triandis) stage of fixing the system to make it work again and stomping our feet at tea parties in protest to any economic shift. 
  3. Should we love this system so dearly?  What would falling out of love with it mean?

Monday, April 13, 2009

The love of stories

When I was in my mid twenties, I was blown away by the Hassidic storytelling that flavored Elie Wiesel’s  writing, and have been an aficiaonado of the story ever since, later discovering the Sufi writers and stories in other cultural traditions.  Reading is great but telling face-to-face is even better…

Elie Wiesel’s book Gates of the Forest opens with this tribute to the story:

“‘When Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening…it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and misfortune averted. When his disciple, Magid of Mezritch, had occasion to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say, Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” Again, the miracle would be accomplished. Later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save the people, would go into the forest and say, “I do not know how to light the fire. I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire. I do not know the prayer. I cannot find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.’

“And it was sufficient. God made man because He loves stories.”

Sunday, April 12, 2009

SIETAR Follow-up: Genes, memes, temes. Susan Blackwood on TED

As a follow up to Doug Stuarts SUSA workshop,  "Shaking the Interculturalists Paradigm: Considering Consciousness and Cultural Evolution," I would like to offer for discussion this short presentation by Susan Blackwood, that appeared on TED. It takes us from Darwin through Dawkins and beyond and is, I believe, significant for how we see culture being transmitted. The challenges I perceive and would like to discuss: 
  1. How does this help us in learning and teaching about cultures?
  2. How does this challenge and perhaps refine our view of the world and our personal, psychological and perhaps theological perspectives?

Friday, April 10, 2009

SIETAR USA & personal reflections of a visit to the homeland

On April 1 to 4 the Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research USA held it's annual conference in Cary, NC. I went. It was my first visit to the USA since the day we invaded Iraq, over six years ago. This absence was not politically motivated, though I did tell my friends often enough, tongue in cheek, that I was "waiting for regime change." Now I had no excuse other than the fact that my travels took me via Manila, Dubai, Nice, London to get to RDU, leaving my body clock with a 12 hour time jolt. The greatest culture shock I experienced in the trip was transferring from business class on Emirates Airlines to steerage on American Airlines.

The high point of the SIETAR event for me was the all day pre-conference held on April 1 (my feast day = All Fools). Doug Stuart conducted an excellent presentation and discussion entitled, "Shaking the Interculturalists Paradigm: Considering Consciousness and Cultural Evolution." Our group was labeled HEAL by one of its members, an acronym for "highly engaged and loquacious," as indeed we were. Much of our discussion served to identify deceased and diseased paradigms in the intercultural field and the profession, raising the question,"Whither now?" Here is the police line-up of the suspects in this criminal or at least iconoclastic discussion.

By the way, if you click on the title of this post it will take you to the SIETAR USA home page where you can download the conference program, and where, shortly I hope, the proceedings and reports of the conference will be published, at least for participants. So this post will simply recount a few of my observations, quite partial of course, as it is impossible to attend everything in such a meeting. Others of you who were there might want to add to or comment on the post.

For reasons of either timing or the recession, conference attendance was, as I heard, in the 180's, so, relatively small for such an event. To me the crowd also seemed younger than usual (or am I just getting older?). At my best guess, about a dozen or more of the presenters were from the catalog of the Intercultural Communications Institute in Portland. 

Quite a few folks, including myself were somewhat disappointed in their expections of the first keynoter. Harry Triandis focused on the dynamics of self-deception in the key issues of the day, the financial meltdown, the population explosion, and terrorism. The big takeaway here was that we need to develop an alarm which should sound when we are Fooling Ourselves (the title of Harry's new book). Certainly a useful psychological perspective--and the field needs more presence of cross-cultural psychologists--but seemed a bit trite, biased and US-centric according to a number of the comments I heard. 

On my list of outstanding presentations were two that were done on somewhat related themes, an "Intercultural Perspective on Arabs, Muslims and Arab Americans" (Labna Ismail and Basma DeVries) and the role of "Muslim Women as Professional Interculturalists" (Pari Namazie and Munya Alyusuf).

Several significant sessions addressed theater and its uses for and impact on intercultural work. Saumya Pant and Nagesh Rao explored the use of participative theater for social change and engaged those present in the spontaneous participation process. In a TED talk, Emily Levine recently articulated one of the basic tenets of improvisational theater: "You cannot deny the other person's reality, you can only build on it." What a sterling principle for intercultural work!

Drew Kahn received a standing ovation for his keynote about the transformative effect of casting and perfoming  a play involving the story of Anne Frank, set side-by-side with the dynamics of the genocide in Rwanda. Though Kahn presented well, my sense was that the applause was even more for the courage, relevance and results of the project.

Patti Digh's plenary on "Hip-Hop, Manga, Facebook and Twitter, etc." was challenging, interesting, diverse, and just plain fun. Patti has a way of making asides to herself  that I rarely find other than Americans doing or doing well. She helped us look at at several less commonly explored arenas in which culture and the intercultural contest for people's attention today. These can be both learning challenges and useful tools for the work we do in the field.

We should be grateful to Cecilia Utne and Peter Fordos, for appraising us on "Icebergs and Polar Bears, viewing sustainability through a cross cultural lens." We should not be "fooling ourselves" about the gravity of our environmental situation and how cultures both affect and are affected by this issue. I am reminded of Paul Schafer's book Revolution or Renaissance.  Paul recently commented to me, "I am aware of a few individuals and institutions who seem to be committed to this issue, rather than the 'do culture because it's good for the economy,' which I think is rampant in the intercultural community today."

Online education and virtual collaboration were high interests of mine, and several presentations provided good insight into these developing facets of our work. At the very end of the conference Jen Stouse and I, along with the virtual imput of Joao Paoulo Brito of BluePill did a presentation of the curriculum design for a mixed media course on "Doing Business in the USA," which has been delivered now in its sixth year at the ESPEME-EDEC Business School in Nice. The BluePill Group were the sponsors of the highly attended online SIETAR Pavilion for the Granada Congress, which some of you may have visited. They also constructed the online learning center in SecondLife for this course. Joao Paulo spoke via Skype and interacted with Jen in SecondLife from his nightime in Barcelona, Spain. The technology for the presentation was last-minute touch and go, but thanks to the Palestinian technician of the hotel, we got the equipment we needed for satisfying connectivity. A big shukran to him! If you are interested in seeing or developing this kind of curriculum, we invite you to visit our course mindmap and resources. You can also view one of the online student projects, a video which we presented in the session. More info on request.  

In another session, Karen Dickman presented an interesting comparison of the Volstead Act (Prohibition, 1919 through 1933) failure with the contemporary struggle of gays for legitimate marital union in the USA. It was quite instructive as to how culture and law engage each other, and usually unrewarding challenge of trying to legislate morality on these and other issues in the USA. 

In my visit to the US I was also eager to explore the relationship of the pious and the prudish in US culture. There was  not really enough time to do that beyond a few conversations, and the fact that quite a few of the participants identified themselves as religious. This may be indicative of a recent national cultural trend. Or, maybe there is a sense of greater freedom to claim religious adherence and proclaim religious views in professional and academic contexts where anything but holy agnosticism tended to be seen as suspect and "unscientific." Or, maybe just my aimless speculation from a too small sample. Few people discussing religion and culture, on the other hand, seemed to be aware that many of the pioneers in the intercultural field had religious or missionary backgrounds. Phil Harris and Bob Moran, were religious brothers who later authored Managing Cultural Differences, now in its sixth edition. Mormon scholars originated the Culturegram series--early tipsheets on living and working abroad, still going strong at

There was a noteworthy groundswell of interest as well as a conviction that we should do more to create a certification process for interculturalist practitioners as exists in other professions and professional organizations. Much complaint that SIETAR has failed to achieve this despite several attempts in various parts of the world. A working group has formed around this and created a process for taking it forward.  

A musical group called One Drum provided entertainment with an amazingly worldwide reperotoire, both at the opening reception and at the gala closing dinner. I captured this small segment as they were doing one of my favorite Leonard Cohen pieces at the gala. 

The Embassy Suites hotel which hosted the conference had a large and pleasant spa which I visited each morning, since my jet lag had made an early riser out of me. US "law and order" values were apparent in the spa area. I had to ask myself whether I should exercise my intercultural curiousity by taking half an hour to read and ponder all the posted rules for the hammam, jacuzzi and swiming pool, or just plunge in and get wet. I chose the hot water.

The last of my objectives on this visit was to go shopping à la américaine. Prices are good and they tend to have my sizes. Unfortunately the conference venue was a bit out in the sticks and by the freeway--not much shopping within walking distance. Moreover, out of respect for churchgoers, Sunday shopping in the area does not start until noon, so I managed only a couple of hours window shopping and a hot pretzel at the nearest mall before needing to fly off. Just about everything but the pretzel seemed to be made in China, but that is another story.

Finally, there was also the issue of having to spend two hours on arrival at the RDU airport in the immigration "holding pen" waiting to be interviewed. Did I look wierd, smell bad or have too many visas with Arabic text on them, or all of these? Also, on my departure, the immigration officer was reluctant to let me fly away with out showing him a return ticket to the USA. Both great opportunities to shoot off my mouth, which I fortuntely resisted.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The paradox of tolerance

Tolerance has two parts, not giving offense and not taking offense. It seems that much of  political correctness has specialized in the first part, and largely ignored the second part which in fact means that taking offense usually results in giving offense. You can't have one without the other. 

In addition, I have to admit that some of my greatest learnings occurred when tough love and directness pierced my shell and I was able either at the moment to not raise defenses or at least in retrospect realized the message when my defensive reactions diminished. 

Friday, March 27, 2009

Para-what? Protection in Manila

Vanou and I have been coming to Manila to train Intercultural Negotiation Skills for about four years now. But there is always a moment for a first. Any number of times we have left the hotel to walk to the client's workplace. When it is raining (or in some cases typhooning), the doorman offers us the loan of an umbrella for the day. 

This week we had bright unseasonably hot sunshine and the doorman, said to me as I went out, "Would you like an umbrella, Sir?" I was actually startled by the question. Though many Filipinos carry umbrellas to shade them from the sun, it had never occurred to me to do so, just counting on my baseball cap to get me through. 

This led to some cultural reflection though. Etymologically the word "umbrella" is really to
 shade one not protect from the rain, though in English we tend to think of it that way most of the time. They even carry an ombrellino over the pope! French has parasol for sun and parapluie for rain. Spanish has parasol and paraguas.  In English we also can hear parasol but without  making much distinction as to its purpose. We even call the big beach umbrellas "umbrellas" most of the time.  I expect there are a lot more cultures who have such distinctions. 

To me this is a reminder of how culture and language are shaped by our attempts to survive and succeed in the environment given us and that there are always surprises in other environments.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Life changing, life sustaining words

Proverbs and Quotes... Culture's collected wisdom is often packed into short, pithy statements told over and over again. Add to this the wisdom of those who speak for and out of a culture and seek to pass on life changing, life sustaining words. These words shape and become part of our stories.  

Please add to this post the words and quotes that you feel have shaped your life and identity. We start with a sharing by Jeremy Compagno, student in the International Business Management Program at IAE in Aix-en-Provence, France, who found this quote from Martin Luther King an important motivator in his life:

"We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The VO dilemma--version originale vs voice over

This week I have been trying to get caught up on cinema after a long drought. Most theatres here have synchronized films, but I recently discovered one that shows VO with subtitles. I much prefer the latter. Even though I can follow a film in a number of languages, I feel that synchronization, besides giving bad lip synch, often betrays or loses the perspective on meaning and feeling and culture that are conveyed by tonality in the original language even if I can't understand the language that the characters are speaking. 

Let me give you an example. A few years back a friend and I went to Cannes to see Tim Burton's storytelling masterpiece Big Fish. The film was synchronized in French. We ran out of hankies and kleenex! A couple weeks I joined up with my colleague Kate to do a piece of work in the Paris area. Having an afternoon off we decided to go to the movies together. Kate had heard about and wanted to see Big Fish. I said that I had seen it but found it so good that I wouldn't mind at all seeing it a second time. This time it was presented in VO. It was an entirely different film. It still called for a five hankie rating, but now the regional Alabama accent was audible and the nuances and word play enriched the experience. 

Of course, subtitles can betray the sense as well, but normally they don't diminish the immediacy as much as synchronization. A tip--if you go to Bruxelles, expect only to see the top half of the movie screen--the bottom half is covered up with French, Flemish, and English subtitles if the film is in a fourth language!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Gran Torino--the sacred profanity of the working class

Gran Torino was a four hankie, male tear-jerker of a movie. Can't remember anything quite like it since Big Fish. I was back in the old neighborhood again, where Polacks, Wops, Krauts, and other Guinee guys called each other such, and this vocabulary was a sign of affection. The word list has grown since my youth with such choice expressions as wuss and dip-shit, but it's all in the tone, I guess--certainly indiscernible to the politically correct ear.   

Clint Eastwood, though not my visual image of a "Walter Kowalski," mastered the role of the man who, failing to raise his children to his own satisfaction, is forced by circumstance to try again, this time helping the parish priest grow up and making the Hmong neighbor boy not only the heir of his Ford but of his fortitude and forthrightness.

Yes, it is the US Lone Ranger again saving the neighborhood--do we have any other adventure theme? True Grit redux? Eastwood's artistry brings out enough of the familiar to invite us visit ourselves and then takes us to the old trunk in the basement to dig out a bit more about where we came from. As in The Unforgiven, we are asked to see more than our myths, urban and frontier, would like us to remember. 

The trailer is rated G "No nudity, no sex, no drugs, minimal violence and limited use of language that goes beyond polite conversation," and, of course, fails to convey what the movie is actually about.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Glossolalia in the melting pot

One only had to sit on the front porch, or at worst walk a block or two to hear other languages and accents. Ukrainians, African Americans, Greeks, Hungarians, the Jewish delicatessen owner, and West Slavs of every sort. Somewhere I read that 27% of the Central European immigration landed in the space between Pittsburgh and Chicago. Though I can't affirm the numbers, I can vouch for  the experience.  

Kids are good at imitation. So though we didn't learn the languages they spoke, we mocked the behaviors and speech around us. My grandfather, the court tailor from Vienna, I am told, could speak seven languages fluently. German, English, Polish, Hungarian, Croatian were ones I was familiar with. 

Given the biases against Catholics and immigrants, however, my grandparents and parents didn't want us to stick out. They refused to teach us what languages they knew, and used them with each other only when they didn't want us to know what they were talking about. "Let the kids be Americans--forget the 'old country.'" I remember asking my grandmother to teach me some German when I was about six years old. The lessons amounted to about half a dozen words and then let off. 

Even people's names, if they weren't already mutilated at Ellis Island, disappeared under the pressure of assimilation. The Wojichowskis turned into Walters and Papandriopoulos mutated into Peters. We build culture to make us secure and we abandon it for the same reason.

Starting in high school, however, I became an aficionado of language learning. In the classical education system, we got four years of Latin, two years of Classical Greek, and two years of German. College brought more classics, plus French. By this time, I was running on my own, studying Spanish in summer school and fiddling with the Arabic alphabet. Not particularly brilliant at it, I loved it and kept on going. Besides the classical studies providing roots to many contemporary languages, unlike many of my classmates I suffered no resistance to language learning and no embarrassment trying it out. If grandpa could speak seven language, why not me? Plus the mockery of the neighbors paid off. My teachers were amazed that I could pronounce concatenations of slavic consonants at first try.

Santiago Matamoros needs a change of name

Some years ago, my friend and colleague, Farid and I made a pact that he would perform the hajj and I would make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostelo as a mutual prayer for peace and friendship. 

Farid has kept his part of the bargain, reminding me also to be one of “…those who spend (benevolently) in ease as well as in straitness, and those who restrain anger and who pardon…” and that “Allah loves the doers of good.” (Quran‐3.134). Farid has gone, record in hand, to the gates of the garden, but I still have to hang my shell around my neck again for some weeks of marching west on the camino frances.

Hang on Farid! With my two new titanium hips, I’ll get there soon, and, after that, look forward to meeting you at the gates of the garden when the longer journey is finished.