About Dianne Hofner Saphiere

There are loads of talented people in this gorgeous world of ours. We all have a unique contribution to make, and if we collaborate, I am confident we have all the pieces we need to solve any problem we face. I have been an intercultural organizational effectiveness consultant since 1979, working primarily with for-profit multinational corporations. I lived and worked in Japan in the late 70s through the 80s, currently live in and work from México, where with a wonderful partner I'm raising a bicultural, global-minded teenager (I hope!). I have worked with organizations and people from over 100 nations in my career. What's your story?

4 Methods of Learning Culture

cover_selfdiscovery copy

“…the things we take for granted can trip us up and cause untold discomfort and frequently anger.” Edward Hall (“How Cultures Collide,” Psychology Today, July, 1976.)

It is generally acknowledged that it is important to understand one’s own cultural values before we can begin to understand another’s worldview, let alone develop intercultural competence. Cultural Detective Self Discovery offers a way to investigate our own values through a series of guided questions designed to help us discover more about ourselves. Below is an excerpt from Cultural Detective Self Discovery by Dianne Hofner Saphiere, George Simons, and Kate Berardo in which we address various approaches to culture learning.

Why learn about such a complex thing as culture? Certainly no one can learn everything about every other culture or even about one’s own, so why try at all?

At a very practical level, having the ability to work across cultures is a key skill in daily life and the workplace. When we think about “culture” as different organizational departments, communities, regions, companies, nations, genders, or religions, we realize that we cross cultures daily and constantly.

While we can never learn everything about every culture, what we can do is know our own values and how they affect us. We can be determined to go beyond auto-pilot thinking and to question our assumptions. We can approach working across cultures with curiosity and the intent to learn about others. Doing all this helps us to communicate more effectively and to avoid misunderstandings that lead to bad feelings and conflicts. In communities, this translates into greater cohesion. In the workplace, it means higher productivity, creativity, and synergy.

Encountering people who see the world differently, act differently, and speak differently challenges us to understand others and become more open and creative.

As Cultural Detectives, we want to understand what makes people tick. So where do we begin? There are a number of approaches to learning about cultures:

The Etiquette & Customs Approach
First of all, it is useful to know about people’s customs and habits, for example, when and how they greet others. There are many books on this topic, from professional studies to popular travel guides. There are videos and websites that help us know how to behave in everyday encounters with people who are different from us. Knowing what behavior is expected in particular situations can help us enormously—we can more quickly feel comfortable and blend in a bit, and we can prevent some unintentional insults. The downsides to this approach are that it is 1) difficult to memorize a long list of do’s and don’ts; 2) too easy to misunderstand which situations call for which behavior; 3) too easy to act stereotypically—in other words, the rules will not apply in all situations; and, of course, 4) most people do not expect outsiders to behave like insiders. Learning customs and habits is one way of getting to know others, but is not the only—nor necessarily the most effective—strategy.

The Language Learning Approach
We can also learn the language of our colleagues, clients, students, or neighbors. This could mean anything from learning their slang or TLAs (three-letter abbreviations) to mastering Arabic, Mandarin, or Verlan. Language is, of course, a key to understanding how people think, how they see the world, and what is important to them. It is supremely valuable for communicating across cultures. But, learning another tongue takes a long time. Learning their language may not be a step that you have time to take before interacting with people from another culture. Yet, you will certainly benefit from picking up that phrase book and learning at least a few polite words. So what then?

The Cultural Dimensions Approach
Another approach is to learn models of culture that help alert us to those areas where in our differences are likely to show up and where the differences will make a difference. For example, some people have a deep respect for authority and hierarchy—the boss is important and is to be treated accordingly, while other groups are very egalitarian—in meetings it is hard to tell who the boss is or even whether there is one. Or, you find that some people are likely to proceed on their own as individuals while others are inclined to act only when everybody in their group is in agreement.

To catch sight of the broad range of differences within which people think and act, it sometimes helps to use the dozen or so dimensions of difference developed by Western intercultural researchers. These models can help us recognize, classify, and respond appropriately to differences. They are categories of the ways in which people may be different. But they do not necessarily tell us why these differences work the way they do, or how these differences are viewed by our colleagues and neighbors.

Some of these categories of cultural difference ask us to look at ourselves and others to see whether…
  • We feel in control of our lives and our world, or if fate, destiny or other forces outside of us have a decisive impact on our lives.
  • We think deductively or inductively.
  • We focus, when we first work together, on taking action or on forming relationships.
  • We believe that rules and laws apply uniformly to everyone, everywhere, or that rules and laws need to be applied differently in different circumstances.

You can learn more about such categories from the work of Edward Hall and Geert Hofstede, who are among the pioneers of modern intercultural studies.

The Cultural Detective Approach
A powerful way to understand the motives of others and ourselves is by learning about core values. As a Cultural Detective we want to know what lies behind peoples’ many differences and what drives the gestures, words, and preferences of the people with whom we interact. What better way to learn than to have people themselves tell us what they value and how it motivates them to speak and act? The Cultural Detective Method begins by looking at a culture’s core values as they are seen by the people in that culture and by people who have experienced the culture deeply.

We encourage you to learn more about yourself and your core values via the Cultural Detective Self Discovery package. It has been used extensively by educational institutions, businesses, NGOs, and individuals throughout the world, and is currently available in a printable PDF format.

We are pleased to announce that Cultural Detective Self Discovery will soon be available as part of your subscription to Cultural Detective Online. Watch here for details in the coming months!

Cultural “Madeleines”

Image from "Foodies," a blog by L. John Harris on Zester Daily

Image from “Foodies,” a blog by L. John Harris on Zester Daily

Another terrific guest blog post by CD Russia co-author Carrie Cameron, combining two of your favorites: food and literature. Smells and tastes evoke our deepest memories, and for Blended Culture people they can easily lead to a round-the-world reverie…

Perhaps you’re familiar with the famous madeleine of Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past, or In Search of Lost Time, depending on the translation). The author takes a bite of a madeleine, a simple cookie, and the taste-memory drifts him off on a long reverie of his childhood, connecting him to the people and moments of long ago:

“…when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring…remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, by Anya von Bremzen, is not a cookbook, but a literary madeleine, evoking through food memories her childhood in Soviet Russia. It’s not about her favorite foods or emblematic Russian dishes. It’s about how a taste connects us with a moment in time and space.

Vobla, dried and salted Caspian roach fish, “brings out that particular Russian masochism: we love it because it’s such a torment to eat…I’d happily trade all Hemingway’s snails and Proust’s cakes for a strip of [this] petrified fish flesh.” A half-piece of black-market Juicy Fruit gum takes her back to the girls’ bathroom in elementary school, where she would auction it off to the other girls, having obtained it through some elite family connections. She describes salat Olivier as a “metaphor for a Soviet émigré’s memory… loosely cemented with mayo.” In her mother’s American kitchen in the 90’s, making the salat, she notes how “a taste of Lebanese pickle that uncannily resembles a Russian gherkin leads to a snippet from a Rodina song, which in turn rouses a political morality tale, or reawakens a recollection of a long-ago dream, of a fleeting pang of yearning.” Starting from these tastes and smells, the author skillfully depicts the cultural intimacies of a point in time and place which no longer exists, yet is very real and alive in her memory.

What tastes and smells evoke your cultural insights? What clues do they provide to other ways of life, and why?? Post your answers in the comments, and let’s compare!

I’m From….

Dianne Hofner Saphiere:

Sometimes our youth capture the depth and beauty, and reality, of experience more effectively than more mature adults. Personally, I loved this TCK/Blended Culture poem. Kudos to Adelaide!

Originally posted on Communicating.Across.Boundaries :

I’m From…by Robynn and Adelaide

passport-Adelaide

Adelaide is a sophomore in high school. She’s in grade 10. The Language Arts teacher wanted them to write a poem introducing themselves to her and to the class. It was a simple assignment. Five short stanzas. Two lines each. Begin each stanza with, “I’m from…”. Apparently the teacher’s included lines like, “I’m from the yellow kitchen, blue popsicles and red posies. I’m from the white house, the fenced yard, the barking beagle”.

It’s a good assignment.

Theoretically.

Unless where you’re from is convoluted. Unless you’ve inherited some confusion on that particular subject. Unless it’s too long of a story to be captured neatly in five short stanzas.

And then it’s not such a great assignment.

Adelaide cranked out a rough draft. The teacher read it over Adelaide’s shoulder. She cautioned her on being too vague. It wasn’t specific enough. It didn’t describe where Adelaide…

View original 261 more words

Migrants Moving History: Excellent Short Film

article-0-14067A2B000005DC-975_468x493

Image from the Daily Mail

 

“Europe faces an interesting set of immigration challenges and opportunities: Demographic pressures as many European societies age, a lively and at times tense policy and political debate over questions of identity and immigrant integration, and a unique policy environment that has knit 28 European countries together with regards to the management of outer borders, asylum, and other immigration-related topics.”
—Migration Policy Institute

Do you know that Germany has become the world’s second-largest destination for migrants, according to the OECD? Are you interested in the migrant experience? Multicultural identity? Do you work with people in transition? Are you particularly concerned with the challenges surrounding the changing demographics in Europe?  Have you considered what a future might look like if we weren’t quite so limited by nation-state thinking?

Then you definitely want to watch this terrific 23-minute movie, Migrants Moving History: Narratives of diversity in Europe, made with Hauptstadtkulturfonds out of Berlin. Even if you have seen it before, it is well worth your while. Though it was first aired back in 2008, the interviewees’ reflections on where they “belong,” on “betweenness,” on the differences between cultural and linguistic identity, and the benefits of multiculturalism, are thought-provoking; the video serves as a great starting point for discussion.

As one interviewee says, “Everyone gains from multiculturalism. We need an open discussion about how societies can better facilitate that.” It got me to thinking: which societies in the world proudly define themselves as immigrant societies, as multicultural? How did they get there? And how can we get more members of more societies thinking and feeling that way?

Let us know how you use Cultural Detective to make the most of multiculturalism where you live or work!

The Nasty (and Noble) Truth about Culture Shock

—And Ten Tips for Alleviating It (from our “Oldies but Goodies” series)

PolicemanThe Nasty Truth

I’ve behaved badly. It’s true, and I’m admitting it. Very publicly.

There was the time a police officer in Japan told me to move, and I stood my ground, passive-aggressively, staring him down, daring him to remove me.

There was the time at my son’s school here in Mexico, when I refused to go into a private office, insisting on talking (loudly) in the public lobby, because I was so very upset at the runaround the staff was giving me, and tired of being (privately) shut down.

Both of these were very culturally inappropriate. Heck, they were inappropriate by the standards of my birth culture! I behaved badly. I lost face. I upset others. I looked like a fool. I was ineffective. Why?

You could say these experiences reflect a lack of emotional maturity; despite my age I still have loads of growing to do. The case I’d like to make in this post, however, is that the stress of culture shock causes many people to do things we would never do in our home cultures, in a milieu with which we are intimately familiar and generally comfortable.

The Noble Truth

There are good things about this sort of “acting out.” Such meltdowns enable us to define and preserve our sense of self, identify our core values, realize how stressed we really are, so we can take care of ourselves and try to restore our equilibrium. Culture shock is also an indicator that we are indeed growing, stretching, challenging ourselves to get out of our comfort zone, and trying to adapt to new and different ways of being in the world. Thus, it is a highly worthwhile venture!

In the free download that accompanies this post, you will see a page titled, “Level of Acculturation.” This is one of those “Oldies but Goodies” that we occasionally release. Originally written back in 1989, the arrow on the page illustrates two polar extremes: the expat who makes great efforts not to acculturate, living instead much as s/he would at home; and on the other end, the expat who “goes native,” adapting to the local culture in every possible way. The key point of this piece of training material was to advise expats to try to strike a balance, to manage the polarity between the two extremes. It is important to maintain home-country connections for sanity and respite, and to build host-country connections in order to learn, grow, adapt, and fully experience one’s new home.

Please do not misunderstand me; I am most definitely not advocating behaving badly! I am, however, saying that such bad behavior happens all too frequently. The nasty truth is that inappropriate behavior, due at least in part to culture shock, is a fact of expat life that is all too often brushed under the rug. We refuse to talk about it. We may pretend it doesn’t happen, that it only happens to others, or we try to forget it did happen. We blame it on lack of competence. Of course we lack competence—we are learning and adapting to a culture that is new to us. And, it takes super-human levels of self esteem and emotional composure to navigate cultural adaptation without ever going over the edge, at least a bit.

Photo credit: Shelley Xia, USC

Photo credit: Shelley Xia, USC

What Is Culture Shock?

Culture shock is a continual, gnawing sense that things are not quite right. It is more appropriately called “cultural fatigue” or “identity crisis”: we become confused about how to accomplish our goals, and thus we start to feel powerless, to question our abilities, and lose self-esteem.

Culture shock does not result from a specific event or series of events. It does not strike suddenly or have a single principal cause. It comes, instead, from the experience of encountering ways of doing, organizing, perceiving, or valuing things that are different from ours. On some levels, this threatens our basic, unconscious belief that our encultured customs, assumptions, values, and behaviors are “right.” Culture shock is cumulative, building up slowly from a series of small events that may be difficult to identify or recognize.

General fatigue and exhaustion, susceptibility to illness, moodiness, headaches or upset stomach, weight gain or loss, irritability, restlessness, withdrawal, hostility—all of these can be signs of culture shock. A more extensive list of such symptoms is in the free download, which you are most welcome to use as our gift to you. Our only request is that you, of course, maintain the copyright information and url on the materials.

One of my friends and mentors, Bob (L. Robert) Kohls, explained the causes of culture shock in his 1984 book, Survival Kit for Overseas Living:

  • Being cut off from the cultural cues and known patterns with which your are familiar, especially the subtle, indirect ways you normally have of expressing feelings. All the nuance and shades of meaning that you understand instinctively and use to make your life comprehensible are suddenly taken from you.
  • Living and/or working over an extended period of time in a situation that is ambiguous.
  • Having your own values (which you had heretofore considered as absolutes) brought into question—which yanks your moral rug out from under you.
  • Being continually put into positions in which you are expected to function with maximum skill and speed, but where the cultural “rules” have not been adequately explained.

The W-Curve and Stages of Cultural Adjustment

Culture shock has often been introduced over the decades by using a curved line representing experience over time, either a “U-Curve” or a “W-Curve”—a sample graphic entitled “Stages of Cultural Adjustment” is included in the download accompanying this post. The idea of such curves is that our emotions go up and down as we adapt to a new home. First, we adjust superficially: learning our way around town, learning how to shop, cook, socialize, etc. Then, at some point, we are confronted with values differences that challenge us on very deep levels: a new and cherished friend seems to stab us in the back, or a work project we were confident would succeed crashes and burns, and we may have no clue why. At this point many expats return home (often at one year to eighteen months into the sojourn, according to many trainers), while others navigate their way through the challenges of shock to attain some level of ongoing effectiveness and adjustment to their new home. The U-Curve and W-Curve can be helpful learning tools, but research repeatedly shows they do not reflect reality. Actual expat experience is not nearly so neat, nor tidy, nor linear.

Kate Berardo, co-author of Cultural Detective Self Discovery and Cultural Detective Bridging Cultures, did a review of the literature on this topic, and offers a process approach for managing culture shock, which Cultural Detective first published back in 2010. Be sure to check it out if you haven’t read it, and know that these traditional models have been debunked; continuing to use them should be an informed choice.

Factors Influencing the Degree of Culture Shock

Nobody is immune to culture shock. The degree of culture shock that individuals experience varies, and can be influenced by a number of factors such as:

  1. Pre-departure expectations: Are they realistic, or overly positive or negative?
  2. Degree of change in environment, customs, language and values.
  3. Degree of personal commitment to the move.
  4. Amount of knowledge about the host culture.
  5. Flexibility: How adaptable is the individual by nature or experience?
  6. Emotional stability.
  7. Level of emotional support in new environment.
  8. Economic security.
  9. Availability of mental health services and support groups.
  10. Availability of tension relievers: How accessible are recreational facilities? Is it possible to pursue hobbies or other interests?
  11. Availability of worthwhile work.
  12. Acceptance of different values and beliefs.
  13. Ability to tolerate ambiguity: Is the individual able to tolerate situations that are unpredictable, puzzling or frustrating?
  14. Ability to be a learner: Is the individual curious about the new environment and open to learning about it?

As interculturalists, and those who work with international sojourners, I think it’s time we face up to the nasty truth: culture shock is real—it happens. And, despite the toll it takes on our relationships and our dignity, it presents an opportunity for growth and learning that we should take advantage of.

In looking through the incidents in our Cultural Detective series, most of them represent people managing their work in the best way they know how. All parties in the story have good intentions, but due to cultural differences they miscommunicate or work at odds to one another. In a small minority of our critical incidents, however, we see someone who is suffering from culture shock. They do or say something that, most probably, they would never do under more comfortable or familiar circumstances. They are probably tired, due to linguistic and cultural fatigue. They have suffered repeated blows to their self confidence: the educated adult that they are only knows enough to act with a child’s effectiveness in the new culture.

cultureshockTyttiBraysyHow Do We Manage Culture Shock?
And How Do We Deal With Those Going Through It?
(the key that’s never talked about)

Our goal is not to avoid difference and ambiguity, but, rather, to learn to bridge differences and harness them as assets. And, we want to help our colleagues, family members, employees and students while they are experiencing culture shock. How can we best do that? The free download accompanying this post provides you ten “Tips for Alleviating Culture Shock”, including such things as getting sufficient rest, reading in your native language, and cultivating a support network. Subscribing to and regularly using Cultural Detective Online will help you process your emotions and make sense of your experiences, using them as learning and development opportunities.

Another tool included in the download is a set of three worksheets on identity (“The Impact of Cross-Cultural Experience on Identity”). The first urges you to reflect on the identity you hold in various spheres of life and ways of being in your home culture(s). For example, how do you define your competence, what is your communication style, how does your occupation affect your identity, and how do you define and maintain your health? The second worksheet then asks you to reflect on how those same things might change when you relocate. The third sheet is useful for reflection before you finish your sojourn and return home. These worksheets are another tool for thinking about life transitions, differing contexts, workplaces and friendships, and how we and those around us change during our sojourns abroad.

Another key person in my early professional formation was Dr. Dean Barnlund. He taught me so much and, more importantly perhaps, inspired me. Dean focused on intercultural interaction and included art and photography in his approach, which resonated with me on so many levels. One very small piece of his work is a set of values continua that he assembled together with Kluckhohn and Morgan. I honestly can not remember if these were published in a book or shared with me in person, and my internet searches have not pointed me to their origin, either. I do know that I’ve always had their names on the bottom as originators of the tool, so the work comes from them. I see them as the precursors to the many dimensions of culture models in use in the intercultural field today. I used these continua for years to help teach people about basic cultural differences, to help expats reflect on what might be welcome changes for them, and what they might find challenging. I share it with you in the attached download (“Cultural Values Checklist”).

The final piece of material in the free download is “Culture as an Onion Skin.” I no longer use this metaphor, preferring instead the Personal Values Lens from the Cultural Detective Self Discovery. My chief concern with the onion-skin metaphor is that, when you peel back the many layers of an onion, nothing is left inside! If that lack of fit doesn’t bother you so much, the usefulness of the onion-skin worksheet is to help us think about our core values. What are the things that in life that are really important to me? I can note those that are near and dear, guarded closely, never to be negotiated, in the central portion of the onion. Then, I have other values that I still hold tightly, that are very important to me, but that are more amenable to situational variance. Those I can note on the outer layers of the onion.

Come on, be truthful now. Share with us one of your “I behaved badly” stories, and a bit about the journey you were on when it happened! Help us take the nasty truth out of the closet and into the light of day, so we can learn from it. Did the experience make you stronger? A better Cultural Detective? How did you learn to navigate your way through it?

cultureshockThis was reposted in the Velvet Ashes’ Culture Shock link-up. If the topic interests you, be sure to visit some of the other great posts, from other blogs, that are linked-up there.

Great Culture-Crossers I Have Known (or wish I had!)

image001

Entrance to Woolarac Museum

This is a guest blog post by Carrie Cameron, co-author of Cultural Detective Russia. I assure you I would have been wrangling to get on the guest list for Frank’s annual party! What a mixer those must have been!

What do oil tycoons, American Indians, and bank robbers have in common? I had a chance to find out recently, when I visited the Woolaroc Museum in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, USA. The name “Woolaroc” is composed of the words “woods,” “lakes,” and “rocks.” The museum and surrounding natural park, located in the beautiful hills in the northernmost vestiges of the Ozark Mountains, was a gift to the people from Frank Phillips, the founder of Phillips Petroleum (Phillips 66). The museum is full of extraordinary Indian art and artifacts, as well as cowboy and frontier art and artifacts.

Mr. Phillips was born on a small farm in Nebraska, became a successful businessman, and married the daughter of a bank president. Moving to northern Oklahoma to buy land and drill for oil, he became deeply attached to the countryside, and also close to the Osage tribe living there. He was the first White man adopted into the tribe, a testament to his ability to transcend cultural differences.

He originally built Woolaroc as a personal retreat, to which he invited his wealthy business associates and friends. But perhaps his most remarkable social contribution was to host a grand party once a year to which he invited his business and family friends, his Osage Indian friends, local White settlers and cowboys, local lawmen, and bank robbers and cattle rustlers (who received full amnesty for that day). What a gathering that must have been.image003Phillips’ ability to value the humanity in an extraordinary range of people—rich and poor, White and Native American, businessman and cowboy, and even citizen and outlaw—was exceptional. It reminds us that building cultural bridges is not just about ethnicity or race, but about the many facets that make up our unique identities. Not simply tolerating—but actually thriving—on this kaleidoscope, Mr. Phillips appears to have been a Cultural Detective par excellence!

So Proud of Our Customer!

MSFT_logo_rgb_C-Gray_DMicrosoft India has been a Cultural Detective customer for six years, and both Heather Robinson and I are so very proud of the abilities their staff members have developed to in turn coach and develop their support engineers’ customer service skills. The entire project has been amazing—truly a privilege to be a part of it! I’d like to take this opportunity to share a bit of their “Cultural Effective” story with you.

Microsoft uses Cultural Detective to coach their large enterprise customer support representatives. In the first six months using the tool, they told us they attributed a 30% increase in customer satisfaction to Cultural Detective! Now, five years later, they know Cultural Detective inside and out, and use the CD Method when interacting with both international and domestic customers.

In March of this year Heather again traveled to Bangalore to work with the trainers, to help improve their abilities to coach using Cultural Detective. The approach she used is what we call EPIC: Essential Practice for Intercultural Competence. It is a combination of Cultural Detective, with which Microsoft has been working for five years, and Personal Leadership, which their staff have been working with for the past year or so.

The design was an inspired one. Because Microsoft has experienced facilitators who are also well-versed in Cultural Detective, Heather used these facilitators to get team newcomers up to speed, as well as to facilitate small group breakout sessions. This internal group of facilitators put together the readings, sample interviews and assignments for the three-day training. As is so wonderful when training in India, there were plenty of games, activities and laughter.

As you might imagine, one of the main challenges for the support engineers is knowing how to respond to customers’ emotions. Large enterprises rely on Microsoft products to function in highly customized ways, which often means long days of problem-solving discussions, heightened emotions and frayed nerves. The March training included the learners acting out skits of engineer-customer interactions, videotaping them, and then using the Cultural Detective Worksheet to debrief the contrasting values, and the EPIC approach to discern how to respond most appropriately. We would love to share one or two of those videos with you here, but, of course, they are proprietary.

Instead, let me leave you with a few of the notes scribed in small groups. In case you’re wondering why “Kit Kats” and “Milky Ways,” the participants chose a candy bar and then broke into groups, one of ten techniques you can find in this blog post.

If you or your organization would like to be profiled in an upcoming blog post, we would be happy to talk with you about making that happen. Just let us know. Congratulations to all the Microsoft staff, who are so committed to building intercultural competence in their organization, and to you, the Cultural Detective community, for your efforts on this same journey.

The Mexican Crafts Artist, Pedro Ramirez

A guest blog post by Rossana Miranda Johnston, Tatyana Fertelmeyster and Carrie Cameron

During our recent Cultural Detective Tenth Anniversary meetings and celebrations in Mazatlán, Mexico, some of those attending used a free hour in the program to walk out into the community to conduct short ethnographic studies—to practice their detective skills. Below is a summary of what interested one group. Click here for a link to the instructions for this activity; you are most welcome to adapt them for your own purposes!

Just think how frequently we travel to very different places for work, and how often we don’t take the time to interact with the local people in ways that help us get to know them as people. The same can be said for the beautiful places we travel as tourists. Let’s make a point of practicing our Cultural Detective skills wherever we are, building cross-cultural respect, understanding, and friendship!

TF, CC, RMJ 1 With no specific destination in mind, our group wandered down the street and away from the hotel. Trying to avoid the “tourist traps,” we were delighted to visit a local Mexican crafts store, thanks to the discerning eyes of the Mexican member of our group.

The store featured many types of handmade crafts, most of them displayed by the artist who was on-site working on his/her wares while waiting for a sale. Among the several craftspeople working, we found the artist in the photo, Pedro Ramirez—in a corner of the shop working on a new creation. We watched him as he worked and struck up a conversation.

He told us, “Each piece takes several hours to a few days to be made. It depends on how complex or elaborate they are; each piece is unique.” Over the years, Pedro told us, he had tried making different items, but they didn’t always sell. Now he only makes crosses because they are popular and generally sell any time of the year. Perhaps this reflects the Mexican reverence for the Roman Catholic Church? Many tourists are probably Christian, and crosses are an easily transportable souvenir or gift item. TF, CC, RMJ 2

Pedro has been experimenting with different materials and hardware for the crosses, from old doors to windows and tables. Using mainly recycled materials has a few advantages. For one, raw materials are free—it does, however, take creativity and imagination to see what can be done with what others see as scrap or trash. In addition, using recycled materials appeals to tourists who appreciate seeing materials being reused in the form of art. For some, we surmise, this adds to the attraction and appeal of his crosses.

Pedro was warm, cordial and circular in his verbal description, demonstrating a common tendency in conversation in Mexico—Cantinflísmo (Affable circular communication) as he chatted with us. Our small group did have the advantage of a native Spanish speaker and another member who is fairly fluent. This allowed us to communicate easily and help put Pedro at ease. Once he understood our purpose, he talked more freely with us. He is proud of his work, dignified in his self-presentation, and seemed to exude a sense of Sentirse agusto (feeling good about someone or something). It seemed he was comfortable sharing information because he understood we respected his work and were genuinely interested. Our interaction with him was very pleasant, reflecting a low key effort to Caer bién—to be liked or to like others, being or finding someone pleasant—and it is an integral part of Sentirse agusto.

Meeting and talking with Pedro offered us a small glimpse into the life of an artist dependent on the tourist trade. He offered a good example of the creativity we saw in crafts and art in Mazatlan. Mr. Ramirez’ art and livelihood intertwines two salient Mexican cultural themes impacting personal economics: applying innovation/creativity to traditional religious symbols in order to create vibrant new decorative art pieces. We only wish we had more time to explore and enjoy the visual feast of goods in vibrant colors and rich textures we saw in the shops and among street vendors. Hasta la próxima, or “until next time!”

Film Review: Searching for Sugarman

MV5BMjA5Nzc2NDUyN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjQwMjc5Nw@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_It must be summer for me: two movie reviews in just a few weeks! Another really good movie, too, this one an Academy-award-winning documentary. If you love an amazing story that serendipitously weaves together continents, champions the underdog, and echoes the resonance of truth across cultures, Searching for Sugar Man is for you!

Sixto Rodriguez is the working-class son of Mexican immigrants to the USA. As an anti-establishment folk singer he published two albums in the 1970s about the marginalized poor of the inner city. The music is powerful and haunting, but his albums met with minimal success in the US, and Rodriguez was dropped from his record label.

Unknown to the Rodriguez family, several of his songs became anthems of the anti-apartheid movement (“the system is gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune”), especially among Afrikaners. Rodriguez became a platinum-selling hero in South Africa, supposedly more famous than Elvis Presley or the Rolling Stones. He was widely rumored to have committed suicide on stage—bestowing Rodriguez with a Jimi Hendrix-like aura—yet people knew nothing more about him than what they could glean from his album covers and liners.

In the mid-90s two men—record-store owner Stephen Segerman and music journalist Craig Bartholomew—decided to play detective and learn who Rodriguez was and what had become of him. They tried to contact his record label, but it had long ago gone out of business. They contacted the label’s owner, but he was of no help. They pored over the lyrics to Rodriguez’s songs, with not a lot of luck (they needed a cultural informant, as most any midwesterner or KISS fan could tell you that the lyrics from Can’t Get Away, “born in the troubled city in rock and roll USA,” refer to Detroit). Finally, they found the thread to unravel the story. This movie is the story of their quest.

SPOILER ALERT
It turns out they found Rodriguez alive and well in Detroit’s historic Woodbridge neighborhood, having earned a B.A. in philosophy and having worked for several decades in demolition and on production lines. He became politically active, running for city council, and has three daughters. Segerman and Bartholomew arrange for Rodriguez to visit South Africa for a sold-out series of tours, and the movie includes footage of the first of those tours.

Another interesting cross-cultural tidbit is that his youngest daughter, who accompanies Rodriguez on his first South African tour, falls in love and ends up living there.

The way in which Rodriguez’s words, from inner city Detroit, speak to those on another continent and in another hemisphere, is very powerful. What is most remarkable to me, however, is the dignity, peacefulness, and clarity of the man himself. Rodriguez seems content with the life he has led (we never witness him expressing regret for lost royalties or fame), and joyous and yet non-phased by his fame and success in South Africa. It makes me want to meet a man so fully rooted in and confident of who he is.

A Streetscape in Mazatlán

A guest blog post by Carrie Cameron

During our recent Cultural Detective Tenth Anniversary meetings and celebrations in Mazatlán, Mexico, some of those attending used a free hour in the program to walk out into the community to conduct short ethnographic studies—to practice their detective skills. Below is a summary of what interested one group.

Click here for a link to the instructions for this activity; you are most welcome to adapt them for your own purposes! Just think how frequently we travel to very different places for work, and how often we don’t take the time to interact with the local people in ways that help us get to know them as people. The same can be said for the beautiful places we travel as tourists. Let’s make a point of practicing our Cultural Detective skills wherever we are, building cross-cultural respect, understanding, and friendship!

image002The two portals of this private building reflect traces of a couple of Mexican values, and provide a thought-provoking contrast. Located in the Centro Histórico district of Mazatlán, these differing window images on the same building grabbed my attention due to their stark contrast and my reaction to them.

In the eyes of many US Americans, the window on the right has an ornamental grate that is “obviously” there for self-protection. This may be due to the prevailing norm in most historically Anglo communities in the US, where the point is to organize the exteriors of houses, and the land surrounding them, for maximum street appeal—to look nice to the public. With this cultural lens, the iron grating over the window appears forbidding, almost like a jail gate.

Looking inside this window through the bars, however, one sees a lovely interior courtyard. With a different cultural lens, one can appreciate that the beauty is saved for the inhabitants inside rather than displayed outside for the passers-by. This tradition is, of course, very ancient and not specific to Mexico, but is alive and very visible in the Mexican environment. Earlier in the day, we had been on the top of a hotel looking down into the Centro Histórico, and were able to see many other lovely “hidden” gardens surrounded by buildings and/or walls.

In the photo above, the window space on the left, which has been plastered over, has a graffiti-style painting of a whimsical robot-like character, full of bright colors, dynamic angles, and high energy. These sudden and unexpected bursts of playful creativity, color, and often-humorous social commentary, seem to appear frequently on the Mazatlán streetscape.

The Mexican sense of design, decoration, ornamentation, adornment, and use of color and music appear to be a prevalent part of everyday life, even in the poorest neighborhoods or circumstances. On another level, such whimsical images as the one in the graffiti above often convey biting social commentary in an apparently lighthearted and ironic way. Other examples of this are the Día de los Muertos images and figurines, with charmingly dressed skeletons wearing flowered hats, jewelry, dancing shoes, etc.

Investigating Cultural Detective Mexico core values using this image provides many possibilities. The value of Tradición (Tradition) is evidenced in both the old window and the new graffiti. The stability and sense of history provided by the old window is a subtle reminder that the past had value, and remains as the base upon which to build—even to build expression of an artistic nature!

The bright colors of the graffiti echo the traditional colors of clothing, weaving, and handicrafts by many of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. So, in a sense, this newer form of artistic expression has a connection with the past, also.

Another core Mexican value reflected in the photo is that of Posición social (Social position). Peeking through the grate on the window into the garden, one can only imagine its original splendor. The family who built the home had to be of some means, and the house reflects their social position. And now, a street artist has seen the plastered-over window as a canvas on which to display his/her work, a statement of her/his position in society as an artist.

Of course, an interior garden may add to one’s ability to Sentirse agusto (feel good about someone or something) by providing a serene setting in contrast to the outside world. And dare we imagine that the artist also felt good about his/her creation—had a sense of Sentirse agusto upon completion of the work?