Ready for Some Good News?

girl with curls v1

photo by Steve Evans from Citizen of the World (South Africa  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

…maybe the most important thing happening in the world today is something that we [journalists] almost never cover: a stunning decline in poverty, illiteracy and disease.”

—Nicholas Kristof, NY Times, Oct. 1, 2015

Things seem so grim some days that sometimes I want to turn off the news. But such a “head in the sand” approach isn’t beneficial — it is important to me to know as much as I can about what’s going on globally. But I keep believing there are many good things that are happening in the world that we just aren’t hearing about — the kindness and compassion of people, the connections that make us truly human, the tireless efforts to educate more children, feed more people, and eradicate diseases.

On a particularly glum day, I was delighted to find a NY Times Op-Ed Column by Nicholas Kristof—something that actually gave me reasons to feel more optimistic about the improving situations of people globally. While the daily struggle continues to be difficult for too many around the world, there actually is some good news.

Funny thing is, US Americans don’t know about it. Kristof puts this lack of knowledge squarely on the shoulders of US journalists, but I wonder if others around the world know this information?

According to Kristof, “…the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty… has fallen by more than half, from 35 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2011 (the most recent year for which figures are available from the World Bank).”

What? Why didn’t someone tell me? All this work actually is making a difference! For example, in the 1980s, only half the girls in developing countries completed elementary school; today the number is 80 percent. In 1990, more than 12 million children died before they were 5; now the number is less than half that amount.

Kristof writes: “The world’s best-kept secret is that we live at a historic inflection point when extreme poverty is retreating. United Nations members have just adopted 17 new Global Goals, of which the centerpiece is the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030. Their goals are historic. There will still be poor people, of course, but very few who are too poor to eat or to send children to school. Young journalists or aid workers starting out today will in their careers see very little of the leprosy, illiteracy, elephantiasis and river blindness that I have seen routinely.”

Steven Radelet, a development economist and Georgetown University professor, in a forthcoming book, The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World, notes, “We live at a time of the greatest developmental progress among the global poor in the history of the world.”

All this is very encouraging news—caring, hard working people do make a difference, just as I want to believe! Thousands of people all over the world share their knowledge, skills, and expertise to help others have a better life. We at Cultural Detective salute each of you doing your part to make the world a better place!

Cultural Appropriation of Day of the Dead?

©1.IMG_0542You may know that I am US American born, and that I live in México. The latter is a huge country overflowing with diversity, art, and tradition. México is the world’s 13th largest economy, home of a growing middle class. Here in Mazatlán where I live, “Day of the Dead” is a big deal. Many families and businesses decorate altars and visit cemeteries to honor, remember, and often party with the dead. We have a huge street walk with marching bands and flowing beer, and a beautiful event involving dance, music, and poetry in our historic theater. Many locals and immigrants paint their faces and dress up.

However, not many of us here realize that there has been quite a backlash outside of Mexico to the cultural appropriation and commercialization of Day of the Dead by non-Latinos.

I first realized how “hot” Day of the Dead was on my recent visit to a US liquor store. There, I was astounded by the quantity of Day of the Dead- or calaca-themed beer and liquor! To be honest, skeletons and skulls in and of themselves seem to be popular, and anything Mexican (amigoslucha libre….), Spanish (Don Quixote), or mystical (voodoo) as well. The commercialization is, indeed, real. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Living here in Mexico, where we are privileged to be steeped in the traditions as well as the festivities, I hadn’t realized the concerns about appropriation of Day of the Dead until I read a post by one of the bloggers I follow, Aya de Leon, entitled, “Dear White People/Queridos Gringos: You Want Our Culture But You Don’t Want Us — Stop Colonizing The Day Of The Dead.”

In reading her excellent article and researching the matter a bit more, it seems that most Latinos are proud of this holiday. They understand that recognizing the dearly departed is a universal desire. Most are happy to share and ready to welcome us into the Día de los Muertos traditions, which have existed since Aztec times. But they most definitely and understandably resent our taking on the traditions as our own and transforming them into something they’re not — emptying the traditions of their soul. She writes:

And the urge to colonization is born when your own land and resources have been taken over by the greedy and your cultures have been bankrupted. Halloween has a rich history as an  indigenous European holiday that celebrated many of the same themes as Day of the Dead, but you have let it be taken over by Wal-Mart… You have abandoned Halloween, left it laying in the street like a trampled fright wig from the dollar store.

Take back your holiday. Take back your own indigenous culture. Fight to reclaim your own spirituality.

Please. Stop colonizing ours.

Aya gives examples of Day of the Dead festivals organized by non-Latinos in which Latino voices and faces are not even present! She talks of a sort of Cinco-de-Mayo-ization (my words) of Day of the Dead, in which white hipsters wear calaca face paint, stand amongst broken marigolds listening to white bands, and drink gentrified, holiday-themed micro-brews, without so much as a thought to what the true tradition is or means. She explains, and rightly complains, that we love Mexican culture when it’s convenient and fun, but not when it involves advocating to solve undocumented immigration, illegal gun exports, or rampant femicide.

So where, exactly, is the line between participating in and honoring Day of the Dead and appropriating or colonizing it?

Cultural appropriation is often used as an accusation, implying theft. But cultures, their traditions and artifacts, often aren’t clearly distinguishable. Throughout history people have intermingled, shared, and been inspired by one another.  As an interculturalist, I’m all about diversity, integration, collaboration, creativity. There is nothing inherently wrong in us learning from and building on one another; that is actually, rather, a really good thing!

The problem, Aya tells us, is many who are welcomed to the Day of the Dead table are poor guests. We don’t sit at the table; we take the table over. We don’t pay our respects, acknowledge our hosts, or say thank you. We need to be conscious that if we organize themed events, we should use them as opportunities to showcase Latino artists and musicians, and we should hold the tradition with reverence, respect, and a desire to learn and honor.

In an insightful piece in Quartz, Noah Berlatsky tells us that the problem with cultural appropriation is racism:

“There’s nothing wrong with Elvis loving and imitating Jackie Wilson. But there is something wrong with the fact that Elvis is hailed as the King of Rock n’ Roll, while most people barely know who Jackie Wilson is…

White performers, like Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus, use twerking in their videos on the way to becoming more successful and awarded than the black women who developed the style in the first place. When the white borrower, predictably, earns more accolades than the borrowee, artistic freedom and admiration is transformed into something much more problematic…

While country music loves black music, it mostly excludes black artists, in the sense that those artists are not considered central, and their contributions aren’t recognized.”

Therefore, all of us need to be vigilant to extend power and privilege, credit and honor, to the origins and originators, not just to those who adapt. However, our modern-day systems are skewed against us. Those who write a book are credited with ideas expressed by others; individuals and corporations can copyright and trademark something that has a long tradition and belongs to a group of people.

Did you know that Disney even attempted to trademark Day of the Dead? They were making a movie called Day of the Dead, and wanted to trademark the title. Thanks to huge response to a petition on, Disney rather quickly pulled its application. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, here’s what some of those opposing Disney’s trademark application had to say:

“Our spiritual traditions are for everyone, not for companies like Walt Disney to trademark and exploit,” wrote Grace Sesma, the petition’s creator. “I am deeply offended and dismayed that a family-oriented company like Walt Disney would seek to own the rights to something that is the rightful heritage of the people of Mexico. This is a sacred tradition. It’s NOT FOR SALE,” wrote Consuelo Alba, of Watsonville, Calif.

The trademark application was “odd” to Evonne Gallardo, executive director of the Boyle Heights art center Self Help Graphics. The center puts on one of the largest Day of the Dead celebrations in Los Angeles and has been sponsored by the Walt Disney Co. “The right thing to do is not to attempt to trademark a cultural and spiritual celebration,” Gallardo said. “I have yet to see a trademark on Christmas or Hanukkah.”

The movie was re-titled to “Coco,” no doubt so that Disney could trademark the title and create a website. One of the most spirited activists to oppose the trademark application was cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, creator of that incredibly powerful graphic above. In a great act of corporate listening and learning, he was recently hired on by Disney to work on the film about which he protested! Our speaking up to defend our heritage can have positive results! The movie is being made, showcasing a beautiful tradition, and it now includes more representation from the very culture it portrays.

Today as I started to write this post, I read an interesting article in The Atlantic: “The Do’s and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation.” In it, Jenni Avins provides six recommendations to prevent appropriation, including involvement of and engagement with members of the culture. She points out that cultures are fluid and constantly changing, so we can’t ask that they stay frozen in time. On the other hand, foreign passion has often helped preserve native traditions, arts, handicrafts, music, dance, literature and even languages. Like Aya, she highlights the importance of acknowledging and honoring the source, the origin, of cultural arts and traditions. Jenni also provides two “don’ts”: never wear blackface, and never use sacred artifacts as accessories.

If you celebrate Day of the Dead, please, participate in and enjoy the festivities, and use the opportunity to truly remember those who have preceded us in death. Day of the Dead provides a perfect time for us to learn from our Mexican and Latino neighbors and friends, and to share with them a human universal: remembrance and longing for those we’ve loved and lost.

I would heartily welcome your sharing with us stories of when you felt torn between wanting to participate in or honor a culture, and fearing that you were appropriating. For me, I quickly remember two different occasions when esteemed colleagues gifted me beautiful and expensive native dress, and requested that I wear it during training. I just couldn’t. I felt comfortable to wear their gifts for a social occasion, but for an intercultural training, where I was in a power position, and not a member of or fluent in the culture the dress represented, it just didn’t feel right. Yet I know I disappointed my colleagues. I do wear blouses made from kimono fabric, or blouses or skirts from other cultures. There’s just something about a complete outfit and hairstyle combination that makes me feel like I’m trying to be something I’m not.

How about you? Do share!

Focus on Happiness vs. Growth!

“Overconsumption” photo ©The Guardian.

Interculturalists have long known that the answers to our world problems lie within the diversity of values and wisdom in the people of our world. Today I learned that economists are now agreeing with us.

For over seventy years economists have told us that growth is the solution to world poverty, that “growth” equals “progress.” Progressives and some of the world’s wealthiest have recently begun to advocate taxation schemes to redistribute monies from the wealthiest and thus build a bit of justice into our systems. Yet, neither approach will work.

Since 1980, the global economy has grown by 380%, but the number of people living in poverty on less than $5 (£3.20) a day has increased by more than 1.1 billion. That’s 17 times the population of Britain. So much for the trickle-down effect.
—Jason Hickel in The Guardian, 23 September 2015

We are already over-consuming Earth’s bio-capacity by 60%. The real problem is overconsumption by the world’s wealthiest countries, and the way in which we conceptualize “progress.”

Our planet only has enough resources for each of us to consume 1.8 “global hectares” annually—a standardised unit that measures resource use and waste. This figure is roughly what the average person in Ghana or Guatemala consumes. By contrast, people in the US and Canada consume about 8 hectares per person, while Europeans consume 4.7 hectares—many times their fair share.
—Jason Hickel

In a wonderfully insightful article in The Guardian, Jason Hickel, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, tells us that an intercultural approach and cross-cultural values may be the solution to problems facing our world. Jason tells us how “economist Peter Edward argues that instead of pushing poorer countries to ‘catch up’ with rich ones, we should be thinking of ways to get rich countries to ‘catch down’ to more appropriate levels of development. We should look at societies where people live long and happy lives at relatively low levels of income and consumption not as basket cases that need to be developed towards western models, but as exemplars of efficient living.” Costa Rica, for example, manages to sustain one of the highest happiness indicators and life expectancies in the world with a per capita income one-fourth that of the US.

“Perhaps we should regard such countries not as underdeveloped, but rather as appropriately developed. And maybe we need to start calling on rich countries to justify their excesses! According to recent consumer research, 70% of people in middle- and high-income countries believe overconsumption is putting our planet and society at risk. A similar majority also believe we should strive to buy and own less, and that doing so would not compromise our happiness. People sense there is something wrong with the dominant model of economic progress and they are hungry for an alternative narrative.”

Jason directs us to Latin American values such as “buen vivir,” living the good life, to which I’d add also a respect for the planet, Pacha Mama, and community values such as the African “ubuntu.” You can find in-depth explanations of hundreds of non-dominant values in Cultural Detective Online. Changing our western- and northern-centric definitions of progress to a definition more inclusive of the eastern and southern value system could be just the ticket to our survival as a species. Jason also points us toward books such as Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s How Much is Enough?

As Jason concludes his article:

Either we slow down voluntarily or climate change will do it for us. We can’t go on ignoring the laws of nature. But rethinking our theory of progress is not only an ecological imperative, it is also a development one.

This is not about giving anything up. On the contrary, it’s about reaching a higher level of understanding and consciousness about what we’re doing here and why.

Cultural Detectives, let us use this new-found recognition as a catalyst to breathe new motivation into our efforts!

The Oxford Dictionary recently added “Mx” to their lexicon. Are you familiar with what it means?


Transgender symbol image ©ParaDox, used under Wikimedia Commons license

Growing up in the USA in the 1950s, as I did, it was “clearly understood” that there were two genders: boys and girls. So it never crossed my mind until I was much older that perhaps the binary world of gender was not so binary. And if one allows—even intellectually—for that possibility, you can begin to see how difficult daily life can be for transgender people, individuals who do not identify with the gender to which they were assigned at birth.

The more one thinks about it, the more complex being transgender becomes. Take a seemingly simple thing like filling out a standardized form: what do you do if you aren’t Miss, Mrs., Ms., or Mr.? This is the dilemma that opens Jacob Tobia’s recent piece in The Guardian, which I highly recommend. He writes of the difficulties of not having a gender-neutral option available in so many daily situations. As I read his article, I began to realize the privilege given to “cisgendered” individuals—those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.

Tobia writes:

Growing up, I assumed that the only way to have a gender-neutral title would be if I got a PhD and could make everyone call me “Dr”. For most of my life, I didn’t realize that there was another way out of the “Mr/Ms” dichotomy. That changed when, in my junior year of college, a favorite professor of mine introduced me to an artist named Justin Vivian Bond who used a gender-neutral term that I had never heard of before: “Mx.”

What?! Yup, that’s not a typo: the word is “Mx.” When I read this article, I thought everyone else must already know about it, since it is now included in “A title used before a person’s surname or full name by those who wish to avoid specifying their gender or by those who prefer not to identify themselves as male or female.”

Judging by the reaction of the few people I have mentioned it to, this term is not in universal usage, at least not in my tiny little corner of the world. However, it seems a great addition to the English language for those who do not self-identify with binary gender assignments.

“…on 28 August 2015…That day, – created by the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary – added Mx to the dictionary. Seemingly overnight, Mx went from an underground, somewhat obscure term, to an official part of the English language.”

Want to learn more about the challenges of being transgender? Watch this video with Jazz Jennings, a transgender youth. Want to learn how to be an ally to transgender people? Here are a few tips from Basic Rights Oregon. Want to understand some of the values that transgender individuals tend to share? Check out Cultural Detective LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender), now part of Cultural Detective Online.

It’s in His Kiss… or is it?

kissingKissing customs vary by culture; we all know that—when greeting, do you kiss, bow, shake hands, hug, fist bump, or use some other gesture? If you do kiss to say hello, do you do kiss once, twice or thrice? Do you kiss the lips, cheek or air?

But when it comes to kissing a lover, to passionate or sexual kissing, well, suddenly we think that is surely universal.

But is it? Are statements such as those below ethnocentric?

Researchers have discovered kissing helps you choose the right mate and helps you live longer. They have found you use 146 muscles when you pucker up and swap 80 million new bacteria when you lock lips. And you will spend some 20,000 minutes — or two weeks — of your lifetime doing it.
The Washington Post

According to a recent study of 168 cultures worldwide, romantic-sexual kissing is actually far from universal. In fact, the study shows that only 41% of the world’s cultures engage in romantic kissing! Researchers on the project were anthropologists William Jakowiak and Shelly Volsche, of the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and gender studies researcher Justin Garcia, from Indiana University Bloomington. The paper, entitled, “Is the Romantic-Sexual Kiss a Near Human Universal?”, was published in The American Anthropologist in July, 2015.

Volsche told that, “There is a marked absence of kissing in equatorial and sub-Saharan hunter-gatherer societies such as the Hadza, the Turkana, the Maasai, and the Yanomamo.” The Mehinaku of Brazil told one ethnographer that they thought kissing was “gross,” asking why anyone would want to “share their dinner.” This research found that kissing evolves in complex, post-industrial societies in which there is time for and interest in erotic play. Erotic kissing is not common in agricultural, pastoral and hunter-gatherer societies.

Many societies that do not have romantic kissing use other physical expressions of endearment, often an exchange of breath or mutual sniffing of cheeks and necks. The Oceanic Kiss involves passing open mouths, with no contact. It is usually a greeting, and occasionally part of the sexual repertoire. Are you curious about other sexual customs and beliefs that may be culturally relative? If so, check out this article in Bustle.

Cultural Detective is a terrific tool for exploring the methods you use to build trust with and confidence in others, whether they be romantic partners, work colleagues, neighbors or clients. We invite you to join us in one of our complimentary webinars to learn how.

What is Privilege?

Today a diversity and inclusion colleague I highly respect posted a link to an exercise in which participants line up side-by-side and then take a step back for each type of privilege they have not experienced in their lives. 35 types of privilege are listed in the article, and a short video about it is below. It’s a powerful exercise, filled with potentially transformative learning.

It’s also an exercise that I’ve had several successful people tell me over the years was a traumatic experience for them. Why? Because, experiential learning activities require proper debriefing! The woman in my story was actually told, when she was standing alone at the back of the room, “See how inclusive our company is? Even someone so lacking in privilege can be successful here!” Exactly the opposite of the desired outcome for the exercise!

The meaning we make of our experience is in the debriefing! It takes a skillful facilitator to speak up to a CEO, but ethics and learning require it be done.

Please join Daniel Yalowitz (vice-provost for graduate education at the SIT Graduate Institute) and me for a five-day session at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication, “Gaining Gaming Competence: The Meaning is in the Debriefing,” and/or a one-day session, “Gaming Agility: Getting More Out of Our Tools.”

We look forward to seeing you there, and to working with you to build inclusiveness, respect, collaboration and justice in our workplaces and communities!

The Wedding Quiz

800px-Indian_wedding_DelhiConsider this: it is your wedding day, and you are a young bride-to-be. Your family and friends have been planning for this event for months. Just as the ceremony is about to begin, your future husband has a seizure. What do you do?

  1. Immediately stop the wedding and accompany your future husband to the hospital.
  2. While your future husband goes off to the hospital, explain to your guests that there will be no wedding today, but everyone should enjoy a nice a party since they are already here and there is plenty of food and drink.
  3. Everything is prepared, so just select another man from among the guests in attendance to be your new husband, and go on with the wedding.

I didn’t make this situation up, rather it is something I read in the Times of India, “Groom unwell, bride weds guest in fit of rage,” which really made me think about my own reaction to the story and my own cultural assumptions.

This wedding took place in India. It seems that the bride–to-be and her family had not been told of the medical condition of the groom prior to the wedding. So when the groom had an epileptic seizure, she decided, right on the spot, to marry another guest at the wedding. Although faced with an unexpected and upsetting situation, the bride-to-be didn’t make a rash decision, but one based on long established tradition. However, to appreciate the logic of the situation requires a major shift in thinking by those whose main values related to marriage are derived from largely individualistic western values and practices.

The action made cultural sense to the bride and her relatives because the man she decided to marry was someone she and the family already knew well: her sister’s brother-in-law. From their collectivist point of view, hers was a very reasonable choice. A marriage in South Asia is not just a joining of two people, but a public recognition of mutual duties and obligations, which impacts possibly hundreds of people on both sides. That is why many marriages in South Asia are arranged—such an important event is too serious to be left to only two people. Family honor is involved, and it is the duty of the larger family and lineage to make an appropriate investigation of the groom’s side. Since the man who was to be the groom fell ill, and neither he or his family had revealed his medical condition to the bride, it was considered a sufficient breech of trust that the marriage could not proceed.

However, there was a cultural solution available. Since the newly designated groom was someone the family already knew well, and he was present, willing, and not yet married, the wedding could continue. It is not uncommon in South Asia for sets of sisters to marry sets of brothers over time because it is thought that the bonds between kin groups will be stronger because of those ties. Further, it is relatively common that if a wife dies, the bride’s family would consider it proper that the deceased woman’s sister might marry the widower. After all, the family is familiar and such a wedding would preserve the links between kin groups. Anthropologists call this kind of arrangement “sororate” marriage patterns.

Of course, in our story, when the bride’s former husband-to-be returned from the hospital, he was not pleased that his intended bride was now someone else’s wife. There is a bit more to the story, but I’ll let you track it down, if you are curious.

What was interesting to me were people’s reactions and interpretations—unfortunately, they aren’t currently available, but I took screen shots of the “comments section.” The range of opinions ran from total support of the bride’s actions, to shock that someone could make such a life-altering decision so quickly. Here’s a sampling:

  • “Very unfortunate incident and shame on the bride.”
  • “Good luck groom”
  • “Hats off to this brave lady…my salutes”
  • “The girls did the right thing. In fact, the girl’s family should sue the boy’s family for hiding his medical condition before they agreed to the marriage.”
  • “poor man…guess he can cope with this embarrassment.”
  • “Sad incident. The groom’s family is at fault keeping the bride’s family in the dark about the groom’s epileptic attacks. What followed after the groom fainted is really unfortunate. The bride’s family must also share a part of the blame for not making exhaustive enquiries before finalizing the marriage. The bride was lucky to find her match at the same wedding venue and got married happily.”
  • “Why parents keep such info under the carpet is a shame for parents and the youth of this century. They should have the courage and the conviction!”
  • “A bold lady…The bridegroom party got a fitting reply for not disclosing the medical condition of the boy…”
  • “How can a person take such an instant decision about her life?”

This is such a great incident to illustrate the Cultural Detective Method. What seems like an irrational action from one person’s view, can seem perfectly reasonable from another perspective. Not that I would recommend choosing a spouse this way! (Wow—that really reflects my US American perspective!)

india wedding

Welcome Back! I guess…

It’s that time of year—summer study abroad programs beginning, returning students headed home, along with travelers returning after brief overseas summer vacations, not to mention those expats who are moving back in time to find a place to live and enroll their kids in school for the fall.

Yup—it’s the time of year when those of us who stayed home are likely hear how much better things are elsewhere. So while we are delighted that our beloved sojourners are returning, there is frequently a bit of anxiety as we begin looking forward to the adjustment. What to do?

First, be prepared. Understand that everyone involved—the returnee, friends and family at home, the organization for which the returnee works or school where she or he studies—all need to recognize that the transition of the person returning home begins well before the actual arrival home. Leaving new friends and colleagues, withdrawing from what have become familiar patterns of behavior, saying goodbye over and over again—these are hard things even if you are looking forward to returning home. While a major goal of “re-entry” is to integrate the recent intercultural experience with life at home, we should expect these transitions take some time, and will be better dealt with by acquiring a bit of knowledge and planning about the process.

return_purchWe suggest you log into your Cultural Detective Online subscription and take a look at the ideas included in the package, The Return. While offering advice and guidance mainly directed toward the business professional returning home after an overseas assignment, there are pearls of wisdom that are applicable to any “returnee” situation. The Challenge Lens looks at different areas in which adjustment issues, both personal and professional. For example, the returnee often find that family, friends, and colleagues are not as interested as the sojourner thinks they should be in his or her experience. Things that happened at home during the time away can be more exciting to those who stayed home than are photos of new friends and places that were visited. Knowing this in advance gives an opportunity for both sides to adjust and make allowances for each others’ behavior.

coming_homeCraig Storti’s highly rated book, The Art of Coming Homeis another useful resource for you and your returnee. Craig writes in a practical and easy-to-read manner, that is theoretically well-grounded, and full of valuable tidbits. Reading Craig’s book will not only help the returnee feel less crazy, but will help those surrounding the returnee understand the complexity of the transitions involved and provide ideas for smoothing the re-entry experience.

Speaking of smoothing the re-entry experience, be sure to check out “Twelve Tips for Welcoming Returnees Home,” part of the free online resource, What’s Up With Culture? Bruce La Brack authored (see Section 2.5.1). One of the most important tips: “Understand that most returnees are, in some ways, different than they were before they left home.”

And isn’t that the point of an intercultural experience? If the returnee was just the same as before he or she left, would it not be a big waste of time and money? Whether we are a family or an organization that sent someone overseas, we have an expectation that the exposure to other cultures and languages will result in the sojourner gaining new skills and attitudes—including acquiring broader perspectives, different ways of seeing the world.

However, sometimes we, unconsciously, still expect that the other hasn’t really changed, and are therefore surprised when this is not so. Being prepared to welcome home a returning friend or loved one, but also being ready to find that they have undergone important changes and may have acquired new ideas is one key to insuring a smooth transition home for every one involved.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

Development or Displacement?

ICIJFormed at the end of World War II to help develop countries torn by war and poverty, the World Bank is dedicated to improving the lives of the world’s poorest: to getting them clean drinking water, housing, food, and basic services like electric power. It is a challenging and complicated mission.

The Bank loans $65 billion annually for what have become increasingly large, high-profile projects such as dams, pipelines, and power plants. Projects of this magnitude can displace whole communities and wreak havoc on the natural environment. Sometimes providing water or energy to a city can drastically reduce the quality of life of rural farmers and fishermen. While the Bank has a clear policy of “do no harm” to people or the environment, all too often the Bank’s projects do negatively impact the environment and the lives of the very people the Bank was designed to help.

“Over the last decade, projects funded by the World Bank have physically or economically displaced anestimated 3.4 million people, forcing them from their homes, taking their land or damaging their livelihoods.”
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)

Complaints about the World Bank are nothing new; protests have taken place throughout much of my adulthood. Just a couple of weeks ago the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists added data to fuel the fire when it released the results of a year-long research project involving more than 50 journalists from 21 countries. They analyzed thousands of WorldBank records, interviewed hundreds of people, and conducted on-the-ground investigations in Albania, Brazil, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Kenya, Kosovo, Nigeria, Peru, Serbia, South Sudan, and Uganda. They titled the report, “Evicted and Abandoned: The World Bank’s broken promise to the poor.”

The report states that the World Bank has “regularly failed to enforce its rules, with devastating consequences for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet.” The most common hardship suffered by those in the path of “progress” is lost or diminished income. Forced relocations involve millions; they can rip apart kinship networks and increase the risk of illness and disease. Resettled populations are more likely to suffer unemployment and hunger, and mortality rates are higher.

“From 2009 to 2013, World Bank Group lenders pumped $50 billion into projects graded the highest risk for ‘irreversible or unprecedented’ social or environmental impacts — more than twice as much as the previous five-year span.”
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)

What causes such a well-intentioned mission to go awry? When the Bank is filled with so many people who are dedicated to serving others and making the world a better place, why do the systems become dysfunctional?

  1. Bias is a human reality, and partnership is tricky. All too often, well-intentioned efforts to serve result in the world’s poorest and most historically oppressed suffering even more. Partly that is because we don’t validate what local communities know, and lenders want “experts” in the lead on projects. No matter how committed the Bank might be to partnering with local communities, bias runs deep and it’s an enormous challenge to be sure the expertise, experience, concerns and insight of all involved are heard and valued. It is a reality ripe for Cultural Detective and other intercultural tools, wouldn’t you say?
  2. Greed and glitz, blind capitalism, and the appeal to ego (and to continued funding) of the big, dazzling projects. Major infrastructure projects look good on a dossier or resumé, and they help ensure that member states will pony up the money to support the Bank’s efforts. According to the Evicted and Abandoned report, a 2012 internal audit found that projects in the Bank’s pipeline triggered the Bank’s resettlement policy 40 percent of the time—twice as often as projects the Bank had already completed.
  3. The gap between international funders and national and local governments. The Bank negotiates with those in leadership positions, who themselves may not only have the welfare of the people at heart. Or, there may be different leaders who control different regions or areas, and who consider an agreement with the national government not worth the paper on which it’s printed. Cultural Detective West Africa includes a critical incident on this very topic of negotiating with national governments when it’s local chieftains who control the territory.
  4. Corruption. Corruption can exist at all levels, including soldiers who have been known to beat, rape, and murder in the course of forced evictions. The Huffington Post reports: “’There was often no intent on the part of the governments to comply—and there was often no intent on the part of the bank’s management to enforce,’ said Navin Rai, a former World Bank official who oversaw the bank’s protections for indigenous peoples from 2000 to 2012. ‘That was how the game was played.’” While there are cultural variations in whether we hire those we know and trust or whether we have public, transparent job calls, there is a line beyond which corruption must be called corruption. For example, relocating poor villagers without restitution so that your son-in-law can own an elite oceanside resort is clearly not true leadership. The Cultural Detective series has some powerful critical incidents about the effects of cronyism and how to honor preferential treatment for family, while also ethically honoring one’s goals, as well as incidents dealing with bribery and other ethical issues (Cultural Detective Global Business Ethics).
  5. The world stage is shifting. There are new development banks on the world scene, competitors to the World Bank, that often don’t have the same social standards. Many say that this is leading to ever-lower standards, and disregard for the people and environments that “development” seeks to serve.
  6. Changing a large dysfunctional system is far from easy, no matter how well-intentioned even a top leader is. I’ve seen this in many of my clients over the years, and in a few corporations I’ve worked in as well. Many felt hope when Jim Yong Kim took over as president of the World Bank in 2012. A Korean-American physician known for his work fighting AIDS in Africa, Kim Yong became the first World Bank president whose background wasn’t in finance or politics. Twenty years earlier, Kim Yong had joined protests calling for a shutdown of the World Bank and accusing it of valuing economic growth over assistance to the poor. Despite expected improvements, “an internal survey conducted last year by bank auditors showed that 77 percent of employees responsible for enforcing the bank’s safeguards said they think that management ‘does not value’ their work. The bank released the survey in March, at the same time that it admitted to poor oversight of its resettlement policy,” according to the Huffington Post article. A 2014 World Bank internal review found that in 60 percent of sampled cases, Bank staffers failed to document what happened to people after they were forced from their land or homes, and 70 percent of the cases sampled lacked required information about whether anyone had complained and whether complaints were resolved.

In my opinion we need the World Bank, just as we need the United Nations. For all their foibles and failures as human-run entities, their missions are crucially important. Incorporating cross-cultural best practices into the manner in which projects are managed, meetings are conducted, and decisions are made is a critical first step. Developing intercultural competence in the Bank’s staff and local partners in an ongoing, sustained manner, can make a major contribution to preventing the devastating downsides of development projects.

Ah Ha! I knew it! Bilingualism does pay!

benefits of being bilingual

“Not only are bilingual young adults more likely to graduate high school and go to college, they are also more likely to get the job when they interview. Even when being bilingual is not a requirement, an interview study of California employers shows that employers prefer to both hire and retain bilinguals.”
—Rebecca Callahan, Associate Professor of Bilingual/Bicultural Education, University of Texas at Austin

Those of us who have worked in and around international education think that learning more than one language is good for people. We think it helps open up the mind to other possibilities, other cultural points of view. We also believe that the “code switching” involved in speaking multiple languages helps develop skills that are useful in social situations and beneficial in keeping the mind sharp.

However, for years no data existed that supported the benefits of being bilingual. And for a long time in many US educational settings, children who did not speak English as their first language were not encouraged to keep their bilingualism. Why would you need a second language when you learned English? The benefits of being able to speak more than one language were not generally recognized in the US.

I was excited to read about some new research by Rebecca Callahan, Associate Professor of Bilingual/Bicultural Education, University of Texas at Austin. In a recent article in Quartz, she writes: “Speaking more than one language may confer significant benefits on the developing brain. Research has now shown that bilingual young adults not only fare better in the job market, but are also more likely to demonstrate empathy and problem-solving skills.”

What does this mean? For study-abroad students, it might encourage them to know that the effort spent in learning and using another language has long-term economic benefits—you are more marketable! This is, of course, in addition to the eye-opening, mind-expanding, life-altering experience of living in a culture different from your own.

For children of immigrants and refugees, it means that making an effort to retain their parents’ native language is beneficial. In reality, many immigrant and refugee children in the US serve as interpreters and cultural bridges from an early age. They are forced to be bilingual—learning English to be successful in the school system, while speaking another language at home. I remember one Cambodian mother telling me, through her son, that if she learned to speak English, her son would forget how to speak Cambodian now that he was here in the US.

“Currently, researchers have begun to use data-sets that include more sensitive measures of language proficiency to find that among children of immigrant parents, bilingual-biliterate young adults land in higher status jobs and earn more than their peers who have lost their home language.

Not only have these now-monolingual young adults lost the cognitive resources bilingualism provides, but they are less likely to be employed full-time, and earn less than their peers.”
—Rebecca Callahan

For many in the US educational system, acquiring a second or third language is not as highly valued as it is in many other parts of the world. I am always impressed (and a bit jealous) when I am around people who can switch among languages—often because they were required or encouraged to learn multiple languages when they were in school. And for a nation of immigrants, it seems strange that only one-in-four US American adults are conversationally proficient in another language, according to a recent Gallup poll. It reminds me of the old joke, so true that it is embarrassing:

Question: What do you call a person who speaks four languages?
Answer: Quadrilingual.

Question: What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
Answer: Trilingual.

Question: What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
Answer: Bilingual.

Question: What do you call a person who speaks one language?
Answer: An American!

Of course, this challenge isn’t just limited to US Americans. In an article last year in The Guardian, Vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, Leszek Borysiewicz, pointed out that one in six children in English primary school do not have English as their first language. He noted that their first languages:

“…are real languages: living languages that give people a huge insight into culture and give the children who can speak them additional opportunities.

Isn’t that what education is about – enabling every child to achieve the maximum potential? What I’d love to see is an emphasis that this is an added value that that child has, a talent, and we should aspire to allow other children who may be monolingual to strive to become as bilingual as they possibly can be.”

An article about a study conducted by researchers at University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, indicates that merely knowing a second language can result in higher earnings. The researchers say that the results of their study, published in the journal Canadian Public Policy/Analyse de Politiques, has implications for bilingual policy in Canada:

“Efforts to promote French in the ROC [rest of Canada] should be continued, not so much because of the earnings advantage that bilingualism confers, but because it results in many social/cultural/political benefits, strengthening the fabric of Canadian society and serving as an example to countries torn by ethnic, religious and linguistic divisions.”

The cultural flexibility inherent in knowing two languages is a valuable ability and a resource to be cherished. If we are to move toward intercultural competence, we need the ability to think outside of our cultural box and explore other ways of seeing the world.

That is what we try to do with our Cultural Detective packages—provide insight into another view of the world, a small glimpse into a different cultural reality, a chance to perhaps understand, just a little, how others see us, and how to work together more effectively.