Terrific Summertime Intercultural Movie: McFarland USA

MV5BMjMwNjY2Mjk5OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODM2NTA0MzE@._V1_SX214_AL_Preparing to waste some time watching an in-flight movie as I flew to Europe from Mexico, I perked up considerably as soon as Los Tigres del Norte’s America came on. This film, McFarland USA, was not going to be a standard high school sports movie after all!

Todos son Americanos, sin importar el color
De América, yo soy, de América, yo soy

We are all Americans, no matter our color
I’m from America, I’m from America

The plot line:
Track coach Kevin Costner’s (Mr. White) temper has resulted in him and his family bouncing from one high school to another in a downward spiral of disenfranchisement from family and friends, as well as loss of self esteem and family cohesion. As the movie opens, Mr. White is forced to leave a (very white) school in Idaho for a very rural school in another part of the USA. His daughter’s first words as they pull into their new home? “Dad, are we in Mexico?” It turns out they’ve moved to the agricultural Central Valley of California. Living as a US expat in Mexico, their cultural confusion delighted my soul.

The initial culture shock:
Arriving tired and hungry, the White family heads to a restaurant in search of a burger. “We have tacos, tortas, burritos, quesadillas, tostadas…” recites the waitress. After several repetitions of the phrase, the family orders the only thing they apparently understand, tacos. They imagine their confusion has ended, but oh no… “Do you want asada, al pastor, chorizo, cabeza, lengua…?” While they are dumbfounded by the options, my family would be in heaven!

Low riders cruise the streets and Dad is scared he won’t be able to protect his family—bias incarnate. A rooster wakes them up at dawn, in stereotypical fashion, and a neighbor lady gives them one as a welcome gift. Dad finds a simpatico cultural informant in the local grocery store owner. They go from hating the Virgen de Guadalupe colorfully painted on their living room wall, to loving it.

Cultural adaptation:
Within a week of his arrival to their new home, Dad is fired from his position coaching football. His students’ reaction to the news? “Congratulations, Mr. White. They are treating you like a picker.”

A teacher now without a head coach position, Costner notices that many of the local kids run far distances as part of their daily lives—there isn’t any transportation other than one’s own two feet. He also realizes that the kids wake up early in the morning to help their parents pick crops, before they begin their second day later in the morning at school. The kids’ abilities impress the heck out of him; he is blown away that they have the stamina for both work and study, and disappointed when his students’ parents don’t support their kids’ after-school activities (they need the kids’ help in the fields).

Mr. White gets to know a couple of the local kids, and enlists their help to put together a cross-country running team. Part of his learning journey includes a day with the kids out picking in the fields where, as expected, Mr. White fails miserably.

The movie does an excellent job capturing Mexican values such as family, respect for elders, hard work, dealing with adversity, and joy in life. We watch with delight as Mr. White and his family learn invaluable life skills from their new neighbors and friends, and experience, for the first time in their lives, some of the joys of community and tradition.

The movie as a learning resource
McFarland USA is a predictable movie, rather stereotypical, but refreshing and timely. I found it a very worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours on an international flight, and would recommend it to you for summer viewing. I can definitely see using clips from this film in coaching, educational or training environments. Please let me know what you think.

Do you have a favorite cross-cultural movie, book or resource? Share with us your review!

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

“On the Road with Migrants” Game

IMG_3100World Refugee Day is June 20th, and I am honored to be able to share with you a powerful new game available free-of-charge to help raise awareness and understanding of the refugee and migrant experience.

Catherine Roignan, co-author of Cultural Detective Morocco, conducted the game at the recent SIETAR Europa conference in Valencia, and it was my favorite session of the conference. Many people in the room had tears running down their cheeks, and in the days following we found ourselves often talking about the experience we’d shared.

The game is called On the Road with Migrants, and it was created by Caritas France, the Association des Cités du Secours Catholique or ACSC. At the conference we had only a brief 15-20 minutes to play, but it was remarkable!

Groups of us gathered at tables with game boards showing different continents of the world, including Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. Each player had a pawn representing an immigrant, who was identified by name and story. We threw dice, drew cards and moved our pawns around the board according to the instructions on the cards and the dice.

Kudos to Caritas France for their brilliant work on this! It is a terrific game!

Right now the materials are all in French, available for download free-of-charge; you print out the cards and boards, and add dice and pawns—1 die and 4 pawns (one color for each of four characters) per continent/board. Our SIETAR Europa group helped with an English translation, which I’m told will be available to the public shortly, and others volunteered to translate the game into other languages as well. This is collaboration with a purpose!

Learn more and download the game in French: En route avec les migrants

Please, share with us your resources and ideas for commemorating World Refugee Day and for building empathy for the migrant experience in this world of ours.

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.

Sikh Captain America

Vishavjit Singh in Central Park NYC as Sikh Captain America, photo by Fiona Aboud

Vishavjit Singh in Central Park NYC as Sikh Captain America, photo by Fiona Aboud

I recently came across the best “Cultural Effective” (yes, that’s a play on “detective”) I’ve seen in a long time! He has my deepest respect, and he has me rolling on the floor laughing, as well.

I found him via an article that had a photo of a skinny, long-bearded Sikh man posing as—wait for it—Captain America! He had his shield, tights, and turban on, and was ready to fight for justice. Of course it got my attention. I absolutely loved it! The article was an interview with Vishavjit Singh, an engineer, writer, educator, activist, costume player, and the artist behind the terrific series, SikhToons.com.

totally biased avengersIf you think Sikh Captain America sounds interesting, how about a complete set of Totally Biased Avengers, fighting for justice and equity in our world? They are the brainchild of the talents over at Totally Biased, and include Asian Thor, Black Black Widow, Gay Hulk, and brown Jesus Christ. You readers know that Cultural Detective is awfully cool and helpful, but these Avengers may have us beat, lol. Do yourself a favor and watch the video below. But be careful, you will laugh out loud.

Getting back to Sikh Captain America, however, you have got to check him out. He, er, rather, his alter-ego, Vishavjit, is doing wonderful work in the world! Take a look at his terrific flip book on turbans, for example. Visit his website or follow him on social media to see his latest cartoons and other ventures. I especially appreciate how he teaches people to respond to bias respectfully, rather than sinking to the same level of ignorance or, worse, anger. He demonstrates patience, intelligence, empathy, humor, and both visual and verbal communication skills—definitely a superhero combination!

Vishavjit made a cartoon explaining the road he followed to get to where he is today. Those of us interested in the pathways to reconciling Blended Culture identity will no doubt resonate with it. The lightness yet levity with which he operates in the world is especially impressive when you consider he survived the civil unrest that resulted in the deaths of so many Sikhs in India.Autbiography_Perspectives_DA_edit

Way to go, Vishavjit!!!! Bless you! It is a pleasure to be with you on a journey to build intercultural respect, understanding, and justice in our world. And you seem to be having so much fun doing it!

This post is part of the #MyGlobalLife linkup.

Culture and Memory are Biological: New Research

Mateo Zareba 1970People raised in some cultures learn that memory transcends generations, that it is passed on to our descendants—carried on a cellular level. I’ve always intuitively felt this was true and wise, even though in the culture in which I was raised (German-American), I was told that such beliefs were charming but fantastical. Then, here comes scientific research showing that yet another “old wives’ tale” is, in fact, true.

Edward T. Hall, author of some of the earliest books on intercultural communication, had a strong interest in ethology (the study of animal behavior in its natural setting, and sometimes with attention to evolution) and Paul Maclean’s theory of our evolutionary, triune brain. In the words of Dr. John C. Condon, who was a friend of Hall for many years and is currently authoring a new book on him titled, It Goes Without Saying, “Ned wrote in unpublished papers about the connection between culture and biology. He gave considerable attention to culture and communication as embodied and involving all of the senses, and thought other anthropologists gave too much attention to the cognitive aspects.” So many recent scientific discoveries indeed seem to be proving Hall correct! One of those is in the field of epigenetics.


The fairly new field of behavioral epigenetics offers some interesting advanced insights into what makes us who we are. Epigenetic research shows that tendencies such as preferred smells or tastes, fears and abilities, strengths and resiliencies, weaknesses and deficits—turn out to be not only socially acquired, but also potentially biologically inherited. This means that “culture” and cultural tendencies may be not just communal, but also biological.

The field of epigenetics began, in part, with a simple question in the mind of Michael Meaney: “I’ve always been interested in what makes people different from each other. The way we act, the way we behave—some people are optimistic, some are pessimistic. What produces that variation? Evolution selects the variance that is most successful, but what produces the grist for the mill?”

Decades of research led to the finding that both positive and negative experiences—trauma, love and support—in our own or our recent ancestors’ pasts, leave molecular scars on epigenetic matter that is attached to our DNA. Without a mutation to the DNA code itself, the attached methyl groups cause long-term, heritable change in gene function.


Meaney and Szyf had proved something incredible. Call it postnatal inheritance: With no changes to their genetic code, the baby rats nonetheless gained genetic attachments due solely to their upbringing.”
—Dan Hurley, Discover

Such findings give credence to those who say they still experience the pain of genocide or slavery generations later. It also shows us why grandchildren may inherit their grandmother’s sunny disposition. And, it provides us as interculturalists yet another reason to heal ourselves and our communities: if we can foster understanding, respect, justice, and collaboration, perhaps we can prevent these heritable negatives, and, rather, pass stronger, more positive traits down through the generations.

Research is showing that epigenetic changes to genes active in certain regions of the brain underlie our emotional and intellectual intelligence—our tendency to be calm or fearful, our ability to learn or to forget. It would follow then that if we can truly develop intercultural competence in our communities, we can pass on the epigenetic inheritance that will create communities of emotionally resilient people with the intelligence to solve problems such as hunger and homelessness.

A fuller explanation of the science behind this is explained in this three-page paper in Discover magazine. One thing is for sure, this field of study has a long way to go. What started with rats has slowly moved into the study of human behavior. The full benefits of this incredible research may not be seen in my lifetime, but feel confident that generations that follow will be the true benefactors.

Interdisciplinary Teamwork

Of further interest to me as an interculturalist is the fact that this groundbreaking research came about as the result of specialists working in an interdisciplinary team—specialists who had to overcome significant bias and elitism in order to truly hear one another.

A colleague thought that the work of Michael Meaney, a neurobiologist, might significantly dovetail with the work of Moshe Szyf, a molecular biologist and geneticist. Even though both gentlemen worked at McGill University, they only met each other after traveling to Madrid in 1992.

To those of us who aren’t scientists, these two men seem to work in similar fields; they are both biologists, right? Should be easy enough to collaborate? No, their two disciplines are apparently two very different cultures! As Szyf reported to Dan Hurley in an interview for Discover magazine: “[Meaney’s work] sounded like voodoo at first. For a molecular biologist, anything that didn’t have a clear molecular pathway was not serious science.”

The two scientists overcame their biases and stereotypes, and twelve years later they published a landmark paper, “Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior,” in the June 2004 edition of the journal Nature Neuroscience. God bless the nameless colleague who saw the connection between their work!

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.

Kids Skyping Around the World

tumblr_mqvsd7ij1c1rkz363o1_1280Remember the goal of intercultural communication? To help us be able to better understand one another, talk to each other, collaborate, and make our communities and our world a better place in which to live?

Sometimes, however, I get discouraged that my beloved intercultural field has lost its way. It’s great that we now have so many PhD and MA programs, but when did intercultural communication become all about dimensions and theories? Or about exercises and activities without an underlying coherent design?

Yes, perhaps these are expected mid-life or late-career gripes. Then I come across a movie entitled, “The World Is As Big Or As Small As You Make It,” showcasing a most excellent-sounding project called “Skyping Around the World” by a group called “Do Remember Me: Connect, Dispel, Build,” and my faith is restored. The project gathers youth aged 12-15 at neighborhood recreation centers in France, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and the USA for a series of workshops that use art for social advocacy and to motivate activism.

Kids connect with one another via Skype to engage in positive dialogue and dispel the myths of hopelessness, overcome media stereotypes, and bridge cultural differences. Their mission is to delve deeply to find their common ground, to share experiences, and to work toward actively supporting one another. They encourage activism and advocacy for issues such as peer violence, the absence of leaders and heroes, and many other pressing issues.

Regular readers of this blog know that the “contact hypothesis” tells us that merely bringing kids together via Skype isn’t enough to achieve these lofty goals. The meaning they make of their Skype experiences must be facilitated, and that is apparently done, at least in Philadelphia, by two teaching artists, Sannii Crespina-Flores and DJ Lean Wit It.

The 12-minute film is most definitely worth viewing. It is embedded it below. Come on, get your cup of tea ready, and prepare to smile and be encouraged.

“The World Is As Big Or As Small As You Make It” | Sundance Institute

These kids use their phones and iPads, which they would normally use to text local friends, take selfies, or make social plans, to enlarge their worlds by forging friendships with peers across the world. For young people who have often never left their hometown, these exchanges prove to be both touching and surprising, giving them exposure to new corners of planet Earth and encouraging them to witness to the great (and sometimes unfulfilled) potential that exists in their own back yards.

The film came to be when it was the winner of a 140-character story entry in the Sundance Institute Short Film Challenge, designed to help put an end to extreme poverty in creative ways:

“As technology advances, our world grows smaller. Yet, while we are more connected than ever before, we remain separated by the lottery of where we are born. Around the world, people just like you – with the same beliefs, dreams, and aspirations – have drastically fewer opportunities due to extreme poverty and hunger.

Through the universal power of storytelling, the Sundance Institute Short Film Challenge will put a spotlight on our similarities—showcasing stories that communicate how we can support one another to end poverty and hunger once and for all. There is a more hopeful future for millions of people around the world, it’s up to us to inspire a positive change together.

In 2015, storytellers from around the world will gather to showcase how creativity can change the world.”
–Sundance Institute Short Film Challenge website

Obviously a very noble cause—ending poverty—though the Film Challenge is taking a  Minimization (in DMIS and IDC terminology) approach to intercultural competence. A Minimalist approach, of course, is probably most appropriate to build critical mass; while it by no means stretches us to the levels of intercultural competence needed to end poverty, it can, at least, help build momentum to get people on-board and helping to accomplish the goal. The Film Challenge is an impressive global partnership of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Sundance Institute, and the following organizations:

partnership There is some connection to Global Citizen as well, though I can’t figure out from the website exactly what that affiliation is. The Global Citizen is a platform that advocates for the achievable goal of ending extreme poverty in the world by 2030; it was created in 2012 by the Global Poverty Project. Kudos to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Sundance Institute, as well as all the sponsors and participating organizations!

Some of the other films in this challenge are also very interesting; all highlight successful attempts to bridge cultural differences in order to end world poverty. Watch them here.

Thank you for joining with Cultural Detective on this journey to build intercultural competence. We are thrilled to be able to share projects like these that parallel our goals: better understanding of others and ourselves, and innovative and meaningful collaboration. Together, we can transform our world. As Dr. Seuss, the children’s author, wrote in The Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Lampooning Leads to Apology for Sensationalism

2015.1.27.BF.COMMInaccuracies in journalism are of increasing concern to me, as is the idea that so many consumers of communication media fail to use their critical thinking skills, and, rather, believe a sensational report without checking facts. Journalists can easily fuel people’s worst fears, feeding an “us vs. them” mentality. I spoke about this in my recent Charlie Hebdo post.

If we are to create a world for ourselves in which we respect, understand, and value one another, one in which we are able to cooperate in sustainable ways, we need accurate and thorough information on which to base decisions. We need to be able to discern “gray” areas, and think things through from different perspectives.

On a slightly divergent thought track, I occasionally marvel at how powerful the visual arts, comedy, movies, and performances are in generating a paradigm shift in the general population—the sort of paradigm shift that is needed if we are to develop intercultural competence. I feel that news media should help us think things through by gathering facts, but all too often, it is the arts that help inspire us to do so.

Recently, a post crossed my desk that brings these two ideas together for me in a salient way. One of our Cultural Detective series’ authors—Basma Ibrahim DeVries—shared a link on Facebook to a story that resulted in truth telling. A major news outlet was forced to admit its multiple errors and publicly apologize for their inaccuracies, perhaps, in part, stimulated by a French television comedy show—Le Petit Journal!

Fox News interviewed someone who presented as fact that there are “no-go zones” in Europe—places in which Islamic law supersedes local law and non-Muslims fear to go. “No-go zones,” viewers were told, included the entire city of Birmingham, England and a half-dozen key areas of Paris. Fox also made various other claims, which met with widespread criticism from the likes of British Prime Minister David Cameron, and the threat of a lawsuit from the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo.

Le Petit Journal was quick to offer its humorous and yet informative rebuttal. Below is a clip of the show, in French with English subtitles.

I live in Mexico, and over the past five years I’ve experienced the negative impact that sensationalism and inaccurate, biased reporting can have on a country and its people.Often, this media bias is not confronted.  In this instance, however, Fox actually issued four separate apologies in one day for portraying Muslims in a negative light.

“Fox News took time out of four broadcasts on Saturday to apologize for four separate instances of incorrect information that portrayed Muslims in a negative light.

Once Fox News apologized, our French comedy show, Le Petit Journal, had to gloat, of course. They lampooned Fox with great gusto while munching on super-sized popcorn and soda. Click on the link to view the video.

I am happy to hear that Fox News was forced to apologize for their biased and false “reporting.” I am grateful to know that the public expression of outrage and humor can still have some effect, however fleeting it might be. If, like me, you’d like to read more about the poll Fox cited, that one in six French citizens support ISIS, you might reference a much more insightful piece about it, published by the Washington Post.

The Cultural Detective Method helps people separate facts—what people see and hear—from interpretations, or what the facts mean to a person observing them. Our values influence how we interpret the facts—the meaning we give to the situation. Given personal and cultural differences, the facts may mean different things to different people. This is normal and to be expected. However, what we want from journalists is, to the best of their ability, the specific details and essential data necessary for us to understand a situation more accurately and thoroughly. Situations these days are often complex rather than clear-cut. Reporting on complex realities is difficult in the best of circumstances, and we applaud those ethical journalists who work to make it happen.

Thank you for accompanying us on this journey to build intercultural competence. Together, we can build international understanding, respect, and justice.

Vinnan göfgar manninn. “Hard words break no bones.” (Icelandic Proverb)

CD Iceland coverI have the best job in the world: working with our Cultural Detective authors—I always learn so much! Recently, I had the pleasure of working with our authors on the Cultural Detective: Iceland package—the most recent addition to the CD series. This is a culture I know nothing about, therefore, I had no preconceived notions about how it would be to work with these bright ladies, or what I would learn.

Fortunately (from my US American point of view), being direct and straightforward is generally considered being honest, and is highly valued in Icelandic culture. When discussing a topic, everybody tends to share ideas (without evaluation) and then the best course of action is chosen. Questions are answered directly, and disagreement usually is not considered a personal attack. To those from a less direct culture, this style of communication may feel rude and blunt, while to Icelanders it’s just contributing their ideas.

The authors shared a delightful example of language and culture being intertwined: Icelanders do not use the word “love” as US Americans do. Their word for love is used in relation to family. It is a “very expensive/high value” term with a special use for a special purpose. Therefore, the use of “love” was very confusing to our authors when they first arrived in the United States. They were surprised that people loved their pets, loved ice cream, loved a movie, etc. In contrast, one of the authors told me that if her husband ever said he loved her, she would know she was dying! She told me, “Icelandic husbands love their wives so much that they almost tell them!”

This relatively small country (population 320,000) has seven universities, the oldest parliament in the world, and dynamic, high-energy, optimistic people. We look forward to introducing you to CD: Iceland, and a culture whose Viking roots impact the freedom and respect for the individual that are the heart of Icelandic values today. Be sure to check it out, put it to good use, and let us know what you think!