We Want to Get Rid of You!

“The Power of Storytelling in Intercultural Communication”
Many thanks to Joanna Sell, a certified Cultural Detective facilitator, for this terrific guest blog post. Be sure to check out her new intercultural storytelling blog at http://www.interculturalcompass.com/blog/.

DOD

It was early autumn when Martin, a German project leader, relocated to Mexico. At the beginning of his assignment he was very excited about the new challenge and curious about the host culture. His only concern was the fact that he was an introvert.

Every day before going to his company he threw a coin and “played heads or tails”. When he saw heads he would talk to the very first employee he encountered on his way. While seeing tails he would breath a sigh of relief that he did not have to “jump over his shadow” to practice small talk. Nobody knew about his habit and his team members were quite puzzled by his behavior, seeing that he did not talk to them as often as had their former leaders.

Pretty soon even those who had been very talkative at the beginning of Martin’s assignment limited their exchanges with him to the minimum. His assignment became challenging and Martin could not help feeling excluded, not only in the professional context but also in private life. Actually, he almost had no private life at all. Spending extra hours at work in the evening and during weekends resulted in isolation amidst a crowd of smiling faces in Mexico.

One late October morning, shortly after arriving at the office, Martin noticed a colorful skull made of sugar on top of his desk. He closed the door and slowly sat down. He remained frozen for half an hour or longer. He noticed that his colleagues barely spoke to him. Seeing the skull, he got terrified that they most probably wanted to get rid of him.

What happened next?

When Katrin Sihling—a dear colleague of mine from the Munich area who was raised by her Mexican mom and her German dad in South Germany—finished the story and asked that question, everyone in our group at Jena University smiled. Someone hurried with a possible explanation: “People in Mexico celebrate November 1st with parties to commemorate their ancestors and give one another sweet skulls to highlight the festive character of this feast”.

Listening to that explanation I sketched the following concluding scene in my head: Luckily, Elena, one of Martin’s team members, originally from Switzerland, entered his office and got concerned when she saw Martin’s pale face and absent gaze. When he indicated towards the skull without saying a word, she immediately noticed the cultural misunderstanding. It was she who had put the colorful sugar skull on his desk, as she did every year for all the people in their department. She explained the symbolic meaning of the sweet skull and asked Martin whether he wished to join the Mexican part of her family in celebrating El Dia de los Muertos.

That day both of them learned something new: not to take the world of obviousness (their world of obviousness) for granted, but to ask for new meanings instead.

The power of the storytelling approach in the intercultural context lies exactly in this attitude. Exchanging stories across cultures enhances curiosity and redirects attention from a focus on general, simplified assumptions and towards sense making and re-narrating the world of obviousness; that’s why the Cultural Detective Method is built around stories! Every critical incident in our series is a true story, sometimes a combination, involving real people in real situations.

“Culture is a set of stories that we enter” (Jerome Brunner) and exchanging facts and data about cultures without exchanging stories is a dead-end street.

“It is the stories we share with each other that help us to overcome cultural conflicts, cope with transition stress, and shape how we perceive the past and see the future. Thanks to an exchange of stories we become able to rethink our assumptions and change our behavior. Changing behaviors definitely requires mindfulness in order to recognize which behaviors are inappropriate and which are desirable in different cultural contexts.

To sum up why we need storytelling in the intercultural context, I would like to offer a short list (instead of a story) that includes the following issues:

  • Storytelling suppports zooming in and out effects and, therefore, enables perspective change.
  • Storytelling allows the discovery of cultural roots from multiple perspectives.
  • Storytelling offers insights into the complexity of multicultural identities.
  • Storytelling can be an eye-opener in new cultural surroundings.
  • Storytelling adds the emotional layer to the cognitive level.
  • Storytelling serves as a means of transmitting cultures.
  • Storytelling deals with new stories of belonging.
  • Storytelling initiates change processes.
  • Storytelling serves as sensemaking.
  • Storytelling moves hearts.

Sell, J. (2017): Storytelling for Intercultural Understanding and Intercultural Sensitivity Development in: Chlopczyk, J. (ed.) Beyond Storytelling. Springer Gabler, pp.234-235.

Made you curious? Please find more about the storytelling approach in the intercultural context with a focus on choice biographies and identities in flux, coping with the danger of a single story, new stories of belonging and a hands on compilation of storytelling methods that can be applied in intercultural programs in two of my chapters published in following books:

Sell, J. (2017): Storytelling for Intercultural Understanding and Intercultural Sensitivity Development in: Chlopczyk, J. (ed.) Beyond Storytelling. Springer Gabler.

Sell, J. (2017): Segel hoch und auf zu neuen Ufern – Eine Reise durch die Welt der Storytelling-Methoden im unterkulturellen Kontext in: Schach, A. (ed.) Storytelling. Geschichten in Text, Bild und Film, Springer Gabler.

Developing Cultural Competency as a Life-long Journey

CSxMJSzXAAARY7-I have long admired Christian Höferle of The Culture Mastery. He is a German-born intercultural trainer and consultant living in Georgia (USA), a certified facilitator of Cultural Detective, and writes a funny and useful blog that has taught US-born me a lot about southern US culture.

Christian recently began a new podcast series—The Culture Guy—that keeps me chuckling while also reminding me what’s important about cross-cultural effectiveness. I was honored to be his third guest, and thoroughly enjoyed the wide-ranging conversation. Christian is intelligent, witty, and committed to excellence. I trust you will find the interview worthwhile; you can listen by clicking the playbar below or on this link.

After you’ve listened to the podcast, please take a moment to share with us one of your “cultural fool” moments, an example of when your “common sense” wasn’t shared, or a favorite tip for success across cultures. We look forward to reading them!

The Blame Game

BlameVAcccountabilityBlame is one of the most powerful tools in the repertoire of a Cultural Defective. Do you want to diminish trust in a relationship? Cause irritation? Ensure that others do not want to help you succeed? Ruin a perfect opportunity for cross-cultural collaboration? Then blame is a good strategy.

In contrast, Cultural Detective advises you to “refuse to take offense”—a much smarter operating norm for Cultural Effectives. Has someone failed to inform you in a timely manner? Rather than blaming them for rudeness or unprofessionalism, it is more constructive to learn the intentions behind their (lack of) communication, explain your preferences, and together create a shared way forward—a “third culture.”

“Blame is the discharging of discomfort and pain. It has an inverse relationship with accountability.”
—Brené Brown

When others have a different cultural norm, mindset, or “common sense,” it is most productive and sanity-preserving to acknowledge and understand these differing “cultural senses”! Actively taking accountability for co-creating shared norms provides a way to work together more effectively. It also facilitates trust, while embedding as “normal” the processes and a mindsets to help solve future problems.

We are fans of Brené Brown, as many of you may be, too. The video below captures this basic concept of blame vs. accountability in her inimitably humorous and insightful style, albeit not in a cross-cultural context.

Are you looking to build intercultural competence, and learn a reliable process to transform blame into accountability? A subscription to Cultural Detective Online for you, your family, or team will help you accomplish just that!

Four Steps to a Happier Life: Actions Don’t “Create” Reactions

Potato-PotahtoDuring our monthly webinar, attended by people working in academia, NGOs, private enterprise, and a religious community, and geographically from Russia to Egypt to the USA and quite a few points in between, one of the participants summarized for us what she had learned. Cultural Detective had taught her, she said, “that actions don’t ‘create’ reactions; interpretation of actions creates reactions.”

Yes! That is brilliant and powerful learning! And it is crucial to understand this idea if we are to develop intercultural competence. It is a prerequisite to implementing the four steps to a happier life.

“Actions don’t ‘create’ reactions.
Interpretation of actions creates reactions.”

Your Story/My Story
To understand the concept better, think about a time when you had a painful miscommunication with someone, the type of miscommunication that haunts you for days or longer. The example I’ll share with you involves a family member, but yours might involve a friend, family member, important client, or colleague. Got your example? Okay, here’s mine.

Recently, a family member took exception to a text I sent him. It was classic miscommunication. He felt I had jumped to conclusions about him, specifically, that I had falsely accused him of wrongdoing. His negative judgments and assumptions about me made me sad. This is common; there is a downward spiral that so often happens in miscommunication. We want our family, friends, colleagues, and clients to give us benefit of the doubt, to assume we have their backs. It is upsetting when, instead, they think the worst of us.

Communication is a shared process. We send our messages and usually assume that the receivers of our messages understand us. But does our intention, the meaning, as conveyed by our message match the other’s interpretation? This, of course, is the crux of successful communication!

Think about your own example. What happened? How did each of you perceive the miscommunication? How did each of you feel? What was the outcome?

My relative’s upset was real, as was mine. We can’t and shouldn’t deny our feelings and our reactions. Yet, it was especially important to me that, as a family member, we not feel negatively toward one another. One good outcome of the exchange was that I learned something new about him, and now understand an area of sensitivity for him. That knowledge will inform my future interactions, and hopefully help me to communicate with him in ways he finds more supportive. I am confident that he learned something that will inform his future communication with me, as well.

So, did my text “cause” him pain? Did his response “cause” me sadness? Did our differing communication styles “cause” frustration? No, of course not! It is the manner in which we interpret differing communication styles that can cause us frustration and can waste our time, energy, enthusiasm and resources. Your mother may have told you when you were young that your friends can not make you angry; it’s your choice to become angry or not. Differing communication styles can actually strengthen teamwork, and they can add delight to friendships.

Now, think about your example of miscommunication. Did your behavior “cause” negativity for the other person? Did their behavior “cause” it in you? Or, rather, was it the way each of you interpreted the other’s behavior—the meaning you gave to it—that caused the grief?

In my example, there was no negative energy or assumption embedded in the initial text; I had no thought of accusation. Many times, however, our innocent actions result in hurt feelings or negative perceptions, just as they can also help people feel good. In hindsight my text could have been worded better. A lengthier, more explicit text from me (or, better yet, a phone call) may not have “caused” the reaction it did.

However, it was not the text itself but, rather, my relative’s interpretation of the meaning behind my text, that provoked his reaction. We cannot control how others will perceive us, though we can do our best to improve our communication skills. The distinction between behavior causing a reaction versus our interpretation of the behavior influencing us to react in a certain way is an important distinction for cross-cultural and intercultural communication effectiveness.

THE FOUR STEPS TO A HAPPIER LIFE
So, what are these four steps to a happier life, to improving your communication with others?

Step One
The first point to remember is that miscommunication happens—every day, even between loving couples, family members, and friends. How much more frequently can miscommunication happen, then, between strangers or those who come from very different cultural backgrounds?

When we find ourselves in an uncomfortable communication situation, we need to remember not to place blame. It’s happened; miscommunication is natural and normal. But we can use it as a learning opportunity—a chance to understand more about ourselves and others.

Step Two
As the Cultural Detective Method shows us, when we find ourselves involved in miscommunication, or feeling a bit frustrated or judgmental, we are wise to take a look within ourselves. What are my assumptions? What beliefs am I using in my interpretation of events? What does the way I feel tell me about what is important to me? What values do I hold in relation to this situation, and how do I link them to appropriate behavior?

Our past experience and “common sense” (really “personal cultural sense”) cause us to interpret actions in certain ways. Becoming aware of those filters, the ways we view the world, can help us know ourselves better, to be better able to understand and anticipate our own responses, and better able to explain ourselves to others.

Step Three
Once we’ve taken a look into ourselves, it’s time to try to put ourselves into the shoes of the other. Even though we might perceive behavior as negative, let us temporarily, while we think this through, give the benefit of the doubt. What might be other, positively intended reasons that the person did what they did?

Of course, I can also consider whether I know this person to “have it in” for me. Does this person have a history of attacking me, or of acting unprofessionally? If not, the above “positive intent” exercise becomes even more important.

Step Four
Finally, it’s time to reach out and take action to resolve the miscommunication. Preferably,  this includes a combination of apologies for discomfort, questions that seek to understand, explanation of intent, and summary of what has been learned. It should, also, ideally culminate with a path forward: how we’ll try to communicate more effectively with one another from this point on.

Looking at the above four steps, you will see they incorporate the three capacities that the Cultural Detective Model teaches us:

  1. Subjective Culture: Knowing ourselves as cultural beings
  2. Cultural Literacy: Empathy and the ability to “read” the intentions of others
  3. Cultural Bridging: The ability to bring out the best in ourselves, others, and the organization or community

If you haven’t yet joined us for one of our monthly webinars, please do. Those attending receive a complimentary three-day pass to Cultural Detective Online, a tool that can help you integrate these four steps so that they become second nature in your daily life. And, please, share the invitation with your friends, colleagues, and clients! Let’s make this world a happier and more interculturally effective place!

Part of the #MyGlobalLife Link-Up

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.

Satisfacción de los Clientes Internacionales

web2Un tercer video tomado del webinar “Desarrollando habilidades interculturales en  profesionales globales”, el 24 de Octubre 2013, en cual cuento la historia de una empresa Chilena que intenta importar parte de su producción de China. Por falta de no desarrollar las competencias interculturales requeridas, no son los primeros en llegar al mercado con el nuevo producto y conlleva la pérdida de mucho dinero y la reputación de la empresa en el mercado. Desafortunadamente es una situación muy común—una  que Cultural Detective te ayuda a evitar.

Por favor, cuéntanos tu historia…

Historia 1

Historia 2

La Supervisión de una Fuerza de Trabajo Multicultural

web2Un segundo video tomado del webinar “Desarrollando habilidades interculturales en  profesionales globales”, el 24 de Octubre 2013, en el cual cuento una historia de la gerencia de un equipo de trabajo intercultural. Es la historia de un mecánico Holandés que trabaja como jefe de equipo en un buque de perforación petrolera frente a las costas de Argentina. La falta de competencias interculturales requeridas conlleva la pérdida de tres empleados, mucho dinero, y la reputación de la empresa en el mercado. Desafortunadamente es una situación muy común—una que Cultural Detective te ayuda a evitar.

Por favor, cuéntanos tu historia…

Historia 1

Historia 3

Una Historia de Abrir Mercados Nuevos

web2Tomado del webinar “Desarrollando habilidades interculturales en  profesionales globales”, el 24 de Octubre, 2013, en cuyo video cuento la historia de unos clientes míos, tratando de abrir nuevos mercados sin haber desarrollado las competencias interculturales requeridas. Es una situación muy común, que conlleva la pérdida de millones de dólares y la reputación en el mercado. Es una experiencia que Cultural Detective te ayuda a evitar.

Por favor, cuéntanos tu historia…

Historia 2

Historia 3

Today’s Cultural Defective: A Humorous Short Story

ImageThe past few weeks our family has been busy traveling around visiting universities with our son, who will be a senior in high school as of next week, as well as visiting family and, of course, working in between. Many thanks to all our wonderful guest bloggers who contributed posts during this time.

We are home again, and I thought you might enjoy a humorous “Cultural Defective” or cultural misstep story that happened to us upon our return. The guard, our neighbor, and our family had a good chuckle over it. Hopefully we’ll be a bit clearer in our communication with our building staff going forward, but more importantly, we gained a better understanding of our own worldview and that of the people working in our building. Here’s the story:

We live in a large condominium building. We receive a newspaper delivered to our door every day. Normally when we leave town, we tell the building staff that they are welcome to keep and read our paper while we are gone, and that we don’t need them back. It tends to be much easier and less confusing than starting and stopping delivery, and the staff enjoys the small perk. This time, however, our neighbor was in town, so we invited him to take and read our paper every day while we were gone.

Today, one of our building guards showed up at our door with a huge stack of newspapers. He most kindly explained to us that someone had been stealing our newspaper every day while we were gone (we live on a floor with three other families). Therefore, the staff had decided to hold the papers in the office, to guard them, and give them to us upon our return.

I guess we should have communicated our plans with the building staff more clearly. This was certainly nothing I would have expected. I do hope that at least the staff read them!

To me this incident is refreshing in that it didn’t really harm anyone, as many cross-cultural misunderstandings unfortunately do. However, I’m sure if confused our neighbor (why has newspaper delivery stopped?)!
If we take a bit of time to apply the Cultural Detective Method, we can easily see the value differences it illustrates:
  • The value placed upon a daily newspaper delivery—a luxury available to professionals, but beyond the reach of a laborer here in western Mexico.
  • Feelings of protectiveness and responsibility—the building guards are accustomed to a huge status differential; they don’t want to do anything that might disappoint a homeowner, or that an owner might accuse them of doing incorrectly. They were protecting us, and they were protecting themselves.

In my worldview, it never occurred to me that an owner might want six weeks of newspapers saved. Also, I have a different the sense of responsibility than our guards have. I might figure, “Hey, if the lady didn’t tell me to save her papers for her, or what to do with them while she is gone, I can’t be responsible.”

Of course, it could also have been that the guards really wanted their few weeks of leisurely newspaper reading, and resented an owner (our neighbor) taking what would otherwise be theirs, but I really don’t think that’s what happened. They just figured we’d forgotten about our paper, and that a neighbor was taking advantage of our absence. And, they did the right thing—they protected us.

This is just a small, humorous story of daily life as an expat, and how easily any of us can jump to negative conclusions. Or, if we take a few moments to reflect on our missteps, we can gain insight about ourselves, others, and living together enjoyably.

We have such a wide range of readers—I’ll bet many of you have similar anecdotes of unintended consequences to your actions (or lack of action) as you have navigated life in a foreign culture. We’d be delighted to hear your “Cultural Defective” stories and the insights you gained through the experiences.

Entre Dios y Alá

(English follows Spanish)

Si pudiera resumir las noticias de las últimas dos semanas, podría sin duda mencionar dos nombres: Benedicto XVI y Hugo Chávez.

El primero desafió toda una organización, un sistema, una tradición. Hoy que escribo esta nota los noticieros hablan del humo blanco saliendo de la Capilla Sixtina que anuncie que hay un nuevo Papa. No me alcanzo a imaginar todos los cambios organizacionales a los que se enfrenta la Iglesia Católica para adaptarse a este nuevo cambio de innegable impacto mundial.

Por otro lado, tenemos la muerte del presidente de Venezuela Hugo Chávez. Los análisis políticos por supuesto han sido los protagonistas de su partida. Pero no podemos dejar de lado ese aspecto que nos une en este espacio de comunicación.

En medio de la sobre-exposición de la noticia en los medios, incluyendo detalles de su vida, su gobierno, sus frases célebres, visitas a países socialistas etc, está una noticia que este lado del mundo apenas menciona.

La foto del presidente de Irán, Mahmud Ahmadineyad, expresando sus condolencias a la madre del presidente Chávez ha causado no menos que indignación en su país y los países que siguen los preceptos islámicos.

Lo que para nosotros puede parecer normal, entendible y simplemente humano al brindar consuelo en un abrazo a alguien que vive el dolor profundo del duelo, en otra latitud no es más que el irrespeto a lo que ordena su ley, la cual indica que no debe haber contacto físico entre un hombre y una mujer si no es de su círculo cercano.

No siempre podemos entonces actuar como actúan otros, es decir a la tierra que vamos hacer lo que vemos. No siempre podemos adaptarnos a otro entorno, a pesar que podamos sentir la inclinación natural a ello.

Las culturas abiertas podríamos describirlas como permeables a otras culturas, donde son fácilmente identificables y permitidos otros valores, costumbres, tradiciones siempre y cuando prevalezca el interés común sobre el particular. Por el contrario, las culturas cerradas son herméticas y poco o nada tolerantes a las demás. El caso que enfrenta al presidente Ahmadineyad es una muestra clara, y atizado además, por comparar al presidente Chávez con Jesucristo.

Se unen de nuevo alrededor de Dios, de nuestras creencias religiosas los dos hechos noticiosos que mantienen en vilo al mundo entero.

Católicos y no católicos pendientes del Vaticano. Entre tanto el mundo Islámico levantando su voz de protesta por un hecho a todas luces, para ellos totalmente inadmisible hasta para un jefe de Estado.

Entre Dios y Alá, entre Dios y Dios. Hasta la próxima.

Between God and Allah, translation by Dianne Hofner Saphiere

If I were to summarize the news of the last two weeks, I could without doubt mention two names: Benedict XVI and Hugo Chávez.

The first challenged an entire organization, a system, a tradition. Today as I write this note there is news in the white smoke coming out of the Sistine Chapel announcing that there is a new Pope.  I can’t begin to imagine all the organizational changes that confront the Catholic Church as it adapts to this new change of undeniable worldwide impact.

On the other hand, we have the death of Hugo Chávez, the President of Venezuela. The political analyses have of course been the protagonists of his departure. But we can not ignore that aspect which unites us in this communication space. Amid the over-exposure of the news media, including the details of his life, his government, his famous phrases, and his visits to socialist countries, etc., lies a story that this side of the world barely mentioned.

This photo of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, expressing his condolences to the mother of President Chávez, has caused no minor indignation in his country and in the countries of the world that follow Islamic principles. What to us may seem normal, understandable, and simply the human act of providing comfort with a hug to someone living the deep pain of grief, in another latitude is nothing more than disrespect to the order of law, which indicates there should be no physical contact between a man and a woman not within the same inner circle.

We cannot always behave as others do, that is to say, doing what we see in the land to which we travel. We cannot always adapt ourselves to another environment, although we might feel the natural inclination to do so.

Open cultures could be described as permeable to other cultures, those in which other values, customs, and traditions are easily identifiable and permitted as long as the common interest in the matter is maintained. By contrast, closed cultures are hermetic, and not so tolerant of others. The case facing President Ahmadinejad is a clear case in point, further stoked by comparisons of Hugo Chávez with Jesus Christ.

Our religious beliefs join again around God, in the two big news items that have captivated the world. Catholics and non-Catholics watching the Vatican. The Muslim world raising its voice in protest to an act committed openly, which for them is completely inadmissible for a Head of State.

Between God and Allah, between God and God. See you soon!