Research Findings: The Value of Intercultural Skills in the Workplace

IC Skills importance
Culture at Work: The value of intercultural skills in the workplace
—A survey conducted by the British Council, Booz Allen Hamilton and Ipsos Public Affairs, of HR managers at 367 large employers in nine countries: Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Jordan, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US)

The Report’s Conclusions

“Our ability to engage successfully with other countries, organisations and people will depend to a large extent on whether we possess the necessary intercultural and foreign language skills to make fruitful connections, whether in trade and investment, charity/NGO programmes or as government and international organisations. This is fundamentally changing the way in which employers value and seek to develop intercultural skills in the workplace.”

“More and more business leaders are identifying real business value in employing staff with intercultural skills. These skills are vital, not just in smoothing international business transactions, but also in developing long term relationships with customers and suppliers. Increasingly they also play a key role within the workplace, enhancing team working, fostering creativity, improving communication and reducing conflict. All this translates into greater efficiency, stronger brand identity, enhanced reputation and ultimately impact on the bottom line.”

“Employers believe that intercultural skills are integral to the workplace.”

“A common challenge shared by employers around the world is finding employees with adequate intercultural skills. Given that the operating environments of all organisations is increasingly global, it comes as no surprise that employers need employees who can understand and adapt to different cultural contexts.”

What is the international reality in the workplace?

The research shows that employees in most large companies surveyed engage in extensive interaction across international borders.

More than two thirds of employers report that their employees engage frequently with colleagues outside of their country, and over half say that their employees engage frequently with partners and clients outside of their country.

Intercultural skills provide business value and help mitigate risk.

The research shows that HR managers associate intercultural skills with significant business benefits. Overall, the organisations surveyed are most interested in intercultural skills for the benefits they bring—benefits that carry significant monetary value to employers:

  • Keeping teams running efficiently
  • Good for reputation
  • Bringing in new clients
  • Building trust with clients
  • Communicating with overseas partners
  • Able to work with diverse colleagues
  • Increased productivity
  • Increased sales

Employers also see significant risk to their organisations when employees lack intercultural skills. Top risks that organisations surveyed are concerned about are:

  • Miscommunication and conflict within teams
  • Global reputational damage
  • Los of clients
  • Cultural insensitivity to clients/partners overseas
  • Project mistakes

How do the organisations surveyed define “intercultural skills”?

The graphic below shows the words employers used, with size of the block equating to frequency of use.


The terms employers use to define intercultural skills
Source: Telephone/face-to-face surveys of public sector, private sector and NGO employers responsible for employment decisions. Base: Ipsos Public Affairs, 2012: Global (n=367).

In particular, employers highlight the following as important intercultural skills that they look for in job candidates:

  • the ability to understand different cultural contexts and viewpoints
  • demonstrating respect for others
  • accepting different cultural contexts and viewpoints
  • openness to new ideas and ways of thinking
  • knowledge of a foreign language.

How employers rank different skills in terms of importance


Graphic © the original report, with yellow highlights added by Cultural Detective.

How does the research indicate these skills are developed?

Most employers report encouraging their staff to develop intercultural skills through in-house training, meetings and events. However, employers also say that educational institutions could do more to equip students with intercultural skills.

The findings suggest that policy makers and education providers could do more to contribute to the development of a workforce with the necessary intercultural skills through interventions, such as prioritising:

  • teaching communication skills
  • offering foreign language classes
  • availability of opportunities for students to gain international experience
  • development of international research partnerships.

This research suggests that there is significant opportunity for employers, policy makers and education providers to work together to strengthen the development of intercultural skills to meet the needs of an increasingly global workforce.

Using Social Media to Rebrand Culture

What's the story...?

What’s the story…?

This is the sixth in a series. (#1#2#3#4 and #5 are here.)

Stories can be made to say what we want them to say. I went shopping this evening and, at the checkout, the cashier, seeing the bandage on my nose, asked what happened to me. To her horror, I explained it this way: “A couple days ago, I had an encounter with a young man, who had me held down and cut me with the blade that he had in his hand.”

Her reaction naturally changed to one of amusement and empathy, the moment I mentioned that the young man in question was my surgeon, and the immobilization was being strapped to the operating table! There is no untruth in the first story, but the discourse it calls forth depends on who the listener is, and evokes a substantially different discourse with the omission or addition of a few details. Had I told the same to my policeman neighbor, I’m sure a different automatic discourse would have sprung up for him, and he would have started to ask different questions, though, knowing him, I am sure he would have had a hearty, guys-will-be-guys laugh at the end. The key to the ultimate meaning of stories is intentionality. I was taking advantage of my strange appearance to lighten my pain and have a little fun. Understanding intentionality is the key to cultural competence, not just recognizing difference and learning to adapt behaviors to the situation.

How can new media be used to shape discourse and create culture?
We are forever telling stories, in old as well as new media. So, let’s move on from the question we discussed last time about what messages new-media themselves may bear. Let’s turn our attention to the second question, namely, how we use these media, deliberately or unconsciously to create, change or maintain certain forms of discourse as cultural building blocks. Can, for example, the interactivity of social media play an important role in reshaping cultural discourse and cultural identity? What has been done, accomplished, what is being done to create the stories that articulate today’s and tomorrow’s cultural realities?

Creating stories to do this is not new. We’ve created identity stories throughout history and we do it all the time. Recently a friend of mine sent me a photograph of mother dog instructing seven puppies, with a story which ends: “…and then the mean old kitty stole all of the doggie treats and ran down the street, and that is why we chase cats to this day.”


This doggy story is humorous, because it is so true. Patriots and dictators, oppressors and the oppressed each create their own story, not only of who they are but of how they are defined in reaction to others, usually seen as “the bad guys.” They expect mothers and teachers to pass it on. In the USA, when the Berlin wall came tumbling down and the Communist bloc shrank, after a brief period of euphoria, we started to need a real enemy to feel good about ourselves. There had to be some bad guys, some rustlers out there. Though it is not essential, identity myths pick up currency by emphasizing superiority, whether racial, moral, military or cultural as well as by identifying outside threats.

Branding a Nation
Nonetheless, to discuss what is being done, or what we might do with contemporary media in this respect, it might be instructive to look at a classical case of rebranding, not of a product, but of a nation, something that occurred at a time when mass media could largely be described in two words: newspaper and radio.

Dr. Hatice Sitki, a colleague in Australia, has done impressive work on the marketing and branding of national identity. If you think marketing is not relevant to cultural identity, think again. The whole idea of marketing is to create a discourse, which people take as their reality, a discourse that usually deals with them, sometimes with them as citizens, but more often today as consumers. Using a national example can tell us about commercial branding as well. What Hatice did was study the mythology, the brand, the discourse of Turkish identity, and connect it to the search for European identity, a topic that has been surfacing from time to time since the creation of the European Union—usually in times of stress, like the current financial crisis.

The most interesting part of Hatice’s work was the description of how Kemal Ataturk (literally so renamed as “Father of the Turks) selected from the myths the stories of origins and heroes that existed in Ottoman lore, and recombined them, rephrased them into a discourse, which gave a “real” national identity to Turks. There had been a tribal identity, an ethnic identity for Turks before this, but in the Ottoman Empire there was no sense of a specific Turkish nationality or citizenship. One belonged to the Empire. It was just that way.

So Hatice took a look at the marketing of identity not only historically, but also in terms of the future potential of marketing to the EU. She went on to explore how some of the current myths could be rebranded, so that the discourse about Turkey not being really European might be shifted, even integrated with the myths and discourse of European identity. After all, if one really looks at the Ottoman Empire in European history, it’s played a powerful role. It was frequently an ally of European countries against each other. World War I was only the tragic final act in this drama. Yet today Europeans are struggling with, “Can it be a part of Europe? “Can it join the European Union?” European resistance to the idea, among other factors, seems to be fueling a return to stronger Islamic identity after three quarters of a century of existence as a proud secular republic in the Islamic world.


When I first explored ideas about the flow of culture in a webinar addressed to a study group of the Project Management Institute, one of the participants from India remarked, “I think there’s a hidden morale in this presentation. At the PMI we need to understand the cultural difference, find common ground for all stakeholders to work as one.” How true, because if we think about image of the river, it’s carrying, integrating all these different waters, from all their different sources into one powerful flow toward the sea, and if we think of ourselves as collaborators in an organization, the diversity that our colleagues bring, whether personal, ethnic, or wherever it originates, as a resource.

The metaphor of the river is valid for understanding organizations as well as for exploring group and individual identity. Training multicultural teams to work in global environments, many of whom work almost entirely virtually, requires not only constant exploration of cultural discourse but efforts to shape a “third culture,” the agreed set of discourses by which team members will collaborate. Cultural Detective: Global Teamwork is an example of a tool that was developed by a virtual team to help teams identify and meet the key challenges of virtual collaboration. While such teams often have their own platforms, it is not uncommon for members to use social media to explore and solidify their connections with each other. In an academic context, it happens not infrequently that while students are provided with online tools by the university, many will eschew these for Facebook and other social media when they actually get down to working together on a common project, creating their group culture together on such sites. While we tend to think of deep culture as enduring and resurgent, we should not turn a blind eye to the functional but transitory cultures that are easily built as well as dismantled by new media tools. Even here it is a matter of sharing and shared discourse. If anything, impermanence may be a hallmark of much digital culture where the object of new media utterances is not to “build a monument more lasting than bronze” (Horace, Ode 3.30) but to learn habits that enrich the everyday with timely discourse for what we do to best meet our needs.

The river of discourse is a rich, rich resource. We need to know how to tap into its fullness. If not, the likelihood is what I described toward the end of the Culture’s Flow poem. It will flood over us, wash us away. I often think of colonialism and now rampant globalization as the human, cultural equivalent of burning down the rain forests. Most of us only see the destruction of environments from afar, but at the micro level what is going on is the extermination of species or discourse that will not return, resources that might play, in fact, very important roles in our well being.

We know that humans have created some very dangerous, even genocidal cultures, discourse about others that enables us to kill them en masse. Yet these realities and their consequences stem from our constructed discourse. Once we realize that we are enmeshed in all of these worlds of discourse, it asks us, how can we look at this, how should we look at what’s real, and, what’s really real may be simply our capacity to recognize different discourses for what they are, stories created in time to serve a purpose, hopefully to serve a good purpose, hopefully to help us succeed and survive in our environment. But so many of them have been dangerous; have been deadly, so it’s about getting the point that realities are ours to create.

What do new media bring to this challenge? A great freedom to question. Unparalleled contact with the diversity of others. A great liberty to seek out new discourses of identity. A vast universe of opportunities in which to discover, engage and enroll kindred souls. A limitless playground for new ideas and a place to grow up, space for our discourses to be questioned, to be reshaped, and to be created in unprecedented ways. The opportunity to create a critical mass of discourse that might just change some of the seemingly endless games we have been playing. The tools are there to shape our primitive discourses in ways that will humanely and constructively prevail. This will not happen by itself, nor will the media per se deliver this message. Rather it is we, the storytellers and our intentions, that will make a difference. Do new media guarantee change? Certainly, but not without risks. It is up to us, to our intentionality and our ability to share it that will determine the direction and results of that change.

This post originally appeared in the blog of the Center for Intercultural New Media Research and is provided with the assistance of its editor Anastacia Kurylo.

As They Say in Russia

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGuest blog by Tatyana Fertelmeyster, Co-author of Cultural Detective Russia and Senior Trainer of Facilitators

There is a Russian saying, “If a face is ugly, don’t blame the mirror.” I have been thinking about it lately as the topic of Russia has come up in different mirrors, and it is not looking all that good.

In addition to all these, Human Rights Watch, in its World Report 2013, addresses a long list of concerns, concluding that 2012 was “the worst year for human rights in Russia in recent memory,” according to  Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia Director at Human Rights Watch.

The official Russian response to all of that? It is complex, nuanced, and as contextual as everything in Russia. And most often it is about blaming the mirror or whoever is putting this mirror in front of Russia’s face. Just in the last few months Russia enacted laws that

  1. Require NGOs with any foreign funding to register as “foreign agents”,
  2. Reinterpret treason so broadly that almost anybody cooperating with foreigners can be — if necessary — accused of selling out the Motherland,
  3. Prohibit Russian orphans to be adopted by US Americans.

Two other very common Russian sayings come to mind:

  • “I am a fool? You are a fool yourself!” and
  • “Don’t teach me how to live my life!”

Considering that Russia is the largest country in the world, with the seventh largest domestic market and the second largest nuclear arsenal, it might be useful to know what they say in Russia. And it will be priceless to understand what they mean when they say it.

Cultural Detective Russia is available in our new Cultural Detective Online system. I hope you’ll give it  whirl and see how it might help make meaning of some of this.

Tatyana Fertelmeyster, Co-author of Cultural Detective Russia

I am a creator and destroyer of worlds – and so are you! (#3 in a series)

How We Construct Culture and Reality

In my previous posts (#1 in the series, #2 in the series), I stressed how important it is for us to develop a dynamic rather than a static view of culture. Today we will launch our boat on the river of culture and peer into its sometimes clear and often murky waters to come up with a better sense of what’s down there. We noticed last time how we are ever talking to ourselves. Everything we create is a result of this inner self-talk, this discourse, our listening. So the things that we call “culture,” in the broad sense of the word, arts, music, industry, all of these things are products of this the stories we tell ourselves, this dialogue that goes on within us and around us that helps us shape and break the rules by which we make and do things.

Blog 3.1

Dr. George Simons has long been researching the stories that make us who we are. In this series of blog posts he will be leading us in an examination of critical challenges that can lead us toward a fresh vision of culture. We will explore how we come to terms with our inner and shared identities and learn about how we construct the realities that shape our now and our future world.

I grew up in the USA. My father was a second-generation immigrant, which often meant trying to be “more American than the Americans” because it wasn’t okay to be “too immigrant.” My father would say to me again and again, “You can be anybody you want to. It’s up to you.” “You have to take charge of your life.” “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Such maxims and counsel that were repeated over and over again in my family, during my education, among my peers, in the groups I belonged to, became my outlook, my world, the culture that still flows in me.

Some things we don’t ever forget. When it rains, I still hear my mother’s voice, “Take your rubbers with you.” If you saw the film Outsourced about the manager expatriated to India, you no doubt had a good howl at his conversation with his workers about the meaning of “rubbers”. (If you missed it, have a look.) Rubbers, in my case, were neither erasers nor condoms, but rubber overshoes. I don’t have any now and I haven’t had any in years, but I can still hear my mother’s voice…

Cultural discourse takes the form of memories, stories in our heads and hearts that guide us about how to act, what to think. They shape our attitudes, provide our norms. They are the raw material of our culture. Even if, and especially if these pass into the background of our minds and we no longer explicitly hear them, the ideas and feelings contained in these memories still resonate with us and lead us on.

How do we construct a dynamic definition of culture?
My very favorite definition of culture doesn’t come from a textbook. It comes from a children’s book called Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez. His is the most disarming definition of culture I’ve ever laid eyes on:

“The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. So, if stories come to you, care for them, and learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That’s why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.”

Lopez furnishes us with a powerful, very powerful statement about how and why we create and pass on culture. Stories are told and retold in such a way as to shape us, giving us a common memory, common values and behavioral, even moral imperatives “for our own good.” Seeing culture this way, as adaptation to our environment, challenges our more static definitions.

Blog 3.2

Once upon a time, an anthropologist pitched tent in Borneo. Using an interpreter, he interviewed local people, looking for insight into the life and culture of the tribes native to the place. One day, questioning a local chieftain through the interpreter, the anthropologist couldn’t help noticing that the chieftain couldn’t take his eyes off a camp chair—you know, those seats with fold-up wooden frames. Nowadays, most have plastic or metal tubing, but a century ago they were simply canvas and wood. Finally, the anthropologist prompted the interpreter to ask about the chieftain’s fixation on the chair. The interpreter asked, “Why do you keep looking at the chair?” The chieftain replied quizzically, “Why do you stack your firewood that way?”

If you don’t have a use for something, you may not have a discourse for it. It may not even exist for you, or not exist in the way it exists for others. One of the critical tasks of living in a multicultural world is learning how to look at what we’ve never seen before, or have never seen in the fashion that is being presented to us. Things we’ve never “seen” before may not be physical artifacts. They may be feelings and perceptions. They may be opinions, judgments. They may even be colors – not every culture sees or names colors in the same way. We miss out on discourses that drive other people that would never drive us or might “drive us crazy!” These are not easy to discover, certainly not as obvious as puzzlement about a camping chair. Still, ask we must. We are embedded within a cultural discourse that we treat as real, but that is created by, as well as limited to what our own stories have to tell us. 

Blog 3.3Who creates?
In our times, realities, different from and deadly to each other, run rampant. Like it or not, we are challenged to understand our culture, other people’s culture, become familiar with the discourse that drives our behavior, our creativity, and perhaps brings us together in new and different ways and allows us to peacefully cohabit the planet.

So we must ask, where do our realities, where does this culture come from? Well, since culture is a conversation, since it’s discourse, it’s coming from you and me! It’s coming from everybody within earshot, from every handheld device connected to ours. Discourse requires people. It’s going on all the time, and, whether we intentionally listen to it or not, it seduces us with its themes and memes.

Sometimes, probably more often than we think, we deliberately attempt to create realities for ourselves and others. We work on shaping a reality that serves our purposes through the stories we tell in social media, traditional media, conversations with others, as we rehearse and repeat these stories in our own heads. We are as much the creators of these discourses of culture as GM and Volkswagen are designers and manufacturers of automobiles. Like the family car, some discourses can be very helpful and humane. Other discourses can be quite ugly. Like a fast set of wheels, you can use your inner discourse to rob a bank or save somebody’s life by rushing them to the emergency ward.

Roger Peterson, a US academic, is quoted saying this—and I like it:

“The collective memory [the discourse that we share] is systematically unfaithful to the past in order to satisfy the needs of the present. In other words, we attempt to address the present by reconstructing the past as if it always existed in the way we now adopt it.”

Through the stories we tell ourselves we produce a discourse. This discourse is the dynamic way we collectively create the cultural constructs that put our diverse realities, our cultures together. These constructs may be the bearers of mythology, fictional imagination, or as we all know too well, political propaganda. People are competing with their stories to create the realities they want for themselves and for others. For the sake of consistency and credibility we try to present our new story as the true and eternal story.

Enter the discourse of new media
How are new media affecting, constructing this flow? It is probably too early to tell, but certainly not too early to pay attention. For sure, they are being used both in traditional and novel ways.  Certainly they have multiplied by a factor of Xx the sheer volume and range of participation within one generation. They can be the conveyors of the traditional discourse which we consider wisdom, discourses that certain of us would like to impart to the rest of us, philosophical and religious, or New Age ideals; at the same time they are also the tools of revolution and the conveyors of revolutionary values, often drawn from the same sources, but re-expressed and broadcast in nanoseconds in a volume that hitherto would have been deemed sorcery.

How do we sort out what is new and fresh from what is newly or freshly restated to fulfill a desire or to meet a contemporary challenge? The wish to “sort out” in some definitive way is perhaps a false aspiration, a question to which there is no answer, a cul-de-sac, whose alternative is ongoing reflection as an essential part of our reality construction process. In new media, as in any other media that we use to create reality by discourse, these fresh tools are appropriated to change and introduce the realities that its authors, consciously or unconsciously, wish to disseminate.

Blog 3.4We all know that the Internet allows us to create reality ex nihilo. Fake user names create “people,” as do avatars of “aliens.” We even build virtual worlds that allow people to accept a second and a third and perhaps an infinite number of lives and realities. If you can imagine it, say it, you can be it. Yea, “Ye are gods.” Like the Jehovah of Genesis, we say, “Let there be…” And behold, there it is! And, if we are the ones who said it, we are also likely to proclaim that it is good. Like Shiva of old, I am the creator and destroyer of worlds – and so are you!

Charlatans, con men, name changers, shapeshifters and princes donning pauper’s clothing are not new to our human story. But the possibility and the temptation to creation on a quasi-divine level, and the consequences for doing so have never been so available and up for grabs. Even so, we like to imagine the world as somehow stable and static, at least in our desire to create something solid and lasting, even or perhaps especially in a virtual environment. Our human minds and hearts, even in intangible media, are inclined to treat our creations, our culture as real, not constructed.

John Lennon, a great interculturalist in my book, said “The more real you get, the more unreal the world gets.” The more you can get perspective on the discourse that flows around you, the better chance you have of seeing these things, not as useless or false, but for what they are, our attempts to construct things for benefit, for surviving and succeeding. We will look at this again as we seek a fresh cultural discourse to reshape our perspective. Meanwhile, how do you react to this fearful relativity of reality, or to the multiplicity of realities that new media have put at our disposal and which often invade our stability? What have you created as real for you? Are there real worlds, or only virtual ones…?

In Cultural Detective: Self Discovery® we offered some exercises to help you listen to your inner conversations and stories. These are only starting points. In this blog you will sometimes see pictures I have extracted from my past. This is not an exercise in nostalgia or ego promotion, but a suggestion that you might also explore the images and sounds of the past to bring the sources of your cultural discourse into focus.

This post originally appeared in the blog of the Center for Intercultural New Media Research and is provided with the assistance of its editor Anastacia Kurylo.

Our Culture on the Firing Line

UN gun sculptureWe are very pleased to be able to share with you another guest post by the insightful and talented Joe Lurie, Executive Director Emeritus, University of California Berkeley’s International House. Sadly, the topic is again, or still, timely. We published his first post on this subject, “Language Under the Gun,” in February of 2011. Let us work to change the culture of anger and violence by this time next year!

As introduction to the piece, allow me to share with you Joe’s message, urging me to publish his post sooner rather than later: “If it can be published earlier, given the ‘heat people  are packing’ now in the current ‘ballistic’ and ‘explosive’ reactions to Obama’s proposals, that would be more likely to ‘hit the bull’s-eye’ in the current environment.”

With only 5% of the world’s population, US Americans now possess about 50% of the world’s guns. Is it any wonder then that mass shootings in the US have skyrocketed in the last decade? And in the wake of the grotesque massacre in Sandy Hook, gun sales have spiked dramatically. No wonder that sales of kids’ bullet-proof backpacks have soared, or that our culture more than ever is drenched in the language of guns!

As I watch left and right wing politicians and pundits “up in arms” on TV, battling in a “cross-fire” of blame, each side looking for a “smoking gun” to explain or cast blame for horrifying gun-related catastrophes, I’ve become increasingly aware of how our culture’s preoccupations with guns are reflected even during innocent “shooting the breeze” conversations.

We often value the “straight shooter,” yet we are wary of those who “shoot their mouths off,” and those who “shoot from the hip” or glibly end an argument with a “parting shot.” We caution colleagues to avoid “shooting themselves in the foot,” and counsel them not to “shoot the messenger.”

Without suspecting what drives our language, we are “blown away” by adorable photos of loved ones. At the movies, many audiences are thrilled by “shoot- em-up,”  “double barreled action” scenes, or are excited by car chases where actors “gun” their engines.

I often ask friends to “shoot me” an email and I’ve encouraged job seekers to give an interview their “best shot” and “stick to their guns” during salary discussions. And if a job is offered, I might congratulate them for doing a “bang up” job.

In sensitive business negotiations, I’ve advised patience, urging clients to “trouble shoot” solutions, but to avoid “jumping the gun” and to be aware of “loaded” questions. To get the biggest “bang for the buck,” I’ve recommended bringing the “big guns” to the table. We look for “silver bullet” solutions, hoping for “bulletproof” results. And when success is in sight, we say: “You’re on target,” or “you’re going great guns!”

We encourage entrepreneurial risk taking, even if the project doesn’t have a “shot in hell.” Just “fire away” when you make that “killer” presentation, and if your idea is “shot down,” don’t be “gun shy.” Just “bite the bullet” and go at it again, with “guns blazing.” Don’t be afraid to “shoot for the moon,” even if it looks like a “shot in the dark.”

Having worked as a university executive with students from more than 80 countries, I’ve noticed that students from abroad are struck by the violent language in our songs and films, and they hear it bleeding into our political discourse. Many have asked me in amazement why it is even necessary to state that guns and ammunition are banned from university residence halls. Yet, “son of a gun,” 26 colleges in three states permit guns on college campuses. And gun liberalization legislation for colleges is in the “cross hairs” in at least nine more states.

I’ve heard staff and students alike stressed by an approaching deadline, instinctively describing themselves as being “under the gun.” Sometimes my colleagues have described emotional co-workers as “loose cannons” or having “hair trigger” personalities. And when a student has gone off “half cocked,” psychologists have advised employees to “keep their powders dry” and to review “bullet point” guidelines for handling volatile personalities.

In the same way that the US is flooded with millions of guns (there are 90 guns per one hundred Americans), so our newscasts — “sure as shootin’ ” — are exploding almost nightly with murder stories, reflecting the newsroom mantra: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

When the local story becomes a national tragedy, there is “new ammunition” for both gun control supporters and opponents of fire arm bans in such places as elementary schools, day care centers, churches, or even the neighborhood bar!

The world of guns has had our rhetoric in its sights for a very long time. And our wounded language — now more than ever with a gun to its head — is telling us that our culture is on the firing line.

Joe Lurie, Executive Director Emeritus at the University of California’s International House, is currently a cross-cultural communications consultant, university instructor and Cultural Detective certified facilitator. Contact Joe via email or LinkedIn.

This post builds on Joe’s February 2011 piece, “Language Under the Gun.”

Un Gringo Chévere! A Cool Gringo!

(English follows the Spanish)

Con el permiso de nuestros lectores gringos, este espacio se lo quiero dedicar a uno en especial. Quiero hablar de un gringo chévere con el que he tenido oportunidad de trabajar para un proyecto de inversión en Colombia. Y quiero resaltar más lo chévere que lo gringo, que dicho sea de paso él no considera ofensivo desde ningún punto de vista.

En mi país un gringo es un forastero que habla enredado. No importa si habla sueco, alemán, italiano, inglés u holandés. Un rubio (o castaño claro) de tez más clara que nuestro promedio, es gringo. Y no lo hacemos por ofender, sino tal vez porque eso quedó en el imaginario colectivo como un sinónimo de “no es de aquí”.

Este gringo chévere vivió veintiún años fuera de su país entre Suráfrica, Bahreim, Francia, Reino Unido y China. Ha dado la vuelta al mundo más de seis veces y, aunque siempre vinculado al sector financiero, ha podido trabajar en diferentes industrias que le dan un vasto conocimiento en muchos temas. Departir con él es sumamente enriquecedor.

Trabajar con este gringo es desafiante. Le admiro sus habilidades y conocimientos en el área financiera, pero él sabe que lo que más admiro es su gran capacidad de entender a los otros, de buscar similitudes y no diferencias, de centrarse en el modo de integrar las partes que se involucran en una negociación y de ver con ojos interculturales su entorno. Es un gran conciliador y excelente negociador. Además posee una gran habilidad para poner en contexto cultural las partes involucradas, casi siempre logra identificar la manera como piensa el otro.

Yo siempre le he dicho, que de lejos me parece el más intercultural de los estadounidenses con los que he trabajado. Tiene una mente global y una carrera profesional que le ha permitido desde cargos directivos confirmar que herramientas gerenciales sin aprehensión cultural no permiten un liderazgo efectivo. La satisfacción de los clientes o la motivación de los empleados se ven impactados directamente por sus expectativas y necesidades, y todos no necesitamos lo mismo.  Cuando comparte muchas de sus experiencias puedo transportarme a muchos escenarios en diferentes latitudes, y logra describir personas y entornos tan diversos sin caer en estereotipos ni prejuicios. Por supuesto que hay situaciones que agradan más que otras, pero es parte de nuestra interacción con cada entorno. Algunos sencillamente nos son más favorables.

Se ganó el título de chévere porque siempre está dispuesto a aprender, no critica sino pregunta, analiza y compara. Este gringo le da la importancia debida al entendimiento de un lugar, una cultura, un pueblo.  Es el que una vez cerrando un negocio en Medio Oriente tuvo que comer ojos de camello y aquí prueba las obleas, las almojábanas y queda encantado con las pitahayas, tanto que llega a buscarlas en su ciudad de residencia, las encuentra en el mercado chino, descubre que su sabor es muy diferente al colombiano y decide ¡comerlas con sal! Jamás he comido pitahaya con sal, aquí son muy dulces…pero esa es la interculturalidad, este gringo es del sur y dice allí comen con sal la sandía y el melón.  Cómo se dan cuenta, es un poco de cada lugar, un poco de aquí y de allá.

A veces centramos nuestros entrenamientos interculturales en aprender teorías y conocer de autores que nos han clasificado de una manera u otra. A veces nos dejamos llevar por la ilusión de pretender cambiar los seres humanos con un discurso y dejamos de lado lo simple, lo básico, como lo es el hecho que ser interculturales comienza en esa disposición misma de aceptar y reconocer.

Aceptar que somos diferentes. Reconocer que pensamos y actuamos diferente a partir del entorno que nos rodea, y de lo que nos ha sido heredado — valores, creencias, etc. Al aceptar y reconocer, se nos hacen fácilmente evidentes también los dilemas a los que nos enfrentamos en medio de las diferencias y que ponen a prueba nuestras habilidades a nivel interpersonal, empresarial y social. Al poner nuestras habilidades a favor de nuestra interacción con nuestro entorno – corporativo, social – podremos construir enlaces y puentes de entendimiento que nos permitan entonces entendernos a nosotros mismos y de esta manera entender a los demás.

Gracias gringo chévere, por permitirme trabajar contigo y aprender tantas cosas a la vez. Gracias por compartir tus aventuras en cada rincón del planeta y tus experiencias laborales y de vida con gente tan diversa. Gracias por permitirme presentarte un poco de mi país, de lo que somos y lo que brindamos.

Gracias y ¡hasta pronto señor!

With the permission of our gringo readers, I’d like to dedicate this space to one in particular. I’d like to talk about a cool gringo I had the opportunity to work with on an investment project in Colombia. And I’d like to emphasize that this cool gringo does not consider the term offensive in any way.

In my country a gringo is an outsider who talks weird. It doesn’t matter if he’s Swedish, German, Italian, English or Dutch. Someone who is blonde or has a lighter complexion than our average is gringo. We don’t say it to offend, but rather because that term has entered our collective imagination as a synonym for “not from here.”

The cool gringo of whom I’m writing lived 21 years outside his country, in South Africa, Bahrain, France, the UK and China. He’s been around the world more than six times, and while he’s always worked in the financial sector, he has been able to work in different industries that have provided him a vast knowledge of diverse subjects. To spend time with him is extremely enriching. He possesses a great ability to put things in cultural context, and is almost always able to identify how the other person thinks.

I have always said that he is by far the most intercultural of the US Americans I’ve worked with. He has a global mind and a professional career that have permitted him to ascertain which management tools permit effective leadership only when used with cultural appropriateness. Customer satisfaction and employee motivation are directly impacted by their expectations and needs; we don’t all need the same thing. When he shares his experiences I’m transported to many scenes in different latitudes, and he is able to describe diverse people and environments without falling into stereotypes or prejudices. Some situations are of course more appealing than others, as it depends on our interaction in each environment. Some situations are simply more favorable.

To work with this gringo is challenging. I admire his abilities and his knowledge in the area of finance, but he knows that what I most admire is his great capacity to understand others, to look for similarities and not differences, to focus on how to integrate the parties involved in a negotiation and watch the context with intercultural eyes. He is a great mediator and excellent negotiator.

He achieved the “cool” title because he is always ready to learn, not to critique but to ask, analyze, and compare. This gringo gives due importance to the understanding of place, culture, and people. He’s the type that, closing a negotiation in the Middle East, had to eat camel’s eyes. Here in Colombia he tried obleas (wafers), almojábanas (crullers), and was delighted with pitahayas (dragon fruit), even going so far as to try to find some where he lives. He finally found them in a Chinese market, but found they tasted very different from the Colombian variety, so he decided to eat them with salt! I’ve never eaten dragon fruit with salt; here they are very sweet. But there’s something about interculturalism. This gringo is from the southern US, where he says they eat watermelon and cantaloupe with salt. As you’ve no doubt noticed, he is a bit of every place he has lived, a bit from here and a bit from there.

At times we focused our intercultural training on learning theory and getting to know authors who have classified us in one manner or another. Sometimes we got carried away with the illusion of trying to change human beings via our conversation, ignoring the basic, simple fact that intercultural beings begin with a predisposition to acceptance and acknowledgement.

To accept that we are different. To acknowledge that we think and act differently depending on the context and on what we’ve inherited — values, beliefs, etc. Accepting and acknowledging make readily apparent the dilemmas we face in the midst of our differences, those that challenge our skills on interpersonal, organizational and social levels. By behaving appropriately to the corporate or social situation we can build links and bridges of understanding that then permit us to understand ourselves and, in this way, to better understand others.

Thank you, cool gringo, for enabling me to work with you and to learn so many things at once. Thank you for sharing your adventures in each corner of our planet, your work and life experiences with such diverse people. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to explain a bit about my country, about who we are, about what we provide.

Thanks, and see you soon, sir!

Sample Half Day Global Competitiveness Program Design

Many of us have found ourselves in the difficult situation in which people ask us to equip others to be cross-culturally effective and globally competitive – and then give us just a few short hours to do so.

Such was my task recently in Bogotá. The Colombian government had just signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the USA, and I had been invited to work with a lawyer and a business consultant, so that the three of us could, in five hours (ok, we started a bit later than scheduled, so really 4-1/2 hours), better enable local businesses to make the most of this new opportunity. My colleagues were excellent, and thanks to terrific teamwork and generous sharing of expertise, we were able to take a very diverse group of enthusiastic participants a long way in a short time.

I thought some of you might find the design useful for adapting to your own needs.

Session Title: Global Competitiveness and Productivity

Advertised Session Objectives: Learn how to make the most of the new FTA, how to conduct business at international levels of quality and competitiveness, and how to negotiate effectively with US Americans.

Advertised Session Components: Legal context of the new FTA, negotiating with US Americans, and global business ethics.


Legal Aspects of the FTA – one hour

First, a very talented international lawyer, Andrés Forero, based in Bogotá, walked us through the various aspects of the new FTA, including a summary of the opportunities it presents for Colombian businesses. This was a most interesting session; Andrés knows the FTA inside and out, and he knows Colombian business. He took the complex and made it practical and understandable. He motivated those in attendance by explaining about the huge opportunities. And he also scared us a bit, telling tales of cross-cultural failures that he’d witnessed. Of added interest was the fact that he had been involved in translating the text of the FTA into English, and showed the full two volumes to the public for the first time ever.

Negotiating with US Americans – 2 hours

The extremely talented business consultant with whom I was working, Ing. Fernando Parrado, and I decided that we needed to just “jump in” with this group and immerse them in a case study of a typical Colombian-US negotiation. So we did. We told the story, and we debriefed it using the Cultural Detective (CD) Worksheet. This took about 45 minutes.

Once we had the Worksheet completed, we urged the participants to reflect on what they had done. They saw two different world views, two different approaches, both “correct” and both with value. They saw connections between actions and values, and that values and beliefs motivate behavior. And they saw that really effective strategies use the resources provided by all parties. This took another 10 minutes.

From there we introduced the three intercultural capacities on which Cultural Detective is premised (subjective culture, cultural literacy, cultural bridge), and then reviewed instructions for using the CD Worksheet/the CD Method properly. This took another 15 minutes or so.

Focusing on the US American values section of the now completed Worksheet, we began talking about what is important to US Americans. We defined the concept of culture, cultural diversity, and cultures such as regional, ethnic, socioeconomic, gender, and generational. We made sure participants understood that when we generalize we want to talk about central tendencies of a group of people. We don’t want to stereotype, to “box” an individual into the central tendency of the group.

Then we introduced the concept of a Values Lens: that there are core values or central tendencies of a group of people. And that for each value there is a negative perception, that is, a way in which it can be viewed negatively by those who do not share the value or its expression. I told the participants, as I always do, about the danger of the Values Lenses. I cautioned them not to use them as yet another box into which to fit people, but rather as a tool for discovery, as clues for analysis. The values might apply to the situation, or they might not; they are a guide, a place to start.

These last two items took another ten minutes. It was quick. We covered a lot of territory in a short amount of time.

From here we introduced the US American Values Lens, sharing sample behaviors for each value, and sample negative perceptions. We asked participants if the Values Lens provided them any further clues to understanding the behavior of the US American in the case study, and indeed it did. Participants shared their stories of working with US Americans, and we were all able to learn from one another. This part took about 30 minutes.

Then we took a short break to eat some wonderful cheese-filled pastries and drink some of the famous Colombian coffee.

Understanding Colombians – 45 minutes

We came back from break ready to experience the debut of Cultural Detective Colombia. And what a debut it was! Fernando walked us around the Colombian Values Lens, sharing a story about each value, and explaining how to use it as a strength in working across cultures and making the most of the Free Trade Agreement. He also explained the Negative Perceptions for each value, again with illustrations, and positioning them as skills or competencies to develop when working internationally, at global standards.

Participants, who came in feeling that they had to “change” in order to be successful, now glowed with pride that they already held within them a heritage to be proud of, and onto which they could wisely add cross-cultural competence.

We again asked the participants if the Values Lens provided any further insight into the critical incident, and they found that it did. They enthusiastically declared the accuracy of the Colombian Values Lens. I felt very fortunate to be present for its debut.

This portion took about 45 minutes. While it was not requested by the client, it was an aspect we knew was very important if the participants were to achieve their objectives.

Global Business Ethics – 20 minutes

I am not an ethics professional, but the Cultural Detective Global Business Ethics enabled me to be able to define the topic of ethics in an understandable way. More importantly, I was able to explain the difference between compliant and ethical behavior, and the grey areas created by cultural differences: an action might be “non-compliant” yet seen as the ethical or right thing to do, or an action might be “compliant” but seen as unethical or wrong from a cultural perspective.

With the help of Andrés, our lawyer, we introduced the CD Global Business Ethics Values and Negative Perceptions, using real-life examples. We then asked participants if the values from this ethics lens provided further insight into the Colombia-US negotiation case study. Indeed it did! We also asked them to overlay the Colombia Lens with the Global Business Ethics (GBE) Lens, and the USA Lens with the GBE Lens, and the huge contrasts were apparent. They saw the difference that culture makes on perceptions of right and wrong. Unfortunately we were only able to spend about 30 minutes on this portion.

Personal Values Lenses – 30 minutes

Why such a short time on Global Business Ethics? Because I knew that, if these people were to succeed in global business, they also really needed a grounded understanding of who they were as individuals. Thus, we gave participants about 15 minutes to fill in their own Personal Values Lenses, using an exercise and Lens from Cultural Detective Self Discovery. They could then easily compare their Personal Lens to the Colombian Lens and the USA Lens, as well as the GBE Lens.

In closing, we passed out laminated copies of the 75 or so Lenses in the Cultural Detective series, so participants could get a feel for how they might adapt their approach to a German or an Israeli or South Korean marketplace.

All in all, it was a very fast romp across a very broad territory. But, oh, the insights the participants gained! They left the room in the evening standing tall and looking enthused, which I tend to take as a very good sign.

Fernando and Andrés, thank you so much for this opportunity to work with you both in this way. It is not often I have the pleasure of working with people for the first time and we are able to find such synergy of talents; it was truly a privilege and a joy!

Everyone: what do you think of this design? What are your strategies for doing the impossible in a very short amount of time? I’m eager to hear!

Bicycling in the Yogurt: the French Food Fixation

Communicating in the Language of Food, by Joe Lurie

Dear readers, I am very pleased to share with you another guest blog post by the talented Joe Lurie (though Joe, I’d prefer to “swim in the chocolate” rather than “bicycle in the yogurt”). You’ll remember that Joe previously shared with us the very popular article, “Language Under the Gun.”

Noting that  French President Francois Hollande has been referred to by his political opponents as a fragile strawberry, a wobbly flan , a marshmallow, and “gauche caviar,” with the charisma  of a smelly sausage, I was reminded of how a culture’s preoccupations shape the way language is used.

I was first introduced to the pleasures of French cuisine and its influence on the French language as a university student hitchhiking through Normandy, sampling butter, cream and apple brandy-suffused dishes.

Struggling to express myself in village bistros, I realized the truth behind Mark Twain’s observation that Intermediate French is not spoken in France. A friendly waiter, noting my frustration, reassured me saying, I know, it’s not pie, “Je sais, c’est pas de la tarte,” which means it’s difficult. He went on to add, but it’s not the end of the string beans, “mais c’est pas la fin des haricots” – a strikingly French way of saying, it’s not the end of the world.

A decade later, my French was much improved. While directing a US American study abroad program in Toulouse, my understanding of food’s influence on the language deepened. Before taking a French cooking class with my 20 students, we stopped at an open-air market. Because the line to buy cheese was not moving, our impatient guide complained: “on ne veut pas faire le poireau,” we don’t want to be like a leek. Later, we learned the translation: to wait like a motionless leek in the ground. Now late for cooking class, our guide urged the van driver to press on the mushroom!appuyez sur le champignon!” – meaning step on the gas! Keeping a chef waiting simply would not do.

The students and I were struck by how carefully the chef conducted the lesson – artfully presenting and discussing the ingredients. The meal is serious business, not to be treated like a joke or, as the French say, like custardc’était pas du flan ce cours de cuisine! As  we prepared a fruit salad, the chef mumbled “oh purée!” mashed potatoes! – or damn it! and disdainfully discarded a blemished peach to preserve an aesthetically pleasing fruit plate.

During almost four years living in Strasbourg, Toulouse and the island of Corsica, I saw how the French passion for eating and discussing food flavored the language in tasty and unusual ways, though some expressions are unique to different regions or generations.

It began to make sense that endearing French metaphors are often rooted in the pleasures of taste. “What a nice person” is served up in French as “c’est une crème!” – what cream, while “la crème de la crème,” the cream of creams is the best of all. And “you are so energetic” takes on a carb boost in French: you have the French fry (tu as la frite). To be in high spirits also can come from the fruit family, as in you have the peach (tu as la pêche), while having a banana (avoir  la banane) is to have a big smile. And, of course, there’s the affectionate “mon petit chou,my little cabbage.

Allusions to food also season the language of love. A broken-hearted UC Berkeley student of mine from Marseille described her flirtatious boyfriend as a Don Juan with the heart of an artichoke, quelqu’un qui a un cœur d’artichaut,” offering each of his lovers a leaf from his heart. He was skilled at making romantic advances or as my student put it: serving up a dish, “faire du plat à quelqu’un,” a prelude to going off to the strawberries, aller aux fraises,” to enjoy an erotic interlude.

Even insults and put-downs easily spring from the tongue as if from a farmers’ market. An idiot or jerk, for example, can be described in French as what a pickle! (quel cornichon!); an utter squash (une vraie courge); such a noodle! (quelle nouille!); or as having a green pea in the brain! (avoir un petit pois à la place du cerveau!). When struggling to drive in France, I’ve heard irate, gesturing French men speed past, yelling “espèce d’andouille!” piece of sausage! or, you imbecile!

I remember a heated debate in a Paris café about a Gerard Depardieu film. A friend dismissed it as a turnip, “un navet,” a startling vegetable metaphor for a trashy film. When he called the actor a horrible drunk, an indignant Depardieu fan interrupted with: shut your smelly Camembert mouth!ferme ta  boîte à Camembert!”

Just as food evokes passion in France, its metaphorical expressions enliven debate. Butting in on a conversation is to bring your strawberry, ramener ta  fraise. Being overly inquisitive about someone’s private life could provoke an acerbic “occupe-toi de tes oignons!” mind your own onions! the French version of mind your own business. But perhaps the classic French way of ending an argument is go cook yourself an egg, “va te faire cuire un œuf,” or go to hell.

Traveling through the Pyrénées with a French couple, my wife and I enjoyed great food and spirited conversations, especially about politics. When the husband praised Sarkozy, his wife sneered that the former President is overly dramatic – making a big cheese out of nothing, “il fait tout un fromage de rien du tout.”  She added, you can’t tell if he’s talking about pork fat or pork meat, “on ne sait pas si c’est du lard ou du cochon,” you can’t tell if he’s lying or telling the truth. And she believed Sarkozy had casseroles hanging on his butt – “des casseroles au cul” – a scandalous past.

While serving as Dean of Students at an international college in Strasbourg, I was struck by how much my French colleagues valued using words precisely, reflected in the pervasive use of the verb “préciser.” I chuckled when I heard some professors describe student papers that lacked clarity. They complained that these students were lost, bicycling in the sauerkraut, pédalant dans la choucroute. In other regions, one might say bicycling in the yogurt or couscous. And then there’s swimming in chocolate, nageant dans le chocolat, or skating in the mayonnaise, patinant  dans la mayonnaise – getting nowhere. Outside the college, I heard other vivid ways of describing confusion such as being in the soup, the pate or the cabbages (être dans le potage, le pâté or les choux).

Recently, I saw an exasperated French TV commentator despair over the French economy by throwing up his hands exclaiming what a salad!quelle salade!” what a mess! And then he finished with the carrots are cooked! “les  carottes sont cuites!” meaning it’s all over.

If one is unemployed and grouchy or as the French say, “pas dans son assiette,” not on your plate, landing a job would help to put butter on the spinachmettre du beurre dans les épinards,” to make things better. And then it’s time to put your hand in the dough, “mettre la main a la pate” – get down to business. After all, you’ve got to defend your steak, “défendre ton bifteck,” as in look out for your interests.

Speaking of steak, making a living is gagner son bifteck, to earn one’s steak; while making a profit is to prepare one’s butter, faire son beurre. And to have a pancake avoir de la galette, is to be rich. Assuming pancakes are your goal, you’ll have to go all out, put on the sauce, mettre la sauce, and be prepared to make a strong sales pitch, vendre ta salade, by selling your salad.

A UC Berkeley graduate student in computer science from Tours told me he was building a start-up company – “une jeune pousse,” a young sprout and didn’t know what to expect or what sauce he would eat, “ne pas savoir à quelle sauce on va être mangé.”  He knew he had bread on the board, avoir du pain sur la planche, a lot of work to do, but realized that while dealing with potential investors he had to avoid being rolled in the flour, être roulé dans la farine – duped. Otherwise, he risked eating the frog, manger la grenouille – going bankrupt. He didn’t want to end up without a radish, ne plus avoir un radis, or as we would say, without a cent. All his dreams for nothing – “pour des prunes.” Still, if he becomes successful like a Bill Gates, he’s apt to be called a large vegetable, une grosse légume, and be among the grated cheese, le gratin – the elite.

The versatility of the cheese metaphor in a country with hundreds of cheeses is not surprising. “A dessert without a cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye,” observed Jean Brillat-Savarin in his Physiology of Taste. His famous 19th century book, exploring the nuances of cuisine – still is sold in France. And no wonder, with a line like: “He who invents a new dish will have rendered humanity a greater service than the scientist who discovers a planet.”

Today, as French supermarkets and fast food restaurants continue to proliferate, gourmands refuse to compromise or cut the pear in two, couper la poire en deux, in defending their culinary heritage. For more than twenty years, during “La semaine du goût,” Taste Week, thousands of chefs visit schools across the country. They teach children to appreciate fine food; make a baguette, a mousse au chocolat; appreciate a bouillabaisse; and learn the anatomy of the tongue. Restaurants with Michelin stars develop special meals for young children. And chefs are invited to daycare centers to prepare gourmet menus.

Will this unique early training insure the survival of the refined French palate and the nourishment of its language? A master chef is likely to respond, of course, “mais oui, c’est du tout cuit” – it’s completely cooked – it’s in the bag.

Joe Lurie is Executive Director Emeritus at University of California Berkeley’s International House, a cross-cultural communications trainer, consultant, university lecturer, and certified Cultural Detective facilitator. Another terrific article he wrote for Cultural Detective, also full of metaphor, was called “Language Under the Gun.”

The Holy Land is Here: On the importance of reorienting the nomadic mind

You could say my Mama was a modern-day pioneer. She packed up one suitcase for the three of us — for herself and her two young daughters — and traveled West for the opportunity to reinvent herself, escaping totalitarianism through the seemingly impenetrable Iron Curtain. That was a quarter of a century ago. Still, after so many years, a mother myself, I have yet to truly commune with the place where I live, feeling no tangible connection to the land here.

Why so disconnected? This land seems foreign and not yet part of my “cellular memory” shaped by centuries of Central European living. It is not where my ancestors are buried. In my life, I’ve moved too many times to count, skirting the land, speeding along its slippery surface as if it were ice. Like the original pioneers, and a great many modern-day transplants and migrants, I have internalized the frontier as a state of mind, to paraphrase Native American activist Winona LaDuke. She faults our society’s culture of transience, our belief that a greener pasture lies somewhere else, calling it a psychosis, for disconnecting us from our responsibility to place.

Writer and Mayan shaman Martin Prechtel explains the underlying cause of the westward migration and transient nature of our society as the modern culture’s inability to feed the spirit world from which we come, and our failure to mourn our ancestors which includes acknowledging the damage they have done to this world. He says:

“If this world were a tree, then the other world would be the roots — the part of the plant we can’t see, but that puts the sap into the tree’s veins. The other world feeds this tangible world — the world that can feel pain, that can eat and drink, that can fail; the world that goes around in cycles; the world where we die. The other world is what makes this world work. And the way we help the other world continue is by feeding it with our beauty. All human beings come from the other world, but we forget it a few months after we’re born. This amnesia occurs because we are dazzled by the beauty and physicality of this world. We spend the rest of our lives putting back together our memories of the other world, enough to serve the greater good and to teach the new amnesiacs — the children — how to remember.”

This rings so deeply true for me I weep when I think about it. I live in a new country, a land where I’ve inherited other ancestors’ pain, and I struggle with how to honor it so that I can develop a personal connection and a sense of responsibility to this place. From studying history, I know the magnitude of pain my current life is built on is unfathomable. Between 1774, the year Europeans first arrived on the Northwest Coast, and 1874, an estimated 80 percent of the indigenous population had been decimated by European diseases, including smallpox and measles. According to University of Washington’s Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, across the US, “a rough estimate holds that Old World diseases depopulated native societies by about 90% within the first century of contact.”

And the assault on native tribes and the earth continues. In the Pacific Northwest, for instance, as little as three percent of old growth forest is what may be left.

“The question is: how do we respond to that destruction?” Prechtel says. “If we respond as we do in modern culture, by ignoring the spiritual debt that we create just by living, then that debt will come back to bite us, hard.”

In fact, we will literally be — and already have been — haunted by the ghosts of our ancestors if we continue not paying homage to them. “Ghosts will actually chase you,” is how Prechtel describes our predicament. “And they always chase you toward the setting sun. That’s why all the great migrations of the past several thousand years have been to the west: because people are running away from the ghosts. The people stop and try to live in a new place for a while, but the ghosts always catch up with them and create enormous wars and pain and problems, which feed the hungry hordes of ghosts. Then the people continue on, always moving, never truly at home. Now we have an entire culture based on our fleeing or being devoured by ghosts.”

He suggests that one way to honor our predecessors and repay the spiritual debt “is simply by missing the dead. . . as (expressed by) a loud, beautiful wail, a song, or a piece of art that’s given as a gift to the spirits.” If we don’t do this, we are “poisoning the future
with violence” against other beings and the earth itself because we then have no understanding of home.

Prechtel’s insight, I believe, is the answer to healing and to reconnecting us to our past and the earth. In order to “be at home in a place, to live in a place well,” we must do the following, he says. “We first have to understand where we are; we’ve got to look at our surroundings. Second, we’ve got to know our own histories. Third, we’ve got to feed our ancestors’ ghosts” by grieving. We do this by using the gifts we have been given by the spirits to make beauty.”

As global nomads, globetrotters or migrants with no deep commitment to one place we inhabit and its history, we could be doomed. As LaDuke urges, our mantra should be “the Holy Land is here, not somewhere else.”

Miscommunication: Too Much Cultural Sensitivity!

This cross-cultural dating mishap (in response to this post) is a true story from UC Berkeley’s International House, submitted by Joe Lurie:

A German male student and a Guatemalan female student have agreed to go out on an evening date beginning at 8pm. Both wishing to make a good impression, decide to leverage their cross-cultural skills and sensitivity when dealing with approaches to time. The German fellow, normally stereotypically monochronic — 8 means perhaps five to eight — arrives at 8:45 only to find the anxious, somewhat distressed Guatemalan woman saying, “Where have you been? I have been ready since 7:50  as I wanted to be sensitive to your cultural clock.”

Adopting each other’s styles provoked an amusing disconnect — but in this case, not serious. They are married today!

Thank you, Joe! Reminds me how often I used to bow in Japan when my colleagues would simultaneously stick out their arms in anticipation of a handshake.