Monthly Archives: March 2013

Taking a Stab at Blab

Taking a Stab at Blab-PhotoshoppedOne of the things that I have enjoyed in learning about other cultures is the use of silence. I’m not talking here about personal silence. I think it is important to be alone, silent, reflective, and prayerful every day. But, I’m speaking here about silence between two or more people. I don’t know if there is a term for it, so I’ll call it “interactional silence.”

A little background. Since many of the readers here are American, I’ll share something that is true in American culture that few of us realize:  Americans have a strong aversion to interactional silence. That’s why we have so many “safe topics” to discuss when we are with people. Things like sports, weather, movies, etc. These topics are safe because we don’t have to disclose personal information but allow us to fill the air with chatter. (Exception: It’s embarrassing for me to admit to being a Cub fan.)

Watch two or more Americans walking, sitting, eating, or riding in a car together. Notice what I am talking about. Generally, things get uncomfortable after just a few seconds without any verbiage.

That’s why riding on elevators often feels awkward. Americans are together, but social norms demand looking forward without speaking. Being with other people yet mute = uncomfortable.

Many, probably most, other cultures are not this way–especially collectivist cultures.

I remember in China when I had a meeting with my friend Mr. Li at his office at the university. We were friends, so we drank tea while having our meeting. When the topic of discussion was over, we sat drinking tea in silence. My Chinese friend was quite comfortable sitting in peace enjoying his tea with a friend. On the other hand, I was dying to jump in with a comment on the weather or some other meaningless topic to break the stillness. Fortunately, I knew enough not to do so and enjoyed sitting silently with my friend.

A Japanese businessman visiting America described watching an American conversation like watching a ping pong game: your head goes back and forth with no interruption.

I often see Arabs sitting silently together and enjoying each other’s company without speaking.

Try this fun experiment. If you are an American try to sit with a friend for a few minutes without uttering a word. If you’re not an American but are with one, try just being silent and see what your friend does.

A couple of takeaways.

  • Notice your use of silence, or lack thereof

Just being aware is a huge part of the road to becoming more intercultural.

  • Change to be like your friend in the other culture

Talk more if you are not American, and talk less if you are. The best and most important part of learning a new culture is changing your behavior to imitate the Other.

I have more to say, but I’ll be silent for now.

Dead Slow Children Playing

Slow Dead Children Playing-Cropped-Rotated-Sized for InternetA sentence in critical need of a well-placed comma. Perhaps the sign makers used a computer or the internet for the translation.

Anyone who has ever tried to learn a foreign language has some funny stories to share. You just can’t learn a new language without really embarrassing yourself.

When I was just beginning my Chinese study I went to the local market at 6:00 am to buy 7 Cokes for a dinner we were having with friends that evening. It was the early 90’s and Coke was a new, foreign product and very special. I pointed to the stack of cans behind the glass display and said, “Chi ge” and thought I was saying “7 of those.”

Chinese is a tonal language, so although I spoke the correct sound of the words, the tones were wrong. I actually had said, “Open it up.”

The shopkeeper got a strange look on his face (who would want a Coke at 6:00 am?), opened the can, and handed it to me. I had no idea what had just happened. All I knew was that one can was now open, so I needed to buy 8 cans. The shopkeeper burst out laughing when he realized what I actually meant when I pointed to the cans again and said, “Ba ge” or “8 of those.”

A more recent embarrassment happened in Arabic class.

I will never know what I actually said because after I spoke my teacher got a very strange look on her face. She tried to hold her laughter, but pretty soon the dam burst. She started laughing uncontrollably which was quickly followed by crying because she was laughing so hard.

After about a minute of me sitting and watching her laugh, cry, and wipe her eyes with her shaylah, she finally managed to control herself and tried to move on. It was slow going because she would start giggling every few minutes for the rest of the class. I wanted to find out what it was I actually said, but there was absolutely no way she was going to let that ship sail again.

Learning a new language is like becoming a child once more. In fact, the hard part is that for a long time in your learning process a 3-year-old child can actually converse better than you.

It’s all necessary in the process of becoming a polyglot. So, if you’re learning a new language, jump in and enjoy the process–even the embarrassing moments.

If you have a funny story from learning a foreign language, please share it by making a comment.

Oops! I Ate the Carrier Pigeon! (Or, the Good News About Bad News)

Stuffed PigeonA few days ago we were at a tiny restaurant on a small side road in Cairo for a local delicacy: stuffed pigeon. It tasted great, but as you might imagine there was very little meat on the small, bony frame. One friend said, “The pigeon is just a carrier for the rice,” and another friend returned, “I guess that makes it a carrier pigeon.” I always hate it when somebody beats me to a bad pun.

As leaders, we are all “carrier pigeons” because a large part of our job is to deliver news to those under our leadership. (BTW, you don’t have to be the CEO of a company before this applies to you. All of us are leaders in some respect in the sense that all of us have relationships where people look to us for leadership–even if it is just our children.) Sometimes that news is bad news. Bummer!

The good news is that there are ways to help us deliver bad news.

  • Make the delivery in person, if possible.

If the interaction is face-to-face you can add good body language to help in the situation (more on that below.)

  • Do as much as you can to minimize embarrassment and loss of face.

Try to make the meeting in a place that is private, quiet, and serene.

  • Find something nice to say before and after the bad news.

Remember: The “bad news sandwich” is much easier to swallow.

  • Keep your voice soft and full of compassion.
  • Be prepared for a bad reaction.

Before the meeting, visualize (but don’t expect) the person to be upset or angry. Then visualize your calm, reassuring reaction to his outburst.

  • Use body language to your advantage.

Broadcast warmth, care, and concern in your posture and facial expressions. This is done by:
1. Not fidgeting;
2. Maintaining more eye contact than normal;
3. Opening your body posture;
4. Pointing your toes toward her;
5. Keeping your hands soft and open toward him.

One of the most important things you can do as a leader is to be proactive before the negative news needs to be delivered. Deliver as much good news as possible every day so those around you see you as a “good news person.”  Research shows that if a person delivers more bad news than good news, the receiver will develop a negative attitude about that person; the opposite is also true. (Did we really need research to know that?!) So, be constantly delivering good news to your coworkers so the bad news will be easier to take.

After all, you don’t want the “carrier pigeon” to be eaten if that pigeon is you!

“What happened to you?!”, my friend looked over at his racquetball partner who was covered on his back, chest, and arms with horrific scars and asked that question. His partner, Roger, a Vietnam vet who received the Purple Heart for his injuries, stared coldly into Don’s eyes and responded, “Racquetball!”

The ultimate psyche out! I would never set foot on the court with that guy.

Whether it is a heavy workload our boss gives us, too many things to do and too little time to do them, a feeling that we don’t have the skills to accomplish what we need to, or personal troubles and losses, everyone feels overwhelmed from time to time.

What do we do when we are “psyched out” and feeling overwhelmed? Here are some things that will help.

  • You are not alone. Realize that everyone experiences these feelings from time to time.
  • You can make it through. Resilience is not something that some people have and others don’t have. You can learn resilience.
  • Connect. The support of friends, family, and coworkers will help.
  • Control your feelings and responses. Feelings happen, but how we respond to them is our responsibility. Take control of the negative feelings and calm your heart and spirit.
  • Imagine. Keep the goal of accomplishing the task or surviving the issue in front of you and “see it.”
  • Make plans and carry them out. Goal-setting is the #1 thing anyone can do accomplish at task. Use goal-setting for your advantage.
  • Be confident. Believing that you can accomplish a task (called “self-efficacy”) is another one of the most important things you can do to succeed in any undertaking. Basically, if you believe you can, you will; if you don’t believe you can, you won’t.

The next time you are psyched out, keep these things in mind- they should help you through. And…stay off the court with Roger.

Something You May Never Have Thought of Before

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Part of my work over the years as a culture educator has been spent teaching English as a Second Language (ESL)– and I do enjoy it! Students often ask questions like, “How can I improve my fluency?” or “How can I speak more like a native speaker?” or “How can I improve my pronunciation?” Interestingly enough, all three of these questions are addressed (at least in part) by one concept that is not often taught: English rhythm.

Let me illustrate it this way. Say the following 5 sentences as naturally and conversationally as you can out loud.

1. Men drink water.
2. The men drink water.
3. The men drink the water.
4. The men will drink the water.
5. The men might have been drinking the water.

Now do it again and notice how long it takes to say each sentence.

The interesting thing is that for a non-native English speaker, the longer the sentences probably took more time. In other words, the time it takes to speak the sentence is based on the number of words. However, for a native speaker, all five of the above sentences probably took about the same amount of time to speak.

Why? Because English is a stress-timed language and some words are longer or shorter based on their importance. They are given more stress if they are important and this takes more time. Each sentence above only has three “important” words (men, drink/drinking, and water) so the sentences are about the same length. The other, “less-important” words are spoken very quickly.

I developed a whole book and teaching series about this subject that was very helpful for intermediate and advanced ESL learners. It was so much fun to see the light go on in the heads of my students as we worked together on it. I believe studying English rhythm is important because:


  • English speakers convey meaning by the rhythm and stress;
  •   Native speakers readily judge the level of English spoken by a non-native speaker according to whether or not the proper rhythm is used; and
  •   Proper rhythm greatly improves speaking fluency.

My advice:

If you’re an ESL learner, pay attention and study more about English rhythm.

If you’re an ESL teacher, spend some time helping your students get a handle on English rhythm.

If you’re neither, just think about it as you speak today. It is an interesting concept and most native speakers have never thought about it before.

A Clinic After the Critic

let someone go-Fire-dreamstime_9807282-smallerMy friend, Kent, was standing around talking to another friend during a break at choir rehearsal. I thought it would be fun to surprise him by sneaking up behind him and putting a headlock on him. How was I to know he just dislocated his shoulder the day before playing racquetball? I found out quickly from the scream.

That was many years ago and I still cringe when I think about it. We all make mistakes. We all say and do things that we later regret. We all wish we could turn back the clock and do something differently.

It’s bad enough when we know we’ve done something wrong, but it is even harder to deal with when someone criticizes us. We’ve all been there: trying to “reconstruct” after “constructive” criticism.

An interesting internet study reveals that if we are able to take constructive criticism well, we will also have higher job satisfaction and higher job performance ratings. You can take the test for yourself here: See how defensive you are when criticized

How do we do that? How do we grow from criticism? How do we use criticism constructively?

With a little help from witty quotes from G. K. Chesterton, here are a few ways that might help.

  • Separate the criticism from yourself- don’t make it personal.

Chesterton: It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

  • Consider that the critic is trying to help you, not harm you.

Chesterton: Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.

  • If the criticism could be right, take it; if it is truly wrong, forget it.

Chesterton: A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.

  • Never defend yourself.

Chesterton: The thing I hate about an argument is that it always interrupts a discussion.

  • Look for the truth and grow from it.

Chesterton: I believe in getting into hot water; it keeps you clean.

Criticism is never fun, but it can be one of the best ways to grow and become a better person and employee. And if you learn to take it well, you just might be happier at work and be a better employee.

Disconnecting to Connect

confused-dreamstime_773906-SmallerIf you’ve seen any business or tech news lately you probably have seen the big story coming out of Yahoo. Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo, is putting an end to all telecommuting at the company and forcing the employees to work only out of the office. They are going to actually commute to work! This is big news because it bucks a huge trend that has been happening in the last few years and many expect to continue.

Opinions on the matter are all over the map. Some people think she’s crazy, others think she’s out of touch, some expected it to be only temporary, and still others think it will change the way business is done in America in the future.

Personally, I don’t know if any of that is true. It’s hard for me to imagine that this will put an end to telecommuting or even slow down the trend. I think in our increasingly interconnected world, more and more telecommuting is inevitable.

What it does say to me is the importance of culture. One of the main reasons Yahoo is making this move, according to their press release, is to repair the “cultural issues” within the company.

This sounds incredibly reasonable to me. It also points out a few very important features of culture that we always need to keep in mind and be aware of.

  • Culture is taught. People are born with few, if any, genetic predisposition toward culture. It is never a nature versus nurture issue. It is nearly all, and some would say completely all, a matter of learning. We learn culture from our parents, other family members, teachers and other authority figures, and friends.
  • Culture takes contact. In order to learn the culture we have to spend time with people from a different culture. Marissa Mayer knows that in order to change the company culture she has to have real people together in real situations having times of real contact.

What that means for us is that we can never really learn culture from a book. If we want to be truly multicultural we must expose ourselves to people from another culture and spend time with them trying to learn from them. You can’t do that telecommuting.

  • Culture is important. Without question Marissa Mayer knew that she was going to get a lot of backlash by changing the telecommuting policy. And she did. People inside and outside the company are very upset and confused. The decision seems to go against one of the newer societal beliefs: technology is always good.

I love technology and enjoy using it to its full extent. But in this case, one of the leading technology companies seems to be admitting that culture is more important than technology. At least for a while. My guess is that once Yahoo “fixes” its cultural issues it will jump back into telecommuting. But for right now it appears that developing the right company culture is more important.

I hope we all can take a lesson from Yahoo and realize how important culture really is!

My Wife was Right the Whole Time! our early years of marriage my wife, Cindy, and I had a running conversation. She was convinced that I was colorblind and I was convinced that I was not. The moment of revelation came to me one day when we were talking about a new shirt that I had just received in the mail. She called it my “red and green striped shirt” and I called it my “red shirt.” In fact, the shirt was mostly red but had green pinstripes; pinstripes that were totally invisible to me because of my colorblindness. It turns out she was right the whole time!

Many times, that’s how we are with our own culture. We look, but our own culture is invisible to us. Intercultural researcher Edward Hall writes, “Culture hides much more than it reveals, and, strangely, it hides itself most effectively from its own participants. The real job is not to understand foreign cultures, but to understand one’s own.”

When I do seminars to help people develop their multicultural awareness, one of the most important things is to help them understand their own culture. We take a lot of self-tests so that we can understand ourselves better and our culture a bit deeper.

To be honest, for everyone, even people who want to think and act multi-culturally, it is very difficult to “see” our own culture. Why can’t we see our own culture? I think there are many reasons, but let me just mention a couple of the more obvious ones.

  • We’re too close to it. In an earlier blog I mentioned the idea that our culture is like water to a fish. We live, move, and breathe in it. Sometimes, we’re just too close to see it.
  • It is normal and we don’t notice normal. Because our senses are overwhelmed with so much information our brain must choose what we notice and what we ignore. If you take a moment right now and listen carefully you almost certainly could hear the hum of a fluorescent light or the world of a fan in the background. But you don’t notice them because they are “normal.” Our own culture is normal and so sometimes we just don’t notice it.
  • We’re too self-absorbed. Sometimes we don’t want to notice cultural differences. Perhaps we’re too busy or perhaps we’re too egocentric. It takes effort and attention to pick up on subtle cultural differences and this can be difficult when were busy or concerned with ourselves.
  • We don’t want to because it is uncomfortable. Sometimes we don’t notice our own culture because we don’t want to. Our own culture is always more comfortable to live in than another culture.

It’s always hard to see beyond our own culture and to think and act more multi-culturally. But I believe it’s almost always worth it. Step out, take a risk, notice your own culture, and pay attention to another’s culture. I think you’ll be glad you did!

Feeding Tuna to a Vegetarian

An expatriate fam in our area is going home soon–long before they intended to. The local daycare that was taking their 6-month-old was feeding the baby tuna without their knowledge. They only wanted the child to have formula, so this was upsetting for them. Even more: they are vegetarians and plan to raise their child as one also.

Ooops! Different values, different expectations, different worldviews on a collision course.

To some degree, this is what happens every time people from different cultures work together. This is the minefield that we have to manage as multi-cultural leaders. People rely on their own culture for meaning and security. They rely on their own culture in order to understand this complex world.

In future posts I’ll discuss many topics that a multi-cultural leader must navigate well, but today I just want to mention two: motivation and feeling of well-being. Because of space, today I’ll just share some ideas on why these are difficult areas to get you thinking a bit, but in future posts I’ll  discuss some solutions.

Motivation. What motivates you may not motivate me. Why? Two strong factors of motivation are personality and culture. For example, sometimes an American (individualistic culture) will move many miles from his or her family for a new job with a 20% pay raise, while an African (collectivistic culture) sometimes will not be willing to move to another town even if the pay is much higher. Some cultures are motivated more than others by higher salaries.

Question: How can you motivate your team/employees when they are motivated by different values?

Feeling of well-being. Every person longs for a feeling of well-being, but may have different sources of receiving that satisfaction. Research has shown that are high individualists who live in an individualistic culture and high collectivists who live in a collectivists culture generally have a higher sense of well-being. Many teams, work groups, and employment arrangements have people from both individualistic and collectivistic cultures.

Question: How can a leader provide an atmosphere for team members and employees that will lead to greater well-being when they derive that feeling from different sources?

We’ll talk more about these things in later posts. Please feel free to share some ideas that you have.