reflections on culture and communication

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Capuchin monkeys, cucumber, and cross-cultural simulations

Have you ever been in a situation where you felt that things were unequal or unfair?  One of the capuchin monkeys in the video above seems to feel that way.

The video clip is from a TED talk given by Frans de Waal,  a scientist at Emory University who has looked at primate behavior and compared it to human behavior and culture.  In this clip, researchers are looking at inequality, as well as empathy and cooperation in capuchin monkeys.

The reactions of these monkeys reminded me of situations created for people when participating in cross-cultural simulations or games.  In one of these games – Barnga – a simulation game created by creative interculturalist Sivasailam Thiagarajan (Thiagi), participants play a card game.  After a little while, some participants move to other tables to play with different groups of people, and then move again a few more times.

Similarly to the capuchin monkey when first getting cucumber for producing a rock, the participants begin by playing the game quite happily.  However, after they start to switch to other tables and play with different players, some participants start getting confused, annoyed, or frustrated when other people start winning while playing the game in different ways than expected.  Some people think other players are cheating in order to get an unfair advantage, causing them to become quite angry.  Their confusion and annoyance is compounded by a rule that participants are not allowed to talk after the first round of the game (they can gesture or draw to communicate).  I saw one Barnga  participant throw down his cards and walk out of the room, which reminded me of the capuchin monkey throwing the cucumber at the researcher and then rattling the bars of his cage to try to escape.

What participants don’t realize is that some other players receive different rules for the game, which makes their unexpected behavior logical since they are playing according to their set of rules.  Barnga is a popular cross-cultural activity which very effectively illustrates what may happen when people have behavioral expectations (based on their own cultural values) and then interact with others who have different rules.  In real life, some examples of cultural differences could include ideas about how to effectively handle a conflict, take turns or line up for something, or talk to people who are older or younger.  When people are not aware that they are operating according to different rules, whether in a card game or in real life,  this can cause confusion and conflict, similar to the culture shock that people often feel when traveling to another country and interacting with those from different cultures.  For example, if you are from a culture where conflicts should be discussed calmly and directly, and you have a conflict with someone from a culture where conflicts should be avoided by changing the subject, this will most likely be frustrating and the conflict will probably not be solved.  (For more on intercultural conflict styles, the Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory by Mitchell Hammer is very helpful.)  If you are from a country where people wait in a line until it is their turn to do something and someone walks to the front of the line, this may annoy others who are waiting.  If you are from a culture where older people are treated formally and respectfully and someone treats an older person casually and informally, you may feel uncomfortable.  At the NAFSA: Association for International Educators conference coming up in the last week of May in San Diego, there will be workshops and sessions that include opportunities to participate in other cross-cultural simulations and interactive exercises.

So in the future, if anyone ever asks you for a rock in exchange for cucumber, or behaves in a way that you don’t expect, try to step back and look at the situation to figure out what might actually be occurring, before having an opinion about that person.





Step Up, Speak Out

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What is the culture like at your school or work place, or in your community?

Is it positive, encouraging and inclusive, or is it a negative culture or environment?

Do you wonder what you can do or say to help improve the situation?

In this new music video,  just produced a few months ago by the Vitamin L Chorus, teens show how to be an

“upstander” instead of a bystander, and how to speak out against injustice while it is happening.

Have you ever been in this type of situation?  What did you say or do?



Published on Nov 4, 2013 Available on ITUNES and at from “Sing for Dr. King! Vitamin L Songs for a Beloved Community” Vitamin L: Music Video © 2013 The Vitamin L Project Song by Jan Nigro © 2011 Janimation Music BMI


It’s a Small World After All – FIGT 2014

The Families in Global Transition (FIGT) 2014 conference a few weeks ago was an opportunity to attend informative and thought provoking sessions on many aspects of international living.  Not only that, the FIGT conference was also a great place to meet all kinds of interesting people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Everyone had a story – and it was never clear just by looking at someone what that story would be.  People had lived in multiple places, spoke numerous languages, and had a variety of fascinating experiences as they lived, worked and studied overseas.

Many people at the conference identified with being global nomads and third culture kids (TCKs), and FIGT conferences are a great way to meet like minded people who have completely different backgrounds from each other.  In one evening at the conference, I had conversations with someone who has a parent from Greece and who grew up in Kuwait, another person whose parents are American and grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the US,  a person whose parents are Korean and grew up in Brazil, Libya and Korea, still another with American parents who grew up in Kenya and China, and the list goes on.

As I mentioned in a recent post, Barbara Schaetti, who was a part of FIGT from its beginnings in the late 1990’s, discusses the idea of  ‘liminality’ and describes how this relates to international families in transition: “When a person is in liminal space, he or she is on the threshold, no longer part of the past and not yet part of the new beginning. For many global nomads and their families, in particular for multi-movers, the experience of liminal space becomes the most constant, lived experience.”  However, although global nomads often feel rootless and may not feel like they belong to any particular place due their international mobility, the flipside and benefit of this is that they are also part of a very interesting ‘small world’ phenomenon, and have a tendency to frequently meet people from many different times of life in other places, or have connections with people from a wide variety of places. This is similar to the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory‘ (the idea that every person is “six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world.”)

“This world is very, very small,” commented Greg, a global nomad who was an international school teacher in India, as he described meeting his international school classmates frequently as he moved to different countries. I know of at least three different people who know Greg, from various places and time periods.  In the first instance, I got an e-mail from an international student advisor at a college in Montana, who wanted to see the global nomads video that I produced at Cornell in 2001 (Global Nomads: Cultural Bridges for the New Millennium).  I sent it to her and she said that when she saw it, she recognized Greg:  she had met Greg and his brother when they all sang in middle school honor choirs in the Hague many years ago!

In the second case, I did a presentation at an Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling (OACAC) conference at Cornell University with one of the overseas counselors.  We were having AV problems and tech support was helping us before our presentation.  The  video happened to go on while I was briefly out of the room, and when I came back, the counselor – Charlie Franck – said that the first person he saw when the video went on was Greg – who had been his student advisee at Cairo American College!

The third example occurred after I tracked down Greg to participate in an Internet follow up survey of my global nomad video participants.  After filling out the survey, he asked if he could get a copy of the video.  When I asked him for his mailing address (expecting to hear an address in India),  he instead gave me an address in the US, and when I asked why, he said that his mother lived in the US and that I could mail it to her.  To my great surprise, the town that she now lived in (after living in Egypt, Russia and Belgium) was literally 10 minutes from where I live!  When I told Greg, he said that he was actually coming to visit his mother in a couple of months.  “We should have coffee!” he said.  Because of this happy coincidence, I was very glad to have the opportunity to actually meet Greg, who participated in my 2001 global nomads video (but was part of a panel filmed by my colleague Karen Edwards at a college in another state).

My own small world experiences happened so frequently while I was living in Stockholm, Sweden, that I stopped being as surprised by them.  In an earlier post, I described participating in the informal dinners organized by SAS Intercultural Communication for families who were going to be living abroad, with SAS representatives who had lived in the countries that families were traveling to – in this case, the US.  At one of these dinners, the SAS representatives included a Swedish couple who had lived in the US. Or so I thought. As the evening progressed, I learned that the woman – who spoke flawless Swedish – was actually American! She asked where I had gone to college and when I said Cornell, she commented that her sister had also gone to Cornell, and that even though it was unlikely (it’s a big school), she wanted to ask if I knew her, just in case.  Her sister’s name was Pat, and as luck would have it, not only did I know her, it also turned out that she was my brother’s good friend from Cornell.

Another example of this type of  ‘small world’ phenomena occurred when I was literally walking down the street in Stockholm.   I had taken the tunnelbana (subway) to my job at Wenner Gren Center, where I taught English to a group of visiting researchers (mostly doctors and scientists) from Italy, France, Japan, and other countries. As I walked from the subway stop towards Wenner Gren Center, I heard voices speaking English. Two people were walking in front of me who sounded American. I caught up with them and we started talking. One of them asked me where I was from and when I told her the name of the small upstate New York town, she commented that she had had a college friend in Maine who was from the same town. We thought it was worth asking who it was, just in case. She said his name was Gil.  Once again, it turned out that I did indeed know him,  plus he was also one of my brother’s good friends from high school.  “I just saw Gil over Christmas Break,” she commented. “So did I,” I added. We looked at each other in surprise. I might add that both my brother and Gil had lived in Sweden several years earlier.

Still another small world experience happened at the American Women’s Club in Stockholm, where I met a woman from Connecticut named Kristen.  As it turned out, she was a high school classmate of one of my good friends, Tracey, from Cornell. Kristen and I became good friends in Stockholm, and I just saw her again recently in California.

These kinds of coincidences just seemed to keep happening to me when I lived or traveled abroad, particularly in Sweden, and also frequently happened to Greg.  Jean Shinoda Bolen, in her book The Tao of Psychology, describes these types of funny, unexpected coincidences with the Jungian concept of ‘synchronicity.’  And so it seems that for global nomads, TCKs, and international families, it’s a small world after all!

Have you also experienced these types of coincidences?

Adorable Three Year Old Chinese Boy’s Dancing Transcends Language and culture

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This adorable three year old Chinese boy’s dancing on “Amazing Chinese,” China’s version of America’s Got Talent, transcends language and culture.
The three year old from China’s Shandong province – Zhang Junhao – is incredibly cute, and his impressive dancing skills and simple recipe for happiness have already gained him many fans from around the world.
His ability to immediately connect with both the judges and the fans, regardless of their cultural backgrounds, illustrates just how important non-verbal communication can be in making connections with others.
When asked by the judges why he dances he responded:
“Because I like dancing. When I dance, my mom laughs. My mom says laughing is happiness.”
Watch this yourself and see how happiness knows no language.


From Lily pad to Lily Pad – International Transitions at FIGT 2014

At the FIGT 2014 conference a couple of weeks ago, Ruth Van Reken and Michael Pollock presented an interesting and informative conference session on the Flow of Care for internationally mobile families.
Ruth Van Reken (co-author of “Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds” with David Pollock) and Michael Pollock (David Pollock’s son and the director of Daraja, an organization for cross cultural leadership training for TCKs and CCKs) described the stages involved in the process of transition.

They discussed how providing families with assistance can “move [people] out of a danger zone where the brain shuts off and into a growth zone,” and also mentioned other benefits of helping families and employees make these transitions such as “increased productivity, less attrition…lower cost, and positive organizational culture.”
Ruth and Michael introduced the transition experience as a normal process. They described the various stages of David Pollock’s Transition Model (2001) , which includes the following stages:

  • Involvement – when people feel settled;
  • Leaving – which is unsettling;
  • Transition – which is Chaos;
  • Entering – which involves resettling; and
  • Reengagement – when people are settled in their new place.

They asked us to imagine a frog leaping from lily pad to lily pad as a metaphor for going through the stages of transition, and also used the image of a trapeze artist who has left one bar and is looking for the next one but hasn’t yet found it, to help describe the “liminality” that people experience when they are in transition, and how much a part of life this can be for many international families who move frequently.

Barbara Schaetti, who was active in FIGT from its early stages and presented conference sessions at FIGT about transition, wrote an article with Sheilia Ramsey on: “The Global Nomad Experience Living in Liminality,” and explains more about the concept, saying that the word comes ” from the Greek limnos, meaning ‘threshold,’ …liminality describes an in-between time when what was, is no longer, and what will be, is not yet…  When a person is in liminal space, he or she is on the threshold, no longer part of the past and not yet part of the new beginning. For many global nomads and their families, in particular for multi-movers, the experience of liminal space becomes the most constant, lived experience.”

Ruth and Michael also talked about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and how basic needs (physiological, safety, social) must to be met in order to progress to higher levels (which include achievement and creativity), and discussed how transition disrupts these needs from being met.

They discussed the Flow of care Model (Kelly O’Donnell, David Pollock) which includes the following:

  • Master Care,
  • Self care,
  • Sender care,
  • Specialist Care, and
  • Network care

In addition, they introduced some essential questions for families in transition, as well as the idea that it is important to figure out what each family’s specific needs are and who is responsible for helping to meet those needs, as the family goes through the stages of involvement, leaving, transition, entering and re-engagement.

Their session reminded me of the international relocation work I did with SAS Intercultural Communication in Stockholm, Sweden when I lived there. I helped Swedish and Norwegian business people and families who were going to the US, and talked to them about American culture and values, and how these values partly developed in the context of American history (ie, how the pioneers exemplified the values of individualism, personal control over the environment, and action work orientation, as described by Robert Kohls) as well as talking about life in the US, including the school system. SAS arranged informal dinners for the families, either at the Hard Rock Cafe or a Thai restaurant, and invited people who had lived in or were from the US, where it was fun to chat with the families more informally. I’ll write more about this in my next post.

The FIGT 2014 conference helped highlight many experiences that people might have overseas and also provided valuable information and resources for internationally mobile families and those working with them. Thanks to experts in the field  like Ruth Van Reken, Michael Pollock, and to various relocation organizations, international families can now have smoother transitions that allow them to have much more productive and enjoyable overseas experiences. Ruth and Michael talked about how providing families with assistance helps them “to thrive, travel the journey well, finish strong and nourish the next generation.”


Fun, Family, and FIGT 2014

I just came back from my fourth Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference in as many years, and as always, the conference has inspired me and renewed my energy for doing more work with Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids.  The conference was filled with friends both new and old, fascinating sessions and good food.

The conference was enjoyable right from the start, beginning as soon as we arrived at the hotel with a fun conversation with other participants in the lobby –  about good and bad airlines, lost luggage and favorite travels.  This continued with a delicious dinner at the nearby Lebanese Taverna, where we learned from our friendly Egyptian waiter just how much foods with the same names can vary, depending on where they are made (for example, the dessert we requested, katifi, is very different in Lebanon and Greece).  The next day included breakfast with contributors involved in “Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads, and Third Culture Kids,” (a recent book of essays edited by Nina Sichel and Gene Bell-Villada, with Faith Eidse and Elaine Neil Orr) where we had a lively discussion about new third culture kid and cross cultural kid research.  This was followed by a very informative Writers Workshop led by Jo Parfitt, head of SummerTime Publishing, including a diverse panel of writers.

One of my favorite experiences at the conference was a delicious dinner later that evening, shared with several conference participants at the nearby Neisha Thai Cuisine, which we reached after perilously crossing the highway (reminding us of other harrowing experiences overseas involving street crossing).  At dinner, we shared our stories and jokes, as well as duck, mango salad,”ginger ginger ginger beef” and other delicious dishes.  The hospitable Thai restaurant owner told us that they made all their own curries and other ingredients in house, right in their kitchen.

During the next few days – as we attended thought provoking plenary sessions and informative ignite sessions and kitchen table conversations, and had difficulty choosing between the various fascinating topics for the concurrent sessions – the conference continued to be a great source of information and insights.

Some of the conference highlights for me were the amazing plenary sessions, including one given by Fanta Aw, who introduced us to the concept of Ubuntu (humanity) and reminded us that”it takes a village” to raise a child, as she shared stories about her life growing up with her family in Mali and many other countries.  For the closing plenary, Lisa Liang performed her amazing new one woman show – “Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey” – which took us on her international journey from Guatemala to Egypt to Connecticut and more.  During the very brief but informative ignite sessions, Kristine Racina spoke about the Expatriate Archive Centre she directs in The Hague, which preserves history and memorabilia from international families.  We also heard from Ellen Mahoney, founder of Sea Change Mentoring, about this on-line mentoring organization that helps support mobile young people.

Time at the conference went by quickly, and after the final plenary given by Lisa Liang and the luncheon that followed, it was time to say our good byes.  However, everyone lingered after lunch, exchanging business cards and planning further discussions and meetings with each other, as well as looking forward to next year’s FIGT conference!