American culture

If you’re not speaking, say so!

Posted on June 1, 2010. Filed under: American culture, cross cultural communication | Tags: , , , , |

The Supreme Court’s recent decision that  suspects must explicitly tell police they want to be silent to invoke Miranda protections during criminal interrogations is a spectacular example of American cultural communication patterns. You can’t just be quiet and have people get it (oh, he’s not talking) you have to say you’re not going to talk.

Americans are very direct and expect others to be equally direct. They do not read between the lines as well as cultures with indirect communication styles, and have difficulty understanding and recognizing nuance and inference.

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this one: You don’t have the right to be quiet, because you didn’t say you were going to be quiet, you were just, well, quiet. No rights for you!!

As our newest judge, a.k.a the Wise Latina, pointed out, “criminal suspects must now unambiguously invoke their right to remain silent”.  As if not speaking is somehow ambiguous.

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Partying across cultures

Posted on April 23, 2010. Filed under: American culture, cross cultural, hispanic culture, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , |

My husband is attending a party for a relative this weekend. He knew that I definitely wasn’t going to attend, and didn’t even bother asking me.

Dominicans and Americans have very different ideas of what makes a good party.  I don’t like Dominican parties. Their key ingredients? MUSIC and DANCING. The music is loud to the point where you can’t hear the person next to you or even your own thoughts. At my niece’s  college graduation party, I spent most of the time outside, away from the noise. Food is optional, conversation is optional. Drink, music and dancing are required. Also, I dance like a BIG GRINGA, so I’m in no hurry to hit the dance floor where everyone age 2+  has killer moves.

Dominican parties have no start time or end time. They start when you show up, and they finish, as my husband likes to say, when the adults are drunk and the children are crying.

Being Jewish-American, I think the keys to a good party are great FOOD and CONVERSATION. God forbid someone goes hungry or leaves thinking you had a lousy spread. Music is good, but not so loud that you can’t mingle and have great conversation, which is much more important than great dancing.

What makes for a good party in your culture? Have you ever attended a party in a different culture? What was it like?

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Healthcare’s assault on American independence

Posted on March 22, 2010. Filed under: American culture, healthcare | Tags: , , , , , , |

Many Americans argue that healthcare reform goes against our country’s founding principles and will destroy American freedom. How will it do that? By forcing us, against our will, to take care of our fellow citizens. Americans take their independence very seriously.

According to Geert Hofsted, (whose 5 dimensions of culture are foundational to intercultural theory) America scores the highest of all countries in the dimension of Individuality.  We value the self first,  the concept of the individual second, and believe in personal independence and personal responsibility. If Americans have the highest score of all nations in the dimension of individuality, that means we are extremists in this area. And extremism, unless we’re talking shoes or chocolate, rarely leads to much good.

For most Americans, having a communal or group focus is antithetical to their cultural beliefs. Why should I put the benefit of the group above the benefit of the individual??? I’m not responsible for you. Take care of yourself.

Most industrialized  countries already have a national commitment to the health of their citizens.  I’m glad we’re heading in that direction.

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duck rectum or meat glue? whose cuisine will reign supreme?

Posted on March 11, 2010. Filed under: American culture, chinese culture, cross cultural, cuisine | Tags: , , , , , |

My nephew, who has spent considerable time in China, mentioned that on his last trip there he ate duck rectum, and that it really wasn’t all that bad. Granted, he didn’t know what he was eating until after the fact, which, I assume, removed any cultural barrier about what’s supposed to be delicious and what’s supposed to be gross.

I know the Chinese eat many more parts of animals than Americans, who tend to eat only the meat and a few organs.  Still, I thought, “Wow. That is totally disgusting.”

But Americans, too, are eating some pretty gruesome things.  The FDA has over 3000 approved chemicals that can be added in food processing. There are  colors, preservatives, thickeners, stabilizers, emulsifiers, anti-caking agents, flavor enhancers, and antibiotics to name a few.

Thrombin, commonly known as meat glue, was just recently approved by the EU as a food additive. Recently approved? American have been eating it for years. Thombin, which was originally developed to stop bleeding during surgery, is also used to hold together chicken nuggets.

Americans have no idea  the number and quantity of the chemicals that pass through their bodies each year. At least with the duck, you know it’s a duck.

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Halloween, defanged.

Posted on October 31, 2009. Filed under: American culture, holidays | Tags: , , , |

I often write/present about generational differences and their effects in the workplace, but clearly the workplace is not the only place these differences are seen or have meaning.

A recent NY Times article illuminated one generational difference regarding the meaning and message of a favorite children’s holiday: Halloween. Some schools, concerned that Halloween constumes might be either too scary or too gross, are creating new prohibitions on what is an acceptable costume to wear to school and even looking to encourage “positive costumes.”

This is most definitely a new paradigm for a new generation of kids who really should just be wrapped in bubble wrap. For goodness sake!! It’s Halloween!! It’s supposed to be scary!! It’s supposed to make you jump and scream and run down the street with your friends away from the spooky house with the crazy old lady before you gorge yourself on Snickers, Smarties, Twizzlers, Blow Pops, Reeses and Milky Ways!!

Let children experience a full range of emotions. Not everything has to be a lesson in political correctness. Let them have fangs and claws and blood dripping down their maniacal faces. It’s HALLOWEEN!!

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lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer

Posted on June 24, 2009. Filed under: American culture, chinese culture, education, Japanese culture | Tags: , , , , , , |

I see it coming, like a runaway train, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. The day after tomorrow school is over.  The kids will be home for the summer.

One of my kids’ favorite summer activities is  sitting on the floor behind my chair while I’m working, and fighting.  Another favorite activity is opening the refrigerator.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, Americans go to school about 180 days a year.  We have more days off than in school. Other countries, of course, think this is ridiculous. European and Asian kids spend more hours each day in school. Many attend school Saturdays. They have fewer vacations.  If a foreign school has 15 days more each year (from K-12), that equals another 180 days of study, or another entire school year.

I’ve met many Japanese and Chinese expats who are amazed to see how little homework their children get in the US schools. Many teachers give 10 minutes homework per grade (1st grade:10 min, 2nd grade:20 min), so by 6th grade students have 1 hour homework. American kids are asked to focus less time, and in one study gave up on tasks faster than their Asian counterparts who focused on solving the problem for a longer time.

And why do American high school kids finish class by 2:00  in the afternoon? What are they doing the rest of the day and who is around to supervise them?

US kids get 10 weeks vacation from school during the summer. Since we no longer need the children to harvest the fields, they should be sent back to the classroom. 4 weeks vacation seems generous. As an American,  I don’t think cramming kids all day, every day is a good idea. I value free time for kids  creativity, self discovery and social development.  But the summer vacation is archaic. The teacher’s union, probably the biggest block to a longer school year, needs to realize 183 days a year won’t cut it today in a global economy.

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Intonation, stress, and my Godiva chocolates

Posted on May 10, 2009. Filed under: American culture, celebrations, language, nonverbal communication | Tags: , , , , , |

I was woken up this morning with a lovely breakfast in bed for Mother’s Day. Actually, I had been up for about 10 minutes, and really wanted to pee and brush my teeth, but I thought it best to fake sleeping until I heard the rattle of the breakfast tray being carried down the hall by my beloved children, so as not to ruin their “surprise”.

One of my presents was a box of Godiva truffles,  which, by the way, I plan to finish before the end of the day. As I opened them, I saw Carlita looking longingly at the box.

“Would you like one?” I asked, with rising intonation, typical of a question asked in English. She smiled and took the coconut cream.

I looked at my husband. “Would YOU like one?” I asked, stressing the word you, because he doesn’t really eat sweets, and I wasn’t expecting that he would take it. ” Maybe later” he said.

Finally, I looked at Calvin, my teenage son who is capable of  inhaling the entire refrigerator at one sitting. “Would you like ONE?” I asked, stressing the word one, to let him know this was my candy, and I wasn’t giving it all away.

I had asked 3 people the same question, but each time it carried a very different meaning. Stress and intonation in English carry the bulk of the message, which is why English language learners often miss the subtle nuances in conversation. They tend to focus on the vocabulary and grammar. As native speakers, we all understood the differences in meaning  without an overt explanation. They also understood, without overt explanation, that they’d better not touch the raspberry dark chocolate one.

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Pets: love them, pamper them or eat them for dinner?

Posted on May 7, 2009. Filed under: American culture, Asian culture, chinese culture, cross cultural conflict, cuisine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

The other night I was watching The Dog Whisperer (I have no idea why), which is a TV show about a man who has some preternatural ability to understand and communicate with dogs. He helps families whose pets are having emotional or behavioral problems. In this episode, Cesar, the Dog Whisperer, was explaining to a woman “your dog is jealous of your husband.” She nodded knowingly.

I have never understood people who are crazy for their pets, and think of them as their children. Americans spend about 10 billion dollars a year on their pets. There are pet therapists, pet cemeteries, and pet spas.  A friend of mine cancelled her vacation, losing her non-refundable plane tickets, because she couldn’t find her cat pre-departure.

Years ago, when I was a new ESL teacher, I did an exercise with students where they had to match a list of items with the store in which they belong —the hammer goes in the hardware store, the lettuce goes in the green grocer, the rolling papers go in the bodega, etc. When we reviewed the answers together as a class, I was amused to find that all the Chinese students had put the pets in the butcher shop.

Fish, rabbits and reptiles are often pets, but no one really complains about eating them. It is often seen as a personal preference.  Even horses, beloved in the US,  are eaten in some European countries.

The biggest battle lines seem to be drawn for dogs and cats.  It also seems to be an East/West divide.  It is not uncommon for these animals to be on the menu in China, Korea or parts of South East Asia.  Westerners, on the other hand, not only refuse to eat them, but find it horrifying that others do.

Why, of all the animals that are kept as pets–fish, birds, cats, dogs, horses, reptiles, etc–are there such strong emotions in this cultural divide? What is it about cats and dogs that sets them apart?

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How many ways can you quantify?

Posted on April 29, 2009. Filed under: American culture | Tags: , , , , , , |

Obama’s first 100 days are an important milestone. Why? Because 100 is a big, round number!!

Americans love to quantify. Everything. From rating Obamas first 100 days to Time Magazine’s World’s 100 Most Influential People. (Really? Out of 6 billion?) Even Miss USA contestants were judged to the .001 in the swim suit competition. To the thousandth of a point!!  Ridiculous, when, as my son pointed out, “if you cut off all their heads, you couldn’t tell them apart.”

For Americans, the essential quality of anything is its measurability. Everything can, and should,  be measured and quantified. This is often problematic for Americans conducting business in cultures where relationships take precedence.

 If you are American, you probably know how tall the Washington Monument is  (555 feet), or that there are 2.5 children in the typical American family. The idea of 1/2 a kid in a family makes absolutely no sense to many other cultures that believe people are human souls and not statistics.

You may have rated a restaurant or hotel from 1-5 stars and asked a friend “How good do I look in this dress on a scale of 1-10?”  You probably describe your house by square footage, number of bedrooms, and cost, and know your exact height and weight though you probably don’t tell the truth about them. (I look smokin’  from 121-123, good at 125-127, and puffy over 130. I am also 5 feet 4 and 3/4 inches tall)

During those rare times that Americans travel overseas and visit tourist sites, they are likely to ask: How big is it?  How old is it?  How much did it cost? Travelers from other cultures may ask more about history and aesthetics.

Here’s the best part of all of this. The quantification doesn’t even have to make sense.

  Check out how this senator quantifies the stimulus bill. Try your best to make it through all 2 minutes. It’s worth it.


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American medicine and accupuncture

Posted on April 8, 2009. Filed under: American culture, Asian culture, cross cultural, healthcare | Tags: , , , , , , , |

My elbow is killing me. It hurts to drive, write, and basically do anything. Next week, I am having surgery to correct the problem. I originally wanted to try acupuncture, but it was not covered by health insurance. I have had great success with acupuncture for other things.  

The insurance company wouldn’t cover accupuncture, but it would cover surgery. Comparing the two, acupuncture is cheaper, less invasive, has no side effects or recovery time, and best of all, is less painful. So why isn’t it covered by insurance?

When I was diagnosed with a torn tendon, I asked the doctor if acupuncture could help repair it. He said without a pause, “Voodoo. That’s all acupuncture is. Voodoo. There is no written literature anywhere on its effectiveness.” (He is no longer my doctor.) The second doctor said he didn’t know much about acupuncture, but “whatever works for you is OK.”

American doctors know little about Eastern medical treatments that have been used by billions of people for thousands of years.  If they bothered to learn about them, they would have a greater understanding of possibilities and options, as well as insights into their Asian patients. 

The insurance company may see covering such unproven and voodoo medical practices as a slippery slope. If they agree to cover the cost of accupuncture as well as surgery, what’s next? Covering dried tiger penis powder as well as Viagra?

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