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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When my time isn’t your time

Posted on April 13, 2009. Filed under: business, cross cultural conflict, cross cultural miscommunication, hispanic culture, time | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Time changes everything. Or how you view time changes everything.  Differences in cultural concepts of time are ALWAYS brought up by a frustrated manager or employee during cross cultural training sessions. I am amazed at how little attention is paid to understanding the concept of time in the workplace, given its profound impact on productivity, employee and customer relations, and worker satisfaction.

Ideas about time range widely:

  • Time is a scare resource.  Manage it carefully!
  • Time is abundant.  Relax!
  • Time is best spent concentrating on one activity, conversation, project, etc., at a time
  • Time is best spent concentrate simultaneously on multiple activities, conversations, projects, etc., at a time.
  • Use time to learn from the past.  The present is essentially a continuation or a repetition of past occurrences.
  • Use time to focus on “here and now” and short-term benefits.
  • Use time to plan for long-term benefits.  Promote a far-reaching vision.

These differences can wreak havoc on the workplace.

I worked with one American company that was having problems with time management of their plant in Mexico, which supplied the raw materials for their factory in the US. “They always miss deadlines, and never at least give us the heads up that they may be late!” “They work so slowly!” “It’s impossible to coordinate with them, because they just don’t stick to our schedule!”

When I asked how they were presently dealing with the situation, the manager said they had sent a team down to Mexico to train the employees on what was expected and managing their time better.

The company did not leave anyone American onsite to oversee production schedules. The problem returned as soon as we left, was their response. Well of course everything went back to Mexican style! Why wouldn’t it? Could you imagine a person from a different culture coming into your workplace and telling you to behave in a manner completely different from your culture? How long would you keep that up, especially if no one from the target culture was on site? Wouldn’t you and your coworkers slip back into your natural way of acting and communicating?

Helping employees understand cultural differences requires constant communication. There is no instant solution. Working successfully across cultures takes time.

Read here about ways to get employees on the same page about time expectations.

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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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Starting school in America? Time to pick a race!

Posted on March 23, 2009. Filed under: American culture, diversity, education, race | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

For decades, students entering the American school system have been identified by race. Tracking of students by race was meant to identify trends, measure successes and allot funds. Children could belong to one and only one of 5 categories:  

  1. American Indian or Alaska native
  2. Asian or Pacific Islander
  3. Hispanic
  4. non-Hispanic black
  5. non-Hispanic white

Since America is known as the great melting pot, this seems quite arbitrary. So many children, especially in newer generations, are of mixed heritage, and don’t fit neatly into only one category.

When I registered my son for kindergarten I didn’t check off a race on his paperwork, because mixed race wasn’t an option. The principal went ballistic. “If you don’t choose a race, the kindergarten teacher will assign him a race.”  I will never, ever forget hearing that from an educator. 

Starting 2010, new, more inclusive categories will be included on school intake forms for mixed race children. However, these only apply to new students entering the system, not to kids already in school. Also, using these expanded categories it is not mandatory, but the government is encouraging all schools to use this new system.

I find this desire to assign people one and only one race as ironic, given our love of the hyphenated American, when we proudly declare ourselves to be Italian-American, Irish-American, etc. Many hyphenated Americans have never visited their “homeland” and don’t even speak the language. Still, most Americans can proudly tell you their roots, and where their ancestors came from.

By continually slicing and dicing our student body into ever expanding categories of races, we start to miss the obvious. At this point in American history, it seems to me that class trumps race in terms of educational opportunities and successes.  I am guessing that middle class and wealthy students will have greater educational oportunities and successes than poor students, regardless of race.

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Chinese teachers and American students

Posted on February 28, 2009. Filed under: American culture, Asian culture, chinese culture, cross cultural, education | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

My company ran a number of beginning Chinese conversation classes for one corporation, with locations in 5 states. While I was at first concerned about coordinating the multi-state program, what turned out to be the biggest challenge was working with Chinese teachers.

The differences in teaching styles, as well as expectations surrounding classroom management, were enormous. The instructors were not very familiar or comfortable with a communicative approach to language instruction (emphasizing interaction and real life communication; not grammar focused).  The Chinese instructors were used to top-down instruction, and were not as skilled acting as facilitators.

The American students (all adults) expected to be active participants in the class. They wanted teachers who were knowledgeable in the subject area, dynamic, creative and energetic. For the Chinese instructors, being dynamic and creative were not as important.

Our beginning level language classes use a great deal of  Total Physical Response (TPR). TPR is a fast-paced activity that helps students develop listening comprehension skills and increase their vocabulary. In TPR, students follow the teacher’s instructions to complete certain actions over and over. (think Simon Says). Commands grow in length and complexity as the course continues. Students can feel immediate success without having to produce utterances.

All of the Chinese instructors were unfamiliar with this technique, which is standard in ESL, and had to be coached. They found it very useful, but I was stunned at the lack of creativity and spontaneity. After a few class sessions, I got calls from some teachers asking if they could purchase flash cards of different pictures to use for the TPR lessons. They said they had “run out” of things to talk about. Run out!  That’s the beauty of TPR–you can’t run out. Even if you use every single noun in the room with every possible verb, you still have pronouns to run through, not to mention all those prepositions. And all of these, in an endless variety of combinations. Run out?

All of the teachers were committed professionals. They were eager to learn new teaching methods, and were willing to try out new techniques. At course completion, they all recieved excellent student evaluations. I wonder if the results would have been the same if they had not been coached in American teaching methods and student expectations?

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CEO compensation – a cross cultural perspective

Posted on February 11, 2009. Filed under: American culture, business, cross cultural | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Everybody knows that executive compensation in America is out of control. What is it about American culture that allowed it to get to this point? (I’m thinking greed.)  How does US CEO compensation compare to CEOs in other cultures?

The US and UK have the highest rates of CEO compensation, which includes base salary, insentives, perks, bonuses, and the like. It is important to differentiate between compensation and salary, to see the real money being spent on a single individual. For example, Apple CEO, Steve Jobs stated in 2006 that he would only take a $1 annual salary. His total compensation package that year? Well over half a billion dollars.

The median European executive earns just 40% as much as his equivalent in America. Europeans are also more likely to tie pay incentives to performance, with French, German and British firms paying the most.  

Pay descrepencies across cultures are enormous.  For example, Japanese executives earn about 11 times as much as the average worker. The American executive? 475 times as much. I was surprised to find that Japan had the lowest pay discrepancy, since it is a rigidly hierarchical culture. However, Japan is also a collectivist culture, and the concept of face is extremely important. (It’s easy to be greedy if you don’t care about face). If your company doesn’t do well, that reflects on you. The boss, who is at the top of the hierarchy, is a role model and example for his workers to follow.

Check out this facinating video about the president and CEO of Japan Airlines.  When the company was in financial trouble, he cut every one of his perks and took a  pay cut, saying he “wanted to share the pain” with his workers.

Could you ever imagine a US CEO saying that??

 

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Where do you draw the line?

Posted on January 30, 2009. Filed under: Asian culture, cross cultural conflict, education, family, Japanese culture | Tags: , , , , , |

We all know about “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”.  Culturally sensitive people will try to fit in and not offend members of the culture they are visiting. For me, this included wearing long sleeves and long pants in Malaysia, even when it was hot, hot, hot. I’d rather be too hot than insulting. I wasn’t comfortable, but it was something I would put up with.

But where do you draw the line? When do you say, no, I can’t abide by that part of your culture. It goes against my deepest beliefs, and I just won’t do it.

I was delivering a workshop on Communication Strategies for Asians Doing Busines in the US, and we were discussing the importance of selling yourself in American culture. You need to be comfortable, I pointed out, discussing your strengths without self-deprecation. What’s great about you? Speak up. In US business culture, it’s not bragging if it is an honest assessment of yourself presented in the proper context. (for example, a job interview or request for a raise)  You need to know your strengths and be able to talk about them openly and with conviction.

This trait is so valued, I said, that school children are taught about it in the context of developing self esteem. I then showed them a worksheet my daughter had in school.  It was a fill in the blanks worksheet:

The best thing about me is _________

I’m really good at ___________

I’m proud that I can ____________.

and so on.

One Japanese gentleman in the workshop, who had been sent by his company for a 3-year rotation in the US, said that his daughter had brought home a similar worksheet from her school. He and his wife were so upset, that  soon after they pulled her from the school and put her in a Japanese school instead. His explanation was this: He didn’t want his daughter (who was 6) to develop these types of American values. At first, he thought it would be a great opportunity for her to attend an American school, perfect her English skills and learn about a new culture. But he worried that when they returned to Japan when she was 9 that she would bring these values back with her. She would face all sorts of problems. These were not the values he wanted for his daughter.  Talking about how great you were is where he drew the line.

Learn more about navigating the American school system here.

Have you ever been in an intercultural situation where you said, no, I can’t support that.  This goes too much against my beliefs. What happened to make you draw the line?

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