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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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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the power of subculture affiliation

Posted on May 19, 2009. Filed under: cross cultural conflict, cuisine, culture, subcultures | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

One of my best friends is dating a man who, culturally, is very different from her.  Just from looking at them, you wouldn’t think they are so different. They are both American, white, middle class, middle aged, educated, divorced with kids, and from the Northeast.

They do have some fundamental differences that make my friend think that maybe he’s not “the one.”  She’s Jewish. He’s Christian. She’s a democrat. He’s republican. Still, these were areas she could compromise on. They weren’t necessarily deal breakers. She used these differences to teach her children about tolerance and the importance of looking at the individual, not group affiliation.

But last night, she called me up to tell me she knew this relationship could never really work.  It seems that they were out with his kids, and he gave them Capri Sun juice drinks and white bread. She knew it wouldn’t last between them.

And you know what? I totally understood. We are both part of the culture of healthy, natural living. We don’t eat processed foods and we certainly would never give our children juice “drinks” (which are mostly high fructose corn syrup and water)  or white bread. My children have never–not once–eaten fast food.  And they don’t miss it because they know what homemade, delicious, healthy food tastes like. 

After talking with my friend, I realized that lifestyles can be defined as culture, or subculture if you prefer, in that they include a set of beliefs, knowledge, values and behavioral norms shared by its members and  transmitted to future generations.

For my friend and me, a healthy lifestyle is core to the values and beliefs  that we want to pass on to our children.  And as core values and beliefs,  are more important when looking for a partner than what may normally be viewed as cultural differences, such as religious affiliation, race, or ethnicity.


What subcultures do you identify yourself with? How does it affect your daily behavior and relationships?

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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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AIG & Universalism –cultural views on contractual obligations

Posted on March 18, 2009. Filed under: American culture, business, cross cultural, cross cultural conflict, cross cultural miscommunication, universalism | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Although I personally think AIG is beyond reprehensible, greedy, corrupt and incompetent, I am intrigued by the cultural influences of the situation we now find ourselves in.  I considered, specifically, the differences in cultural views on contractual obligations between Universalist and Particularist cultures, and use the US and China as examples.

The idea that  AIG has a contractual obligation to pay out bonuses to the very executives who brought the company to the brink of bankruptcy  is firmly grounded in American culture. America is a Universalist culture–they have rules and laws and contracts that are applicable to everyone equally (supposedly). They believe contracts are legal and binding, regardless of obvious changes in situation.  AIG executives moan that these bonuses were promised to them by contract and contracts, in a Universalist culture, are untouchable. A deal is a deal. Even a raw one.

Chinese culture, on the other hand, is Particularist. Particularists look at each situation, and understand that things may change unexpectedly. For the Particularist, contracts may be amended or adjusted if the situation or context changes. Particularists also spend more time building relationships,  and value personal obligation and “face” more than Universalists.  For Particularists,  a trustworthy person is known to honor the changing circumstances.  The idea is to build a long term relationship and have a win-win situation over time for both parties.

For the Universalist, it is the complete opposite. A trustworthy person keeps his word, abides by the contract, and pays up. Even when it’s ethically, morally, and  poltically wrong.

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Are some cultures more gifted than others?

Posted on March 6, 2009. Filed under: American culture, Asian culture, cross cultural, education | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

My son is highly gifted in math. He is very advanced in all his subjects, but he is off the charts gifted in math. I’m not sure where this came from, although I personally believe the hand of God is involved.  I first noticed something was unusual when, as an infant, he started lining up raisins in a pattern. By kindergarten he was adding mixed fractions in his head when everyone else was counting to 10, and by 5th grade he started teaching himself calculus by downloading lessons from the Texas A&M math department website. Our school district supports gifted education and has let him accelerate 3 years in math.

Being gifted in America is a big secret, where “all children are gifted!” If he were a star athlete, or a prodigy musician, that would be fine. But America, the land of equality, really doesn’t like the idea that some people are innately smarter than others.

We attended an award ceremony at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth for the top 400 middle school children nationwide, based on SAT scores. (SATs are college entrance exams).  The children were called up alphabetically in groups to receive their awards, and when the W,X,Y,Z group was called,  an enormous amount of students stood up.  They were the Wangs, Wus, Wongs, Xias, Xies, Xins, Xus, Xues, Yans, Yangs, Yaos, Yes, Yoos, Zhangs, Zhengs, and Zhus. The most highly gifted students were overwhelmingly Asian.

This is my dilemma. I don’t believe one race is smarter than another. And I know that Asian culture highly values education and these students were there because their parents pursued this testing to identify their child’s ability. I know that, unlike in America, it’s fine to be gifted.  I’ve also read that the math systems in China, Japan and Korea are easier than English, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book Outliers. But these were Asian-American children. They were learning math in English.

These were not just good students, they were the top students in the nation. You can’t coach a 12-year-old to score a 700+ in math on the SAT. You can barely coach an adult to reach that score. These students weren’t recognized for their hard work, but for an innate ability. So given their small percentage of the general population,  I’ve got to ask–why are so many of our top math students Asian?

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Family, friends and the open invitation

Posted on March 1, 2009. Filed under: American culture, celebrations, cross cultural, cross cultural miscommunication, family, hispanic culture, time | Tags: , , , , , |

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that my husband is Dominican. I’m very familiar with Hispanic culture, although understanding it doesn’t always make it easier to put up with things that really go against my American ways.

The whole time thing makes me nuts. For Americans, time controls the event. Events have a starting time and and ending time, and often these are scheduled in advance.  For Hispanics, the event controls time.  Yes, I know the dinner invitation said 7:30, but my wife always takes forever getting ready, and then a good friend called whom I haven’t spoken to in a while, then I felt like taking a nap, and that’s why I’m here at 10:15. Oh, and by the way, I brought my cousin, his son and a friend they had visiting from back home.

At first, I used to get angry. What’s so hard about being here on time? Why can’t you at least give me the heads up that you want to bring extra people? To be fair though, I’m sure my Dominican friends and family thought I was insane when I said my daughter’s birthday party was from 1:30-3:00 (she was 5).

So now I just enjoy the role of Gringa Fria when it suits me. I’m THE AMERICAN WIFE. If you don’t confirm with at least 24 hours notice, I’m counting you out. If I’m expecting 6, I cook for 6. Even if 11 show up. You can share.

Maybe that’s why our house isn’t the most popular place for Dominican get togethers….

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Canada: land of extreme moderation

Posted on February 19, 2009. Filed under: Canadian culture, cross cultural | Tags: , , , , |

I just returned from 4 wonderful days visiting family in Quebec. 8 people, 3 languages (Spanish, French and English) and only one speaker fluent in all 3.  My kids are now old enough to be aware of cross cultural differences, especially since it is a constant topic of conversation in our house. My son, who is almost 14, was amazed at how moderate Canadians are. He noticed:

  • That food portion sizes are about 1/3 the size of American food portions. We saw a menu that said you could either order Regular or Moderate size. We still don’t know which is bigger.
  • That people are neither obese nor runway model skinny.
  • That even in subzero temperatures, people are out and about, enjoying themselves without complaint.
  • That streets are clean and people don’t eat while walking.
  • That nobody clapped, whistled, or made noise when a parade passed.
  • That even though there is ice everywhere, people don’t sue each other when they fall down.
  • That beverages are served warm, not hot. It’s even on the menu. When I asked a server to please put my hot chocolate in the microwave to heat it up, she put it on 12 seconds.

quebec-0851If I had to use one word to describe life in Canada, I would say pleasant. Which, I guess, is a moderate definition.

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Why I ate a broom, and other cross cultural missteps

Posted on January 31, 2009. Filed under: cross cultural miscommunication, cuisine | Tags: , , , , |

Normally, people don’t publicize the dumb things they have done. But, if you know anything about Jewish humor,  you know that self-deprecation is perfectly OK if it is followed by a great punch line.

As I’ve mentioned many times, people try to understand new cultures by processing their experiences based on their own cultural frameworks–how is this like or not like my own culture. Usually, I’m pretty aware when this is happening, but sometimes I just get caught off guard, and forget that I’m using my own culture as a reference.

I was in Dominican Republic with my husband, who is Dominican, and we had stopped at a local supermarket to pick up some groceries. As I wandered through the produce section, admiring all the exotic fruits and vegetables, I saw a bundle of what looked like thin strips of bark. This must be some kind of spice, I thought, like cinnamon bark or sassafras. Right? I mean, it was in the produce aisle. I picked up the bundle and gave it a sniff. Funny, I thought. it doesn’t have any aroma.

Being a total foodie, I simply had to find out what this unknown and exotic Dominican spice was–so I broke off a small piece and popped it in my mouth. I looked up, only to find a group of teenage girls watching me and giggling uncontrollably. I was used to the “check out the gringa” stare, so I didn’t think anything about it. My husband, at this point,  came down the aisle looking at me  (with that look he gets!) and shaking his head. “Why,” he asked, “are you eating a broom?”

Why was I eating a broom?

  • Because it was in the produce aisle, and not in the cleaning supply aisle (like in America)
  • Because brooms bristles are made of polyester or plastic, not bark (like in America)
  • Because brooms have handles (like in America)
  • Because it didn’t look like a broom! (like in America)

All of my reasons were based on my cultural knowledge of both brooms and spices. It was at that point my husband explained to me that in his country the bottom part of a broom is replaceable (unlike in America) and you can just put it on the broom handle you have at home.

No wonder it didn’t taste very good.

Have you ever made a silly mistake because you were using your own cultural references in another country? What happened?

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