Cultural Conversation Clashes Between Americans, British, and Europeans

July 14, 2015

British and American Flags

As an American living overseas, I met British people for the first time, outside of America, and became friends with several of them.  As I got to know them better, we eventually had some conversations about Americans and Europeans inadvertently making each other uncomfortable because of different expectations we have from conversations, especially with new people we meet, or people we don’t know well.

I came across a very interesting article on Quora discussing this very issue.  Stephen Franklin brought up the issue of different conversation starters in his answer to, “What American customs are offensive in other countries?”  So many people provided interesting answers that I’ve decided to share in this post some of the answers I found most interesting, for those who don’t use Quora (a great website where people can pose questions on any topic, and people around-the-world provide great answers.)  In a few cases below, one comment may not seem to follow the one above it because I have only pulled out the most interesting comments to include here.

I’d love to have some responses from readers about any personal experiences or opinions on the issues discussed below.

–Lynne Diligent


Steven Franklin’s answer, from Original Quora Post:  (All replies below are selected from comments following Steven’s answer.)

I remember getting in trouble when I met a woman from Holland and asked, “What do you do for a living?”
It’s a common question Americans ask.
Her response:
“Why do you care? Would you speak to me differently if I were a janitor than if I were a corporate president?”
My reply:
“Perhaps we have the same job. Or have friends or family in the same profession. When you meet new people, it’s typical (at least for Americans) to try to find what you have in common.”
When I shared this story at a family get together, a cousin mentioned that she had exactly the same experience. It, too, involved someone from Holland.
Neither of us intended to offend or be nosy. It was ordinary conversation. But obviously, not ordinary conversation in some places.

I especially liked this particular answer, because it explained even more clearly than my British friends about WHY (for an American) they would not like it if an American asked them about their occupation:


Peter Hobday:
In the UK, it is not considered polite to ask personal questions. You discuss other topics of interest – could be, for example, your favorite holiday destination, how you get there and the people you go with, and who you meet there, what the people and food are like there – these and many other information swaps that may be useful or interesting. To talk about you personally is regarded as selfish introspection – something that no-one really is interested in but you yourself. When you get to know someone well, you will swap personal information, but only as close friends — not with someone you have just met. Talking about yourself is regarded as a sign of mental weakness, and asking what someone does for a living when you meet them implies you are trying to establish some kind of useless hierarchy whether you are doing so or not. I agree with the Dutch who are similar to the Brits in many ways.


Darrel Dent:
I find that very interesting because in the US asking someone what they do for a living isn’t considered a particularly “personal” question. It’s like asking what their favorite sports team is. On the other hand, if I don’t know you and you asked me where I vacation or who I vacation with, the most you’re going to get is “the beach” with “my wife” or “some friends” or something of that sort, because that’s part of our private lives. For us, what we do for work isn’t private (although details like salary are). (I live near Washington, DC, so many people in the area have jobs that are “classified,” meaning secret for any non-Americans who don’t use that term. If you casually ask them what they do for a living, some will give you a vague answer about “working for the government” and some will have a “cover” job that’s not actually what they do. If you probe a little deeper, you may get “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you” delivered with a wink and a smile and you know not to ask any more.) Many Americans are big on “networking” and to be good at it means being good at getting other people to talk about themselves. A classic American book of relationship-building is “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. A one-sentence summary of what he says would be something like “if you learn the techniques to get people to talk about themselves and you genuinely listen and care, they will walk away from the conversation liking you and they won’t even know why.” Dale Carnegie is kind of a rags-to-riches cultural icon in the US, so this approach to meeting people permeates the society, even for people who haven’t read the book or realize what they’re doing. (Although Carnegie is from the early part of the 20th century, there is still a Dale Carnegie Institute teaching his techniques.) So, when people meet, it’s pretty much expected (especially in business situations, but also at more casual get-togethers) that they will each take a few minutes talking about themselves. So, given what you’ve said, I see a head-on collision between Americans trying to get Europeans to “open up” and the Europeans seeing them as “nosy” on one hand and Americans seeing Europeans as “stand-offish” while Europeans see us as “loudmouthed” on the other.


Kirstin Huiber:
I’m an American… Steven, I don’t have strong values attached to different occupations. Americans ask this question as a shorthand way to account for the other person’s time and interests, not to assign a social ranking. It can even be considered in the larger sense, “What do you do?” in general, not just your paid work. And I personally find “What do you do?” much easier to answer than something like, “What are your passions or interests?” Blech.



Thomas Wier:
I think this is a side-effect of Europeans still living in the shadow of their formerly oppressive class systems and aristocracies. To ask a question like this to an aristocrat would be rude, because aristocrats’ sense of identity came from their ancestry, not their day-to-day activities. To ask a question like this to someone whose family came from the working classes risked revealing their (current or previous) low status in the pecking order. So the question is better left unasked.

A question like this in other words could only be asked when everyone has always pretended to be socioeconomic equals, which is precisely what Americans do.


Dennis Kenny:
I live in Ireland, which is a republic with no former aristocracy and it is generally considered boring to talk about work in a social setting. I don’t know why a feudal system is required to explain it.

One of the distinguishing features of an aristocracy is that very few people are at the top, so unsurprisingly the vast majority of people in a feudal system would have a trade to talk about.

Perhaps the US focus on the workplace is more to do with residual puritan religious influences.


Eric Vicini:

There’s another thing with people who aren’t Americans. Sometimes, they don’t understand that you’re only trying to make conversation. “What do you do for a living” is not a question, it’s a conversation opener. Same as “where’re you from?”, or “how ’bout them Saints?”

Steven Franklin:
Absolutely. But this woman told me that asking her profession was the equivalent of asking how much money she had in the bank.  I still remember my college years when we asked each other, “What’s your major?”

Edward Anderson:  
On my first day at one job, I sat across from my HR rep, who wrote a figure on a post-it and handed it to me. “This is your negotiated salary. We consider this to be a confidential matter between you and the company, and ask that you not discuss your pay with any of your co-workers.”

I said, “Don’t worry, ma’am, I’m just as ashamed of that low figure as you ought to be.”

Chris Dinant:
I’m Dutch. I understand that some of your statements are just conversation starters, but I have no idea how to respond to them. You have to answer something, right?

Mikaela Sifuentes:
This is so interesting because as an American I never thought of them as difficult to answer. For example, to answer the questions Eric brought up, I might say, “I work in a biomedical lab studying stroke.” or “I originally grew up in Dallas, TX. Are you from around here?” or “I’m not really much of a football fan. Are you excited about the beginning of the season?” Each one of the answers provides another opening for the other person to respond with a question or answer, and thus keep the conversation going.

How does the opening of a conversation go in the Netherlands?

John Gould:
Here in the Netherlands, the general neutral topics of the weather, football and such would be used. Any non-personal small talk is fine. To ask someone things like their occupation, and where they live or where they are from is more personal, and should be used as an opening.

If and when the other person responds in a way that encourages more communication, we can go further and see where the conversation leads to.

Ilka Pritchard Pelczarski:
I’m half German and had the opportunity to live in Germany for an extended period of time. I learned that Europeans tend to answer questions more thoughtfully and in greater depth. For example, in America we ask our coworkers “how are you?” in a friendly, upbeat tone while passing them in the hallway; are we actually expecting a response? And when we’re asked the question, do we feel compelled to go into it any further? Not usually. In Germany I learned that you had better be prepared to invest some time to listen to how someone is ‘actually’ doing when you pose the question, because not only will they get into it with you, they will want to hear your story as well.
Going back to the original intent of our asking about what someone does for a living, as many have commented, for Americans it is generally a conversation starter. And as with the question “how are you” our friends from other countries take it to the next level out of the gates not realizing the superficial nature of it from the American perspective. (Superficial not meant in a negative context).
The bigger lesson here is accepting that we are all responsible for putting forth the effort in understanding each other’s cultures. Maybe we need to start each conversation with, “what is an important thing you think that I as [insert your nationality here] should know about your culture/heritage/background?”

Darrel Dent:
Most of the people who would judge your worthiness to engage in conversation based on your occupation probably aren’t worth talking to anyway, since they’re only interested in people who can do something for them.

Vishnu Subramanian:
It might’ve even had something to with the tone of your voice or even just the multiple ways in which you can ask the same question. Northern Europeans in general aren’t as inquisitive or as extroverted as people from other countries, because of the importance their culture places on privacy.

Nicola Caria:
The point is that Europeans use different topics to get the conversation started. Make sure that “what do you do for living” is not your first question, otherwise it is widely accepted also in Europe a job-related discussion.
In the beginning, I found quite rude myself getting such a question from American girls, which I considered to be “gold diggers” .  Now that I got accustomed, I could not care less.

Nicola Caria:
Well, I can tell you that in Italy food, wine and soccer are great conversation topics.
Also, you can easily get Italians attention asking of “who is the prime minister” or directly making comments on him (it is Matteo Renzi right now). Be careful though, you may have in front of you a strong supporter/detractor.
When I lived in Belgium and Switzerland, people loved to talk about tradition in your own country.
Try to bring up something cool about the region you come from. Hope it helps!

Jon Painter:
Ha ha, food is an inherently dangerous conversation in the US with women you don’t know well!

Kathleen Fasanella:
It’s not just the Netherlands; it’s one of the things that many nationalities put up with when dealing with people from the US -it inspires eye rolls. I never ask when traveling abroad. Since others know I’m a US citizen, they’re expecting me to ask so when I don’t, it can be somewhat awkward until they figure out I’m not going to and they can relax.

Case in point, in the late 80’s, I was traveling with my then husband and small child, from Buenos Aires, to the port serving Florianopolis, Brazil; it’s a two day bus ride. Across the aisle was a nice couple who we spoke with non stop for the duration. Departing the ferry, we went our respective ways.

Two days later, my son became frightfully sick. Since we were staying in a condo one street from the beach, I went there to see if someone could tell me where to find a doctor. As luck would have it, I found the couple we’d been talking to for two days on the bus. When I asked the young man if he knew where I could find a doctor, he told me that he was a pediatrician. He dropped everything and came over to the condo to treat my son. For nothing of course. Somehow, I don’t think the situation would have played out as it did if I’d asked the guy what he did for a living.

Darrel Dent:
Equally difficult is the question of how to answer any of the many variations of “who are you.” If it’s considered impolite to ask someone else about their job, it’s probably just as bad to spout off about your own. But, as Americans, who we are is so entwined with what we do that most of us, when asked to describe ourselves will start off with our occupations. Also, here the topic of work is considered “safe,” but people can be more guarded about their personal lives and their opinions. So, most Americans struggle when you ask them to describe themselves without talking about their job. It’s actually something that requires thought and practice.

Gloria Hines:
I think one of the most common errors are the fact that to every country we visit we expect them to speak English without even trying to learn their language. While living in Frankfurt Germany I went to a pet store to purchase food for my dog. The first thing I said to the salesperson was do you speak English. She didn’t respond, so I struggled through trying to make her understand. She than spoke to me in English. As I walked home I realized she was teaching me a very important lesson and that I had no right to expect her to know English because she was near military housing. So I taught myself what I called “shopping German”. They were much more receptive in their response to me. Lesson learned.

Steven Franklin:
You make a great point. I remember how in many countries signs at tourist attractions such as museums would be in multiple languages. And upon my return to the US, my noticing that we didn’t do the same for our foreign guests.

Juan Jorge:
That is probably because of the huge amount of languages and relatively small size of each country in Europe. You can rather easily go through many different countries with different languages in a few days so multiple languages on signs makes a lot of sense. In the US the primary language is English and traveling for a day might not even get you out of a state in some places and they will still talk English when you do end up in a new state. Should signs have multiple languages? Maybe, but which ones? Who is willing to make a sign that has that many languages, who will get to pick the ones on there and who will NOT be upset if their language is not added?

Amos Shapir:
In France, especially Paris, I’d always get better service when trying to communicate in broken French, than in good English; even if they do understand English (most do nowadays) they’d often pretend not to.

Darrel Dent:
I’m an American, but very much a Francophile and (moderately) fluent in French. The French are very proud of their language and you will score major points if you can speak it, even badly. Often, if you try to speak French but are struggling, they will switch to English, but, as you said, you’ll get better service for having made the effort.

Jim Noblett: 
Interesting.  Maybe it’s similar to someone here asking ‘How much money do you make?’ Or ‘What’s your address?’

Jim Torrance:
I’m an American (U.S.) and I get really irritated when people ask what I do for a living as a matter of small talk. I hate my job and don’t want to be defined by it, especially when someone is getting to know me.

Marcel Geenen:
I think one aspect hasn’t been mentioned here, and this is that to Americans work is much more important then to Dutch people.
To a Dutch person, Americans seem to live to work, while the Dutch work to live.
To be more clear, a Dutch person will go to work 9-5, then go home. Overtime is rare and when it happens a lot in a company, people will complain and refuse to do it.
The Netherlands has more part time workers than any other country.  And many people will gladly work a few days less per year even on a full time job.
So in general, work is a much less important part of a person’s life then it is in the US, so talking about this as a conversation starter is strange, because you start by talking about something unimportant and most likely something completely unrelated to the situation you are in.
If you need a conversation start, pick a subject related to your actual circumstances at the time.


Steven Franklin:
So, two people who meet for the first time who are both attorneys or musicians or artists or teachers would remain unaware of that fact in the hours that they spend talking to one another?

Jonathan Hole:
Probably not. Though it’s “inappropriate” to directly ask for other’s profession, I don’t think it’s considered rude to say something which implies your own profession (as in “You know the other day in court something similar happened…”), even if that is a “high status” profession. But in general though, bragging is sort of frowned upon in Norway, and if you devote MUCH time to tell the other person of your (high status) profession that would likely be considered inappropriate, yes.

Steven Franklin:
Here the thing. This is a cultural norm. What is appropriate in one culture (asking a business associate about his family) would be considered extraordinarily rude in another.

What about a guest who leaves food on the dinner plate? In some cultures, it’s a complement indicating, “Thank you; you have fed me enough and now I am full.” but in other cultures, it may imply that the food was unacceptable.

I’m told that in some countries, young children refer to elderly adults they encounter as, “Uncle or Aunt.” That really wouldn’t go over very well in the US.

People should have a level of sophistication to understand that a foreigner’s comment may not be offense where he came from and take it accordingly. A cultural mistake.  Even a dog knows the difference between someone who kicked him and someone who tripped over him.


Dave Borland:
Why do I care? Because people spend more of their waking hours on their work than on anything else. Why should that part of their life be off-limits to conversation? Why are you so evasive?

James Arthur:
She was correct. Your question was attempting to establish income and social status. If she had been a janitor, you would have viewed her in those terms. Consider how often health care is mentioned in conversation with strangers. Not health, just the number and quality of the professionals involved. For an American, healthcare is expensive, for Europeans, it is generally free and only relevant when we are sick. It is far safer to use neutral topics such as hobbies or media. The British obsession with the weather is exactly this…

Daniel Fenn:
This seems like a bit of an unwarranted assumption. Just because that’s how the action strikes you does not mean that’s how it was intended.

Darrel Dent:
That may or may not be a valid assumption with Europeans, but it definitely isn’t with Americans. That’s not to say it’s NEVER true, but it is equally, if not more, likely to simply be an innocent question akin to “tell me something about yourself.” Because many (if not most) Americans’ self-identity is closely intertwined with their jobs, if you say to an American “tell me about yourself,” more than half will start off with what they do for a living. That may be somewhat less true for less “prestigious” jobs, but it depends on the person and the job (for instance, in the US, teaching is not a particularly prestigious job, but I’ve know many teachers and, as a rule, they are passionate and if you meet one and ask them to tell you about themselves, probably eight out of ten will start off by telling you they’re a teacher). So, asking what someone else does isn’t a loaded question intended to establish relative social rank, it’s merely a means of getting a better understanding of who that person IS. If I casually ask what you do for a living, I don’t need (or usually want) to know that you are a partner at Dewey, Cheatham and Howe specializing in personal injury litigation. “I’m a lawyer” is just fine. And if you’re a garbage-collector, “I work for the Department of Sanitation” or even “I work for the city/state government” is okay. As someone pointed out in another response, Europeans tend to give more thoughtful answers to such questions than Americans. For Americans, the appropriate response to a casual “How are you?” is “Fine, thanks” even if you just got out of the hospital following triple bypass surgery. (If you really want to know, you usually have to ask again, something like “No, really, how are you?”). So, the expected response to a casual “What do you do for a living” would be equally casual. The question is not intended to define your place in the social order.

Craig Morris:
I’m from the UK and I often ask people what their occupation is soon after meeting them. Not always, but often. I’ve never noticed anyone take offence at this. I’ve also had the same question asked of me numerous times and never taken offence.
Work is not my favourite topic of conversation whether talking with people that I know well or with people I hardly know at all, but I will talk about it if people ask, and especially if the asker is showing a genuine interest.
When meeting somebody for the first time, initial topics of conversation are limited and the goal is to ask questions that lead to common ground and a conversation that begins to flow.
For some people there could be an element of attempting to ascertain whether or not this person is worthy of their time. It may not be right to make a judgement based on an occupation, but a person’s occupation usually has some correlation with how that person would like to be perceived by the wider world, just as their hobbies, where they live, and their political and religious leanings also do.
Having said that, I can’t imagine ever feeling it correct for my opening gambit to be “So, who did you vote for at the last election?”, or “So, what religion are you?”

Steven Franklin:
Sorry to disagree. If, for example, I found out that the person I was speaking to was also a teacher, I’d be delighted to compare her classroom experiences with mine. If that person were an attorney, I’d love to know whether their judicial system uses juries or judges to reach verdicts. First Europeans call Americans “ignorant” about the world outside the US borders. And then when Americans seek to learn, we’re called “sad-assed materialists.”


So, please, let’s have some comments from readers!

“Foolish Spending Habits” of the Poor – Now Explained by Economists

June 24, 2015


In America, middle-class people get angry when they see the poor buying steak and lobster with their food stamps, especially when they themselves can’t afford these items.

In India, the middle and upper classes get angry when they see the poor without enough food to eat, wasting money on lavish religious festivals and funerals (up to 40% of their household’s yearly income).  The King of Swaziland banned lavish funerals in 2002 for this same reason.

In Morocco, the middle and upper classes wonder how the village poor can have a satellite dish, a television, a DVD player, and a cell phone, and yet, are subsisting merely on bread and sugary tea!

In all countries, many of the poor seem to be making very poor food choices, spending their very limited food money splurging on junk-food items, rather than on healthy foods which would provide adequate nutrition for their families.  For example, in Britain, George Orwell describes poor British workers as subsisting  on an appalling diet of white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potato.  They prefer this to living on a more healthy diet of brown bread and raw carrots.

So why are the poor, the world over, making these seemingly bad decisions?

The answer, according to economists who have studied this question (Banerjee & Dufflo, Poor Economics, 2011),  is that  things that taste good, or things that make life less boring are a priority for the poor.

“The less money you have, the less you are inclined to spend it on wholesome food…When you are unemployed, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food.  You want to eat something a little tasty.” Examples of tasty food might be cake, fried foods, chocolate,  a bag of chips, or even just a cup of sugary tea.

In America, a poor man in in his early 20’s, with numerous debts to other people, spent his paycheck on personal pleasures.  He purchased new tattoos, new clothes,  a weekend vacation, and some upgraded accessories for his car, instead of making payments to his creditors.

In rural villages, life can be quite boring for the poor.  “There is no movie theater, no concert hall, no place to sit and watch interesting strangers go by.  And not a lot of work, either.”  In modern Morocco, Banerjee & Dufflo found that many men lived in small houses without water or sanitation, and struggled to find work.  “But they all had a television, a satellite dish, a DVD player, and a cell phone,”  even though their families had very little food to eat.  When asked why, one of them responded, “Oh, but television is more important than food!”

So how do the poor survive depressions?  George Orwell explained it perfectly.  “Instead of raging against their destiny, they have made things tolerable by reducing their standards.  But they don’t necessarily reduce their standards by cutting out luxuries, and concentrating on necessities; more often, it is the other way around…Hence, in a decade of unparalleled depression, the consumption of all cheap luxuries has increased.”

According to economists Banerjee & Duflo, “The poor are skeptical about their supposed opportunities, and the possibility of any radical change in their lives…Therefore, they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible, and on celebrating when the occasion demands it.”

–Lynne Diligent


Living Abroad Taught Me the True Meaning of the Salutation “Dear…”

June 6, 2015

Dear as a salutation

All children in England and America are taught to start letters with the salutation, “Dear So-and-So.”  As children, we all wonder where this strange salutation came from, and what it means, but generally, no one knows.  We just use it.  Surprisingly, living abroad, I have discovered where it came from, through it’s usage by foreign friends.

With the internet, I have had a much greater opportunity to meet and correspond with people from other countries.  It seemed so strange to me when people I hardly knew, particularly men, in the middle of a conversation, would say things like, “Lynne, dear …” or “My dear, Lynne…”  At first, I was confused, and highly offended!  I thought, “WHO are these people to speak to me as if we have an intimate relationship?”

Modern English usage in England and America now reserves the term “dear” for immediate family members, husband and wife, or serious boyfriend/girlfriend.  I felt offended when men spoke to me with this term, wondering why they were doing it, and wondering if, in fact, they were trying to initiate an inappropriate relationship!  Later, as I got to know some foreign women on line, I found them speaking to me in the same manner.  I again felt offended, wondering what they meant by it.  Over time, it began to dawn on me that women were speaking to each other this way, as well, and that the term was being used as a politeness, as in, “you are my dear friend.”

There are two types of societies with regard to how others are treated.  In English-speaking North America, we generally try to treat everyone “the same,” whether they are family members, friends, or strangers.  Nepotism does exist, but it is highly frowned on.

Conversely, in many societies, your own treatment depends upon whether you belong to the “in-group” or “out-group.”  In these societies, strangers are either ignored, treated with suspicion, or even taken advantage of.  In order to do business or become friends, one has to become a member of the “in-group.”  In these societies, in particular, I find that non-Westerners, speaking in English, tend to use the salutation “dear” both in correspondence, and in conversation, such as on Facebook, and even in the middle of text messaging.  I believe it is their way of showing a person respect, esteem, and an indication to confer “in-group” status.  It is not to be interpreted, after all, as an attempt to force unwanted intimacies.

I realized, then, that this was why I had been taking offense.  I realized that, seeing the current usage from places as diverse as India, Egypt, and Morocco, that perhaps this was an OLDER English/French usage of the term, that was no doubt used to indicate friendship.  These other  countries, outside of the West, are continuing to use the term in this way.  My friends are merely translating this politeness from their own cultures, and older usage,  into current English speech.

So now, when I am addressed with the term “dear” by foreign-speaking friends, I am able to overlook the feelings I would have in my own culture, and take it in the spirit of politeness, with which it is intended.

–Lynne Diligent

Celebrity Culture Means that Celebrities Now Live as Only Kings Did In the Past

April 21, 2015

International Love, the music video by Pitbull and Chris Brown, is a perfect example of the fantasy life dreamed of by many men, particularly in capitalistic societies.  As successful celebrities, both Pitbull and Chris Brown have achieved this life, and in this video, they sing about the lives so many men would like to try out, at least for a period of time.

In this video, Pitbull and Chris Brown go on “whirlwind” travels around-the-world.  They have unlimited money, ride around in the fanciest cars, wear the most expensive clothes, and attend all the night clubs everywhere they travel.  In every country, they meet hordes of beautiful women who hang all over them and can’t wait to be with them, mainly because they are so rich and willing to spend their money.  They live the life of international rock stars everywhere they go.

Pitbull and Chris Brown

Women who throw themselves at Pitbull and Chris Brown in Romania even say, “You can have me and my sister!” In Lebanon, the women are blonde, and in Greece the women are “sweet.”  But all around the world, the women in Miami, with their “heat,” are the best.  In Colombia are some of the world’s most beautiful women.  In Brazil, the women have “boobs with big cones–blue, yellow, and green.”  All these women cost them a lot of money on credit cards, but for these guys, it’s no problem.  Hey, it’s international love–a total men’s fantasy.

New York City  Miami

From New York to Miami, to Los Angeles, to Venezuela, they go “to countries and cities they can’t pronounce,” and “to places on the globe they didn’t know existed.”  Like the songs about sailors of old having a woman in every port, these international rock stars have harems of women everyplace their airplanes fly.  They don’t play football, but they “touch down” everywere; they don’t play baseball, but they “hit a home run” everywhere!

Girls’ and young women’s fantasies of celebrity culture are often just as extreme, although they dream of different details.

In the past, only kings could live this lifestyle and maintain harems; now, many ordinary youth dream of making it big in music or sports and living this sort of dream lifestyle.

The sad thing about celebrity culture is that these people are famous ONLY for looking good and/or having a lot of money, as well as for being singers and actors and actresses.  They are the new heroes; they have replaced the heros of old who had to DO SOMETHING IMPORTANT AND WORTHWHILE to be considered a hero.  Heroes of the previous generation had to climb Mt. Everest, invent the electric lightbulb or the polio vaccine, create the Green Revolution, or lead a nation to peace.

–Lynne Diligent

Germanwings Crash: French to Be Commended for Releasing Black Box Information Very Quickly

March 26, 2015
Crumpled Cockpit Voice Recorder Retrieved from the Wreckage

Crumpled Cockpit Voice Recorder Retrieved from the Wreckage

Familes, and the rest of us, wait from moment-to-moment to hear the latest updates in the Germanwings crash in the French Alps.  Speaking personally as a family member of someone who was killed on the Egypt Air crash over the Atlantic in 1999, and as someone who has since followed just about every major air crash, I am really struck by the speed with which the French have released information from the cockpit voice recorder to the general public.  This is a good thing.

Different cultures seem to handle information differently.  Information in past plane crashes has sometimes been released much more slowly.  While it takes time to make sense of what the recordings really mean and how they should be interpreted (the Egypt Air crash is a perfect example of this), I highly commend the French for immediately releasing the information regarding one of the pilots being locked out of the cockpit during the descent.

The main thing relatives, and the rest of us, want to know is what happened, and why did it happen?

–Lynne Diligent

Civil Service Corruption and What One Country Did to Defeat It

March 19, 2015

Government Corruption

How does corruption among governement officicals become the norm in some countries?

The former head of the civil service of one of the poorest countries in the world describes what happened to the excellent civil service he had helped build in his own country.  During a dinner with Paul Collier (Director for the Study of African Economies at Oxford Uiversity), he describes how the civil service became a vehicle for looting the country, rather than for developing the country.

Paul Collier,

Paul Collier, Director for the Study of African Economies, at Oxford University, England

The former director asked Paul “to imagine being a school boy in his country on the eve of independence.  The bright boys in the class aspired to join the civil service to help build the country.  At the other end of the class, what were the aspirations for the dumb class bully?  Forget the civil service with its tough exam.  So the class bully set his sights on the army.  Fast-forward two decades and a coup d’état.  The army was now running the government.  Between the class bullies, now the generals, and their objective of looting the public sector, stood the class stars now running the civil service.  The generals didn’t like it.  Gradually they replaced the clever boys with people more like themselves.  And as they promoted the dumb and corrupt over the bright and the honest, the good chose to leave.”

Paul Collier says that economists have a name for this:  “selection by intrinsic motiviation.”

While there are probably a number of paths to government officials becoming corrupt, sometimes honest and reform-minded politicians come to power.  “It is very difficult for them to implement change because they inherit a civil service that is an obstacle rather than an instrument.  It is hostile to change because individual civil servants profit fromt he tangled mess of regulations and expenditures over which they preside,” Collier explains.

Fighting bribery and corruption from the top down, by the use of threats, doesn’t seem to help much in diminishing the problem.  How poor governments spend money and their lack of accountability is a major problem.  In Chad (in 2004) only one percent of the money released by the Ministry of Finance intended for rural health clinics actually reached those clinics, according to a tracking survey.  Another survey in Uganda (mid-1990s) found thad only 20 percent of the money that the Ministry of Finance released for primary schools (other than teachers’ salaries) actually reached those schools.


Mutebile-Tumusiime, now governor of the Central Bank of Uganda

Ugandan Finance Minister Tumusiime-Mutebile (now the governor of the Central Bank of Uganda) decided to try a new approach. Instead of suppressing the shameful report, Tumusiiime-Meutebile took action.  “Each time the Ministry of Finance released money, it informed the local media, and it also sent a poster to each school setting out what it should be getting.”  Only three years later, 90 percent of the money was getting through to the schools.

It’s difficult to find solutions to the power of corruption, but let this example serve as a shining beacon of hope to those who are looking for solutions.

–Lynne Diligent

(For more information see Paul Collier’s excellent small book, written for the general public, The Bottom Billion:  Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can be Done About It, Oxford University Press, 2007.)

The Bottom Billion

Developing World Mentality: Is “The Government” Really to Blame for the Poor State of Public Education?

March 11, 2015

Classroom in North Africa

“To the point! The government is committing a crime…,” was the commentary posted following an article deploring public school conditions in a North African country.

The article spoke about deplorable conditions students face in public schools, especially those now built in rural areas.  The article explains that schools are neither heated nor cooled, nor is transport provided.  Many students have to walk one hour to school and risk being assaulted  on the way.   There are no libraries, playgrounds, or lunch facilities.  Schools have no money to pay for photocopies or other materials.  Students use chalk and slates.  Cheating is rampant.  The rich are now going to private schools, and those who cannot afford private schools–the lower classes–go to public schools.  The author concludes, “Students and teachers want to bring about positive change, and stakeholders provide little, or no support.

Conditions in the rural public schools ARE truly as described.  But is that the government’s fault, as is both implied and stated, by both the author and the commenter?  I say NO.

Twenty-five years ago, literacy in the author’s country was only about 35 percent.  There were no schools at all in rural areas.  In the past fifteen years, the country has built thousands of public schools all over the country, and even in rural and mountain areas that never had them before.  They have sent teachers out to all these areas.  The students attending are the first generation to have any sort of education at all.  In this country, schools and teachers are not paid for by local property taxes (as is the case in America).  Schools are financed by the government, and teachers’ salaries are paid for by the government.  (Higher education degrees are also free to students and paid for by the government, for students who complete their high school degree.)  The current result of all this building and staffing is that the literacy rate in the country has essentially doubled in one generation (67% in 2011, of those over age 15).

At the present time, it appears that it has stretched the country’s finances to build all of  these schools and pay all of these teachers.  In an effort to contain costs, the country has cut back on some opportunities for teachers to pursue free Masters’ and Doctorate degrees, which has caused numerous strikes and protests by teachers in the past two years.  Their main argument, as reported in the news is, “We have our rights!”

Looking again at the current difficult and deplorable state of the country’s public schools, again, is that the government’s fault?  Are the schools this way because society and the government do not care?  This thinking is faulty.  Before public school conditions can improve, the schools needed to be simply built, and staffed with teachers.  This building and staffing phase is still taking place, although it seems they have now reached the most rural areas of the country, at least with primary schools, and now with some middle schools.  But many more schools are still needed because so many schools are still too far for children, and especially girls, to walk safely.  There is not even a thought of trying to provide transportation for public schools.  I predict it will be at least another generation before there will be sufficient money for public schools to begin to improve in any of the areas the author of the other article mentions.

Meanwhile, if any parent has sufficient money and resources to send their child to a private school where conditions are better, and can also transport their child to school, why would they not do so?  Of course we all want public schools to improve, but why should we subject our own children to a dangerous and poor education if we have the opportunity to do better for him, or her?

There are many private charity groups in this country who organize the purchase and gifting of school bags and school supplies (neither provided by public education) to poor children, because their families cannot even afford to give them pencils.  This shows me that there are, in fact, many private citizens who do care about the plight of the underprivileged in this country.

It’s very common in North African countries to blame “the government” for everything that is wrong in society.  This blame is misplaced. (If it were not for the government’s efforts this past generation, these schools would not even exist.) Governments, and school systems, are instead, a reflection of a society and its values.

As a Western person living in North Africa, I see that the main objective of the Arab Spring movements is less about toppling governments, and more about throwing out class system privileges and gaining equality of opportunity in life, about creating a meritocracy.  The author who is complaining about the deplorable state of public education is actually and correctly wanting his students to have the same equality of opportunity provided to middle-class students.

–Lynne Diligent

How “Group-Think” Around-the-World Affects Our Relationships

March 7, 2015


How many of us have felt sad about losing a childhood friend as we grow older, or sad about losing another close relationship in our life, either through divorce, or more commonly, through drifting apart of former friends?  Why is this happening?

The answer can be found in “group-think,” another name for blocks of energy.

Different types of groups create blocks of mental energy that move around influencing social and moral values, political ideas, and religious beliefs. When only one member of a couple undergoes a religious conversion, it places great strain on a marriage.  When a child either marries someone unacceptable to the family, or declares he or she is gay, this can place a great strain on the parent-child relationship.  When friends move to a new place, take up new interests, or join new groups, friendships can wither away.

We all belong to a variety of group-think blocks, generally without even realizing it.  These are imposed upon us, as children, by our family of origin, our environment, our culture and ethnicity, our neighborhood and schooling, and by our language and country.

Blocks of mental energy

As we grow and change throughout our lives, we try out new groups to see if we fit.  These new groups and ways of thinking sometimes cause a lot of stress in the people around us, who may not like those ideas.  New ideas and lifestyles can rupture relationships, ending in divorce or disowning, in more extreme cases, if the other partner or friend is not willing togive the new ideas a try.  Some relationships can survive these changes, but many cannot.

When looking for friends and/or life partners, it’s easier to connect with people when we find several group ideas that intersect with our own.  Consider the list below.  Some of the ideas are complete opposites, while others fall along a continuum, with many positions in between the extremes. Being a good conversationalist, asking leading questions and being a good listener, enables us to discover unexpected things we may have in common with others.

As you read the list, consider where you fit in each group, and consider where the your own interests, and those of your  partner and your friends fit.  People who get along well are more likely to have friends who share several idea groups.  Or, they might share groups that are contiguous to their own group on the continuum, as opposed to being at opposite ends of the spectrum.  The more opposite idea groups you and your partner fall into  increases the likelihood of divorce or rupture within a family, or among friends.

Very religious–Agnostic–Atheist

Productivity and hard work–maximal free time to lie around

Animal rights–pet owners and carnivores–animal abusers

Fatalists–self-determination and taking responsibility

Heavy readers–occasional readers–non-readers

Enthusiastic Parents–reluctant parents–militant childless

Big Industry Supporters–Environmentalists

Poor–Middle Income–Rich

Belief in equality of opportunity–equality of outcome

Spiritual and Relaxed–Dogmatic and Uptight



Health and exercise–moderate effort–extreme indulgence

These are just a few examples of groups where one finds people thinking in blocks which project powerful mental energy.

In American culture, it’s quite easy to change groups.  In other cultures, it can be much harder.  They may not accept someone changing their job, moving to a new town, much less a new country; divorcing, changing religions, or many other examples.

When a person moves into a new group, it can be very threatening to those in the former group.  For example, if a child raised in a family that is interested in big business joins an environmental cause, or a gay child who appears in a straight family, or a child marries a foreigner, or someone of a different race, or moves to another conuntry, parents may not be able to accept it.  When one member of a childfree couple decides they now want to be a parent, this can lead to divorce.  Similar, less drastic, situations happen with our friends, as we find new interests and move into new groups.  this is why people come and go from our lives.

 –Lynne Diligent





“No One Told Them to Have Children!” Is Becoming a Mainstream Attitude Today

March 7, 2015

Poor people having children

An economic trend and a social trend have combined today such that parents are now being judged today by a completely new set of criteria.

With the decline of the middle class, more people than ever before are being judged by the criteria, “No one told them to have children!”  In other words, the new criteria means that instead of full adulthood being conferred only upon those who have become parents and householders, that adults are now judged as being irresponsible for becoming parents, unless they can provide a middle-class standard or above for raising their children.

How did this change come about, and in only two generations?

The first element was a social change, with the sexual revolution, with availability and acceptability of contraception and abortion, and more young married adults choosing a child-free lifestyle.  A generation ago, those choosing to be child-free were called selfish.  Now, they are called responsible, especially if their incomes are not up to an upper-middle-class level.

In today’s America, getting married and having children is no longer the normal progression of adult life.  Now, it’s about finding a job or career which pays enough to afford a middle-class lifestyle.  Anyone who has children, by choice or mistakenly, without having achieved that, is now judged harshly as being a burden on society.

Thus, the middle classes are very careful now to have only one or two children. A few upper-middle-class  families have several children, and can well afford them, but more are having only two children.  Lower-middle-class  parents, as well as any parents who are struggling financially, are now viewed as irresponsible, and that their problems are of their own making.  “No one told them to have children!” is now a common judgement by those without children.

The poor (even the married poor) are judged most harshly for having children, whereas in the past the married poor would have been expected to have children.  The poor often have more children, but not always for the reasons (irresponsibility) that the childless or better-off imagine.  (Those reasons are not the subject of this post.)

In the past, only Catholics were judged for having too many children and being poor because of it.  Now, all poor families are judged for having any children at all.

To other cultures, the new situation in America appears incredible.  Other societies view children as the foundation of their growth and family support of the different generations throughout life as a necessity.  Other societies place less burden on young parents, whether they provide free daycare for working mothers (European societies) or inter-generational child care for children, or even the support of having maids at home,  to enable parents to work.

Two generations ago, the norm was that women were at home caring for children, while men worked.  But as women have gone to work, American society has not provided any workable childcare solution compared to other societies.  The result is that now, it has become socially acceptable and even common to judge that whole classes of people should no longer be having children at all.

–Lynne Diligent

Avoid Being Victimized by International “Fake” Fortune Tellers

February 23, 2015

A Call Centre.-Bangalore

Someone I know has recently gone to work for a fake fortune-telling company which operates internationally over the telephone.  Their business model seems to be the same as international phone sex, and for a similar price, about 7 Euros (or 7 US Dollars) a minute, with only internationally-valid credit cards accepted.  The offices of these companies are normally located in third-world countries (as are we), and they pay third-world wages to the telephone operators, while raking in first-world prices from clients.  It takes approximately 90 minutes of a client’s time to pay the full monthly wages of a worker.  Nevertheless, for workers, wages are double what other call centers pay, so the workers feel it’s a good job, in spite of the dishonesty.

Workers deal with the dishonesty in different ways.  They are encouraged to feel that clients who call are “marks” who are stupid, and that if they are stupid enough to call advertised numbers for fortune tellers, that they “deserve” to be taken advantage of.  The “fortune tellers” are given multiple scripts to read from, and naturally, no one is interested in devoting time to actually learning or practicing any of these “arts” in reality.  It’s all a complete scam.  Some employees feel guilty about taking advantage of clients, but they are encouraged by others to not feel guilty.

There seems to be a certain type of person who calls regularly and who spends a lot of money.  In the country where I live now, they are the same people who in the past secretly consulted people who claimed to practice witchcraft (and this is still going on among a surprising number of women–particularly women who may be from wealthy families, but who grew up in an uneducated way, and who have a personality where they want to control the behavior of others).   Those who call from overseas tend to be people who feel their lives are out of control and in order to get control, they want either to control others, or to have someone else TELL them what to do; in other words, they want the fortune teller to take the responsibility for what they should do in their lives, rather than they, themselves take the responsibility.

Most of what these fake fortune tellers recommend is NEGATIVE.  For example, one woman called from a European country and claimed to have no problems in her life.  Since the fortune tellers are paid by how long they can keep clients on the telephone, as the price charged is by the minute, they hooked in this woman in by saying, “You may think everything in your life is fine, but did you know that your husband is having an affair?”  Of course, this was just made up on the spur of the moment, to hook the client. The fortune-tellers might tell a client who is having a problem that the client is possessed by a demon.  In order to get rid of the demon, they tell the client something such as, “Take a piece of paper and write the name of the demon (supplied by the fortune teller).  Then take a belt from your closet, start hitting the paper, and shout as loud as you can, “Get out, (demon’s name)!  Get out!”  When they hear the client shouting and hitting with the belt on the other end, they say, “Shout louder!  Hit harder!”  All this costs the client more money.  So, essentially, the fortune tellers are taking either very depressed people who don’t know where to turn, and practicing totally fake psychology on them just to steal their money; or they are taking people who are greedy for power and control over others, and manipulating their behavior in order to keep them on the phone as long as possible, and calling back the fortune tellers as often as possible.

So how can one differentiate the “real” people from the “fake” people?

True practitioners of these arts (totally aside from the question of whether any of these arts are valid) tend to be positive, encouraging, and uplifting.  The “fake” people tend to be domineering, scary, controlling, and NEGATIVE.  Legitimate practitioners might have a website, but they will not be at numbers charging by the minute (at least not the ones you would want to be talking to).  They might have an office where you can sit and visit them in person.  They give you a written report, as well as a tape recording of your private session with them.  You pay a fixed fee for the consultation, which is clearly stated in advance.  Legitimate practitioners don’t ever try to control anyone’s behavior, and they also provide specific reasons for their statements.

Here are some examples of what a legitimate practitioner might say:

“If you’ve been a negative thinking person, it may take time to change your thoughts to a higher perspective. Patience and practice are necessary. Just as you have been persisting in the negative thought, you must persist in the positive one.”


“The new moon, February 18, and the days to follow, will open a door for greater health, and you will notice that you will be motivated to do all you can to get strong…..This time, Mercury has been retrograding in your sixth house of health matters, so you may be going back to address a health concern that you had put aside earlier.”

My suggestion to anyone who is interested in these arts and who has an urgent problem is to talk to a friend or see a psychologist.  If it’s less urgent, read a book.  The best two books I’ve found on developing your own potential are:

The Psychic Pathway, by Sonia Choquette

Psychic Development for Beginners, by William W. Hewitt

In no case should one trust calling numbers which charge by the minute.

–Lynne Diligent


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