Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

Power and Justice Dilemmas in Arab Societies: Part I

January 2, 2016

North Africa and Middle East

Westerners who move to the Middle East and North Africa often find behavior and conversations with local people confusing.  Much of this confusing behavior is rooted in attitudes toward power and the use of power, both on a societal level, and on a personal level.  While Western cultures attempt to control abuses of power with checks-and-balances; Arab cultures attempt to control it through alliances, subterfuge, and sabotage.

In the West, the type of person whose motivations are primarily, “What’s in it for me?  How can I get the advantage?  How can I do as little as possible, while still getting paid, and sloughing as much as possible of my work off on others?  And how can I use the resources of my workplace to benefit me personally?” IS CONTROLLED by workplace standards, rules, and performance reviews; by government laws which are actually enforced, and by a fairly low incidence of public corruption; small corruption can be prosecuted in Small Claims Court and larger or more serious corruption in state and federal courts.  The key thing here is that NO ONE IS ABOVE THE LAW.  Even the president of the United States is not above the law, nor above being sued in court (as a private citizen), nor above being impeached for behavior.

When power is abused in the West, we have recourses which can be pursued:  rules in the workplace, performance reviews, channels to be pursued or to which decisions can be appealed, functioning court systems.  But the REASON we have well-functioning institutions is that power is not the be-all and end-all in terms of social prestige.

When power is abused in Arab cultures, none of the above-listed Western methods are effective.  When rules exist, they are often unenforceable, or at the whim of the boss and/or his friends; performance reviews (which actually protect employees) tend to be non-existant; no one takes responsibility for overturning others’ decisions; and court systems seldom return a judgement against the powerful.

Therefore, people behave with different motivation than in the West.  In order to navigate this treacherous environment successfully, it becomes necessary for each person, each group, each company, and even each person in power to seek alliances with the most powerful people possible.  (This also accounts for the great emphasis on knowing the people you are doing business with;  if they turn out to be untrustworthy, you generally have little recourse.)

In English, we still have the term “carte blanche” which refers to “having a free hand to do whatever you want.”  Most Americans are unaware of is that it was an actual document, during medieval times, a “white card” issued by the monarch, or his representative, giving the holder “free reign throughout the realm to usurp all laws…and act without fear of prosecution.”  This was done in England, France, and probably by numerous other medieval monarchs.

In Arab cultures, even today, THE SAME LAW DOES NOT APPLY TO EVERYONE.  For example, in some countries, the “white card” still exists as an actual document, and certain families have it for all of their members.  A simple benefit of a “white card” might be something as simple as suppose you want to speed through the city, or speed through a stop light.  Suppose you are stopped by the police.  You just whip out your “white card” and you would be free to go. Other important families are always trying their best to get it.  In practice, while not very many people have it,  the REAL EFFECT IS ON THE BEHAVIOR THIS IDEA HAS ON ALL THE MEMBERS OF  THE SOCIETY.

In Arab cultures (as in many “Old World” cultures and Third-World cultures), THE LAW DOES NOT APPLY TO EVERYONE.  Essentially, in order TO SHOW STATUS, OR GAIN STATUS, everyone is always trying to show others that they are “important enough to NOT have to follow rules.”   In other words, instead of everyone following rules IN ORDER TO MAKE THE WHOLE SOCIETY FUNCTION EFFECTIVELY, people are instead demonstrating that THEY HAVE “INDIVIDUAL FREEDOM” by NOT having to “follow rules” or do what anyone else TELLS them to do.  The result is that NOTHING FUNCTIONS EFFECTIVELY.

In order to get anything to function, individuals must often go in person and actually CAJOLE public servants and even private-sector employees to “do their job,” since they are demonstrating their POWER over others by NOT doing their jobs.  Some expect a bribe, but most at least expect DEFERENCE and RESPECT.  Instead of being intrinsically motivated to do their jobs properly and cheerfully, they are motivated by OTHERS KNOWING THAT THEY HAVE IMPORTANCE, as DEMONSTRATED BY THEIR SURLINESS, AND THEIR POWER OVER YOU–their power to make it difficult for you to obtain the document you need, for example, without a lot of cajoling, pleading, etc.

There IS one way around all this, which is to KNOW SOMEONE MORE POWERFUL THAN THAT PERSON, who will TELL them what they have to do, or who will get you right to the front of the line, around all of those other pleading and cajoling people who have to beg BECAUSE THEY DON’T KNOW A MORE POWERFUL PERSON TO HELP THEM.  Therefore, people spend much of their effort toward cultivating people for “what they can do for you.”

Power and Justice

When a person more powerful than you takes advantage of you–a professor, a boss, a husband, a bureaucrat, an organization, or a government official–the ONLY recourse you have (since rules are nonexistent or unenforced, and court verdicts are usually returned in favor of the more powerful) is to pressure that person or organization WITH YOUR OWN MORE POWERFUL ALLIANCES–someone who trumps HIS power.

What can someone do, when doesn’t know a more powerful person, or have any personal alliances who can wield influence over that person? This happens frequently.  This brings us to the behaviors of subterfuge, and sabotage.

Westerners find Arab societies full of subterfuge and passive-aggressive behavior.  It’s common that people often openly agree to something and then either don’t follow through, or do the exact opposite, and then make excuses–“I didn’t say that; I didn’t think that’s what you meant; I forgot; Someone else prevented me from doing it; I didn’t have time; etc.”  The REAL explanation for this type of behavior is that the person never had any intention of following through, but felt you were in a more powerful position and did not feel they could get their way be disagreeing openly.

Since one always has to watch out for powerful people hurting you openly and secretly, the last revenge of losers in the power struggle is to sabotage others by creating false rumors about them.  This may be one reason for why Arab societies seem overly concerned with what others think and say.   The most common rumors seem to be, “He stole money,” (used against locals and foreigners) and “He’s trying to convert people away from Islam,” (frequently used against foreigners).  Other rumors used on a daily basis, especially to impugn the reputations of local women are, “I saw her in a nightclub,” or “She’s had a boyfriend(s)!”

Arab cultures are dominated by a love-hate relationship regarding special privilege.  On the one hand, everyone desires it, and it confers high social status.  On the other hand, everyone (except the most privileged) hates it, too.  This is primarily what the Arab Spring is about–A DESIRE FOR EVERYONE TO BE EQUAL UNDER THE LAW.  Unfortunately, among those who want “democratic reforms”  are also those who want to maintain the ability to obtain and benefit from special privileges just for themselves!

–Upcoming Part II will deal with how these societal factors influence behavior in the workplace, at school, and in the home and family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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

Why It’s So Difficult to Eradicate Corruption

January 26, 2013

Eradicate corruption

Whenever a new government or new party is elected, particularly in the Third World, a promise to eradicate corruption is always at the forefront.  But why do these promises almost never materialize?

The answer is more simple than it appears. Government doesn’t lead society; it REFLECTS society. If people in government are corrupt, it is because this corruption, this way of thinking and getting things done, is pervasive throughout the society.

So, at best, new parties and new governments make a big show of “attacking corruption” by arresting a few people.  What they are really doing, however, is just trying to scare everyone from pushing the boundaries of corruption, so that they don’t “get caught.”  All the while, even the new government officials continue with corrupt practices in their daily lives.  The people change, over and over, but the corrupt system never changes.

Why is this?

corruption

The problem starts with young children.  I see this every day as a teacher.

Young, impressionable children watch and notice the way their parents deal with the issues of life each day. In most third-world countries, when the child has a severe problem at school, instead of letting the child repeat the grade, the parents go in and “beg” or pay a bribe for their child to be promoted (because parents feel ashamed if their child is not promoted). When the child gets a bad grade or doesn’t do homework, parents do the same thing. Instead of children being taught that they will have the consequences of their actions, good or bad, they are taught that one can “get out of any consequence” by either paying a bribe, or knowing the right people. Is it any wonder that they grow up into corrupt adults?

Corruption will never be eliminated in government until it is first eliminated in society. Yet, speaking as a teacher, I don’t see this happening at all. Even five-year-olds are learning this corrupt behavior by watching their own parents.

I personally know of one case where a five-year-old told his teacher that if the teacher didn’t allow him to do as he pleased, “I will bring my father in and have you fired!”  (The result was that the foreign teacher told him, “Go right ahead!  Go get your father right now!  I’m waiting for him!”  The student didn’t know quite what to say after that, as he wasn’t expecting that response…..)

So where, exactly, does the endemic corruption in third-world nations come from?  It comes from the class system.  In order to have a meritocracy, and fair treatment for all, whether in the courts or in daily life, EVERYONE HAS TO BE EQUAL UNDER THE LAW.  In third-world countries, and even in many developed countries, this is unfortunately not the case.  Those who are born wealthy, or with titles, the right name, or connections can get away with crimes of any sort and no court will convict them.  This is truly what it means being “above the law.”

corruption 2

The ONLY way, therefore, for ordinary citizens to get justice, or even things done in everyday life, is through “knowing the right person (powerful people),” or paying a bribe.  In every class of society, those above exploit those below.  (This does not mean every individual in the society exploits others, but it is true as a general rule.) The rich exploit the middle and lower working classes.  Even lower-middle class people, if they have some economic success in their own lives, hire a maid and exploit her even worse than higher classes.  People on the lower end steal and cheat time-wise on their employers because they feel like they “deserve it.”  They feel this way because it is a passive-aggressive sort of class warfare.

Class warfare 2

The same dynamic plays out in companies where many bosses exploit their workers.  Since there is no justice in third-world countries, it is dangerous to resist directly, so they resist in a passive-aggressive manner, “forgetting” important things, showing up late, etc.   Their jobs are often protected by “work rules” which mean they can’t be fired for any of these sorts of infractions.

Not every boss is exploitative.  Unfortunately, when a foreign manager is working with these sorts of employees, their behavior is very confusing.  The manger expects a certain level of output, what is normal for himself, or in his own home country.  He gets only 1/3 of that and wonders what is wrong.  He tries every tactic to improve productivity, only to find workers getting worse and worse.  (He can’t fire them due to work rules.)  What’s wrong is those particular workers have the class-warfare mentality.

In third-world countries, because of the “class” system, no one will ever be equal under the law.  Even in countries with recent revolutions, such as in Arab Spring countries, the class system and class-warfare mentalities continue.  So I am not optimistic that they will be able to develop meritocracies.

Democracy (or democratic reform) means nothing without meritocracy.

–Lynne Diligent

Maids Are a Problem Everywhere….

January 12, 2013

M

As a foreigner, I’m tempted to feel like the problems I’ve had with maids just don’t happen to locals. However, as this series, “Maids from House-to-House,” (in Arabic) illustrates, locals do seem to have just as many problems with their maids as foreigners do.

At the moment, I’m lucky to have a good maid.  The other day my maid told me that about 80 percent of people she had worked for were bad; I replied that 80 percent of the maids I’d had were not good, either.

It’s difficult having someone in your house to cook or clean.  Aside from obvious risks such as stealing, you really bring a person with all of their personal problems into your home.  When one recent maid we had did not do the work correctly and I asked her to do many things again, she told us that the reason she went to work was to get away from her mother who was always telling her that she wasn’t doing things properly.  She complained that she expected us not to do the same thing!  We worked with her quite a while, with little improvement, and finally had to let her go.

Moroccan maids 2

One of the biggest problems is in trying to train someone to do tasks in the way you want, and not the way they may be used to.  Some maids cannot understand what is wrong with using a hand to flip water from a bucket all over the room (getting the legs of your expensive wooden furniture wet).  Others cannot understand why you don’t want your expensive wooden furniture wiped down with a wet rag (completely destroys the finish).  Others apparently wash the dishes as if they were wearing a blindfold, either don’t get them clean, or chip all your cups and plates because they are not careful, or don’t follow the procedures that you demonstrate and request.  Most waste cleaning materials such as cleanser, soap, or steel wool pads; most destroy equipment such as brooms–after all they are not paying for it.  Others lie all the time about work they claim to have done, but didn’t.  Others never wash their hands before working in the kitchen (except while you are watching).

Some maids do not keep themselves clean and even smell bad.  When I told my North African sister-in-law that we want someone with personal hygiene, she told me that many women actually want to employ maids who are dirty and smelly, in order to keep their husbands from chasing after them!

Apparently there are quite a few maids who attempt to “steal away” the wife’s husband, sometimes by using witchcraft.  Many say, “An attractive maid could steal your husband.”  Some maids are believed to practice witchcraft.  One foreign friend’s Moroccan in-laws visited her home while she was traveling outside of the country, and found that her maid had put some kind of witchcraft object in the kitchen cupboard specifically designed to steal away her Moroccan husband.  The in-laws fired the maid immediately.

Most maids have to be constantly supervised, either to make sure they are following the procedures you requested, and not doing as they please the minute you turn your back, or because they want to do as little work as possible.  Finding someone who can look around and see what needs to be done, learn to do it the way you want it done, and who can do it without being supervised is a rare find.

On the humorous Arabic TV series about maids, some maids who try to help but who make terrible decisions on their own.  Most maids gossip with other maids about their employers.  Some maids are even crazy (and sometimes employers who are crazy).

So why have a maid?  Life here is not organized to be able to work and take care of children on your own.  It is assumed that people either have maids or plenty of unemployed family members who  can do necessary tasks such as picking up children for lunch and taking them back to school, cooking the maid meal for the family at midday, or running errands to places that are only open normal working hours, such as paying a telephone or electric bill.  A maid is supposed to buy you some time, but often it buys as much headache as anything else.  If you are lucky enough to find a good maid, you want to hang on to her.

Maids, for Middle-Easterners, are also a status symbol.  Many families who grow up not being able to afford a maid get one the very minute they reach the lower-middle class (especially in the cities).  It’s a way to announce that you have reached the middle class.  In addition, the life of a middle-class working woman is not easy.  Generally, many women do all the raising of the children and keeping of the house, IN ADDITION to working full-time, while their husband spends his time at his job, but has plenty of leisure time at the cafe or with friends.  Middle-class working women have very little, or no, leisure time, and it’s a way for them to get some time to themselves, or to spend with their children.

Upper-class women generally have two or three maids, a chauffeur, a gardener, and a guardian.  It is the lifestyle everyone respects and aspires to.

–Lynne Diligent

The REAL Reason Arab Men and Boys Are Still Treated as Pashas by Women

December 5, 2012

Man Washing Dishes

“Kitchen! Kitchen!”  Most North African boys still make fun of each other by saying this, which means, “Sissy!” (For my foreign readers, this means, “You’re acting like a girl!”)

North African mothers still raise their daughters to do all the housework, and boys are not expected to help at all.  (The only exception is in some families where there are no girls, and the boys have learned to help.)

The first generation of educated, North African women are out in the labor force.  But are the attitudes of men changing?  Not yet.  Working women are still expected to work full time AND do ALL of the child care AND take care of ALL the housework.  In general, men are expected to work, and spend all of the rest of their time relaxing.  They still expect to come home and find “everything done and waiting for them.”  (A very few modern husbands do help out doing dishes or cooking, or with general housework.  But they don’t tell their friends!  Some even make sure the curtains are closed so no neighbors see them helping out, either.)

closed curtains

As one young dual-citizen North African-American girl told me, “In North American culture, MEN take care of WOMEN.  In Arab culture, WOMEN are expected to take care of MEN.”   This accounts for the shocking experience of American women who marry Arab men, only to find they are expected to take care of the man as if they were his MOTHER!  Many intercultural couples have hit the divorce courts over this exact issue, as many of these men are unable to adapt, even when living in America.

Will this change, in Arab countries, within a generation, as the second generation of women hits the workforce in 25 years?  I don’t think so.  Here’s why not.  This is my own theory, but when I discussed it with several local North African women, they all agreed with me.

Islamic inheritance laws give double to boys as they do to girls.  The reason for this is that men are supposed to be financially responsible for women under their care, in THEORY.  If a man is decent, he will do it.  (But just as everywhere, many men are irresponsible, or not decent.)  In practice, many women are never able to claim their inheritance rights, particularly in places like mountain villages.  (Crawford, 2008)

The essential point is this.  Every woman knows that she is under a man’s thumb, or will be in the future.  Girls are under their father’s control.  Wives are still under their husband’s control in most Arab countries (such as needing the husband’s permission to get or renew a passport, even for a foreign wife, such as in Egypt).  When women become widows, they are not free, but instead under the control of their sons, and at the mercy of their sons!  Love aside, THIS is the TRUE reason why mothers spoil their sons so extremely.  That son is eventually going to have power over them, and be responsible for supporting them in old age, so of course they need that to be a very strong emotional relationship.  But it accounts for why they young boys are treated as pashas (the amount varying by specific country, but in all countries when in comparison with the West, where boys and girls are treated equally).

When I asked several North African women, that what if inheritance (and divorce) laws were changed and made totally equal between men and women, do they think women would continue to treat men and boys as pashas?  Each of the women I asked answered me by saying, “What you say is true, of course they would not.”

However, since those inheritance laws are laid out in the Koran, I don’t see any changes on the horizon!

–Lynne Diligent

Eastern Help for Western Stress, Part I

July 25, 2012

You're fired!

Losing your job, having your spouse divorce you (or boyfriend or girlfriend break up with you), experiencing the death of a loved one, being filled with anger, or just feeling endlessly bored are types of serious types problems we all face from time-to-time.

Some people aspire to a calm life without any problems.  But such a life does not exist.  We are each in our own little boat, headed in a direction, and must navigate daily waves and storms.  Our job is to be able to move through these waves and storms, which are sometimes ripples, and are sometimes tsunamis washing away everything.

In the past, when such overwhelming experiences have happened to me, I found myself constantly ruminating on them, sometimes to the point where I could not work for many months.   But not being able to work did not help my problems;  if anything, it only made the problem worse, and gave me even more time to ruminate.  In other words, it kept me from moving ahead with my life for far too long.  If I had had the tool of meditation available in those times, it would have helped me greatly.

One common problem, especially younger people (and many older people, too), is the problem of constant boredom.  Our minds flit from one thing to another, and these days, we often use technology as  a solution to boredom.

But what if we are in a situation where we have no access to technology, or are stuck in a very boring and uncomfortable situation for many minutes, hours, or even days?  Meditation practice (not a religious practice), used as a tool, can enable one to just “switch off” boredom, and become fully present in that moment.

What is meditation, exactly, and how can it help?

While there are many traditions and ways of meditating, what they all have in common is that these methods are TOOLS used to turn off the left brain.

Over the years, I read several books on meditation.  Yet, whenever I tried it, I could never seem to concentrate or do the exercises; they seemed silly, boring, and pointless.

How can sitting and focusing on watching one’s breath, in and out, or chanting a mantra, ever be helpful?  For many years, I never got past this basic question (which I’m sure is one many others have, and with which I hope this article will help others).

There are several types of meditation practice. One type involves watching one’s breath. Another type involves chanting a mantra. Yet another type involves a special type of walking while counting steps, and paying attention to breathing. What these things have in common is that they are TOOLS; they are not the end in and of itself. Each of these tools bring the same result; they are a way to FOCUS THE MIND calmly on JUST ONE THING.

The main principle here is that your thoughts, your emotions, and your mind are not YOU.  The mind is a possession which  produces thoughts and emotions; it is something which needs to be trained and disciplined in order to restore tranquility to your soul.

Why? When the mind is not trained and disciplined we are at the mercy of our thoughts and emotions. The benefits to be derived from training our mind involve becoming much more present in our daily lives, doing away completely with the problem of boredom, and not being whipsawed around by our emotions, no matter what storms or big waves which  life may throw our way. We remain calm, focused and present.  This helps everyone.

Finally, I have had some success with meditating, although I am still a neophyte.  Reading a different book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Zen Living, which is written for Western readers with real lives, I was finally able to persevere using some of their suggestions, and obtain sudden breakthrough.  (What I liked about this book was that most books only talk about one type of meditation practice, and never get to the part about how it helps you; this book talks about different types of meditation practice from different world traditions, explains which parts are optional or can be adjusted to your needs, and discusses how meditation practice actually helps you.)

What it Feels Like When the Left Brain Switches Off

What does this right-brain breakthrough feel like? It is a very particular feeling. I would like to use the description I had of an experience of learning to draw to describe this feeling.

Unitl the age of 25, I did not know how to draw and was still drawing stick-figures.  Then I had a chance to take a six-session adult-education drawing class from a master art instructor.  We used the text, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards (which I highly recommend).

At the first session, the instructor had us look at a chair and draw our best representation of it.  Next, we had to look at our hand and do the same thing. We also had to look in a mirror and draw our best self-portrait. Last, we were given a photocopy of a difficult drawing by a famous artist, and told to copy it to the best of our ability.  We dated these drawings.

At the second session, the instructor explained the 90-10 system of drawing (looking at an object 90% of the time while moving the pencil, and only looking at the paper 10% of the time while moving the pencil). She also taught us the technique of using a pencil at arm’s length to measure sizes and approximate angles.

Demonstrating the “arm’s length” drawing technique for measurement.

This time, with music playing, we were asked to again draw the chair, using the 90-10 system.  We were then asked to turn the famous drawing UPSIDE-DOWN and copy it to the best of our ability, again using the 90-10 system.  Upside down? We were in shock.  But the results were AMAZING.

The third session, the instructor gave us a very difficult pencil portrait of a woman with loose, flowing hair in great detail.  We all thought this would be impossible for us to draw.  Again, she told us to turn the portrait upside-down and work while she played music.  The results were stupendous; they looked as if we had been studying art for years!

This feeling we got while drawing upside-down to music was a feeling of being “in-the-zone,” where everything was working perfectly and smoothly.  We all lost track of time, and were surprised to find that two hours had passed.  Our teacher explained that this trick of drawing upside-down confuses the left brain and TURNS IT OFF.

Why Turning Off the Left Brain Is Useful in Times of Stress

Meditation techniques teach you to TURN THE LEFT BRAIN OFF, especially in times of stress.  When we are bored, emotionally upset, or ruminating on a problem,we are using our left brain.  Meditation turns off your logical left brain, and turns on your creative right brain. How does it do this?

As a new practitioner of mediation, the hardest thing is to get past the one or two-minute mark.  However, once you manage to get up to three minutes without breaking your concentration, it suddenly becomes much easier, as you shift into the right-brain state.   It becomes MUCH easier and faster in subsequent sessions to turn off the left brain at will.

So, how much time does it take daily before one can experience the benefits of meditation practice?  Personally, I started experiencing the benefits once I was able to get to five minutes a day.

Benefits start once you reach five continuous minutes a day.

Having the first three-minute breakthrough makes it much easier, in exactly the same way that learning a foreign language is most difficult at first.  Once you have a basic level of vocabulary, it becomes much easier.

Meditation practice has nothing to do with religion (although some religions do use meditative practices).  It is simply a tool for training and calming the mind.

–Lynne Diligent

Part II:  Practical Help for Meditation Success

My North African Postman’s Confusing Behavior

April 6, 2012

Typical North African house with wall in a prosperous neighborhood

For the past several months, instead of putting the mail in our mailbox, our postman has often been just handing it to workers who are at our house doing some remodeling.  One day, I caught the postman personally, and asked him to please not do that, but to put in in our box.  This seemed to take care of the problem for a while.

Two days ago, I was upstairs in my home, when one of the workers came upstairs with some mail to hand to me.  I asked him what he was doing with it and was upset that he came upstairs to find me.  He said the postman handed it directly to him, and he wanted to be sure I got it.  The postman had already left, so I didn’t have a chance to speak to him.  I was upset and just really wanted to know WHY he the postman did this again!

After discussing possible senarios as to why the postman reverted to his former behavior, I commented to the worker that I had asked the postman to put it in the box before, and just could not understand why he was doing this again.  The worker pointed out that the postman comes on a motorcycle.  In order to put it in the box (which in my country is not out by the street, but is a slot through the wall), the postman has to park his motorcycle and bring the mail to the mail slot.  Since the worker happened to be standing by the street at the moment he came, it was just laziness in not wanting to park his motorcycle and take a few steps to the mail slot.  Mystery solved!

I asked the worker next time to not accept the mail from the postman, or if he insists, just to put it into the mail slot himself, rather than walking through my home and searching for me.

Readers, how would you react?

–Lynne Diligent

How Living in Another Country Changed My Political Point-of-View

April 6, 2012

Living overseas has really changed my perceptions of politics back in my home country.

I was raised in a family of staunch Republicans and went to work as a stock broker (now called investment banker) in my 20s.  Coming from a semi-privileged background (not needing to take on any student loans to get through college), and although I did work extremely hard and hold down up to three jobs at the same time, at that time I subscribed to the Republican world view of Social Darwinism.  At that time, I was a fiscal conservative and a social moderate.

Then I married a foreigner and moved overseas to North Africa in my late 30s.

Living and working in North Africa for two decades, as well as raising my family here in a class-based society, and coming in contact with many Europeans from class-based societies such as Britain, has enabled me, after many years, to see the world from a different point-of-view.  While my own country back home (the United States) has became ever more divided, and the Republican party became ever more extreme, I became increasingly distressed watching these changes.

For many years overseas, considering myself a “moderate” (I’m sure I’m one of those famous “swing” voters) I found I seemed to upset my staunch Republican family back home any time I “dared” disagree with their extreme points-of-view.  I found I also upset Democratic Americans who I came in contact with overseas, as well as some Europeans by daring to disagree with some of their points-of-view.  So I stopped discussing any sort of politics with most people.  I discovered that most people are not interested in having a discussion debating the merits of alternative points-of-view; whether Democrat or Republican, most people only want to forward inflammatory emails (often not true if one checks Snopes) that support their own extreme point-of-view.

About four or five years ago, I finally threw up my hands in disgust at the health care situation in America (one of the reasons my foreign husband and I moved back to his home country–insurance is private here, too, but at least medical care is affordable if you have a job, and inexpensive insurance covers medical prescriptions at 80%); at the Republican points-of-view on the Iraq War and their misunderstandings of the whole mentality in the Middle East; and at the Republican view of Social Darwinism which I no longer agreed with after living in class-based North Africa.  My viewpoint had transformed into believing that while sometimes people are responsible for their own lack-of-progress, that other times, many circumstances are beyond their control.

My mother always emphasized to us that it was important to never register as an Independent (which is where I feel I probably belong), but to instead always declare a party so that one may vote in the Primary elections).   So, I changed my party registration to Democrat.  When I did it, I almost had trouble signing the paper, knowing that in spite of what my mother said, that if any of my family members saw me registering as a Democrat, that I would be forever disowned as the “black sheep of the family.”  For about a year afterward, I felt really weird about it.  Then I happened to have a particular conversation with a woman on the internet who insisted on discussing politics.  I relented.  She turned out to be a rabid Republican unwilling to have anyone even question her extreme points-of-view.  That conversation was useful for me, because it really confirmed for me that I had done the right thing to leave the Republican party.

I’d like to know from other readers living outside of their home country, or for those who have ever lived for a time outside of their own home country, did the experience change your perception of your home-country politics?  If so, how?

–Lynne Diligent

Do First World Countries Really Impose an “Anti-Immigration” Curriculum on Third-World Countries?

February 26, 2012

Anti-Immigration Plot?

Among some in the educational establishment in Northwest Africa, the idea is spreading that the new skills-based educational pedagogy is actually an “anti-immigration” plot hatched by first-world countries to “keep third-world workers in their own countries.”  I even heard of a college professor of education who is teaching this to prospective teachers, who are asked to implement the new pedagogy.

What is actually happening with the new pedagogy, however, is the result of the new global communication revolution of internet penetration into third-world countries.

World Internet Users, 2011

In the past, as explained in The Globalization Paradox (2011), the Industrial Revolution spread from England, to the European countries, and to some of the New World (North America, Australia, and New Zealand), but not much further.  These parts of the world had two distinct advantages (which up-and-coming third-world countries are now trying to do something about):  1.)  they had enough educated and skilled workers to run the new factories, and 2.)  they had good institutions–well functioning legal systems, stable politics, restraints on expropriations by the state–to generate incentives for private investment and market expansion.

Other countries had to depend on “importing” skills and institutions, and they used intercontinental labor mobility to do so.

Imported labor building American railroads

This era is now coming to an end.   Internet communication and improved transport of goods via supertankers enables companies to move operations elsewhere, because it is more cost-effective, rather than the more expensive alternative of importing labor.   Therefore, any country who wants those jobs must prepare its labor force.

This revolution is NOT happening because of a first-world PLOT designed by governments.  It is an unanticipated effect of internet communications.   Many, many individual companies are making these decisions on their own.  Many are now forced to in order to compete with those who have already done so.

Forward-thinking third-world governments are now realizing this, and are beginning to create the conditions which will enable some of their citizens to obtain jobs in the new world marketplace, or to become entrepreneurs and create their own businesses.

Education in Libya, North Africa

For example, in North Africa, in just one decade, schools have been built all over the country, and for the first time, the majority of children are in school. Those who are graduating from college, having succeeded in their education, are now clamoring for jobs.

The only middle school in this rural area of Northwest Africa

Two problems exist.  First, the countries are small, and the market size served by businesses is small (except in textiles, tourism, and agriculture).  Therefore, the profitability of acquiring new equipment and technologies is small for the average business, which still remains family-based, and therefore provides limited opportunities for employment to average workers without family connections.

Tunisian college students

Second, most local college graduates are not from the elite classes (the elite usually send their sons and daughters to foreign universities).  Many of these graduates feel that the elites are in cahoots with the local governments, and that these elites block improvements in others’ economic positions that would threaten their own power.  This is a great part of what the Arab Spring movement is about.  The newly-educated middle classes want a democratic meritocracy, rather than an oligarchy of the elites.

By implementing the new skills-based pedagogy, they are actually attempting to insure that what is being taught has some usefulness in the real world, as well.   However, it is not only in the third-world where these pedagogies are being implemented; they are now de rigueur in much of the first world, too.

This trend has now been taken to an extreme, however, as was illustrated to me recently by a friend in England, “I was amazed to see how rigidly it is implemented these days in my daughter’s school.  When you go to parents’ evenings, the teachers actually do have enormous A3-size spreadsheets with hundreds of tiny squares on a grid.  Teachers find the student’s name, and move along the row, saying things like, ‘Uses adjectives to express emotion in a third party – level 4A;’ or in history, ‘deducing a specific social condition from a contemporary artwork – level 5B.’  It is all incredibly mechanical, and if you ask how they are doing overall, there is no such thing.”

A Page from the British National Curriculum

What is happening in third-world North African education is now no different that what is happening in Europe.  It is not a plot.  However, this trend in Europe appears to have gone much too far, into uselessness!

Is it something new that first-world countries are against importation of unskilled labor?  Yes, and no.  First-world countries are mostly interested in protecting the middle-tier of jobs, rather than those at the very top or the very bottom.  These are the jobs that every country wants to reserve for their own workers, and that they do not want immigrants filling.  This is nothing new.

Middle-tier, white-collar desk jobs

No country minds importing workers at the very high skill end, where those skills don’t exist, and where they may benefit by learning those skills from the imported workers.  Also, most countries continue to import workers for the very lowest level of jobs, such as migrant farm labor, or office cleaning at night.

What is new is that both Islamic terrorism has been increasing in Europe, and migrating groups have been attempting to impose ideological change on their host societies.  This has definitely had a backlash  effect on the general willingness to accept immigrants, both in Europe and in America, especially from Muslim countries.

This restriction on jobs is even true for me as a first-world immigrant to a third-world country, where I find most jobs are reserved for people who are citizens.  As a non-citizen immigrant, I am only permitted to do for which it can be “proved” by the company I work for that a citizen cannot fill the position, or else I must be self-employed.  I want to point out that third-world countries have equally strong anti-immigration policies as do first-world countries.

Northwest Africa has been implementing a new educational pedagogy the past few years, which requires teachers to mark each student on specific skills mastered (similar to my English friend’s experience, described above), as well as to use modern group activities and other interesting delivery methods.

Crowded classrooms in Northwest Africa

One of the reasons teachers have been striking for several years is that most teachers feel this is too difficult and requires too much work when each teacher has over 300 students each week ( compared with typical American teachers having up to 180 students per week). One middle school teacher I know says, “I teach 13 classes of 45 students each, with each class lasting once a week for two hours.”   An incredible amount of material has to be covered.  This teacher felt that if he had three classes of 15 students each, or even his own classroom (he has to move from room-to-room) he might be able to fully implement the new educational pedagogy.

Educational trends swing with the pendulum as much as other social trends do.  We are still clearly in the upswing of this trend toward skill boxes.  I predict that the current trend will continue for another twenty years before it is scrapped in Europe, and educational trends head in another direction.

–Lynne Diligent

Understanding North African Work Behavior: A Comparative Analysis

February 4, 2012

Europeans criticize Americans for working too much....

Where do the different work attitudes in different countries come from?

Americans are criticized by Europeans for “working too hard,” and “not having any culture.”  Americans in Europe often criticize Europeans for having anti-business attitudes and being cultural snobs.  The Asians, on the other hand, make Americans look extremely lazy!  In French-speaking North Africa, we have a curious mixture of pro- and anti-business sentiments.  Business and money are extremely respected, yet nothing works well.  Businesses are extremely inefficient, and services are terrible (including government services).

There are now a number of good books written on  differing work attitudes in various countries.  Three of my favorites are The Seven Cultures of Capitalism, Working for the Japanese:  Inside  Mazda’s American Auto Plant, and Au Contraire!  Figuring Out the French.  But these books don’t explain where these attitudes originated from.

The answers are to be found in the historical experiences of various countries.  The major difference which sets America apart from Europe, in work attitudes today, is that America has no history of feudalism.

European work attitudes, with their emphasis on free time for workers and quality of life came directly out of peasant attitudes and revolts against feudalsim.   Peasants were the lowest class of society, were highly oppressed,  heavily taxed, and were at the mercy of justice systems operated by the social classes who took advantage of them.  When we study Feudalism as a system, we do not normally address how the peasants felt about it.  In fact, peasants did not passively accept the situation, century-after-century.  Peasant uprisings and revolts were a common occurrence.  Later, as Feudalism’s authority began to weaken, the new urban workers widened the base of the lower class, against the princes and the lords.  The upper classes used nepotistic practices to maintain their control over the bureaucracy.

The remnants of these attitudes are found today in European attitudes toward work, where laws and the public demand that workers have plenty of free time and are not “taken advantage of” by those in management (the old lords and princes).

Promotions into management are not awarded to competent workers; rather only people who are from certain families, or who went to the top categories of schools are permitted into the management tracks.  Decision-making in French corporations follows a strict hierarchy, and authority belongs to the office a person holds, rather than to the individual.  French managers tend to make the decisions and collaborative teamwork is discouraged.  Co-workers tend to feel in competition with each other.

New York offices of the French Investment banking company, Calyon.

American work attitudes, in contrast,  were not not born out of feudalism, but out of freedom, individualism, and capitalism.  One of the main reasons Americans left Europe was because they rejected the class system.  (This is why American bosses occasionally make the office coffee, to demonstrate to workers that they are not “above” others in social class.)  In America, one’s social standing at birth does not prohibit one from rising to a prominent position (whether Abraham Lincoln or Barack Obama).

Who you were at birth has nothing to do with who you will be, or might be.  In America, it is “up to you” to make what you will of your life.  In America, no one cares who you ARE.  They care what you have DONE, what you have ACCOMPLISHED.  This is why Americans generally give the highest pay, promotions, and status in business to those who accomplish the most (rather than those who went to impressive schools, but who do not perform once employed).  Anyone can reach the top tier by becoming rich, if they are smart enough, and willing to work hard enough.  This is what every American teaches their children from the time they are two years old.

Management by Objectives chart

These attitudes are seen today in the American tradition of Management by Objectives, which involves participative goal setting, then choosing a course of action, and decision-making in line with those actions.  Employees are measured against these standards.  Unfortunately, American managers often find that management by objectives does not work well in many other parts of the world, such as in North Africa.

Satchel Paige - a victim of American racism in baseball

In America, the problem has been racism, not classism.   The class-based problems and conflicts of Europe have been replaced in America by race-based problems.   While minorities have now been absorbed into society through the past battles of Martin Luther King, past affirmative action (preferential hiring practices based on race), and by becoming members of the professional and middle classes, some disaffected groups and individuals are still very anti-white.

These individuals feel a group solidarity against the white culture.   This same feeling also applies to certain religious groups and groups of new immigrants from various nations to America throughout our history.  They were discriminated against on the basis of national origin until each group became well-integrated after two or three generations.

In the same way, many Europeans and North Africans feel a class-solidarity against those above or below them, which influences work behavior in those countries, in the same way that race conflicts affect work attitudes among anti-white groups in America.  (The Arab Spring movement is partly about hope of the middle classes in the North African countries for abandoning nepotism and moving toward meritocracy.)

America continues to work on these race-based conflicts, but in reality, skin color and culture do continue to be a barrier to certain groups.  White Americans, using the example of Abraham Lincoln, have always told their children since the age of two, “You could grow up to be president.”  However, since the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, now for the first time, black Americans can also tell their children the same thing.

Barack Obama

Today in French-speaking North Africa, there are remnants of attitudes from both the feudal system and modern French systems.  Work behavior of employees and managers here is extremely confusing for North Americans.  While some people work hard and well, these people are rare, and should be especially appreciated (and rewarded).

Instead of being helpful to customers, and cooperative with employees or co-workers, most North-African employees (especially those not in management) tend to set up little “fiefdoms” and act like little Napoleons within their sphere of influence.

If someone comes to them with a request or a problem, instead of facilitating the process, they act as “gatekeepers” and often try to create problems and obstacles where none existed before.  (Yes, some of them expect bribes, but even those who are not looking for bribes tend to behave this way.)  Instead of sharing information so that the organization can function smoothly, both managers and employees are extremely secretive with information, insuring that the organization lurches along from crisis-to-crisis, and problem-to-problem.  This seems similar to business practices in France, in some ways.

There seems to be a sort of “class war” going on between management and employees in most North African companies.  Managers generally come from certain families, and have gone to certain schools.  Employees, neither from important families nor important schools,  have little stake in making the organization function well, and their main interest seems to be in working slowly and inefficiently, specifically making sure that no employer “takes advantage” of them by making them work “too hard.” Employees’ interests seem to usually be diametrically opposed to management’s interests, and many employees (not all) come into a job the very first day with the attitude that they expect an employer will try to exploit them.

Queuing at a government office in North Africa

When employees or co-workers are asked why they don’t give their best effort and take pride in their work, they often answer, “What will it get me if I do?  I will not get paid any more.”  Yet, most say, if presented in theory with a theoretical doubling or tripling of salary for a given job, that the work effort would be exactly the same, that this would not solve the problem.  Therefore, the real problem lies in the attitude behind the work.  Employees immediately assume that their personal interests are in opposition to their employer’s interest, and that they must do everything they can to “protect themselves” instead of everything they can to “do the job right.”

                         

While most Americans view themselves as working hard for a chance to get ahead, and believe in more possibilities in their future, employees in class-based societies usually don’t believe they will be able to get ahead, or be rewarded for their efforts, no matter how hard they work.  Their societies are not meritocracies, and this accounts for their reluctant attitudes at work.

recalitrant employees, passive-agressive employees

Many employees in North Africa behave in a passive-aggressive manner at work, saying "yes," but secretly sabotaging their employers.

North African  employees’ typical productivity is about one-quarter to one-third of an American worker (not everyone–there are some very hard-working North Africans; and certain regions have these problems more than other regions).  Their jobs are “protected” by labor laws which prevent the employer from replacing them no matter how poorly they work.  It can be done, but it is extremely expensive and indemnities increase for every year the employee was with the company.  There are only three acceptable reasons to fire an employee:  being caught stealing, showing up drunk, or not showing up at all repeatedly.  Those reasons do NOT include being habitually late or doing poor work.

Looking at French-speaking North Africa as a whole, unfortunately, from the employee’s  viewpoint, exploitation is rife throughout every level of the society.  Few businesses are corporations.  Most are individual or family-controlled enterprises, large and small.  Nepotism is the order of the day, from finding a job, to being promoted, to getting anything done in the society.

French-speaking North Africa

Business owners tend to exploit anyone working for them who is not a family member, while non-productive family members often have a title and a salary, while doing little.  People are less often employed for their skills than for who they are, or who they know.  Of course, this makes services notoriously bad for consumers.  But even those who lament the exploitation of workers in their own workplace often come home and exploit the labor of those below them.

One secretary, who previously in tears because her boss overworked her and treated her poorly,  turned right around and did exactly the same thing to the assistant she later got.  Some in the middle classes cry over being exploited at work and turn right around and exploit their own maids at home.  As a teacher, I saw over-and-over young students complaining about adults and older children who spoke to them rudely, using insulting words.  But the minute they become older themselves, they turn around and do the same thing.

All this exploitation is about power, which seems to be the main point of interest of each person in the society.  Everyone wants to know precisely who has the authority for what, and authority is never delegated to others as it is in American culture.  This also may be similar to France, but even more extreme in North Africa.

Every time a new employer-employee relationship is created (whether in an office, or a housewife at home with a maid), most employees are not thinking about if their new boss will be kind or provide them with reasonable working conditions.  It is already assumed that they will not.  Instead, they are thinking, “How powerful will I be able to be in this relationship?”  (This may be starting to change with some of the younger generation who are becoming educated and, after the Arab Spring, are hoping for meritocratic changes to take place.)

This concern about power is where foreign managers and expats run into trouble.  American managers aren’t generally thinking about using power and maintaining it.  They are thinking about how to facilitate cooperation, collaboration, and effective problem-solving.  Unfortunately, kindness and consideration (even in speech) is viewed as “weakness” in North Africa, and immediately, the subordinate maid or employee with the “power interest” mentality begins to take advantage, secretly sabotaging the goals of the manager.  The most serious dilemma for the expat manager becomes how to treat employees well (a sincere desire), while at the same time getting them to put forth a good effort toward accomplishing the goals which are important to the manager or employer.

–Lynne Diligent


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