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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!

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

“Taxi Whores”

November 12, 2012

 

I live in North Africa.  Sometimes foreigners and expats assume that only they are getting taken advantage of by taxi drivers.  It’s always reassuring when we find out that the locals get ripped-off, too.  (Misery loves company!)

My local-country citizen, North African friend, who lives in another part of our country, recently arrived in my city by train.  He asked me, “How much does it cost to get a taxi from the new train station to the main square?”

I told him he had to be careful of the taxis which park right next to the train station, as they wait there to charge rip-off fares to everyone.  I told him if he could walk about two blocks, he could find taxis at the normal fare.  Unfortunately, he had too much luggage to do that.

Being a local North African citizen in his own country, he was able to get a taxi at only double the normal fare, although the taxis do get away with charging five times the normal fare to foreigners.  Instead of driving around looking for fares, those taxis find it easier to sit in a line all day, and just make up for the lack of fares by charging only one very expensive fare!  It’s a bit like prostitutes who are unwilling to work for normal wages at a normal job, and charge a high price for a few hours of work.

My friend replied, “Taxi whores! hahaha”

So I’m afraid I can’t take credit for this clever name…..

–Lynne Diligent

N.B — There are many honest taxi drivers; it’s just sometimes hard to find them when you need them!

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

Different Interpretations of Rude Behavior–Intercultural Miscommunication!

June 14, 2012

(Google photo)

Some parents in our upper-middle-class Middle-Eastern school come in to see teachers and make demands such as, “I want my child moved up to the front row today, and I want him to stay right there for the entire school year!”  When a teacher tries to explain that they have to consider and balance the needs of all the children in the classroom, these parents sometimes reply,  “YOU don’t tell OUR children what to do; we tell YOU what to do, because WE pay your salary by bringing our children to your school!”  How does a teacher even respond to a parent with ideas like this?

As a foreign teacher, each time I had a strange encounter like this with a  haughty and disdainful parent, I wondered about this strange behavior toward teachers and administrative staff.  Whenever one of these encounters took place, I would ask my Middle Eastern assistant why these parents would behave this way.  I was always told, “They behave that way because they are rich.”  It still wasn’t clear to me what being rich would have to do with rude and imperious behavior.  So when I asked how the two things were linked, I always got the response, “They think they can behave that way because they have money.”  This didn’t clarify matters, either.  It was especially not clear since I knew plenty of other people who had even more money and did not behave in that sort of manner at all.

Aisha Gaddafi Libya

Typical “look” of the type of parent who “talks down” to teachers in the Middle East.

I understood my assistant’s words, but still did not understand the behavior, or what his words actually meant.  Ten years later, I believe I now understand–it’s not really about money, but about status.  In every country, many people try to follow and copy what they perceive the rich people doing.

Coco Chanel

For example, let us look briefly at the fashion of suntanning, in Europe and the United States.  In the 1800s, women used to stay out of the sun and even carry a parasol to keep the sun from falling on their skin.  Prior to 1900, those with tanned skin were presumed to be low-class common laborers.  In the 1920s, this perception began to change.

Coco Chanel

When Coco Channel returned from the French Riviera with a suntan, having a suntan (particularly in winter) became associated with having the time and money to vacation in warm places.  By the 1940s, sunbathing and suntans were popular everywhere.

In the Western United States in the 1960s and 1970s, students took great care while skiing to never use suntan cream (in order to purposely come back from skiing with a tan or a sunburn), and to leave the ski-lift tickets attached to one’s jacket all season.   Both of these actions raised one’s status, showing that he or she was someone able to afford to go skiing (an expensive sport).  From the 1960s onward (the age of jet travel) a suntan in winter demonstrated that one was part of the leisure class, able to afford to jet off to a warm destination in winter.

Other countries have other ways of indicating that one is a member of the wealthy, or leisure class.   In some Middle Eastern countries (such as Syria, among others), there is a special system which confers the ultimate status.  The most important people carry special cards in their wallets which place them above the powers of law enforcement officials.  Only members of the most important families are able to obtain this card, and so, are free to act without any repercussions.

Joan Collins playing the haughty and domineering Alexis Carrington on Dynasty.

Therefore, some people in the Middle East (especially the newly rich) perceive that what it means to “act like an upper-class person” is to act very haughty and imperious, as though you can order other people around, and no one can say anything to do no matter how rudely you act, or what acts you commit.   This is what I believe was happening in my school. My conclusion at present is that the parents who behaved in an imperious manner were mostly not well-educated or well-brought up, yet had the fortune through business or inheritance, to come into money.  Buy behaving this way, they are essentially trying to announce to others, “Look!  We are important people, and we are more important than you (the teachers and school employees)!”  So this behavior, in their mind, is a way for them to gain status and prestige, as well as to flaunt it to others.  As a foreign teacher, it seems to me to be greatly lowering their prestige, but people in my local country seem to understand that, “Since they are rich, they feel entitled to act that way.”

This system even affects the behavior of children in school.  Children in our school are often rude to their teachers, and completely uncooperative with regard to class rules (continual talking while the teacher is teaching;  not staying in their chairs; refusing to line up or walk quietly in a line; talking loudly, rather than whispering).  Every new idea works for just a day or two, and then it’s right back to the old behavior.

After teaching in the Middle East for twenty years, I now believe that the reason children are uncooperative is because being cooperative shows that you and your family must have low status.  High-status children behave as they wish, because to do so shows the other children that they come from an “important” family and are “above” having to follow the teacher’s rules.

–Lynne Diligent

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

My Most Embarrassing Secret As a Traveler and Expat

March 20, 2012

I am white, and I have an embarrassing secret.

Two decades ago, I had the occasion to travel for several months in Black Africa–Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, and Zaire.

The first few weeks after my arrival, I was shocked at my lack of ability to recognize people; everyone looked the same.  I couldn’t tell people apart.  I thought something was wrong with me.

More than twenty years later, I found an explanation for my problem through watching a television program.  In this episode of The Good Wife, trial lawyers discover through the use of a consultant that it is difficult for most white witnesses to make accurate identification of black perpetrators, and equally difficult for most black witnesses to make accurate identification of white perpetrators.

This problem, as I have recently learned, is called “Difficulty with Cross-Racial Face Recognition.”

Kenya is a black majority country. When I first arrived, I had trouble noticing differences between people's faces.

After spending approximately three weeks in East Africa, I finally became able to recognize people and tell them apart.  I think what happened to me here as an adult was a reproduction of the experience all of us must go through as babies, yet none of us remember.  It is clear that we learn as babies to recognize best of all those we grow up around, most particularly our family, and our own race.  Recent research shows that it is in the extremely precise judgement of the micro-measurements of the face (which vary by race) where recognition takes place.

Burundi

When I traveled in Burundi (four years before the war with Rwanda), one person I spent time with told me, “I could never step over the border into Rwanda, or they would kill me.”  When I asked why, he told me, “They would just take one look at my face, and kill me.”

Tutsi boy

This person was a Tutsi.  At that time, not only did I not believe my acquaintance, but I could not tell the difference between the Hutu and Tutsi.  Now, many years later, the differences are clear.

Agathon Rwasa, a Burundian Hutu Militia Leader

Now I live in North Africa.  When traveling with my North African husband (who is Caucasian), I find people in certain regions speaking to him in the Berber language.  He doesn’t speak Berber.  My husband explains, “They just see my face and assume that I speak Berber.”

A Berber man with his daughter

I lived in North Africa for many years before anyone pointed out to me the facial differences between Arabs and Berbers.  Sometimes I can clearly tell them apart; other times not.  But even now, my recognition doesn’t even come close to those who were born here.

A few years ago I went to a wedding in a small village high in the Atlas Mountains.  That weekend I noticed something I had never seen before.  Everyone in the village had a very distinctive cranial shape, and a very particular set of ears.  It was distinctive enough that even if I saw someone who looked like that back in America, now I would ask them, “Are you, by any chance, from this particular village in the Atlas Mountains?”

Atlas Mountains

I finally understood why Americans (or maybe just me) are particularly bad at racial face recognition.  In most Old World countries, people have stayed in the same locations, and intermarried primarily with the local group for a long-enough time to develop very, very precise micro-racial characteristics.  Each village, even 20-30 miles away from each other will have very particular characteristics.  People from these countries are quite used to looking at people in this way, and recognizing which area they are from.

In America, we are not at all used to looking at people in this way.   Since we have immigrants from all over the world, everyone is entirely mixed up.  We have unlimited micro-varieties within every race.  If a black African or white European came to America, he or she would no doubt be able to look at many Americans of their own race, and know precisely where many of their ancestors came from.

America - the nation of immigrants

One important difference in America is that most people, even within their own race, have intermarried with others from many different locales.  So many of their micro-features would no longer be the same as might be associated with a particular European or African village.  Americans have always moved from one part of the country to another on a regular basis, as well.  In addition, many more interracial marriages are occurring.  For all these reasons, people are “mixed up” in America, and Americans are not used to recognizing people by looking at their micro-characteristics and trying to categorize where they are from.  But, as babies, they become used to looking at the micro-characteristics of their own race, in order to recognize family members.

Animal micro-recognition is similar.  Years ago, I used to wonder how biological researchers in the field could watch a troop or a herd of animals, and recognize each animal.  They all looked the same to me.

Later, after we got two cats from the same litter as pets, I began to see the subtle differences  in their faces and bodies, especially when there were several neighborhood cats who looked close enough to my own cats that I called to them by mistake.  Now I never make that mistake as I immediately recognize much more subtle differences, even from a distance.

New information is now being publicized about a condition called Face Blindness.  People who suffer from this condition are unable to visually recognize their own family members or close friends.  The short linked-to video on Face Blindness also explains the opposite condition, which is called being a Super Recognizer, meaning that one is able to recognize and remember every face he has ever seen.  These people are able to tell you where they saw a face, as well as being able to recognize a photo of any of those people taken at any point, at any age, during their lifetimes.

Through this new research, I now see that recognizing faces is a learned skill for most people, an impossible challenge for people with face blindness, and incredibly easy for super recognizers.

My hidden secret perplexed and embarrassed me for many years.  But now that I understand why I had this problem, I no longer feel so guilty!  Thankfully, in my older years I’ve now learned to recognize much more than I noticed in my younger years.

–Lynne Diligent


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