Archive for the ‘Explaining American Culture to Foreigners’ Category

Why America Doesn’t Talk About Human Rights

May 20, 2016
Child Slavery on Chocolate Plantations

Child Slavery on Chocolate Plantations

Living in a less developed country I hear a lot of general talk about human rights. One of the times this subject normally comes up is when foreigners speak up wanting to do something about the abysmal ways many animals are treated in developing countries (donkeys being abused as working animals, cats and other animals being used for witchcraft purposes, abuse of street animals for amusement–such as cutting off their tails for fun).  Surprisingly, locals’ reaction is often, “We shouldn’t care about ANIMAL RIGHTS; we need to care about HUMAN rights!”

When a friend told me they wanted to study international relations and specialize in “human rights,” I realized that I needed to ask, “What ARE ‘human rights,’ exactly?” When I didn’t get a clear answer, I looked it up.

The European Convention on Human Rights

The European Convention on Human Rights

On Wikipedia, I found something called the European Convention on Human Rights (from 1950). It has sections (not a comprehensive list) discussing some of the following:

Respecting Rights
Liberty and Security
Fair Trial
Conscience and Religion
Effective Remedy
Abuse of Rights

Reading this list, I realized why we are not talking about “human rights” in America. Many(but not all) items, in lists of human rights, are already in our Declaration of Independence.

Bill of Rights

The majority of people in America (except immigrants) have never lived in a time or place where the government was authoritarian, and people did not have these rights.  Our Declaration of Independence, particularly the Bill of Rights, is designed to protect Americans from any sort of authoritarian government, and thus, protect our rights.  Therefore, we are complacent (when compared with those living under authoritarian regimes, especially in the developing world), as these conditions are not within living memory of the majority of our citizens.

In contrast, both the Holocaust and life under authoritarian governments are still within recent living memory of Europeans–and are, in fact, still the current condition of many people in the developing world. The precise definition of abuse of human rights, IS essentially, an authoritarian government.

Conservatives Without Conscience_ John W. Dean_

According to Will Byrnes, in his review of Conservatives without Conscience, “Robert Vaughn, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, defines democracy and authoritarianism in terms of information policy. Authoritarian governments are identified by ready government access to information about the activities of its citizens and by extensive limitations on the ability of citizens to obtain information about the government. In contrast, democratic governments are marked by significant restrictions on the ability of government to acquire information about its citizens and by ready access by citizens to information about the activities of government.'”

In America, we speak a lot about “individual rights,” (meaning “civil rights”). Civil rights and human rights are not quite the same thing.

Civil rights are an agreement between a given nation and an individual; therefore, civil rights vary with each country according to their constitution. Civil rights result from a “legal granting of that right.” Civil rights protect citizens from discrimination based on certain categories; as well as due process, or free speech,  among others.

Human rights were conceived after World War II (in reaction to the Nazi treatment of the Jews and other groups). An individual is considered to have these rights just for being human; these rights are not considered to be different between one country and another.

Human Rights - Freedom from Torture

A second reason Americans aren’t usually speaking about human rights, and why America has not ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, is that our government doesn’t agree with all provisions.  While there are a number of things, one example the United States disagrees with is that the convention outlaws the death penalty for all crimes, no matter how heinous.

From researching these issues, the next time a friend in a developing country begins speaking to me about human rights, I’ll certainly have a better understanding of why they are speaking about it so passionately.


Cultural Conversation Clashes Between Americans, British, and Europeans

July 14, 2015

British and American Flags

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

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

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

–Lynne Diligent


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

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

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


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


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


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



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

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


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

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

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


Eric Vicini:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

June 24, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Lynne Diligent


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

June 6, 2015

Dear as a salutation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Lynne Diligent

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

March 7, 2015

Poor people having children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Lynne Diligent

“Know Your Enemy”

October 19, 2012

“Those Peace Corps workers are spies in our country!”

As an American living in the Middle East for twenty years, I am amazed each time I hear this.  Whenever I ask, “Why would you think that?”  I never receive a clear, satisfactory, or understandable answer–but now,  I finally have.

A North African friend explained to me that the saying, “Know your enemy!” is extremely popular throughout Arab culture in the Middle East. He said that most ordinary citizens in the street view the American government as an enemy, (regardless of whether their own governments are allies with the United States).  This is both because of America’s seeming “unconditional” support for Israel, and because the United States has been involved in wars in the Middle East, or in seeming support of previous dictators in the region.

Therefore, when  Peace Corps volunteers come to the Middle East, people wonder, “Why would anyone leave their own rich countries, in order to come and live in a very poor lifestyle, among us, saying they want to help us?”

Many Middle Easterners, especially those who are poor and living in rural areas,  just don’t understand the idea of volunteer work. (1)  (They are judging foreigners by their own standards, since they would not go to help others who were not part of their own family/religious group, or from whom they did not “want” something in return–such as information, or a natural resource.)  They just don’t trust anyone; in general, Middle Eastern societies are low in trust of others.  Their recent experience of colonialism increases their distrust.

When I point out, “What possible interest would the American government have in the life of your little mountain village?”  I usually get vague and confusing answers that make no sense to me (being a Westerner).  But now I have received an understandable answer.  My local friend told me, ” They think America is studying every aspect of how they live and think in order to better know their enemy.”

What a sad case of two ships passing in the night, in terms of cultural misunderstanding!

Just to set the record straight, Peace Corps workers are NOT spies, never have been, and never will be.  While they have apparently been ASKED on a couple of occasions (Bolivia and Cuba), read the link to see that they refused, and that this is NOT government policy.  However, when I pointed this out to my friend, she asked me, “OK, these volunteers refused to spy, but how on earth would we be sure EVERY Peace Corps volunteer would refuse to spy?”  At least now, I understand where they are coming from.

–Lynne Diligent

(1)  06-EuroMedJeunesse-Etude_MOROCCO.pdf  (p. 7, 8, 17, 23)

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

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.


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

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

%d bloggers like this: