Archive for the ‘Sweden’ Category

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!

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

June 24, 2015

steak

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

Why It’s So Difficult to Eradicate Corruption

January 26, 2013

Eradicate corruption

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

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

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

Why is this?

corruption

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

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

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

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

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

corruption 2

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

Class warfare 2

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

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

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

Democracy (or democratic reform) means nothing without meritocracy.

–Lynne Diligent

Maids Are a Problem Everywhere….

January 12, 2013

M

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

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

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

Moroccan maids 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Lynne Diligent

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

December 5, 2012

Man Washing Dishes

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

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

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

closed curtains

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Lynne Diligent

“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!

“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)

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


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