Archive for the ‘Teaching ESL’ 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!

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

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

“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)

Different Interpretations of Rude Behavior–Intercultural Miscommunication!

June 14, 2012

(Google photo)

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

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

Aisha Gaddafi Libya

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

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

Coco Chanel

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

Coco Chanel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Lynne Diligent

My North African Postman’s Confusing Behavior

April 6, 2012

Typical North African house with wall in a prosperous neighborhood

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

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

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

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

Readers, how would you react?

–Lynne Diligent

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

April 6, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Lynne Diligent

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

February 26, 2012

Anti-Immigration Plot?

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

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

World Internet Users, 2011

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

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

Imported labor building American railroads

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

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

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

Education in Libya, North Africa

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

The only middle school in this rural area of Northwest Africa

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

Tunisian college students

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

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

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

A Page from the British National Curriculum

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

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

Middle-tier, white-collar desk jobs

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

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

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

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

Crowded classrooms in Northwest Africa

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

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

–Lynne Diligent

Interpreting British Speech – What It Really Means!

February 3, 2012

I’m sure this is a humorous list for the British, but for those of us who are not British, it’s a great guide to print out and keep on hand to understand what our British friends really mean!

This list certainly typifies in the pink column how Americans would understand the speech in the gray column.  I worked for years in a company with both American and British employees, and these were exactly the type of misunderstandings we had going on for years.  People often don’t realize what has happened until it creates a major misunderstanding such as joint partners going off in completely different directions without realizing they have done so, until a major problem occurs.

My thought is that when the British are dealing with each other, they will understand each others’ meanings.  If they wish to be understood, British bosses and subordinates are dealing with other English-speaking cultures, they need to be careful to say clearly and plainly what they actually mean.

–Lynne Diligent


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