See this “dax”
I’m holding up (camera focus on wine stopper made of cork)?
Now point to the “dax” in front of you (camera shift
to one plastic wine stopper and one slab of corkboard).
Which did you pick –
the matching object (the plastic wine stopper) or the matching substance
(the slab of corkboard)? I picked the object, and so have most of
the European Americans I’ve asked. And so did the majority
of European American 4-year-olds and adults in a study by cognitive
psychologists Mutsumi Imai and Dedre Gentner*. But not so the Japanese
participants in their study -- children and adults alike picked
the substance. (Even two-year-olds tended to pick in the same cultural
Imai and Gentner were studying
a facet of linguistics, but their study reveals how East-West philosophical
differences noted as early as Aristotle’s and Confucius’
time still exist today. The Greeks were concerned with describing
the components of objects (the details that make up the whole),
a concern that led to Western science’s focus on classification.
The Chinese in contrast were concerned with the whole substances
and their context – how they are affected by wind, water,
temperature, and the like.
Aristotle presumably would
have picked the plastic cork, Confucius the slab of corkboard.
I’ve found this “dax”
experiment (and several other similar ones) a compelling way to
demonstrate the depth and tenacity of cultural differences, and
have added them to the materials in our Crossing
Cultures with Competence training-of-trainers workshop.
It’s not that today’s global employees need a lesson
in ancient philosophy (they don’t). But it does grab people’s
attention when we can predict a simple answer based on a core cultural
difference noted 2500 years ago. I’ve heard a lot of “Oh!
So that’s why I so often feel out of synch with my colleagues”
from the Asian managers I’ve trained.
And it also leads to a wonderful
conversation about the benefits of diversity – wouldn’t
you want both Aristotle and Confucius on your team?
Georgia Bennett and I have
just revised and updated our book, Understanding American Schools:
The Answers to Newcomers’ Most Frequently Asked Questions,
first published in 2001. It’s been interesting to note what
has changed – and what hasn’t – in these four
- In our First Edition, we directed readers
to a few web sites. But because each state
developed its own educational site, it was hard to make general
comments about these. Today there is (and we list, in the Second
Edition) a national site that includes comparative statistics
across school districts, a site to learn individual states’
immunization requirements, a site that lists all schools that
offer the International Baccalaureate degree, and more. The
web is pulling itself together.
- In our First Edition, we asserted that,
to succeed in one’s career in the US, it is neither necessary
nor sufficient to have gone to one of the best universities.
In our Second Edition, we back this up with newly-released research
that compares the income levels of comparable students going
to elite vs. less elite schools, 20 years post-graduation. No
significant difference. For better or worse, this reality influences
what happens in the US high school classroom.
- The federal No Child Left
Behind Act, passed in 2002, gives more oversight
of the education system to the federal government than ever
in history. But this Act, in holding states responsible for
improvement, reiterates the point we made in the First Edition–that
fundamentally, US education decisions are made at a local level.
This has all sorts of ramifications for what happens in an individual
classroom. States, not the federal government, still decide
what subjects to teach, what teaching methods to approve, when
a child may graduate from high school, what kind of special
education to offer, which books to use, how to judge the progress
of each child’s education, how many days and hours of
school to require, and the like. Although many countries are
becoming less centralized in their educational approaches, this
consistently surprises newcomers to the US, most of whom expect
a more national approach to education.
- At the time we published our First Edition,
voucher programs and charter
and magnet schools were just beginning to appear.
Today, 15% of children in US public schools have chosen which
school they will attend rather than go to the assigned school
in their neighborhood. In our Second Edition, we explain these
programs that newcomers are likely to encounter.
- We’ve added more information about
US high schools – credit systems, transcript
translation options, the new SAT, and the like.
- Of course, virtually every number
in our First Edition has been updated – private and preschool
tuition fees, numbers of computers, average SAT scores, and
- Since our First Edition, several new
international comparisons of education systems have
been released; in our Second Edition we include charts comparing
the context of education in these different countries –
they’re interesting, and besides, we believe that statistics
(and generalizations) about the US will mean more to readers
if they can compare them to systems with which they are already
familiar. You’ll find international comparisons of what
13-year-olds do during math class, parental involvement in schools,
university enrollment, education decision-making, and more.
Short-term assignments are
hot. They’re everywhere. They offer so much to so many: a
cost-efficient way to get a global job accomplished. An opportunity
to gain marketable international experience. No need for a spouse
to give up a career. No need to disrupt children’s schooling.
What a deal.
As someone who has been observing
the effect of expatriate assignments on families for many years,
I’m watching with great interest. Our research* has shown
clearly that expatriate assignments are wonderful, life-enhancing
experiences for some families, but challenging, difficult ones for
others. We have advocated that companies and families engage in
thoughtful, mutual planning and decision-making about whether an
expatriate relocation for a whole family makes sense, and to avoid
situations where employees feel coerced into relocating internationally.
So if there is an alternative, while still getting the global job
done, that’s great news, right?
What is it like, in reality,
for the family to stay at home? What jobs, roles and stresses does
the at-home parent need to absorb? If he’s not there to talk
to, confide in, offer advice or solace, have fun with, what’s
she to do? How do families cope with the revolving exits and entrances
of the employee? Just when they’ve gotten used to his being
gone, he’s home for a visit. Do they return to their old pattern
of decision-making, or having gotten used to managing on her own,
does she resent his “interference?” In short, are short-term
assignments good for marriages, or even “OK” for marriages?
And the children? How absent
can a parent be and still maintain a loving and supportive connection
to a child? What kinds of parenting can – and can’t
– be offered by telephone and email? What events (like school
plays, graduations, and games) are so important they can’t
be missed, and do the parents and children agree on the answer to
And the employee? It sounds
luxurious to the folks at home to be living in a hotel in a far-away
city, and sympathy can be hard to come by. But hotel food, no friends,
and missing family can add up to fatigue and worry. And working
under these conditions is tough. She may work exceedingly long hours,
trying to finish the job as quickly as possible and get home. Because
it’s a short-term assignment, cultural and language training
may have been skipped, so relations with peers, customers, and supervisors
may be confusing or frustrating. The manager or HR department at
home may not understand the realities of doing business in this
culture – not a pretty picture.
These are the risks. Short-term
assignments can solve one set of family and personal challenges,
but they pose others. The lesson learned from years of research
on expatriate families is that if the family is un-happy, the assignment
is at risk. This is no less true for short-term assignments.
We know that many people
– employees, spouses, and employers alike – consider
short-term assignments a great choice, given the alternatives. What’s
their secret? What can be done to address potential pitfalls and
ensure that the short-term assignment is successful all around?
The smart companies are taking family issues seriously, and are
offering choices, services and support.
To understand what matters
to employees and their families and what companies can do to help,
we are embarking on a new on-line research study, Voices from
Home: The Family and Personal Side of Short-term International Assignments
and Extended Business Travel. Like our past research, it asks
detailed questions using sound research tools. It promises to uncover
authoritative answers to families’ and employees’ concerns
and to suggest effective strategies for managing them.
We want to hear from employees,
their spouses and their children (age 8-21) because each of these
perspectives is important to the whole picture. We want to hear
from those who are satisfied, those who are struggling, and those
in between. If you or someone you know fit the criteria below, please
contribute to this study by completing the on-line survey. We’ll
be back to you with what we found, we promise!
Thanks to any of you who
can help encourage people to complete the survey!
Do you know anyone who offers
“accent understanding lessons?” Me either, but I say
it’s a business waiting to happen. More than that, it’s
a metaphor for what we all need to do.
Here’s what I mean.
Recently I met with an operations manager in a large, multinational
corporation. His team includes members from all over the world –
some living in the US, some in other countries. They work together
via teleconference, and things were not going well.
is really good, he told me – the company has paid for language
lessons where needed, and team members had been offered and willingly
accepted accent reduction coaching. He said he was convinced his
foreign team members had done more than their share of reaching
across the communication chasm.
The problem, he believed,
was his and his American colleagues’. They were the ones who
had to improve, to get better at understanding the words they heard
on the telephone. I gently asked if there were resentment in the
company about hiring non-Americans – this kind of resistance
can sabotage effective communication. He admitted that that had
been so a few years ago. “But now these guys are our friends.
They’re good at what they do. I’ve looked at the finances
– hiring them was a great idea. As I get to know each one,
I get better at understanding their accent. I just want my learning
curve to be steeper.”
I will leave to linguists
the technicalities of how this would work. For me, the deeper meaning
of this manager’s request was exciting and heartening. He
understood that intercultural understanding is facilitated when
both sides try to bridge the space between them.
When someone joins us from
another culture, we can say, “He’s new, he needs to
learn our ways and become more like us.” (He needs to learn
our language and reduce his accent.) Or we can say, “He’s
new and has a different way of doing, seeing, and interpreting things.
If I can figure out how to meet him half way – that is, get
better at understanding his “cultural accent” while
he’s trying to get better at reducing it – the two of
us can navigate this cultural gap together much more efficiently.”
Cultural support that is offered to both hosts and newcomers, and
that emphasizes both groups learning to understand their cultural
lenses, is the ticket.
I’m telling you, Accent
Understanding Lessons are a business opportunity for some language
company out there. I’ll be cheering you on, doing the parallel
cultural work alongside you!
All over the map. Literally
and figuratively – that’s where the participants in
our study of short-term assignments are.
“The home logistics
are completely disturbed, especially if your partner works as well...
The burden will be on your partner's shoulders: it is true that
you have to work a lot on assignment, but it's nothing compared
to having your job to do plus 100% of the chores plus filling in
for your partner with the kids... Days are extremely long, tiring,
and mentally exhausting.” (So says one participant.)
“It’s been very
positive, because absence enhances the partner's qualities, and
gives him and you enough time to define who each is, each one's
priorities and build a new stage for a true dialog.” (So says
What a range of experience
– but that’s the range I’ve been hearing in our
new study, Voices from Home – of “unaccompanied
short-term international assignments and extended business travel”
– that is, those who have moved, unaccompanied, to a new country
for 3-12 months, or who have been traveling 10+ days/month to a
different country for at least three months.
I’m hearing from employees
and their spouses and their children (age 8-21), and learning a
One spouse away for an extended
but temporary period of time, the other picking up the extra roles
and responsibilities, exploring, by necessity, new skills and identities.
In some cases, I’m hearing about worry and fatigue. In others,
pride and admiration. Resignation. Anger. Delight. High. Low. In
And so many suggestions for
what organizations can do to support families, and advice to other
couples and families.
But I need to hear from more
people first. People in this situation are, by definition, very
busy and, it turns out, hard to find (sometimes HR managers don’t
even know who they are). Could you help me by sending this message
(and/or the links below) to anyone you know who is in this situation,
and asking them to participate in the study?
As a way of saying thanks,
we’ll enter each adult participant into a drawing for a $250
gift certificate from amazon.com – one award for
every 100 participants.
Employees’ version: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.asp?u=59917783147
Spouses’ version: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.asp?u=34403717660
Children’s (age 8-21) version: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.asp?u=10583781466
Hoping to come out with a report later this fall. I’ll let
you know when it’s ready. Thanks for anything you can do to
Who was the first person
to pack up and move to a new land because of work? Makes you think,
doesn’t it? My grandfather moved his young family from Pittsburgh
to London in 1923 to sell a new-fangled thing called linoleum; that
was a long time ago, we can all agree.
But…I think it goes
back before then.
Corporate international relocations
have sky-rocketed in the last several decades, but they happened
in smaller numbers as far back as businesses thought there were
useful markets, resources or labor somewhere else.
I don’t think corporate
global moves are going to win the history prize, though. There have
been military posts in foreign lands and diplomats setting up stations
to promote international understanding for centuries. And a quick
glance at a timeline of the history of missionaries takes you back
through history (see Brazil in 1500, Egypt in 1219, China in 635,
and India in 180, for example). (Can we call Paul’s travel
to modern-day Turkey in 48 an expat assignment if he never left
the Roman Empire?)
While families probably accompanied
some of these early military, corporate, diplomatic and religious
global travelers, others surely made their way alone, leaving spouses,
children, parents, brothers and sisters behind -- the “new”
corporate solution called an unaccompanied short-term assignment
is not really so new after all.
Over the years, each of these
groups – corporate, military, foreign service, missions, educators
– has developed its own way of encouraging global moves, supporting
the worker and the family, drawing on the motivations inherent in
the work to make these travels successful and fulfilling. Each has
coped with the new challenges and opportunities of the 21st century,
too. They have come up with some similar approaches, and some unique
Wouldn’t it be a good
idea if they got together to share their approaches and their challenges
with each other?
They do, and you’re
invited! The Families in Global Transition conference (www.figt.org)
is the only conference that draws together participants from this
wide range of sectors – both professionals who work in them,
and people who are living the global life themselves. As a speaker,
I can tell you that it is terribly exciting and enriching to talk
about my work to such a group of experts who listen with such different
sets of ears.
Because we basically have
only one thing in common -- the needs of families – that’s
what the meeting is really about. Not marketing, not convincing,
not jockeying for position, not competing. One HR manager told us
it was the first conference he’d been to where he didn’t
feel descended upon by people trying to sell him something. Even
networking – that staple of conference benefits – is
different here; because everyone who attends shares a professional
or personal (and in many cases, both) interest in families in global
transition, you connect with people around issues of deep and abiding
concern to you. One attendee called it “a reunion of people
you’ve never met.”
(Full Disclosure Department:
I’m on the FIGT Board and have been Co-Chair of the Program
Committee this year. I have an inside view of how awesome the program
is going to be – check the website for details and you’ll
see what I mean.)