Archive for 2014

The Power of Observation

Observation is an extremely powerful tool, exemplified by the fact that it is a basic component of scientific experimentation. Observation is also an essential tool for individuals interacting with other cultures.

One of the pieces of advice that I always give to intercultural training participants who will be working and/or living in another country is to adopt this method of information collection. A tremendous amount of useful material, especially the subtleties of behaviors, will become clear through observation of locals.

My friend, Al, responded to this advice by saying ‘that’s just logical, everyone knows that.’ While he may be right that the point seems obvious, today there are so many distractions that it is easy to miss the hints. People appear to give little or no thought to their situation and the differences around them. Too many people seem to forget or minimize the value of observation, especially as they are so busy focusing on the future and their next activity. Sadly, many individuals appear to be more engrossed in their smartphones or ipads than their surroundings.

Watching what is happening around you can provide insight into the nuances of behaviors, for example:

  • Notice where people sit at a meeting table
  • Listen to who speaks and who remains quiet
  • Observe greetings and how respect is shown.
  • Look where people place their napkins or their hands at the dining table
  • Watch the system for being served at a bakery or market
  • Determine if public displays of affection are acceptable
  • Survey the type of clothing that is worn
  • Study the interactions between friends, family members and colleagues

 Preparation, such as an intercultural training program, is always helpful but it is virtually impossible to learn and remember everything. Observation complements what you have already learned or may jog your memory. People need to watch what others around them are doing. Use the same tool that scientists apply and learn about the subtle differences of the culture in which you are living and working.

Would you share an example of something you learned through observing a new culture?

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Accompanying Spouse

Accompany Spouse cover 1Whether the accompanying spouse is happy influences the success of an assignment. They need to feel valued and maintaining self-esteem is crucial. Instead of seeing what you left behind, see the possibilities.

Download the pdf of an excerpt of Elizabeth Vennekens-Kelly’s presentation “Accompanying Spouses/Partners – Turning Lemons into Lemonade.”

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Veiled Threat

According to a Washington Times article (Dec 2012), 84% of the world has a faith. How their faith is practiced varies by religion, country, and individuals. Religious devotion is quite personal, from the once-a-year visitor to the zealot. Religious beliefs can influence a wide variety of aspects of our lives including rituals, diet and appearance.

The religious ideals of some people are quite evident by outward appearance. Consider:

  • Some Christians wear a cross or a religious metal such as St. Christopher; priests may wear a white collar; nuns a habit
  • Hasidic Jewish males usually have hair curls (payots), some Jewish men wear a kippah aka yarmulke
  • Many Sikh men wear turbans
  • Some Muslim women may wear an abaya, others a hijab. The hijab may also include a veil

Most countries in Europe boast of religious freedom and are quite tolerant of religious practices. For example in the UK, Sikhs who hold public jobs such as police officers are allowed to wear a turban, (Though the turban must be in compliance with a dress code, e.g. the color.) These countries have had to develop policies and procedures to deal with religious differences

Germany doesn’t have a law against Muslim women wearing a hijab with a veil so individuals from conservative Muslim countries can still visit or live in Germany without compromising their values. As a result, Ihad wondered what would happen in a situation where identification would be important. While waiting to pick up a friend at the Munich airport who had to go through immigration, I was able to observe the review process of a young family arriving from Saudi Arabia. The woman wore a veil but was required to show her face to the immigration official because the official had to be able verify her identity against her passport. Circumstances trumped religion.

Correspondingly, some countries have begun to evaluate what practices will be acceptable. France passed a law in 2010 which was upheld by their high court in July 2014, that made wearing hijab with a veil in public illegal. (Reuter’s article)  Lawmakers said the law was needed for public safety. Most law enforcement officials believe that it is vital to be able identify an individual i.e. to see a person’s face.  Belgium and Switzerland have passed similar laws.

Some people and organizations believe that this law goes against religious freedom. Law enforcement officials and security experts believe that the privilege of wearing a veil could be abused by unscrupulous individuals. Balancing the rights for religious freedom with the safety of the general public is never easy.

What are your thoughts?

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Nose To Nose

Making a good first impression is something most people strive to do especially in business. Various factors can influence how people are perceived including personal appearance, attitude, body language and their message. All that being true but the initial greeting is key. Since greetings differ from culture to culture, intercultural trainer such as myself will try to impress upon their clients the importance of determining and using the appropriate greeting for the people with whom you will be meeting.

When the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge(Prince William and Kate) arrived in New Zealand they were treated to traditional warrior’s dance called a Haka and they greeted local dignitaries with a Māori greeting known as a Hongi, Hongi involved the touching of noses and foreheads. Most reference material advises visitors to New Zealand that a hand shake is correct. However, as evident by the royal visit, when interacting with other cultures, exceptions frequently need to be considered.

In many Arab countries men will not shake the hand of a woman. As a liberated woman, I’ve struggled with this custom. However, after observing the greeting the Queen of Belgium received from a royal member of the Saudi family, I’ve soften my stance. This man used a formal Salam, touching his chest (heart), lips and then forehead. The greeting was very respectful and can remind us that there are multiple ways to show respect.

Kissing, bowing or shaking hands still remain the most common methods of greeting but even these are not without their nuances. How many kisses on the cheek should be given, one, two or three? How well do you have to know the person? When bowing, how low and long should your bow be? How firm should the handshake be? Is the other arm gripped? And what do you do with your other hand? Bill Gates learned the hard way when he shook the hand of the South Korean president, that his second hand shouldn’t have been in his pocket.

The subtle differences of greetings can affect the impression you make. Do your research or ask someone in the know.

Share a  story about greeting in another culture.


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