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102. Not every issue needs a battle October 27, 2012

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Communication.
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Like many people living in the USA right now, I can’t wait for the election season to end because at least the volume of political battles decreases. But the battles continue via our elected representatives, who seem to believe that holding an opinion firmly and never letting go is more important than governing wisely.

Politics has perhaps never really been about governing wisely as much as it has been about grappling to be the one with the power to decide. In my first (and only) serious foray into party politics at age 18, I was disillusioned to learn that the party leaders backing my candidate were setting up a slate of delegates that we all needed to vote for. One of my friends who was very interested in being a delegate was only offered the possibility to be an alternate on the slate. The party was managing the votes strategically and didn’t want any deviations from the slate that had been set up in a hotel room (almost certainly smoke-filled in that era) by a few players. We were just the troops brought in to support that strategy. The strategy failed and the party’s candidate lost.

While I understood the strategy and why is was necessary — the other side was doing it, too — this isn’t the way I wanted to believe that representative government worked. I had had the idea that conventions and Congress provided places where people would come together to talk about what would be best for the country, and that those with the best ideas would be heard by all present who would then join forces to implement those ideas. Of course, it’s been years since I had any expectation that legislators would search together for common solutions and policies. Even mission-driven, volunteer boards can be driven apart by political fighting.

When I think about the skills needed for building relationships across cultures, one is certainly the ability to move beyond polarized, defensive postures that draw sharp lines between “us” and “them.” These skills involve listening, suspending judgment, respect for others, and not holding too firmly to your own beliefs. I still hope for a world where leaders have these skills and the desire to work for peace: across nations, across cultures, and across political parties. It’s not about always agreeing, but about always thinking and always engaging others in that journey.

This may not feel like a very strong position from which to campaign in an election, of course. We probably like to support policies that seem simple to understand, and we probably chose candidates for reasons that don’t involve as much study or insight into the issues as we’d hope to do. I always want to select someone for president who seems to be smarter than I am, since I know I couldn’t begin to take on that job…not that I’d want to.

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times gave me some insight on why radical political solutions seem insufficient to me: I cannot explain how they work, and the more I study them the less I feel the policy seems to accomplish what it is supposed to. Probably no one political action will produce remarkable changes, but change happens nevertheless, much totally out of the control of the US President or Congress. As one voter interviewed on the television noted, “We will all have to do the best we can.”

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101. Not Alone on the Journey September 8, 2012

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Communication, Reflections.
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I am a woman who seldom asks for directions. Mostly I use maps, some of which are stored fairly well in my head. To a large extent I think of where I’m headed in terms of my general sense of its direction from wherever I am at the moment. Part of the great fun of traveling to new places is to test my ability to find them. But sometimes traveling is more than a destination, a map, and a plan. Sometimes it’s a process of sharing the journey.

Recently my husband and I in Brazil. Our trip included a balance of time for ourselves at the beach and time for visiting dear friends whom we hadn’t seen in ages. We arranged our own itinerary including several days with our friends and we reserved a rental car from there to head down to a beach place we’d rented. We’d even downloaded the Google Directions with step by step maps. We felt fully ready to head off alone on this portion of our vacation, and test our ability to find our way there.

We probably would have found our route based on our own prepared plan, but for our friends, it wasn’t good enough to just send us off on our own devices. Rather, the extended family was drafted to research our trip, including our hosts sister who works for a government tourism board and a nephew who regularly takes the route we were to take — a new highway that hadn’t yet made it to Google Maps, but was found on Google Earth. Armed with new maps, new directions including a listing of every small town along the way, and warnings about traffic laws we might not know about and potential labor strikes that could block traffic, we thought we were finally ready to say thank you and good bye to our friends, but other plans were already in place. Our hosts would drive ahead of us and lead us to the new bridge that led to the highway we should take.

We followed them closely for about a half hour, and then they pulled their car over and parked, so we pulled over behind them and got out of the car to thank them again and say good-bye. Then we learned that the nephew was arriving in a few minutes to escort us for the next leg of our trip, leading us down the new highway to a point where we’d only need to go straight south, to a point that completely coincided with our original instructions and where everyone was confident that there was almost no chance to get lost or to run into highways blocked by strikes, or other yet unspoken dangers.

In that final third of the trip, my husband and I talked about how normal it feels for us to make our plans alone and how strange to have an entire committee dropping everything to make our plans with us. Since we both grew up with the strong sense of individualism and independence that marks much of the culture of life in the USA, it is even a bit uncomfortable for us to have so much involvement from friends and their relatives in our journey. And yet it was that very sense of feeling welcomed and taken care of that made me want to visit Brazil again, and visit these friends.

I thought of this experience again when I heard the excerpt from former US President Bill Clinton’s speech at the recent Democratic convention:

You see, we believe that “We’re all in this together” is a far better philosophy than “You’re on your own.”

This exactly seems to be the crux of the matter and at the same time the dilemma. Many of us, myself included, are much more attracted to the ideal that we share rather than compete; that the crowd is wiser than the individual; that the more people included, the merrier. We may be generous to others, but we also still may feel more comfortable not asking for help, not depending on others, and taking our own decisions regardless of what others think.

I’m not sure we have to make this stark choice, or rather, we may truly need to be both self-reliant individuals and a people who come together to ensure a better life for all of us.

97. Group encounters across cultures. July 23, 2011

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Communication.
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In the 1980s, the exchange organization I worked for very much discouraged exchange students from telephoning home. The same was true of my daughter’s summer camp. Since there was only the camp phone number — no cell phones back then — the camp controlled the telephone use. In both cases, it was firmly believed that the parents’ calls to their children interfered with the children’s adjustment abroad or to the camp. That is what years of experience had told them: You can’t fully participate in the social life and the culture here if you’re constantly communicating back home. From a research perspective, I both respect the wisdom of years of experience and doubt the validity of a conclusion that isn’t based on some firm data. But until someone randomly assigns some exchange students or campers to endless phone class back home while another randomly selected group has their cell phones confiscated and monitors the adjustment of those in each group, we may tend to rely on the wisdom of experience even as it becomes increasingly hard to control the contact back home. But how would such research about cell phone use define adjustment success? It would most certainly be a measure of the individual student or camper’s satisfaction, learning, and interaction with others.

Coming from a very individualistic society, and having worked for an exchange program that sent individual students abroad to live with a host family, it’s not surprising that I have usually thought of the cross-cultural experience in terms of the individual from one culture who comes in contact with another culture. But I realize that this approach really misses the point. It may be even more common for a group from one culture to come in contact with another culture, and it is in this situation where cross cultural navigational skills are surely tested since your individual behavior is always on display to your own group.

Thinking back to exchange students (or summer campers), it makes perfect sense that one of the most frequently reported outcomes of their experience is an increased sense of autonomy and independence. A common re-entry adjustment issue for exchange students is the fact that their friends and family back home have very little interest in understanding the intense experience they just had bonding with other people in another culture. How totally different their experience would be if they were not the lone explorers of this new and fascinating cultural space, but rather came to the experience along with their parents and siblings! Yet it could still be an enriching experience for the family.

Inserting a group from one culture into another culture, whether a study abroad group, a group of refugees, an ex-patriot family, or even a group of New York work colleagues headed on a business trip to California, is a seriously different experience from that of the solo sojourner or the foreign manager from the head office. It isn’t a question of limiting or controlling the level of contact with those back home — they are they with you, and the social and cultural context that you share will also be present constantly as the group navigates the cultural waters of the new culture.  It is not possible, or even desirable, to dismantle the social hierarchy of your home group because it is your group, not just you personally, that needs to shift to accommodate the demands of the other culture.

The goal in these cases is not typically to integrate individually into the other culture (though this may be the goal for some group study abroad programs).  Rather, the group will seek to maintain its own culture’s goals and interests, and to enrich the group with the experience and interaction with the other culture. If this is a peace-building encounter, it is especially important that the group maintains its integrity and identity. The leader cannot force cultural adaptations and concessions to the host culture that the group as a whole does not want nor understand. In some cases, one member of the group may serve as a linguistic or cultural translator, but that may not be the same individual who leads the group or makes decisions.

A group cultural exchange calls on the individual members to consider their own culture in the context of the host culture. I have no model for this, but I would look for an outcome in which group behaviors became more flexible, and the group as a whole became more aware of its cultural context while considering how to integrate new possible futures.