Personalities, Profiles, Preferences, and Crossing Cultures

August 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

795619869_c1c80a9a37_zWhat personality types make for the best cross-cultural workers? I like to think that there’s room for all kinds, but it makes sense that certain types of people would find themselves drawn to or more suited for vocations that cross cultures.

When Peter Farley surveyed female missionaries from the UK, he found that, using the Myers-Briggs scale, there  are more “intuitive” (N) and less “sensing” (S) women among missionaries than in the general population. (The numbers are 42% Ns and 58% Ss among missionary women compared to 21% Ns and 79% Ss as a norm). The most common personality type is ISFJ, at 23%, but that is similar to the overall female population, while INFJs make up 12% of female missionaries, significantly more than the 2% norm.

Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, has a different scale for evaluating personality. It’s the “Culture Profile.” By answering the 24 questions of the assessment and choosing your country, you can see how you compare to your countrymen in eight areas:

  • low vs high context communication
  • direct vs indirect criticism
  • principles-first vs applications-first arguments
  • egalitarian vs hierarchical leading
  • consensual vs top-down decision making
  • task-based vs relationship-based trust
  • confrontation as a help vs hindrance
  • linear vs flexible time

You can take the assessment online at Harvard Business Review. Before you begin, I have a suggestion. Grab a pen and paper so you can jot down your answer to each question (you respond to each one on a scale ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”). This way you can see your evaluation alongside different norms by choosing a different country each time. Otherwise, when you retake the profile, your answers are reset, and it’s difficult to exactly duplicate your responses each time, especially since it’s easy to start overthinking your responses after seeing the outcomes.

When I took the test, I found that in several areas I don’t fit in with the American norm. One of these is the high context/low context scale. Here is Meyer’s description of “context”:

In low-context cultures (such as the U.S., Germany, and the Netherlands), good communication is precise, simple, and explicit. Messages are expressed and understood at face value. Repetition and written confirmation are appreciated, for clarity’s sake. In high-context cultures (such as China, India, and France), communication is sophisticated, nuanced, and layered. Reading between the lines is expected. Less is put in writing, and more is left to interpretation.

So the US is a poster child when it comes to low-context cultures. But my answers to the profile put me closer to the high-context extreme, where China resides. Maybe that’s because my ten years living in Taiwan altered my preferences, or maybe I was originally drawn to the Chinese culture because it fit my personality. It’s probably a little bit of both.

So take the survey. It may tell you something about yourself you didn’t know. It may show you that you’re a prime example of your country’s cultural norm. It may help you see why you sometimes don’t “get” the people around you, and why they sometimes don’t get you. It may show you some changes you should make in behaviors or expectations. And it may show you a place far away where being yourself would be the perfect way to fit in.

(Peter C. Farley, “Psychological Type Preferences of Female Missionaries,” Mental Health, Religion & Culture, November 2009; Erin Meyer, “What’s Your Cultural Profile?” Harvard Business Review)

[photo: "Me, Myself and . . . Dr," by DraconianRain, used under a Creative Commons license]

Mercy Ships, a TCK, Ex-Missionaries, and Small Clubs

August 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

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“We’re part of a small club.” That’s what a friend told me not long ago.

I was at a meeting where a young missionary couple had just finished presenting why they had left their ministry and had come back to the States. A former missionary myself, I made my way to the husband to thank him for sharing. Then my friend and his wife joined us. They had returned from the mission field, too. My friend said with a sigh, “We’re part of a small club.”

It is a small club. And when you’ve come back well before you thought you would, when you didn’t come back celebrating a finished work or returning to a greater ministry, when you’re still in the process of refinding your place back home, it’s a club that can feel smaller than it really is.

A few days later, I read an article in Christianity Today about a still smaller club. It’s a club  that currently has just one member. Her name is Carys Parker.

Carys is a TCK and an MK. And she’s the only person to have been raised on a Mercy Ship from birth through high school graduation. Spun off from Youth With a Mission (YWAM),  Mercy Ships is a Christian ministry providing free health care in port cities around the world—mostly in Africa—from the decks of its floating hospital.

Carys is the daughter of Gary Parker, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, and Susan Parker, an executive assistant. The couple met while working with Mercy Ships in 1987. Carys lived on the ship Anastasis until she was 12 years old, then moved with her family, including a younger brother, Wesley, to the Africa Mercy.

At the graduation ceremony for Mercy Ships Academy last year, Carys and her two classmates, aboard their home docked at Conakry, Guinea, addressed the audience. Carys began her speech,

I grew up here.  And without a doubt, my 18 years on a hospital ship in Africa will define me—even when I no longer live here. For just as every person’s worldview develops out of their unique set of experiences, living in this place, with all of you, has profoundly formed and shaped me.  And I am deeply grateful for a lifetime in this community.

And she ended with these words:

There’s an ancient African proverb that says this: “If you want to travel fast travel alone; But if you want to travel far, travel together.” I’m glad that we’ve traveled this road together.  I’m so grateful for you—as well as many former crew, who have passed through my life and now have gone on to other things.  By God’s grace, may I always be faithful to keep the main thing the main thing. Thank you.

Carys is now beginning her second year at Whitworth, a private liberal arts university. About the decision for Carys to attend the Presbyterian-church-affiliated school, Susan told Whitworth University News, “We come from a small shipboard community, and we know that the quality of the community is directly related to the quality of the product—whether that be healthcare or education.”

According to Whitworth University, their community is a campus located in Spokane, Washington, with 3,000 students . . . one of whom grew up on a boat off the coast of Africa, with 400 crew members representing more than 35 countries.

The Whitworth article includes links to segments from a 60 Minutes show that aired last year. The first is a 12-minute spot on Africa Mercy and the inspiring work done by Mercy Ships in Togo, West Africa. The second is a closer look at the Parker family, part of 60 Minutes Overtime.

Reporter Scott Pelley spends considerable time with Gary Parker and his family, and we hear about the staff’s amazing medical ministry as well as what it’s like raising a family in a 630-square-foot ship’s cabin. “The only life the kids have known has made them strangers back home,” he says, and Susan Parker tells TCK stories about her children: In the States, Carys didn’t know what a mailbox looked like, and Wesley (a white child in a white family) came back from school one day to tell his mother that in the past Americans had made slaves out of “our people.” Producer Henry Schuster describes Carys’s life in a way that would be familiar to Third Culture Kids: “She’s got one foot in America. She’s got one foot in Africa. But she’s in this other place in between.”

Living on a ship, of course, has its tensions and difficulties. “It’s not all sweetness and light,” Pelley reports, noting that Susan has not always wanted to raise her children onboard long term. But now, she believes that a ship is the best place for her and Gary to bring up their children, and she no longer wants to return to the States. “There’s nothing wrong with living at home,” she says, “but I don’t think it’s what we’re supposed to do.”

Pelley calls the ship “a tribe unto itself.” That’s a term I’ve heard—tribe—used to describe those who are or have been missionaries. I count myself a member of that tribe. I’ve never been part of a hospital ship, but I know the camaraderie and  purposefulness of being part of a mission community.

The 60 Minutes segments tug at my heart. Sometimes it’s easy to figure out “what we’re supposed to do.” Sometimes it’s not easy at all. We think, we pray, we talk, we argue, we worry, we wonder, we decide . . . and then we stay or we go.

Hearing Carys and her family’s story helps me better appreciate my club, my tribe. But I understand that I’m now here, raising my kids here. And that means I’m no longer part of a more exclusive club, those who are still there.

(Kate Tracy, “Carys Parker, Raised Entirely aboard Mercy Ships, Drops Anchor,” Christianity Today, July 8, 2014; Carys Parker, “Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing,” doingmercy, May 24, 2013; “Student Disembarks at Whitworth after Life at Sea,” October 16, 2013; “Africa Mercy: Hospital of Hope,” 60 Mintues, CBS, February 17, 2013; “Raising Kids at Sea: Meet the Parkers,” 60 Minutes Overtime, CBS, August 4, 2013)

[photo: "Africa Mercy," by Denise Miller, used under a Creative Commons license]

Noel, Missouri: Small-Town America and International City

August 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

10928762_e1b81e1c18_zFor many, strongman J. D. “The Ice Man” Anderson put Noel, Missouri, on the map. Leading up to his quarterfinals performance on America’s Got Talent this week, he talked about how the people in his hometown “wouldn’t even fill up the balcony at Radio City Music Hall.” He then went on to snap baseball bats in two, smash cinder blocks, and run headlong into blocks of ice.

Ask your grandparents, and they might remember Noel’s heyday as a place to send holiday mail for its “Christmas City” postmark. With the help of singer Kate Smith telling the “Noel Story” on the radio in the 40s and 50s, more than half a million pieces of mail passed through Noel in the days leading up to Christmas.

Noel’s high point as “Christmas City” is probably behind it (the high point for mailing Christmas cards anywhere  is probably in the past), and Anderson didn’t make it to the semifinals of America’s Got Talent.

But that doesn’t mean Noel’s time in the spotlight is gone. In fact, the small Ozark town can now stake a claim as an international city, with more per-capita cultural diversity than most metropolises hundreds of times its size.

The Joplin Globe reports that it all started when the Hudson Foods chicken plant in Noel recruited Hispanic workers from along the US-Mexican border. After Tyson bought the plant in 1998, more and more immigrants arrived, including refugees from Africa. Today, nearly two-thirds of the plants 1,500 workers are “minorities,” representing such places as Mexico, Somalia, Sudan, Micronesia, Kenya, Laos, Myanmar, and Ethiopia.

But the influx of immigrant workers to this town of 1,800 hasn’t always gone smoothly. A 2002 article in The Kansas City Star focuses on the difficulties—the graffiti, the stares, the shouted slurs. James Carroll, mayor of Noel, tells The Globe that when the Somalis came to town, a Mexican resident said to him, “I now know how you felt when we came here.”

According to a broadcast from Harvest Public Media, which was aired by NPR, in August of last year the tires on more than a dozen cars owned by Somalis were slashed. And Somalian workers say they don’t feel welcome at Kathy’s Kountry Kitchen on Main Street, where servers wear t-shirts that say, “I got caught eating at the KKK.”

While it’s clear that some in the Noel community wish the immigrants and refugees hadn’t come, there are also many in Noel open to the changes and helpful to the new arrivals.

“If you want to know what America is,” Angie Brewer tells Harvest Public Media, “come sit in front of the feed store and watch people go by in a turban, in an island skirt and in their overalls, and they’re all just going to work.” Brewer is principal at Noel Elementary, where about 11 languages are spoken by the school’s 400 students. She says that the schools are the “government agency in town.” “People come here if they need shoes, if they need clothes, if they’re hungry. We send 37 backpacks home every weekend with kids that just don’t have enough food.”

The schools play a big part in the lives of the immigrant children because of the opportunities that education provides. This is a theme that we hear in comments, recorded by Harvest Public Media, of the children of the immigrant workers:

Soe Soe, 18, from Myanmar, grew up in refugee camp in Thailand. Instead of going to high school, he works at the plant to support his family, taking English classes in Noel offered by Crowder College. “I have problem,” he says. “I cannot speak English. I think one day, when my sister already 18, I can go school. She say, ‘Don’t worry my brother. I gonna support you.'”

Eighteen-year-old Oscar is from Mexico. He came to Noel with his mother when he was two and was a senior in high school at the time of the interview. “Right after high school, I will be going to college. I will be the first of my family to go to college. That’s what motivates me, right now, to finish high school.”

Brewer and her colleagues want to make sure that none of the children miss out on the benefits of a good education. They want to make sure that none miss out on having any of their needs met. “No one’s going to fall through a crack in Noel, Missouri,” she tells Harvest Public Media. “It’s not going to happen. I mean some of these are my own children’s friends and these are my friends. They’re real people and you’re not reading about them on TV or hearing about them. They’re people that I know. I’ve been to their house. I’ve sat on their couch. I’ve held their hand. They’re real people and they deserve the best.”

(“Noel Christmas Postmarks,” Noel, MO; Wally Kennedy, “Somali Refugees Follow Mexican Immigration to Missouri Community,” The Joplin Globe, May 7, 2011; Donald Bradley, “In Small-Town Missouri, a Collision of Cultures,” The Kansas City Star, June 11, 2012; Abbie Fentress Swanson, “Noel, Mo.: Schools Build Safety Net for Immigrant Children,” Harvest Public Media, October 27, 2013; Peggy Lowe and Abbie Fentress Swanson, “Their Dreams, in Their Own Words,” Harvest Public Media)

[photo: "Immigrant Nation," by Ruby Sinreich, used under a Creative Commons license]

The City with the Most Cosmopolitan Skyline in the World—Gets an Update

July 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

519MBW3HVQLIt’s the most globalized, most international, most architecturally inclusive city in the world. The fact that it’s fictional is irrelevant.

It’s Babe’s city, and it’s the setting for one of the best cross-cultural films ever made—Babe: Pig in the City. When Babe and Esme Hoggett travel from their English farm to big-city USA, it’s not just Europe and the Americas colliding. There’s all sorts of collisions between species as well, with—to name a few—humans, dogs, cats, apes, mice, a duck, and, of course, a pig.

A wide shot of Babe’s city shows a wonderfully crowded skyline of landmarks from around the world. There’s the Chrysler Building, Big Ben, the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower, Christ the Redeemer, and more, all brought together in one metropolis.

Babe’s city was first revealed in  1998, and now, years later, it looks as if several skyscrapers have been added to its horizon. Not only that, but Franklin Templeton Investments has joined the neighborhood. The evidence is the Franklin Templeton commercial “Global Perspective,” which shows the additions of Burj Khalifa, the Petronas Towers, London’s “Gherkin,” and the list goes on. Of course, development comes with a price, as it seems that several structures had to be razed to make room for the new arrivals (Christ the Redeemer’s outstretched arms are nowhere to be seen). Makes sense. Rarely do you have enough real estate available to put in your own Mount Fuji.

So where exactly is Babe’s city? Well, in the movie, it looks as if it’s on the East Coast. And in the commercial, we can narrow it down to an area above Ben Franklin’s left eye. If that doesn’t make sense, you’ll need to watch the ad—and while you’re at it, see how many landmarks you can identify.

Brian Stokle at Urban Life Signs has analyzed the Franklin Templeton commercial and shows some pretty good evidence that the city has been built up on Downtown Vancouver. But I’m not convinced. To my knowledge, Babe has never set foot in Canada. (Visit Stokle’s post, “World Skyline,” for a rundown of the landmarks in the commercial, as well as a shot-by-shot description and other “geeky analysis and research.”)

“Global Perspectives” has been around for a couple years, and I may have seen parts of it before, but it caught my eye two weekends ago when I saw Taipei 101 sporting Benjamin Franklin’s face. That’s not as far-fetched as it might seem: According to a recent China Post article, Franklin Templeton Investments occupies office space in the Taiwan skyscraper. No word yet on when Ben’s face will actually adorn the facade.

(Brian Stokle, “World Skyline,” Urban Life Signs, June 20, 2012; Ted Chen, “Chinese Company to Establish Office in 101,” The China Post, July 5, 2014)

A New Blog: “Putting Words in Our Mouths”

July 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

2250062732_5d9670fba0_zThe Bible has been called the most quoted, most translated, most published, most sold, and most shoplifted book of all time. It is difficult to overestimate the impact of its ideas on Western culture. And, particularly in the translation completed under the direction of King James I of England in 1611, it has had a leading role in shaping the English language and English literature. Alister McGrath, in his book In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture, writes,

No other book has so permeated and penetrated the hearts and speech of the English race as has the Bible. . . . The King James Bible, along with the words of William Shakespeare, is regularly singled out as one of the most foundational influences on the development of the modern English language.

I wrote Putting Words in Our Mouths: A Look at Biblical Expressions in American English with English learners in mind, to teach them the meanings of commonly used phrases and to familiarize them with the stories and concepts of the Bible. Familiarity with the Bible leads to a better understanding of the art, history, music, politics, and customs of English-speaking peoples. The authors of The Bible Literacy Report II state, “Almost without exception, English professors we surveyed at major American colleges and universities see knowledge of the Bible as a deeply important part of a good education.” The report quotes a professor from Northwestern University who calls the Bible the “most influential text in all of Western culture.”

But this doesn’t mean that all English speakers are aware of or understand the Bible’s influence. In fact, serious English-language students who gain a basic knowledge of the Bible may find themselves ahead of many native speakers.

Today, biblical words and phrases—including idioms—appear in informal conversation, news articles, blogs, television shows, movies, popular songs, and literature. Even the word bible itself has a place in modern English as any “authoritative book on a particular subject.” Bible comes from a Greek word meaning “books.” This is because the Bible is a collection of 66 books, written by at least 40 men over about 1500 years. And on the pages of these books are written many well-known stories, some of which take place on a grand scale or involve huge groups of people—such as Noah and the flood, the 10 plagues of Egypt, and the journey of the Israelites to the Promised Land. Therefore, something that is “enourmous or extremely extensive” can be said to be of biblical proportions or on a biblical scale.

I invite you to join me on a journey through the Bible, using common English expressions as our stepping stones.  We’ll start at the best place possible . . . in the beginning.


The format of Putting Words in Our Mouths is simple. Each word or phrase is introduced with its definition and a sample sentence showing how it can be used in conversation. Then an explanation of the word/phrase’s origin follows, along with the biblical passage from which it comes. Where it differs from the more modern translation, I’ve included in brackets the expression in its King James version.

I will be adding expressions as time permits, moving from Genesis to Revelation. You can view all the posts in order by clicking on Browse All Entries in the right-hand column. You can also look for specific topics by using the search field.

(Wachlin, Mary, and Byron R. Johnson, The Bible Literacy Report II: What University Professors Say Incoming Students Need to Know, Bible Literacy Project, 2006)

[photo: "Used Bible," by Doug 1021, used under a Creative Commons license]

Storytelling: The Bosphorus Bridge between Cultures

July 10, 2014 § 2 Comments

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At one end of Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge, says Elif Shafak, is a sign that says “Welcome to Europe.” At the other end, another sign reads, “Welcome to Asia.” Shafak, the most widely read female author in Turkey, knows well this city that spans the Bosphorus Strait and connects two continents. She also knows well the push and pull of Eastern and Western cultures in Istanbul. She writes in Time Asia:

East and West are not water and oil. They do mix. And in a city like Istanbul they mix intensely, incessantly, surprisingly. That can leave the city confused about its identity. We Turks like to brag about straddling past and present, East and West, but we are not quite sure what we mean by that. We think of these two civilizations as boroughs we can go in and out of randomly. . . . But things are not so simple.”

Expanded Circles: Elif Shafak

Shafak has lived out her own cross-cultural experience. Born in France to Turkish parents, she was later raised by her mother in Turkey. Then, after her mother became a diplomat, they moved to Spain, Jordan, Germany, and back to Turkey.

Everywhere I went,” she says in a TED Talk, “The Politics of Fiction,” “I felt like my imagination was the only suitcase I could take with me. Stories gave me a sense of center, continuity, and coherence, the three big Cs that I otherwise lacked.”

While living in Madrid, Shafak attended an international school where she was the only Turk. While she describes the school as “a miniature United Nations,” it was not “a cosmopolitan, egalitarian classroom democracy.” Rather, she first encountered cultural stereotypes there. In her later moves with her mother, she saw more and more the general human penchant for retreating into “cultural ghettos”:

Now we all live in some kind of a social and cultural circle. We all do. We’re born into a certain family, nation, class. But if we have no connection whatsoever with the worlds beyond the one we take for granted, then we too run the risk of drying up inside. Our imagination might shrink; our hearts might dwindle, and our humanness might wither if we stay for too long inside our cultural cocoons. Our friends, neighbors, colleagues, family—if all the people in our inner circle resemble us, it means we are surrounded with our mirror image.

Shafak’s tool for helping break us all out of our cocoons is her fiction. She is the author of a number of novels, including The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi, which bridges 13th-century Persia and present-day Boston, and Honor, which tells the stories of Kurdish twins, one who grows up to live in London, the other staying in a small village in Turkey.

I’m not saying that fiction has the magnitude of an earthquake,” says Shafak, “but when we are reading a good novel, we leave our small, cozy apartments behind, go out into the night alone and start getting to know people we had never met before and perhaps had even been biased against.”

Intersecting Journeys: O. Z. Livaneli

I have not read any of Shafak’s novels, but I did recently finish Bliss: A Novel, written by O. Z. Livaneli in 2006. (It was made into a film in 2007.) Livaneli, like Shafak, is one of Turkey’s most prominent and most-read authors. And, like Shafak, his works often investigate the meeting of cultures.

In Bliss, the cultures are embodied by three characters: Meryem is a fifteen-year-old from a small Turkish village. After being raped by her outwardly pious uncle, she is shunned by her community. Then she is taken to Istanbul by her cousin to be killed. Cemal, a soldier, newly returned from fighting rebels in the mountains, is the cousin chosen to carry out the “honor killing.” And Irfan is a Western-educated professor who abruptly leaves his wife—and his wealthy lifestyle—to sail the Aegean Sea. It is on his journey that he meets Meryem and Cemal.

At first the novel tells three seemingly unrelated stories, each from a distinct viewpoint. Then, as the characters come together, their stories, and their perspectives, intertwine. The settings are varied as well: the shack where Meryem is imprisoned, given only meager food and a rope for hanging herself; the dangerous mountains where Cemal kills ruthlessly so that he won’t be killed; and the university offices populated by the colleagues whom Irfan despises. And then there are the locations that bring them together and expose them to people of still other backgrounds: the train compartment on the way to Istanbul, the chaotic city center and its decrepit surroundings, the home of an eccentric retired ambassador, and the close quarters of Irfan’s rented sailboat.

Through it all, the three have their worlds expanded, in dramatic and often very painful ways.

The Gift of Bridges

Thankfully there are storytellers around the globe such as Shafak and Livaneli, authors whose works juxtapose cultural differences and uncover similarities. These writers allow us to pick up their books and step outside the mirrored walls of our houses and onto bridges that traverse oceans and connect cultures.

By walking these bridges, we reach distant shores, and when our feet touch foreign ground, we find signs that read, “Welcome,” even when it’s not so simple.

(Elif Shafak, “Pulled by Two Tides,” Hurriyet Daily News, August 13, 2006, first published in Time Asia, August 7-14, 2006)
[photo: "Bosphorus Bridge," by Simon Q, used under a Creative Commons license]

Have Glasses Will Travel

July 3, 2014 § 2 Comments

Hey, kids, the next time somebody makes fun of your glasses, just tell them you’re going places. (Then show them this commercial from Glasses.com.)

“The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.” —Eden Phillpotts, A Shadow Passes, 1918

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