Friday, December 23, 2011

For deep experiences, is salad bowl or melting pot best?

I was priviledged to have an informational interview with Janet Bennett, a pioneer and thought leader in the intercultural communications world, a few days ago. Among her many insights, I was struck by a comment on recent findings about study abroad students. The ones who do the best in learning about culture, thriving during the program, etc. do NOT spend all their time with hosts.

They do best when they spend the majority of the day immersed in the new culture and then return to live with people from their own culture who can help them process their experience. (Obvously, it is a problem if they spend too little time in the host culture as well. The ideal numbers are 25-75% of their waking hours in the host culture, I believe.)

In a similar vein, we had a short discussion about faith communities and their efforts to be multi-ethnic. Many churches -- and other religious organizations -- try to draw in all the ethnicities represented in their community to a "united" service or program. The leaders (often white Western males) are usually convinced that everyone should move toward each other, adjust, and eventually become completely united in our diversity. But is this the best?

When I lived in South Africa during a turbulent time (my family left Cape Town three days before Mandela was elected), I began to understand unity wasn't the ultimate goal. From universities to the churches to media, separate language and culture specific programs with irregular opportunities for cross-cultural unity were emerging as the best model.

People certainly should come together at times to express their unity. Certainly we should learn to understand each other and cooperate on specific projects/issues/programs to build a better world. Definitely we must move past tolerance towards respect. But for deep experiences -- whether a learning experience like study abroad or a religious worship experience -- they are best done in your mother-tongue and with people like you.

Of course, this assumes the people from your culture are good at processing cross-cultural experiences, helping you focus on principles not minor differences, and don't reinforce stereotypes. Also, keeping "separate but equal" programs is virtually impossible for a government like South Africa -- or India which has thousands of sub-cultures -- to administer fairly. But that is fodder for another blog entry.

If my kids study abroad someday, I might not fight to the death for them to live with a host family. Then again, cross-cultural success is an art (as well as science) and perhaps if the goal is language learning, it would be good.

But the bottom line is that we shouldn't assume complete immersion or integration is always possible or best. Perhaps a salad bowl instead of a melting pot is a healthy model.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How India changed me…for good

Yes, living in another culture can change you both permanently and, if processed fully, for the better. After being back for three months and having a little time to reflect, here’s an incomplete list of how six years in India changed me.

Using the rear view mirror less. (Carpe moment!) When driving in India, you generally ignore what’s behind you and focus fully on what is throwing itself across your path. There’s plenty to watch out for (camels, cows, carts). It helps that top speed was about 35 mph, but still. When I’m meeting with you, I’m now better at seizing the moment (not just the day) and focusing on the conversation instead of living in the past or future. Also, if you want to meet and give me two options, I’ll take the soonest appointment possible because I suspect that a strike, civil unrest, flood, power outage, etc. could affect the later appointment. Sooner is more likely to happen…and if not, we can try again later. Similarly, if I see root beer in the store (or anything I’ve been searching for), I’ll buy extras right now. Perhaps your whole stock. You may not have more for a while.

There’s more than one way. When my internet was down at home, I knew a tall passing truck had probably torn down my cable (again). But there was always a USB modem. Or walking to a cyber cafĂ©. Or parking beside a nearby office with wi-fi and my laptop in hand. There are many ways to get things done, and in India you’re forced to explore and exploit those. Good for people like me who can find routine becoming a rut.

Limited options aren’t bad. The cereal aisle had 8-10 types. There were four kinds of pop (soda). If you could buy cheese, it was normally either mozzarella or cheddar. Limited options can streamline and speed up life. You survive just fine. You save time and energy by not obsessing over the infinite choices.

Pondering the network of relationships. In my culture where the end generally justifies the means and independence is valued, I never learned to forecast the relationship domino effect. I now think more about how an action might help or harm a relationship and – more than that – other associated relationships. Since the majority of the world’s cultures and businesses operate on caste/class/circles of influence, this is a great skill to enhance.

Never too close for comfort. I’m now aware of the huge amount of inhabited but empty buildings sitting around the USA. Most homes are empty during the day. Churches, synagogues, and mosques are only full during periodic meetings. In India, we had friends live with us at times, plenty of visitors, helpers coming and going, and more. Most families have relatives living with them or live-in servants or guards, so the house is always occupied. Places of worship are used for community meetings and more. You could say it feels more crowded, but it now appears to me to be a better use of space and wise stewardship.

I’m sure there are more ways I’ve changed. Give me a few more months or a lifetime to think about it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

On my Reading List: Fall 2011

I enjoyed a similar list by Seth Godin which you should check out as well. I'm still reading about a 50-50 mix of books on Kindle and physical copies, by the way. Wonder if that will shift for me in 2012?! A quick summary of books that I'm reading these days.

Unbroken, by Hillenbrand. I know this historical non-fiction book has been out for a year, but finally read it and it was worth every minute. Incredible story of Olympian, castaway survivor, Japanese World War II camps, forgiveness, and resilience. Great writing, but the story reveals the best and worst of humans, cultural differences, and the ability to transcend suffering.

Transforming Worldviews, by Hiebert. I'm a third of the way through a book that takes a lot of concentration but addresses the critical issue of how people change. Written near the end of the celebrated anthropologist's life, Hiebert is at his best with helpful diagrams and insights. Reminds me of similar insights from Influencer and other books.

The Cultural Intelligence Difference, by Livermore. Enjoyed this book by an academic who makes CQ very practical. Lots of good suggestions for improving CQ as well as an overview of the importance/cost of CQ. Probably the easiest read and most applied of Livermore's four books on the topic.

The 4-Hour Workweek, by Ferriss. Another older book, but I'm always amazed at how uncommon common sense is. But Ferriss has lots of it. He provides practical hints on everything from controlling your email inbox to establishing a small business. Fun reading and gets my brainstorm going. I'm almost done but might re-read parts!

Treasure Island, by Stevenson. This book is only 125 years old, but a great fiction adventure which took my mind off everything stressful. Read it on my Kindle and enjoyed every minute of this classic.

Another Lousy Day in Paradise, by Gierach. When I really need to escape, Gierach's books keep me laughing and inspired by the outdoors and the world of fly fishing. Almost done with this one, and now I just need to get my rods out of storage and wet a line.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

CQ and Money in Higher Education

The month has flown by mainly due to almost a dozen opportunities to speak to groups about my recent work in India. I really enjoyed giving a lecture last night at my alma mater, George Fox University, for a class that I wish they had when I was there! "The Majority World and the West" focuses on the complexities of development, aid, diplomacy, justice, and much more. I spoke on partnerships and associated issues like dependency and accountability. Yes, I did give the 100+ seniors (from across all the undergrad programs) an overview of CQ!

A brief conversation as I was leaving caught my attention. A professor mentioned that the international student population has changed. When I was there, my freshman year roomate was part of a large contingent of Japanese students. However, apparently, the sister schools eventually lost interest in GF due to some miscommunication (i.e. CQ!) issues.

Now there is an agreement with a Chinese organization or institution which has resulted in about 125 Chinese students each semester. What if CQ had been applied by university representatives? The result could have been increased respect, reputation, and certainly more students -- which means more income -- with both Japanese and Chinese students contributing to the great learning environment at GF.

Although it may seem like a "soft skill", CQ clearly has fiscal payoffs.

Monday, October 03, 2011

CQ more important than IQ?

Is CQ, your cultural quotient or "cultural intelligence", more important than IQ? What about EQ (your emotional intelligence -- which businesses often assess when hiring)? Of course, the answer is, "It depends."

First of all, the field of CQ is only about 12 years old. It started with the Y2K crisis when a Singaporian scientist noticed that IT experts were given identical instructions along with culturally sensitive team building activities...yet they returned home and solved the issue using their own methods. Since the field is new, there are a limited number of studies on what "success" CQ can bring. But it looks promising with consistent results from research in 35 countries and testing of about 25,000 people so far.

It also depends on your type of work. In many careers, with the exception of some highly technical fields where high IQ usually translates into success, CQ along with EQ seems to increase effectiveness.

Besides the type of career, CQ is especially helpful for those with certain responsibilities. It is proven to explain the success -- or failure -- of people who travel "widely but not deeply" across cultures (i.e. business executives, diplomats, relief workers). But it can also help anyone whose job includes virtual teams, outsourcing, global partnerships, or even dealing with diverse sub-cultures within a company.

Unlike IQ which remains mostly the same throughout your life, it's encouraging that CQ can be changed. Which also, in a sense, makes it more important than IQ. Time spent assessing and improving your CQ is not wasted time!

Personally, having studied cross-cultural interactions from a sociological and anthropological viewpoint during my M.A., I enjoy the statistical, factual, measurable aspects of CQ. It is based on scientific understandings of intelligence, has been validated by numerous "refereed" papers in top tier academic journals, and has been rigorously tested in the real world. It's not quite as squishy as other approaches -- to use a non-technical word.

Last week I became a "CQ Certified Facilitator" after some training with the Cultural Intelligence Center, based in the US. This organization is impressive -- they contribute to research and applying CQ to both for- and non-profit contexts. Very interesting and I'm looking forward to learning more.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Cultural comparisons by a 4 year old

Our oldest son has been making some good observations since we returned to the USA in mid-August. Although most are about behavioral stuff -- and very funny -- I love the insights!

"We haven't bumped into anybody yet." Said while driving with grandma to the mall. Um, yes, personal space and driving are a bit different in India.

"Everything is so shiny here."

"Did you know that you can drink the water from the taps in America?" Instructions given to his younger brother.

"Be careful. There are cockroaches living in there." Said while pointing to the bathtub drain. I assume/hope it isn't true!

"What are the lines on the road for?"

Of course, this is great stuff for a little guy to notice. The challenge for me is that I tend to talk about the same things, but there are so many other levels of culture that deserve consideration and dialogue like beliefs, values, or worldview. Not easy to articulate, but there are hints provided by the behavoral stuff.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Favorite reads for understanding India

The transition to USA (both the time zone and just living here) is underway. It's been a month since we arrived in Portland. It is taking longer than I expected, but I'm back in my right mind (mostly) and ready to write, think, and discuss!

Over the last eleven years since I first visited India, I've read dozens of books and hundreds of articles and websites on interacting with Indian culture. Here are my top picks of books for the record. If you're doing to go to India for more than a month, or need to interact with Indian on a regular basis, these are invaluable.

Speaking of India: Bridging the Communication Gap When Working With Indians by Craig Storti (Washington, D.C.: Intercultural Press, 2007). Primarily for the business context, this goes beyond how to be polite or customs and delves in values or beliefs that are different. For example, what is the purpose of the meeting or the role of a manager in the India vs. the West? Very practical, helpful and full of case studies by a guy who used to be in the Peace Corp and has consulted with businesses in USA and India the last few years.

In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce (New York: Anchor Books, 2008). Written by a British journalist who was stationed in India and is married to an Indian, this is a great overview of the paradoxes and amazing statistics of growing India. Also, you don't have to read from beginning to end. There are chapters on all the main issues today: the rise of the lower castes, India vs. China, etc. Great interview and crisp writing.

Being Indian: Inside the Real India by Pavan Varma (Penguin Books, 2004). A former Indian diplomat and well-known author asks the question, "With all the sub-cultures inside India, what are the common things or values that make all Indians tick?" He belives (and I agree) it is a unique pursuit of power, wealth, and technology combined with a contradictory embrace of violence and acccommodation.

Lastly, if you need a simple overview of India's history, traditions and customs, or etiquette (don't use your left hand to eat, etc.), then I recommend India - CultureSmart! (a very short booklet) or, for a little more depth, CultureShock! India. And a great book that is not India-specific but which definitely applies is Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot and Cold Climate Cultures. This book -- along with Being Indian -- has the added benefit that it's written from a neutral cultural viewpoint. In other words, you could read this book along with your Indian friend and have a great discussion while the other books are targeting a Western audience.

Do you know of other great reads -- especially recently published books -- on India? I'd love to learn about them!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Change is Good: about the new blog title

This blog turned into an excuse to have a log-in and password to add articles to our Spotts Family blog while living in India from 2006-2011. Now that we're heading back to the USA, I'm reposting some of my entries on cultural experiences written over the last few years.

Then we'll embark on some new posts about what I'm reading, lessons learned (or still being learned) about developing cultures, thoughts about the new discipline of cultural intelligence, and much more. "This Windy World"  is inspired by an anonymous quote about sailing but focused on the amazing variety and challenges of socio-cultural issues on our planet. Of course, I may occasionally disgress and write about sailing or flyfishing. Let's see.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Leaving India

When Libby and I moved to India in January 2006, we thought we'd work here for a long time...perhaps until any children were in middle school. There are so many opportunities in India: to help the needy, a growing economy, a diverse culture, amazing geography to explore, and more.

But we've decided to end our contract and move back to the USA in August. The decision has even shocked us a bit. We certainly have mixed emotions. On the one hand, we've been going two years at a time and re-evaluating after each chapter if we want to continue or not. We've completed almost 6 years and feel satisfied we've achieved many things, especially with my Indian clients and colleagues. Of course, it's not just about getting things done. Our children were all (four) were born here and we've had positive relationships with neighbors, shopkeepers, government officials, etc. And we've grown personally through challenges we intentionally brought upon ourselves by living in a developing country as well as challenges thrust upon us.

Through it all, we've learned more about ourselves and our place in this world. This is a process that most people haven't seen, of course, but has intensified over the last few months through conversations with a trusted counselor, close friends, colleagues, and family.

When my mom died in June 2000 and I listened to the things said at her memorial service, I had several things seared into my mind forever: we have one life to live to its fullest and people are what matter. For me, that involves helping my family thrive and using my gifts/talents to help the needy as best I can.

I'm a bit nervous about the next season of life...But sometimes we have to take one step at a time and trust that we've been walking on the right path...and the lamp in our shaking hands will reveal the next step as we move forward.

(originally posted on Monday, July 04, 2011 as "A decision...and Ben's thoughts" at

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

A million details to remember in India

It was really great having Libby's mom here with us for 2.5 months. However, in explaining how our house works, I realized how many small, inconvenient details exist in our daily lives here. It's not a complaint, just a fact. Here's a room by room guide.

Kitchen: don't forget that you can't run the microwave and toaster at same time or circuit breaker will trip, to turn on water pump for 20-30 min each day (to get water up to roof tank), to listen to pump -- if it runs dry it will burn up! to cover garbage to discourage cockroaches, to put honey in bowl with water or ants will get to it, and more

Bedrooms: don't forget to turn on/off ceiling fan when you leave the room, turn on/off the air conditioner, close the door to bathroom (and windows) when A/C is on.

Bathrooms: jiggle the faucets to get the water to turn off, turn on the water heater for hot water (and don't forget to turn off)

All rooms: don't forget to open windows at night and close them by 10am to keep the cool air inside, when you open/close windows you must be sure the velcro screens are resealed (or risk mosquito invasion), turn on the switch by the outlet if you want to use an appliance.

And more. You get the picture. Could some of these be fixed? Probably, but most aren't a big deal...until they are all combined! All I have to say: when my memory starts to fade, I will have a hard time living here!

(originally published on Tuesday, May 03, 2011 as "A million details to remember in India" at

Monday, April 04, 2011

Not Enough

Lots going on here. Got my leg brace off on Saturday (ACL is healing nicely). Enjoyed historic moment when India won Cricket World Cup on Saturday night and the resulting fireworks made my boys cry (temporarily). Shane survived a scary incident with a live wire and pliers. Our yard continues to attack Lukas (welts/hives from mystery allergy or perhaps insects). And baby #4 refuses to arrive; current plan is to induce on Wednesday.

But I wanted to write about something painful I've noticed. I grew up in a place that said: if there's not enough, we'll make more. As in, if we run out of apple pie, we'll make more. If there's not enough money in my account, there must be a way to earn more. If a store runs out of an item, there will be a nearby store that carries the same item for a little more money.

But here, and in many developing economies, people remember. There was a time in the not so distant past when there was not enough. When the rice was gone, there was no more rice and people died. When the gasoline ran out, the cars and motorcycles simply sat on the side of the road. When the money ran out, there were no loans available or second, part-time jobs.

Actually, since moving to Hyderabad about 5 years ago, there has been at least twice when there was a gasoline shortage for over a week. Many times when water for bathing/washing simple wasn't available for several days (both the well at our house was dry and the city stopped delivering water). And there have been many, many times when the electricity is simply turned off without an announcement and, soon, the batteries run down.

The results can be good. No electricity means children adjust to lukewarm gas-stove heated milk instead of microwave heated milk. We take baths by candlelight. Sometimes people with more will share. Overall, we adapt and don't get complacent.

The tough thing is that people who have experienced "not enough" instinctively fight for more. They might fight even when there is plenty to go around. For example, the space on the road is limited and there is no mercy for pedestrians or cars with too great a following distance. Or, although seats are assigned on a flight, people scramble to be first inside. Seeing the desparation and lack of grace that comes from believing there is "not enough" in the world is distrurbing, but understandable. Showing grace in the midst of agressive posturing is tiring but important.

(originally posted on Monday, April 04, 2011 as "Not Enough" at

Friday, February 04, 2011

Neighborhood DJ

I returned from a tiring but welcomed trip to rural India last weekend. It was good to be reminded of the challenges of 75% of India's citizens. The classic moment was when we were told to detour by police at a checkpost. Apparently, some villagers were blocking the road ahead because they want the road improved so that it will be ranked as a national highway.

This morning the annual celebration for a local temple began. They hook up loudspeakers to electricity poles throughout the neighborhood and broadcast a live singing session from 7am-10pm. The chanting is interesting at first, although a bit loud. After a while it either becomes white noise or a grinding headache. It depends on the quality of the musicians and the volume that the guy at the sound board chooses. It lasts for a few days. I wonder how it will turn out this year?

Shashi Tharoor, former top UN official and now a politician inside India, often observes that religion is anything but private here. Here is my favorite article on the topic of general noise levels in India.

(originally posted on Friday, February 04, 2011 as "Neighborhood DJ" at

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What I passed on the National Highway

On my way to the office, I drive on National Highway 7 for about 10 minutes. This morning was a typical morning. I passed the normal collection of amazing, unpredictable things that, after 5 years, seem normal. But fun to record them:
  • 8 water buffalo wandering without a guide (presumably on the way to pasture)
  • 2 camels with riders heading into town (probably to give rides at a wedding)
  • a flower cart (was definitely going below the speed limit)
  • bridge that's been under construction for 9 years (!)
  • our post office - colonial building with delightful staff and periodic electricity
  • several dhabas (essentially truck stops; these are restaurants with outdoor seating, huge portions, and great prices)
  • lots of garbage dumped along the road - including coconut shells which, when it rains, will float onto the road and make it exciting for two-wheelers!
  • fruit stands
  • Army base with a basketball court
  • and much more.

Some commutes, like anywhere in the world, are frustrating when there's bad traffic. But today was pleasant. Sunny skies and temps in the 70s F. Freedom on the motorcycle to weave in and out of traffic. Lots of things for the eye to behold!

(originally posted on Tuesday, January 11, 2011 as "What I passed on the National Highway" at