Monday, November 30, 2009

Vivan Las Mujeres!

This morning I received a video in my e-mail and it inspired me to write about women. It was something I wanted to write about a while ago, but for some reason or another I kept postponing it.

The first thing that made me think about this topic was the visit of the CEO of the company I work for, Ms. Yukako Uchinaga. She was in Toronto two weeks ago and for me, having the opportunity to meet (not face to face unfortunately) such a successful woman, was a reminder of the strength and persistence of the gender.

I come from a family who has seen it all: from dissappeared relatives, to terminal and mental deseases; divorces, stepfamily, alcohol... you name it. Women have been the pilars who have stood tall and strong and faced all these difficult situations with a smile in their face hoping for better times to come. Women in my family are the ones who make sure we don't forget about spending time together no matter how far we've gone.

The more people I meet the more I realize how much our role has changed and how much we have achieved. A lot of families today have gone from the two income, two full time working adults setting to the male picking kids up from school, helping them with their homework and fixing dinner because she had to work late kind of thing. In many cases the woman is the one with a better position, salary and therefore more demanding schedule. And even more so, you see more single moms who are successful business women and fantastic mothers. Wow! We have come a long way!

So today I want to thank all the exceptional women in my life for everytthing  they have taught me, not only through their voice but mostly through their acts.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Hola, Hello, Bonjour, Bom Dia...

Unfortunately for a lot of people, moving to another country does not only mean they will have to cope with a different culture, but also a very different language. In many cases, they will have some knowledge of this new language, enough that they are able to at least "survive" in their everyday life. However, these limited skills represent a huge barrier when all you want is to meet people and make friends as soon as possible to be able to start feeling "at home" in your new home.

Here are some tips on how to start communicating in your new language when your skills are minimal and how to take the best out of the situation:

1. Don't be shy. That is rule number one. If you want to succeed you have to take risks and you have to look for opportunities to try to communicate. You will make mistakes and you will feel embarrassed, but it is the only way (and the most effective) to learn. Always remember that your ultimate goal is to make friends and feel a part of this new community.

2. Use a lot of gestures. Pick simple, universal gestures to help express yourself when trying to communicate. Sometimes you will feel stupid, like some sort of clown, but believe me as soon as people begin to understand what you want to say, you won't care.

3. Take small steps, be patient. Start with the most basic everyday situations. Your first lesson can be to learn how to ask for directions. For one week, get out everyday and walk on the streets, read the signs, learn how to say "right" and "left". Try talking to people, asking for directions to a specific address; get in a taxi and try to get the driver to describe what he is doing while taking you to wherever you want to go, e.g. "I am turning left on ..." .

4. Go grocery shopping. One of the best places to learn a new language is the market. Everything you see has a sign, so you can get a lot of new words just by walking down the different aisles. Listen to the clerks greeting people and people asking questions about the products. You can also practice the colors and numbers and some adjectives to describe what you see.

5. Join a club. If you like hiking, or walking, or skiing, etc, join a club. You will meet people with the same interest and that will make it easier for you to communicate with them because the conversations can stay within the same context. They can start with very simple, basic sentences, and as you progress they can become more complex. Plus, you will start building relationships.

6. Avoid speaking your mother tongue. As much as you can avoid closing yourself up to new opportunities by hanging out with people who speak your native language. I know it relieves a lot of the stress and pressure and tiredness of this huge change, but it will not help you to adapt to your new world.

7. About watching/reading the news. A lot of people believe this is a very good practice tool, and it is, but only if you prepare yourself beforehand. It is very difficult to understand something you are not familiar with. My suggestion is, find a piece of news in your own language and then try reading it in the new language, you'll see how much more sense it makes.

8. Have fun. Don't suffer from this experience, don't do it because you have to, give it a purpose. Think of something you like doing and let the language be the means for doing it. Let's say you like biking, your first lesson will be to buy a bike, then to get a map of the paths and trails you will follow, then joining a biking club, etc. At the end you will realize how much you improved in the new language because you had to express yourself to be able to do something you wanted so badly.

9. Be a link in the chain. Once you have gone through this difficult experience and you have successfully adapted to your new culture and language, help other fellow expats by sharing the techniques that worked best for you.

10. If you are planning to take language lessons before you move, make sure you pick a conversational method that teaches you real life communication and that is able to adapt the program to your own needs.

Learning a new language should be fun, it is important to remember that. Never enroll in a program that you will hate after a while. There are tons of schools and methods out there, so make sure you choose the one that best suits your needs, interests and your own learning style. And if you are not the kind of person who can commit to a formal course (fixed schedules, structured materials, etc.), then make it your own personal adventure, you can make every daily situation a learning experience and every place and every person the perfect textbook.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

10 Tips to Have Fun While Interacting with Other Cultures.

I have read many documents with recommendations on how to better cope with cultural differences in the workplace. There are some very useful ones, but some that are not that good.

That is why I decided to come up with my own list of tips, let's see what you think of it...

1. Be specific. When you have to explain something or set the rules, make sure you don't take things for granted, there are things that for you are obvious, but not for everyone else. For instance punctuality, in some cultures (like the Mexican) people are expected to show up 30 minutes later than the appointed time. It is also a good idea to check for understanding by having the other person repeat what you said, that way you avoid misunderstandings.

2. Ask a lot of questions. When you get instructions to do something, make sure you ask all the questions you need to make sure you understand what is expected from you. Make sure your questions are open ended so you get more than just a "yes" or "no" answer.

3. Be empathetic. Before judging or critizing someone's emotional reaction or unexpected behavior, try to find out and understand the cultural background and context behind the situation.

4. Show genuine interest. If you start a conversation with another person regarding cultural issues, make sure you do it because you are truly interested in learning about his or her country; if you aren't, it's better to talk about something else. Culture is a very sensitive topic and people can feel offended if they feel you are being condescending.

5. Don't generalize. Even though there are common things to different cultures, treat each person as an individual. I remember meeting a German girl who told me how bad she felt everytime someone asked her questions related to the nazis, Hitler, etc. She felt like everyone thought all Germans were like that.

6. Think twice before using humor. Humor is a very specific cultural trait, make sure you don't use it unless you have a good understanding of the culture you are dealing with. If you do decide to use it, though, make sure you are prepared to apologize if your audience doesn't understand it as intended.

7. Space, body language and tone of voice. Make sure you maintain all these three things neutral. When speaking, don't raise your voice a lot, but make sure people can hear you well. As for body language, don't gesticulate too much and avoid touching people, this also goes for the space between you and the other person, make sure you don't come too close. Something I have learned here in Canada is that people hate the subway because "you get to be too close to other people"...

8. Be ready to apologize. We all make mistakes, and when it comes to cultural differences anything you say or do (unintentionally, of course) can be offensive to someone else. If it happens, don't worry too much about it, but make sure you apologize and explain your intented message.

9. Speak with a simple language. When it comes to communication it is great to be able to speak the other person's language, but as we all know, that is not always possible. We normally switch to English and depending on our level in the language and the other person's, we hope we can understand each other. Make sure you don't use idioms or slang when you speak, keep it simple and clear.

10. Be open and eager to learn. There is so much we can learn from other cultures, so if you have the chance to share the workplace with someone from a different background, take advantage of the situation and learn as much as you can!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

40 Years After, What Have We Done With It!

When Aristotle said "man is a social being" he had no clue of the extent of his statement.

More than two thousand years later, we have proved how right he was. We have taken that concept and exploited it to the point where poeple all over the world are being able to share all kinds of ideas, experiences, questions, etc.

Forty years ago, Leonard Kleinrock sent the first message through the internet not knowing how huge it would become. In an interview by Sharon Gaudin he explained how from the beginning he saw the internet becoming a powerful tool for business, but he never imagined it would have such an impact for social use.

Social media is today the best way of getting to know people no matter where they are. With more than 200 websites dedicated to connecting people with different interests, cultures, ideologies, etc, the concept of globalization has taken a whole new meaning. Not very long ago, people used to say that a book would enable you to travel to other places of the world without leaving your chair; now, the internet allows you to do that and much, much more.

For me, the possibility to share pictures with my family and friends through Facebook; the chance to expand my professional network through Linked In; the opportunity to know what is happening around the world through Twitter and the ability to share all of this through this blog have made my life richer. These tools definitely contribute to the realization of dreams and believing anything is possible.

The fact that I can share thoughts with Sarah Novak in Manila, Cindy King in France, Matthew Bennett in Spain, just to give a few examples, and visit sites like Pocketcultures, ExpatWomen and W-Women Globally bring very interesting experiences to my life. Each day getting into the internet opens so many windows to so many opprotunities...

As human beings we all have that urge to communicate and share our experiences with other people. For me, living abroad and having to adapt to a new culture has become so much easier after reading about other people who have experienced similar situations, it makes me feel I am not alone in my journey through the world.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Long History of Economical Recessions

I was reading an article today about a survey that KPMG conducted on the way companies accross the world had reacted towards the economical recession and how they were planning for the future years.

This is something that not very long ago I was discussing with a friend in Mexico who had just started his own business. I was asking him if the crisis was not affecting him and he said something very true, he said, "Mexicans are used to facing economical crisis, we live with the constant fear of being laid off, or going bankrupt all the time. This recession is just one more of many!". According to the survey, Latin American companies were coping better with the situation and were applying lessons learned from previous crisis to overcome this one, while North American and European organizations were finding it harder to manage.

To me, what really stands out here is the will power and strength these cultures have to fight these crises,  they work harder than ever and learn from it for future experiences. People don't quit easily, they are willing to do whatever it takes to keep their job, or their business. They are very creative and they are always looking for ways of making more money and reaching out to more people. They may not be the tech geniuses coming up with the social media and networking sites in the internet, but they are very good at identifying needs and gaps and filling them to the best of their ability.

It is sad to see that people have become strong because thay have had to endure these difficult situations so many times, but their strength, hardworking nature is something that cultures around the globe should appreciate and consider and in the end also learn from. Countries with strong economies should also be better prepared for these situations and they could probably do it by borrowing some of the Latin American expertise (for lack of a better term).

Due to the bad situations in many of these countries a lot of us have immigrated and are now willing to put all  of our strength and power in the workforce of our new countries. We are very open, hardworking people who are constantly looking for opportunities to show the world how much we are worth.

My Sister's Experience

So here is the report on my sister's "international Business Meeting" experience. She was ecstatic!!! She loved it, it seems like the opportunity to meet people from all over the world ended up weighing more than the stress of the responsibility.

I remember when I was first invited to participate in an international meeting at work, I was super excited but very nervous at the same time. However, when I was there, I realized that no matter how high up in the company people were, they were just as excited and eager to meet colleagues from other countries. It was a time when the company invested a lot in bringing people together and the result, at least from my perspective was having more motivated and engaged employees who felt they belonged to an organization that went far beyond the branch or office they worked from.

Even though traveling constantly is something not everybody enjoys, I am sure a lot of people like working in international environments and dealing (not necessarily face to face but by e-mail and phone) with coworkers from other nationalities. It brings a different kind of learning experience that enriches the daily routine and increases the cultural awareness.

Just like my sister I am thankful of having had the opportunity to meet wonderful people and participate in international forums that broadened my professional perspective. Global companies should know that sometimes more than a salary increase or an extra bonus, an employee will appreciate the invitation to one of these international events.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Once You Are There, How Do You Move On?

When you are told by your employer that you have the opportunity to be transfered to another country with an expectation of a better life, you really don't think it twice. Everything seems too good to be true, you pack your things, you say your goodbyes and you start in your new job with this sponge-like feeling of wanting to learn and absorb as much as you can.

For your partner, the feeling is somewhat similar, however, they have to deal with professional issues and accept the fact that they are arriving in a country where nobody knows who they are or what they have done. Their resume, no matter how impressive it was in their own country, here it doesn't mean much. Employers are looking for candidates with local experience that they can rely on. Anyhow, after some time (for some a few weeks, and for some several months), they end up finding a job... maybe not the ideal job but one that is good to start with and that will give them the necessary experience to move on.

Something you normally do not consider when you are first offered the opportunity is what will happen after a few years. Let's say your company goes through an economical crisis and they lay you off, or you want to grow professionally and move to a different industry, or you just need more money and your company is not offering it. For your partner, it can just be the urge of getting to the level he was before relocating. This may not happen until after a few years, but still, are you and your partner prepared to compete against other candidates with a lot more experience (cultural and professional) in that country, with studies of "recognized" (local) institutions and who better understand the whole "looking for a job" process? In fact, at least here in Canada, there is government help for newcomers in learning how to write a resume and prepare for an interview but I haven't heard of anything that helps them get a promotion or move between companies/industries.

A lot of people say it is much easier once you have had at least 1 job to find another one.  I don't think so, it is just as difficult. It is still hard for employers to appreciate your skills and experience and they expect you to stay in the same kind of position with at least three or more companies before giving you the opportunity to take a more senior position. They are still looking for some kind of certification to validate your knowledge, and there are still hundreds of candidates competing against you who have better chances of getting the job.

My recommendations:

1. Try to grow within your company as fast as you can, that way at least you can aspire to the same kind of position when you decide (or have) to move to a different company.

2. Get certified or take a course that can validate your knowledge and experience

3. Don't stay stagnant, if you feel you are not comfortable in your job after 1 year, move on, even if that means getting the same kind of job somewhere else.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Language Learning, a Personal Responsibility?

My sister called me last week because she was going to participate in an international business meeting and she was freaking out.

She works for an airline and when she was hired her English was much better. Even though it was a requirement to get the job, she doesn't really use it on a day-to-day basis, so 16 years (give or take) later she can't get any sleep because she is in charge of a group of executives coming from different countries all over the world and she needs to take them to dinner, make sure they enjoy their stay and get them whatever they need for this meeting. She has no clue how she will be able to communicate with them.

The issue here is if it was the employer's responsibility to make sure her English was up to date before assigning her to this project, or because it was a requirement when they hired her, it was up to her to make sure she maintained her level. I think as individuals we all need to look for continuous improvement and personal growth but I also think that employers shouldn't take that for granted, they should offer their employees ongoing training and they should be involved in their professional development. I don't think it's fair to expect an employee to perform well in a situation that is out of the ordinary with a skill that he/she hasn't practiced and is not part of his/her daily responsibilities. In the end, it is the image of the company what is at stake and the outcome of such an important meeting.

There are skills that are just like sports, if you don't practice them on a regular basis you become clumsy at them. Languages are a very good example. I always say that whatever you have learned of a second or third language stays in your brain and it is just a matter of using it again for it to all come back, but you can't expect to speak well from one day to the next. International companies (and mostly airlines) should make language learning a part of their standard benefit package, it shouldn't be considered a "nice-to-have" skill.

I wish my sister the best of luck. I am sure it will be a learning experience for her that will help her grow personally and professionally. I can't wait for this meeting to end so she can tell me how it went...

Thursday, November 5, 2009

10 of My Favourite Cross-Cultural Movies

Here is a list of movies related to cross-cultural issues and languages that I have seen and enjoyed a lot. Do you have any other suggestions?

1. "Love Actually". I love this movie, the way it covers different kind of love stories and the challenges each character faces including cultural diversity and languages.

2. "Lost in Translation". This movie reflects the culture shock you feel when living in a country with a different language and very different customs in a very real way.

3. "The Namesake". When I saw this movie I kept thinking about my son and how he will feel about his inherited culture.

4. "In America". Quote: It's not "José, can you see", it's "Oh say, can you see". Memorable!

5."La Misma Luna" A nice story about the challenges immigrants in Central and South America face when going to the US.

6. "Water" I learned so much from the Indian culture.

7. "Babel" What a great movie (thanks Gabriel for reminding me)

8. "My Big Fat Greek Wedding". Very funny, and it was filmed in Toronto!

9. "11"09'01-September 11". The effects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks are told from different points of view around the world.

10. "Kavkazskiy Plennik" (Prisoner of the Mountains). Beautiful movie, but it may be difficult to find.

Is There a "Manual" for Dating Someone from a Different Culture?

I was reading an article on how hard it is to date someone from a different culture when customs between the two indivuduals are so different.

I would like to hear your comments regarding your own experience in cross cultural relationships. I have thought about different topics:

1. How do you show you are interested in the other person (do you just flirt subtly, are you more direct and approach the person to introduce yourself, do you send him/her a written note?)

2. When you start dating, who pays what? (in some cultures the male pays everything during the date, in others each one pays their own expenses)

3. At what point do you introduce her/him to the family?

4. When is the relationship considered formal?

5. Marriage vs living together (in some cultures it is not well seen to live together with your partner without being married)

It will be very interesting to see the difference from culture to culture, and who knows, maybe we can come up with a little "manual" after compiling all your comments...

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Language Extinction

We hear a lot about the extinction of species but we rarely speak about cultural extinction. I was today that every 14 days a language dissappears and that by the year 2100 there will only be more or less 3500 languages (half of what there is today) in the world. In Mexico, for example, out of the 250 languages that were being spoken before the Spaniards conquered the territory, only 62 prevail.

A lot of those languages are very specific and thus very hard to translate or to use in more universal contexts. An example of this is the word "chary" which in Todzhu (an endangered south Siberian language) means "2-year-old male castrated reindeer that can be used for riding." Imagine how simple the life of the people who live in this part of Siberia must be, that they have a word that expresses such a specific concept. Also, most probably these languages are spoken by very small communities. Maybe the reason why they get lost is that new generations need to learn the "official" language of the territory they are in to be able to communicate outside their community and that language becomes more predominant. If we go back and think we are loosing one of these languages every two weeks I can't imagine how much culture and history are being lost!

I also think about the people themselves and how terrible it must be to be forced to adopt a new language and give up a lot of their culture to be able to cope with their everchanging surroundings. It is already hard for people living in big cities to keep up with technological and social changes and to maintain traditions in this globalized world. Understanding those changes must already be so difficult for people in those communities, let alone adapting to them and accepting the fact that much of their culture will get lost.

So the question to ask here is how much more of these minority languages and their encompassed culture will actually dissappear in the future. What can be done to preserve them? National Geographic has a project called "Enduring Voices" whose goal is to document endangered languages and prevent language extinction. There is also a minority language song contest in Netherlands that has taken place for 8 years. For the rest of us (and I am talking about us immigrants) it is a matter of cultivating and maintaining our traditions even in our new home and sharing them with our kids so that they don't get lost.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Multicultural Education

One of the things that I really like about Canada is the fact that my son will have the opportunity to study with kids from different cultural backgrounds.

It must be fascinating for a teacher to take part in the education and personal growth of individuals who are so different. Even though they are all going through the same developmental stage, each one's learning porcess must be so dissimilar. The aspect I like the most about teaching is to learn about my students and the very personal touch that they put to a course that is the same in content. I can't imagine how much an Elementary teacher can learn from her or his students and how rich the lessons must be.

I can already imagine the play dates my son will have and all the experiences he will go through as he shares his own inherited culture with his friends. I am sure that will have a huge impact in his education and it will help him become a more sensitive and open individual.

In Mexico we consider ourselves very open to new things and very respectful to other ideologies and customs, however, we are not exposed to a lot of people from different backgrounds and when it comes to actual interaction we just don't have a lot of experience. On the other hand, we are also a culture with a very peculiar sense of humor that mocks everything we can, including (and I am not proud of saying this) other cultures, so in the end, we are not as open and sensitive as we think we are.

So far, my experience in Canada in regards to the people I have met has been great. Two examples of countries that I would have never imagined meeting someone from are Malta and Ethiopia. In these past 4 years I feel like I have learned so much and I have become a lot more culturally aware. It is something that makes me feel proud of and that I want to pass on to my son, I also want him to feel a citizen of the world, not necessarily because I want him to live abroad but because of all the people he will have the chance to meet while living in this beautiful country.