Global Leadership Insights

The Invisible Culture of Parenting

team vs individual

A French mother and a U.S. American mother are sitting in the playground parallel to one another. They both send their children off to play and they both give their children love when they come back crying after taking a fall. This is where their paths and those of their children go in different directions.

The French woman gives her child a kiss and some comfort and then scolds the child saying, “I told you to be careful. Now stay close to me and don’t get hurt.” The American mother gives a kiss and some comfort and then says, “Go on. Have fun. You can do it.”

This story can be found in the work of the French Psychoanalyst Pascal Baudry who discusses fundamental differences in French and U.S. American cultures from a psychoanalytic perspective. He says this example reveals a lot about how we develop our values. The French mother encourages group membership and closeness by resolving the problem with the solution of staying closer and not taking risks. The U.S. American mother encourages individuality with the resolution of going back out there and trying again.

Having grown up in the U.S. I often heard, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” The U.S. American child is rewarded for taking risks, learning through mistakes and gaining independence at an early age. The French child is rewarded for being cautious, avoiding mistakes and staying close to the group.

Such values carry over into the workplace where I have heard more than one French person complain about U.S. American’s tendency to act too quickly. “If only they would take the time to do it right the first time, we wouldn’t have to spend all of this time correcting their mistakes.” The U.S. American sees those mistakes as natural parts of the process that encourage innovation, creative thinking and responsive problem solving. Meanwhile, the U.S. American complains that when working with their French colleagues, there is too much time spent talking and not enough time acting.

In the end they both get to the same place at the same time, they just do it differently. So who is right and who is wrong? Global Leaders recognize and embrace such differences as natural parts of a person’s upbringing and how we learn culture. They suspend judgment in order to recognize, adapt and leverage the similarities and differences into strengths not weaknesses. Consider a global team that has planners and risk takers and imagine the possibilities.


The Invisible Culture of Privacy

The Invisible Culture of Privacy


Recently a woman from Singapore moved to the U.S. to work at a Fortune 500 company and was invited to her boss’ house for dinner. They were having a lovely time until the boss did something that made this woman totally uncomfortable. She gave her guests their drinks and then offered them a house tour. The Singaporean woman wasn’t used to this, but thought, “OK, why not.” It wasn’t until the boss was showing everyone the layout of the upstairs that the new arrival felt that things had gone too far. “She is my boss, why is she showing me where she sleeps?! It was totally weird.”

The American house tour has shocked endless newcomers to our shores over the years. I have heard similar comments from people from a variety of other cultures including Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and France. “Why do they show me where they carry on their private lives?” Or, “Why are they showing me the bathroom!”

In the U.S. people may expect to be given a tour and many U.S. Americans are happy to oblige since they take pride in their homes and feel it extends the relationship further. A house tour is an invitation to get to know someone better, a way to show people something beyond the sterility of work and ultimately a way to connect a little bit more deeply. Not all U.S. Americans give the house tour, but plenty do and some guests may even expect it.

The flip side is when someone keeps houseguests in the living room or dining area their U.S. counterparts may feel like the host isn’t being welcoming. A Dutch national once responded to that by saying, “Not welcoming! I’ve invited them into my home. How much more welcoming could I be when really in the end business meals should be kept to restaurants and public spaces.”

The notion of privacy affects many aspects of how we relate to one another from what parts of our lives we share to how we make new friends. It can affect the extent to which we discuss certain things with people with whom we work to how much we think our parents should know or be involved with our personal lives. This is particularly tricky for a newcomer since establishing new relationships and creating a community is typically on the top of the list of personal objectives, but how to go about that isn’t always clear.

I remember meeting a woman from Norway once who said she thought it was bizarre that U.S. Americans strike up conversations with complete strangers. Despite being taught at a young age to not speak to strangers, I recalled the time I returned to New York from Shanghai and someone struck up a conversation with me while waiting on line at a deli. I can’t remember what she said, but I remember thinking it was odd that she was talking to me.

My original self, before having moved abroad, wouldn’t have thought twice about someone making a small commentary about something we were both experiencing. In my U.S. culture, physical proximity is enough for someone to strike up conversation, but that in some cultures, like Norway, formal introductions, common purpose or shared membership to a group are minimum requirements for people to not think that you are completely crazy for talking to them.

The notion of how, when, and with whom it is appropriate to strike up a conversation is another layer of the Invisible Culture of Privacy that only becomes apparent to people when that moment of surprise, discomfort or bewilderment arises. One woman said she thought an American man was being a pervert, by the mere fact that he was talking her, “for no reason.” I remember another woman commenting at how strange she thought it was that a U.S. American neighbor could show up unannounced at her doorstep with an Apple Pie.

This is when understanding Invisible Culture comes in handy. Digging beyond visible surface behaviors can reveal when and how to approach people in a new culture, how much is appropriate to share or what to expect from your relationships. More importantly it provides tools for accurately evaluating tings that people do instead of jumping to conclusions about why they do it.

The world renown intercultural researcher Fons Trompenaars conducts research that identifies the extent to which it is culturally appropriate for there to be overlap between public and private life. He refers to these cultures as either Specific or Diffuse. Keeping in mind no one culture is completely one or the other, but he has revealed tendencies and preferences that run along national cultural lines.

In a Specific culture there is less overlap between public and private life. Work relationships are kept at work and personal relationships are maintained separately. Hedges grow high between neighbors and families tend to be less probing or actively involved in the life decisions of their young adult members.

In a Diffuse culture, all bets are off. Parents and aunts and uncles all tend to feel that a young adult’s activities are fair fodder for family discussion, neighbors can knock on your door to welcome you to the neighborhood and work relationships may involved more intimate conversations about personal activities over the weekend,  knowledge about your family make-up or your ideas about non-work related issues.

Whether or not someone is comfortable showing people their homes or talking about your weekend has less to do with whether or not they are willing to deepen a relationship and more to do with what cultural norms are adopted from a very young age. So the next time you are crossing cultures and someone shows you their toilet or tells you they are nervous about meeting their in-laws they may not be trying to be inappropriate, but instead just acting in a way that is normal from where they come.

Nonetheless, this American still believes bedrooms and toilets are off limits to employees!


Raising Globally Minded Children

How To Raise Globally Competent Kids

Hands on a globe --- Image by © Royalty-Free/CorbisWhat are your prejudices? For whom do you hold contempt? Is it the Hipsters? City people? Middle Easterners? Mexicans? African Americans? Maybe it’s rich people, poor people, white people or bankers? Be completely honest with yourself about which groups become scapegoats, evil-doers, and generally the people you blame for threatening your way of life and then think about how related comments may be affecting your kids.

We all have one if not more biases we carry with us. In some cases our judgments are what keep us safe in this world, but in others they can be harming us. No place is that more apparent then in how we set examples for our children. Whether you live in one place or travel around, success is no longer guaranteed by what a person knows so much as what they can do with that knowledge. I’ve met many experts in their fields who are stumped at how to get their projects to flourish because of cultural differences. Without cultural competence you can be a rocket scientist, but won’t be able to get anything off the ground if you can’t respect and mobilize your counterparts.

The need to equip our children with the ability to interact with or outsiders from either next door or around the world is increasing every day. While the ideal way to create globally minded children is to travel and expose them to different ways of doing things, there are a few simple (and even not so simple) steps parents can take to integrate a global mindset into their daily lives, whether they get on a plane or not.

1. Set the Example

Developing a global mindset unquestionably starts with the parents. How you react to things, categorize people, qualify information and respond to the differences around you will inform a big part of the attitudes your kids develop towards people who are not like them. Most of us aren’t doing anything wrong, but below are some ways of setting the example that can be added to our play books to better equip our children for a flatter world. By setting the example, fostering a global mindset in children ends up starting with us.

2. Us versus Them

Children will develop their attitudes towards difference through the things they hear their parents say. If parents have an Us versus Them attitude, their children will pick up on that and develop a similar world view. The Us/Them paradigm fosters a sense of false superiority that encourages exclusivism and actually weakens your children’s ability to objectively measure the world around them. It will certainly work against them when interacting with people globally. The Local/Outsider model is probably the most prolific example of this – local versus non-local, urban versus suburban, black versus white, rich versus poor, young techie versus old fogy. In the end the irony in it all is that our complaints about others, say more about Us than they do about Them.

3. Avoid Stereotypes and Generalizations

It is hard to avoid judging groups of people based on the behaviors that bother us about them, especially when those behaviors threaten a way of life. While sometimes generalizations can be helpfully descriptive, they can also be damaging if used too often. Example: the French are rude, Americans are loud, Germans are strict, Australians are fun, Chinese are clever. Even locally we use gross-generalizations: Hipster, Jersey people, Tourists, City folk, Rednecks. There are two problems with this. 1) It fosters the Us/Them and 2) It suggests that an entire country or group of people is unrealistically homogenous. That is a risky lesson to teach our kids if we want them to succeed in an increasingly heterogeneous world. Not only can it pigeon hole our kids into one of these categories, but it doesn’t allow for the diversity that exists within all cultures.

4. Qualify Lessons

In the United States children are often taught to look a person in the eye and shake hands firmly when they meet. In some countries looking an elder or superior directly in the eyes could be considered disrespectful. A firm handshake could be a sign of over confidence or lack of humility. When we qualify the lesson we are encouraging mindfulness, ex. “In the United States, you look at someone in the eyes when you greet them, but in some cultures this could be rude.” This lets children know that their way isn’t the only way, which leads to mindfulness.

5. Use Descriptions

It is easy to jump to conclusion based on what we see, but sticking to descriptions protects us and our kids from falling victim to inaccurately using our visible cultures to interpret someone else’s invisible culture. Continuing our above example, three possible ways a person could react to a firm hand shake:

a. Description: The young woman squeezed firmly when shaking hands.

b. Interpretation: The woman is rude and doesn’t understand my culture. She can’t be trusted.

c. Evaluation: The woman is bad.

(Generalization: Western women are over confident and disrespectful).

By sticking to descriptions we are teaching our children that there may be more to certain behaviors than meets the eye. How would you feel if someone judged you negatively for something you were taught was good, like a firm handshake?

6. Teach Them Another Language

Learning a language is a full-time commitment. For a child the ideal way to learn a second language is to be surrounded by it, but that is a primary goal or luxury few have. Language holds cultural cues often not accessible otherwise. Consider the Chinese character for home: the characters for house and woman combined. When you travel to a country with a foreign language learn a few key words and phrases and encourage your children to do the same. Good morning, thank you, please, where is the__, goodnight and I don’t speak ___, can go a long way to modeling respect. It has the added benefit of letting people from the host culture know you are at least trying. In the end it isn’t necessarily important to get children to fluency so much as it is to opening their minds to other possibilities.

7. Books and Films

Exposing children to books and films that have protagonists that are from different backgrounds can be incredibly enriching. has a great list of cartoons that feature main characters that aren’t the prototypical white.  Some of our favorite movies to watch at home with our 5 and 7 year old include Kirikou and any of Hayao Miyazaki’s Films . If you children are studying a certain language then having them watch films in that language will help with comprehension over time. Disney has a wide variety of offerings in multiple languages, even though most of their standards wouldn’t fall under the multi-cultural category.  Amazon has a list that acts as a great starting point of Best Books to Teach Children About Culture and Barnes and Noble has an excellent section on Teen Fiction – People’s and Culture.

8. Welcome an Exchange Student

Inviting a member of another culture into your home is a great way to expose children to difference. Ideally, an exchange student will speak the language that you are trying to encourage your child to learn, but if language isn’t involved, simply having a person from another culture provides all sorts of opportunities to discuss geography, culture and different ways of doing things. While this is a commitment, many people find it enriches the lives of all parties involved.

9. Travel

There is no better way to expose children to respecting different ways of doing things than to travel while incorporating the above tips into your interactions. If international travel isn’t your thing, then simply going to a neighboring state or community also provides opportunities for showing respect and appreciation for our differences. It is also valuable to keep in mind that being involved in local community activities that include people with disabilities is another way of transporting yourself into another culture as most of the time those communities have their own specific cultures that affect their values, beliefs and communications patterns as well.

10. Have a Globe and Atlas on Hand

Having a globe and atlas around the house allows you to talk about where your children are in relation to all of the other countries and people in the world. UNICEF publishes a couple of great books by Anabel and Barnabas Kindersley, one of which is called Children Just Like Me which shows kids from around the world in their local clothes and environments. This combined with the atlas and globe makes the conversation more dynamic and visual and allows children to relate to different locations more dynamically.

In the end, it isn’t necessary to take extreme measure to raise a globally minded child. Every country has its own cultural similarities and subcultures that contradict those since each individual is unique regardless of their background. The key is to be flexible and be able to adapt to each situation that arises. Simply changing the way in which we talk about people from different places provides the example for children that they can keep with them a lifetime.

Let us know your thoughts and please share some strategies from your own playbook.