Race, gender & cultural appropriation

Recall the fires on gender and race that were flaring up? In response to Tim Hunt’s dinosaur joke on women in labs and falling in love and crying, another scientist had put up an image of a tree house with ‘no girls allowed’ – which reminded me of the all male meetings Tumblr blog and the Calvin & Hobbes G.R.O.S.S. cartoon. Interestingly, the argument now goes that it has highlighted women in science more than any other campaign ever managed – with many women taking selfies in the lab, at fieldwork etc. It cost Prof Hunt his metaphorical head but perhaps he sort of deserves a bronze version of it – displayed in UCLs gardens maybe…

So, following on from that Twitter went nuts over Mr Jenner turning Ms Jenner and how she now needs to return her Olympic medals because in the past he “always felt he was a she” and so competed under fraudulent circumstances. That said, she got congratulations for being herself and being honest – even from Obama.

Not so much for Rachel Dolezal who is white but feels black. A woman who campaigned for black rights but then was outed as her parents as white. Cultural appropriation is complex. It means that if you wear Dutch clogs without knowing the meaning of it or being of Dutch heritage, I can be offended. ‘Can’ because it’s not actually about the item of cultural representation but the underlying power relations. So in the Dolezal case another twitter storm ensued. I’m standing on the sidelines trying to think it through – it seems the liberals have accepted transgender people more than transrace people but only in one direction of the latter – white to black, as black to white is a matter of power struggle.

Cultural appropriation (Pepper the Dog with Dutch clogs)

But, in the words of Radiohead, do we do it to ourselves? Segal and people argue that race isn’t biological – it’s a category we invented. So if we’re on a spectrum, we are not bound by categories. When we continue mixing, it’ll get increasingly complicated to categorise the world.

Thus if cultural appropriation includes racial appropriation and are we then saying race is a culture (system of shared meanings – not biological?) and if a white woman dying her hair black is outrageous, can offence be taken by women about gender appropriation when transexuals find it feminine to don theatrical make up, wear tiny skirts and lacy tops as it is not representative of what women are and, in some eyes, ridicules it? But isn’t the transexual being exposed to a non-empathetic outside world and thus such cultural appropriation isn’t the same as somebody wearing  sari without understanding  the cultural values behind it?

Through the process of differentiating, we set boundaries and tell others, just as there was a move to be politically correct/inclusive/multi-cultural that they can now not take on that (part of) identity. We then engage in ‘othering‘ ourselves for the purpose of highlighting that the external (skin, clothes, ceremonies) are part of a deeper underlying system of shared values (culture). It takes a bit of conscious thinking and lower gear shifting to fully understand the hurt. As Bill Withers sang in the 1970s “who is he and what is he to you?” applied to a 2015 context.

Continue Reading

Oh that’s why?

Cross cultural management is the ability to handle issues between people from different backgrounds effectively. In our current globalised environment, any individual with responsibility over or for others, i.e., a leader and decision maker, would do well to take heed of the cultural differences that exist but it can be a minefield . We are never neutral, and all that we perceive is through a filter coloured by our cultural background.

However, it is also often ignored by people in leadership roles because the benefits of training can be difficult to translate into a hard cost-benefit analysis and it goes against the general idea that we live in a global village, where modern people think similarly and where there is no need for understanding cultural differences.
In this report, I summarise the knowledge that I have taught to (MBA) students and researched over the years as an expert in Cross Cultural Management and Psychology. The report was developed with the aim to inform decision makers in businesses and organisations, who work in an international context. Since it is impossible to track who reads my blog, journal articles, chapters and lecture notes, I wrote this report for you, which I hope you will read but also actually use. I genuinely believe in ‘Evidence Based Management’, which is essentially the idea that people should manage by gaining some evidence to back up their decisions. So, if this report is useful to you and you implemented some of it in your working life, all I ask is for you to put that in writing and send this to me via n.van-meurs@mdx.ac.uk

Identity Research for impact

Continue Reading

Memory: A reality check

This weekend I had dinner with friends and we discussed an occasion where the two others distinctly remembered a previous outing (and a discussion about tipping) and I couldn’t recall this at all. Not only did I not recall the event, I also didn’t think that the behaviour described was something that I would say or do. I couldn’t check it on Wikipedia, nor was there a log on Facebook/Twitter or other social media. So that was that, I just had to accept that this had happened as I was in the minority.

Ok, so much for the personal anecdote. However, it does beg the question: Is our perception of (historical) reality reliable? Furthermore, is our ability to remember things changing due to technology?

Through my readings, I came across the wonderful website of BrainPickings. In particular, upon reviewing the effect of technology on remembering, the following paragraphs is poignant, albeit in relation to tip-of-the-tongue recall: ”

Tip-of-the-tongue syndrome is an experience so common that cultures worldwide have a phrase for it. Cheyenne Indians call it navonotootse’a, which means “I have lost it on my tongue”; in Korean it’s hyeu kkedu-te mam-dol-da, which has an even more gorgeous translation: “sparkling at the end of my tongue.” The phenomenon generally lasts only a minute or so; your brain eventually makes the connection. But … when faced with a tip-of-the-tongue moment, many of us have begun to rely instead on the Internet to locate information on the fly. If lifelogging … stores “episodic,” or personal, memories, Internet search engines do the same for a different sort of memory: “semantic” memory, or factual knowledge about the world. When you visit Paris and have a wonderful time drinking champagne at a café, your personal experience is an episodic memory. Your ability to remember that Paris is a city and that champagne is an alcoholic beverage — that’s semantic memory.

What’s the line between our own, in-brain knowledge and the sea of information around us? Does it make us smarter when we can dip in so instantly? Or dumber with every search?

As a lecturer, I find that some students are less willing to engage in racking their brain, going into the chest of drawers that is their knowledge, which is built up from episodic and semantic memories. They tend to check Wikipedia instead and there is an entire journal devoted to computer assisted learning that tells us we need to understand how to embed technology in education. I am all for blended learning but think a certain skill will be lost if students can’t sit together in a seminar and ponder/deduct, without instantaneously knowing the answer, yet being comfortable with that uncertainty.

It would be interesting to see if, through the development of technology, we are moving towards higher uncertainty avoidant cultures at a macro level. It seems that, for now, this has only been explored the other way around: Do certain cultures affect adoption of ICT? This is because we view cultural values as guiding principles, stable over time, especially at the national level. Or, we embrace ICT as democratic enablers, causing revolutions such as the Arab Spring, although the jury’s out on the tenacity of old systems but we have not (yet) considered the impact on the evolvement of our cognitive abilities over time.

As a researcher, I wonder how the future of social scientific research will be affected if our lives are logged on social media and we may thus be less inclined to store personal knowledge or perceptions of the self in our ever expanding mental cupboard. So, we quickly cut-and-paste something on Facebook and our episodic and semantic memory abilities are not engaged, let alone reasoning and deduction. What if technology advances to such an extent that neuroadaptive systems allow us to update our status cognitively, without a keyboard? It seems that experts have considered the same questions. We would then not consciously process our state of mind and ‘work through it’ before sharing it with the rest of the world. That said, it seems some (trolls) are already devoid of any filter. Perhaps Twitter and Facebook will function as a new tool for longitudinal research on our psychological contract with humanity.

Continue Reading

He said, she said.

Communication is key. As many translators and language instructors know, it’s one thing to teach someone to speak a foreign language, it’s yet another issue to teach them how to communicate. That’s why many translators find themselves in the world of cross cultural consultancy. Points madeWhat is perceived as an acceptable way of getting the message across in one environment, may be entirely unsuitable in another. For example, a plane or boat crew dealing with a dangerous situation are best to throw their diplomatic skills overboard. Yet, at the same time, there is need for reflection on the directness of social media and how we address each other via Twitter and Facebook, especially in terms of foreign policy affairs, due to cultural differences.

In the past year, I witnessed a series of events that culminated in a break down of communication between people who, due to the nature of how entrepreneurs often work, have been friends and use the services of each others’ small businesses. It seems that business chats over dinner or promises of payments over a picnic can be, sadly, a recipe for disaster. Throw in some personal curve balls of relationship ups and downs, stress in this time of economic malaise and thus threats to subjective well being and one is dealing with a pressure cooker that is ready to explode. We may forget to remember why we were friends who went into business together in the first place and make a judgement call, even though it’s a fact that we are not neutral in our interpretation of a situation and thus what is a reality or truth is always subjective. When we forget this, it stands in the way of finding an integrative solution. I too dismissed from my mind the option to ask questions, listen carefully and get things in writing.

Good advice that I learned this week from a successful businessman who set up a company with his classmates, is not necessarily never to mix business with your friends. But if you do, take the next professional step and create a contract. Yes, that’s BEFORE any service, any introduction, any product is rendered, made or sold. A document that sets up the exact parameters of the deal, signed by all involved with a clear ‘what if’ clause (what if I do X for your company but it goes into administration, what if I take on the running costs for time Y but you can’t pay me back, what if I am the mediator between company A and B and the collaboration is a big success/failure?). Research has shown that gossip has its role. But when it comes to money and friends, clear and direct communication signed and honoured by all involved is the way to avoid that metaphorical plane crash.

Continue Reading

Mental health – An individual issue or a challenge for society?

The Guardian featured an article on mental health that stated the statistic that one in four people suffer from mental illness. Despite some celebrity exposure (at least in the UK by Ruby Wax and Stephen Fry), very few of us seem to care about mental health issues unless it affects us personally. We let those who suffer from any issues deal with it alone. Even if we understand, our busy lives may not allow us to ignore cognitive shortcuts such as rude=avoid, gloomy=avoid.

The irony of this is that our individualistic society is learning that it is a collective responsibility.  At a macro level, some researchers identified corporate psychopaths [sic] who work in the finance sector and take unnecessary risks to the employee. But harsh labels aside, the mental well being of an industry under pressure must be analysed and any advice must be implemented by governments. At the organisational and individual level, managers, teachers and others in decision making roles must be guided about the challenges employees,  students and our neighbours face who suffer from depression, anxiety or panic attacks. For example, if a person’s reaction seems unusually down or rude, perhaps stop to think why this may be.

In social psychology, studies have found a significant difference between the diagnosis of mental health issues – what’s considered desirable behaviour varies. There are also cultural differences in explaining people’s actions or the allocation of blame: Western countries tend to make more personal attributions, blaming the individual, whereas collectivistic cultures tend to make situational attributions, blaming the situation for a person’s rudeness, for example. We’re dealing with a spectrum, not categories of mental wellbeing and the perception of (adequate) adjustment.

What does this mean? As Ruby Wax said, we do need to get organised. Not only do people suffering from mental health issues need medical care (and thus funding for research is paramount), as humans we benefit from communal spaces, where we have a sense of belonging and are not judged for our ‘different-ness’. It’s not just tolerance (as tolerance indicates a power relationship “I tolerate you”), it’s one step up – pro-social engagement, which involves education (not merely formal), consultative communication and empathy.

Continue Reading

Arguing over Argo

The film ‘Argo’ won an Oscar (Academy Award) for ‘Best Picture’. I watched it and researched it, as I wanted to know the different perspectives of the film. It seems that Canadian effort wasn’t adequately represented, Britain’s role wasn’t mentioned and New Zealand’s reputation was put in discredit because they refused to help.

A variety of people have commented on it and an overview of opinions can be found via Twitter #Argo.

The reason for this blog entry is that the discussions surrounding the film encapsulate the issues related to perspective taking, identity, culture and management. It isn’t an isolated incident, as a cross cultural ‘expert’, I get many questions about how to manage cross cultural conflict. With my MBA students, we do a ‘Game Theory’ exercise that requires mutual understanding and engagement. Students work in teams and negotiate over a scarce resource. Those who intend on convincing the other of their entitlement will lose. Those who aim to work together and try to see the others’ perspective, win.

We may all have encountered a dispute of opinion. I recall a discussion via email between American and Lebanese friends about the rights/wrongs of the invasion into Iraq. The Americans felt that surely the liberation of a people and the introduction of democracy was the way forward. The Lebanese questioned the American interpretation of democracy and the motives for the invasion. A stalemate situation, over which friends were lost.

So what is the solution? Well, show the whole picture. Just last week I asked my students what they thought the job-market was like for women in Dubai. All sorts of stereotypes came up. The few students who came from Dubai gasped at the preconceived ideas, much fuelled by popular culture and media. I then showed a short film of a British divorcee with 2 kids called Sonia, who works as a trainer in Dubai. It was a small alignment to stereotypical views, I hope.

The Iranians displayed in Argo, is a simplistic image, regardless of the token heroine. Especially the market scene is worthy of an award for most stereotypical display of a people. Whether or not Argo was a political tool to boost a pro-USA mood, is another discussion. What matters is that if Iran decides to sue, that conflict should not be wiped off the table as a hot-headed knee-jerk reaction.

I think the Middle East is tired of being depicted in a certain way, including Israel. Just as the majority of Russians were in the 70s and 80s and the Germans have been since WWII. Are ordinary (young) people to pay for decision making by autocratic leaders? As a producer, George Clooney could try and make a film that is less subjective about Arabs. Thanks to Syriana, my ‘street cred’ increased as I have travelled to Beirut several times. Clooney made it look positively dangerous there. Indeed, when I told friends I was invited for a wedding in Lebanon this summer, the reaction was all-round disapproving. That’s sad; it’s a great place to visit.

In management and governance research, experts support the notion for taking an other’s point of view: in the Journal of Public Administration Research & Theory (4* ABS), Ansell & Gash (2007) argue that “stakeholders’ level of commitment to collaboration is a critical variable in explaining success or failure of governance. … stakeholders may wish to participate in order to make sure their perspective is not neglected or to secure legitimacy for their position or to fulfill a legal obligation. By contrast, commitment to the process means developing a belief that good faith bargaining for mutual gains is the best way to achieve desirable policy outcomes. Such a belief is not altruistic. A developer may believe that the best way to get his houses built is to engage in a good faith bargaining effort with environmentalists. Yet commitment to collaboration can still require a very significant psychological shift, particularly among those who regard their positions in absolute terms. As a first step, such a shift requires what is sometimes called ‘mutual recognition’ or ‘joint appreciation'”.

We’re more similar in terms of our aims for security and social well-being than pop culture, media, politics would like us to think we are. I was inspired by Nilson Tuwe Huni Kui’s story. A young man, currently visiting New York, will soon follow in his father’s footsteps as a political leader and defined wealth as being ‘rich in culture, biodiversity and spirituality’. He says he likes film and technology and wants to use both to learn about the world outside his village and hopes the world will learn about them.  Clooney, Affleck et al – take note.




Continue Reading

Pseudo science, faking it and cheating

There have been several articles circulating on Twitter and Facebook about pseudo (neuro) science, academic cheating by academics themselves and the ongoing challenges of cheating students.

It is certain that this isn’t a recent thing. The tools have become more sophisticated but the actions of some to take a short cut in order to sell more, get published, obtain fame or get a diploma is not a new development.

Fortunately, there are plenty of die hard science critics who are constantly monitoring the validity of others’ publication, such as Ben Goldacre and Steven Pool. Then again, others argue that these writers are too critical and that the translated message is like a dish served in a restaurant: We as consumers don’t need to know if 2 eggs were used or 3. They like the work of people like David Rock, who dilutes/processes research for us so we can develop ourselves, using evidence based management.

As for academic cheating, be it by academics or students. There are discussions going on why it’s done. Is it the rat race? Too much pressure to publish or perish? Alok Jha explores the reasons behind academic cheating. Certainly in our department colleagues have circulated stories via email about retractions etc. Some of us feel better when we didn’t quite make the REF or that 4* journal this year.

Then, there is the cheating by students, which has become more and more difficult to detect via tools such as Turn It In because students can now purchase bespoke essays and reports via websites such as Freelancer. Some companies are so bold to come onto campus and hand out flyers. As a reality check, academics should enter their course work instructions into Google and see what comes up.

Apparently an investigation was due to be launched back in 2006. I tweeted that link to the Guardian Higher Education and Times Higher Education accounts but it doesn’t seem that the global HE industry is shaking on its foundations (it should – we are unleashing frauds as graduates on a mass scale – if you think that’s an exaggeration, check the bank balance of the founders of essay writing services that students can use for ‘guidance’).

The problem is that students think that the end product is what’s desired and they delegate the responsibility. Some are amazed to hear that skills such as searching for sources, reading, being able to summarise, process, critique is what we’d like to see and a course work is evidence of the student having obtained those skills. This year, I’ll ask students to do work in seminars that they can hand in at the end of each session, which will count as attendance and activity (not just bum on seat) and that will be included in the portfolio with the final course work product.

So as I am continuing to read articles on the spectrum of fakery and falsifying it occurs to me that there is a need to shift from outcome focus to process focus. Reward students and professionals (also outside academia) for the process as much as for the outcome. This requires a culture shift. It’s cognitively tasking to monitor a process. It’s easier to reward the outcome, regardless of how that was achieved. But, as the economic crisis has taught us, it is necessary to be vigilant and observe who does what when and on what intelligence this is based.

Continue Reading

Connecting the dots part II

The lecture with the panel of entrepreneurs from ParcelGenie, MotorMate/MOT2U and Iconiq was recorded and can now be viewed via the links below. The session took an hour so there are 4 videos of 15 mins each approximately.

The first two videos feature me lecturing the final lecture: The Future. The aim is to recap what the core message is of this module Cross Cultural Management: To think critically and to evaluate what processes, concepts and ideas are universal, and which are culture specific. The panel then moves on to discuss their businesses and issues related to employability, which is of course an important topic for students.


Continue Reading

To help or not to help?

The debate related to Invisible Children and Kony 2012 has gone viral. The discussion on the conceptualisation of ‘humanity’ (to help or not to help) is complex – whether rationally or emotionally argued. It also links in with any of the other current debates on foreign intervention: Syria, Bahrein, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Congo, Tibet, Lebanon, or further back, Vietnam, Korea, Argentina, Iran, EU/Indonesia/ME (WW1 + 2) …

The Kony 2012d campaign, much supported on Twitter, by celebrities and politicians, is accused of ‘American Hero Syndrome’ and post-colonial colonialism , where the white man/woman wants to save the helpless black person. It is also debated in terms of its finances, but I want to focus on the former issue.

It may be useful to revisit some social psychological work. Back in 1969, cross cultural psychologist John Berry warned us about imposed etic: the idea that we impose an idea that we think is universally valid. Sometimes it’s difficult to imagine that there are ideas and actions, that, to us, the subjective individual, seem so good and beautiful, but are not perceived as such by the other, let alone gratefully received. Secondly, if the other is a member of an ‘out-group’, such as another nation, another race, another sexuality, our drive to help may be biased due to subconscious processes that view the other as less able, valid, ‘normal’, etc. Two good friends and major academics on the subject of social psychology, Stephen Reicher vs. Jim Sidanius, debate this constantly: our inherent racist nature vs. our socialisation and the impact of collective mobility. Cut a long story short, it reflects that yes, we are all racist (Sidanius) BUT we also have a sense of agency that allows us to make informed decisions and choose actively not to be categorised (Reicher), provided that we have the ability to engage in some self perception with reference to what we’re trying to achieve by ‘doing good’. In other words, we make (subconscious) judgements that someone (of another race) needs our (superior) help, without thinking through how this is perceived and what the long term consequences are.

Kony 2012 activists are also criticised for the self-patting on the back kind of humanitarian aid: the pictures of them carrying guns looking tough and footage of the son saying ‘I want to be like you daddy’. So added to the post-colonial aspect, we need to be aware of the extent of the altruism of our aid. The anthropological and journalistic work of Joris Luyendijk highlights the complexity of charities, the media and politicians, who, with their campaigns, keep themselves ‘in business’.

But I agree that this is difficult as it is so difficult to stand by when the media and role models tell us grave crimes against humanity is being committed and we are just standing by.  For this reason perhaps, the wisest aid givers stick to a charity close to ‘home’ – not just geographically but, more so, intelligently. To help a person you know, an organisation you trust and engage in humanity that started with the question: Are you ok, can I give you some help?

It could also involve some lateral thinking: If I don’t want my foreign affairs department to be fussed about country X (think for example the ‘war’ between Maldova, Romania and Russia, which was resolved as if over dinner in a local pub because no other foreign organisation/nation was bothered), then what would that require? Alternative fuels? Voting against the arms industry? In other words, what are the hidden agendas that I am paying for when I donate to charity Z or party X.

It’s difficult because I remain, as a Dutch national, that without foreign intervention there would be no ‘Holland’ during WWII. But due to this aid, Dutch culture is pro-USA to this day as a thank you (that is, until Santorum accused the Dutch of killing their elderly). Instead, they could be a little more critical of American foreign intervention: Sometimes our best friends need us to hold  mirror up to see a reflection of some (well intended but ugly) imperfections. Perhaps Jason from Invisible Children could have used his insights to work collectively with local initiatives, as many critical writers have suggested. My point is that any intercultural activity requires some self reflection of why you’re getting involved and are there alternatives, possibly less limelight inducing but more effective for LOCAL (and not necessarily your) values and norms.

Continue Reading

Playing the game

If you’re ever stuck for a bit of entertainment among a group of friends or family, give this (courtesy of my friend Dave) a go: Get each player a book, preferably a novel.


Write down all the names of the players on a piece of paper and give each player a few sheets too. Each player takes it in turn to be the game master. This person takes their book and reads out the title (author) and the synopsis on the back. He/she then chooses whether others must guess the correct first or last sentence of the book. All players think of the synopsis (take note of names if any were mentioned) and create their own first (or last) sentence (Don’t worry if some have read the book, it’s unlikely they’ll remember the accurate sentence). Write that created sentence down. Hand in the piece of paper to the game master, who also wrote the original first/last sentence on a piece of paper. The game master subsequently numbers and then reads out ALL sentences submitted plus the original.

Next is the guessing game: Each person votes on which sentence is the correct one (as it’s unfair to go first, we decided to all hold up the number of fingers representing our choice after the count of 3). If your submission was selected: 2 points. 1 point if you select the right one. The game master keeps score. 

Why do I write about this? It so happens I have been the observer of several very high profile/lucrative negotiations that involved the subtle (and downright brusk) game playing of people who do not have to consider office politics, political correctness or professional conduct, i.e., it involves government officials, traders, funders.

It is remarkably like friendships: annoyances, personal digs, much lobbying and some storming off-cooling down-back for a hug/shake episodes. It was astonishing to witness that none of the parties, at very critical moments, felt there was a need to do some background research in terms of cultural differences and/or effective evidence based management practices. I’ll write about the negotiations in more detail soon enough, once I am allowed to do so by the parties involved. For now, I wanted to share that cliffhanger moments proved to benefit from some cultural insights regarding the backgrounds of the players involved, which allowed for a certain understanding of why and how they reacted in a certain way that seemed so alien to the other.

It is mindboggling that in this interdependent, global time, decision makers at governmental level, who deal with others who can generate millions to finance infrastructure or other projects that will affect so many people, do not consider cultural factors to be relevant let alone important. And we all know that in these situations, there is no game master who can flit to the last page of the book to check how it ends.

Continue Reading