Finding the Master Key in a Cross-Cultural Conversation

We are always wanting to make more effective cross-cultural connections. But what cultural key do we reach for when we begin our conversations?

Are we left to hit and miss? Is there a tried and true strategy we can use? Recently I met with a Mexican client and his wife for dinner. I had lived in Mexico for several years, knew the rudiments of social protocol, and spoke Spanish at the elementary level. Which tool did I reach for to establish rapport with these folks?

The key question I ask myself in choosing the best response to a person from another culture is, “What is the central value to this particular culture?”

In the case of Mexico, and for most of Latin America, family is of central importance. You talk with people about their family, tell stories about yours, and you do this in some detail before you get down to transactional matters like business challenges or political discussions.

I asked her to show me pictures of her children.

That was the key. She smiled and told me “I can see that we will be friends!”

I know of a psychologist who did a post-doctoral fellowship in Russia during the height of the Cold War. Suspicion for North America was at an all time high. However, he and his wife had an infant that drew instant attention and admiration from Russians on the street. The child was their chief conversation piece. The songwriter Sting was on to something when he said

We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
What might save us, me, and you
Is if the Russians love their children too

The key for cultural effectiveness is not just to find common ground with the other but to know “their” ground and then go there intentionally.


How have you used the central value of a culture for effective cross-cultural connections?

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Managing Compassion Fatigue


Compassion can have a short shelf life. That fact alone can make it very lonely and confusing for anyone in need.

All of us have felt a pang of pain when folks seem to disappear on us during our crisis. People who were there for us one minute become distracted or exhausted by our plight and fade off the scene. However, at times we are guilty of the same response to the need of others.

I have a son with a diagnosis of Schizophrenia. It’s been that way for over two decades. Most of the time, after the early years when the disease first appeared, he has done quite well. Recently however, he went through a crisis and landed in the hospital with a life-threatening illness. During this extreme situation I found myself overwhelmed with compassion for his plight. However, occasionally I shut down emotionally and closed my heart to him. I felt the same flagging compassion that I have experienced from others.

It takes energy and focus to sustain compassion. Chronic challenges like Alzheimer’s, cancer, substance abuse, and even unemployment can be life draining. Supporters drop out quickly.

In the face of another person’s crisis, we,

  • Feel awkward and out of control when confronted with problems that have no immediate “fix” 
  • Don’t have the emotional and physical bandwidth to deal with the situation and check out (dissociate)
  • Prefer that others listen to us rather than we listen to them 
  • Want the problem to fix itself and go away because it makes us feel helpless
  • Impatiently give useless advice like “Use tough love” or “Find a different medicine that works”

All of the above are signs that our compassion is flagging. While we all want to be helpful to those in need, few of us are the “energizer bunny” that can keep on being helpful all the time.

How then do we survive compassion fatigue?  

  1. Be realistic about the level of support that one person can give at one time.

 This helps you not to get bent out of shape when people flee for the exits or when you do the same. As a result you learn to spread your support needs around. You take the levels of support you actually get no matter how big or small.

  1. Learn to take care of yourself.

You learn to distract or energize yourself with activities that boost your energy. But in so doing, you don’t shut yourself off to potential helpers. Here it is important to find people who are going through a similar situation. All some can do is say “hang in there, it’s tough for you”. Such normalizing of your experience may be just what you needed in that moment. Others, with more durable mental and spiritual resources can sit with you through the night as you agonize over your situation.

  1. Reflect on what you can and cannot control.

 It is important to distinguish between short and long-term solutions. For instance, you cannot fix the dearth of medical providers but you can find one person who can take care of one part of the problem. Bemoaning an inadequate medical system is not helpful. As the saying goes, “Don’t curse the darkness, light a candle”

  1. Go where the help is.

The best compassion comes without judgment and cheap advice. In this current crisis I can number on one hand those who sustained their support with a focused and caring presence. Each person was worth his/her weight in gold. In the absence of such people in our immediate circle what can we do? Some find professional support. Others join 12-Step support groups. In the end, we all gravitate to where the help is.

 Please Share

 How did you navigate compassion fatigue without feeling hurt or guilty?

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The End of Self-Improvement

Let’s take a break from self-improvement. And then find ways to get off the hamster wheel of self- judgment that often comes with the sense that we are somehow inadequate followed by the drive to improve the self.

Why do we need to take a break? From what? Two reasons. We need to stop trying to fix the self and demanding that things be different in areas where we have no control.

In “Falling into Grace” the author Adyashanti writes,

“To tell ourselves – to tell all of life – that it shouldn’t be the way that it is a type of insanity. The insanity destabilizes us.  It’s a bit like going up to a brick wall, telling it that it shouldn’t be there, and then continuing to walk into it. Every time you bump your head on it, you judge the brick wall for being there, and then you walk into it again, again bumping your head. Then you say it shouldn’t be there, at which point you condemn yourself for the pain you have in your head. It’s a kind of insanity to be constantly arguing with what is and thinking it should be different.”

Here are some typical questions we ask ourselves and statements we make in trying to fix the so-called “broken” parts of ourselves. In so doing, we deny the reality that some things will never change.

“Why were my parents so abusive?”

“Why does my organization not recognize my contribution and give me a promotion?

 “I wish I was less shy”

“Why is all this tragedy hitting me right now? What have I done to deserve this?”

Let’s examine the underlying premise of each of these statements.

  1. The historical context of each statement may be accurate. (Yes, your parents were abusive and you may be an introvert)
  2. Our minds twist the event into “what it means for us”. (See that proves that I am unlovable or lack significance)
  3. We then try to fix the broken part of the self. (Help me make myself more lovable to others or attract the right person)
  4. We rail against our misfortune for having such a past or present. (I did not deserve this. Why does the traffic have to be bad, especially today?)

Want to stop hitting your head against the brick wall of immovable and unchangeable events in life? Here’s how.

  1. Don’t “should” on yourself. (Things ought not to be this way).
  2. Recognize that there may be some things you can change, those within your control, and make the changes.
  3. Don’t believe your thoughts. (How your mind interprets the meaning of painful events).
  4. Accept that your essential self (inner wisdom, stamp of the divine or whatever you might like to name it) does not need to evolve or improve. You are perfect as you are.
  5. Be kind to yourself when you face your pain.
  6. Remain open-minded as to what opportunity or growth this pain may bring your way.
  7. From the place of inner stillness or stability discover the magical quality of life.*

*(Points 6 and 7 are adapted from “Falling into Grace”)

Pain is inevitable. But suffering is optional.

Suffering ceases, in part, when we stop railing and struggling against events that cannot change, accept them for what they are, and stop giving them a meaning they do not have.

So by all means go ahead and improve your skills and change your behavior.  But recognize that the invisible part of you, the self, needs no improving. Wake up to finding ways to access it in the stillness of your inner being.

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Our Hurried Lives


 “I’m late. I’m late. For a very important date!

No time to say Hello! Goodbye!

I’m late! I’m late! I’m late!”

The Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland

The whole world seems to be telling us to “hurry up”. As a result we can be too busy for our own good. Eventually we reach the point where we ask; “Why am I doing this to myself?” 

There are huge differences as to why we get overly busy. Some reasons are productive. Others are quite dysfunctional. Also folks have different energy levels, social/family needs, professional demands, ways they take care of themselves, and the stage they find themselves in life.

At the root of hurry, beyond the fact of time management, there are two basic questions we could ask:

1.  What am I running from?

2.  What am I moving towards?

 Running From

People who are unconsciously driven by past demons often spend much of their lives running from their hurt. This hurried flight can be explained in part by the following self-statements.

1.   “I am inadequate!” Our perceived lack of value may be pegged to insecurities related to personal appearance, lovability, intellectual capacity, social status, and so on. Driven by deep feelings of inferiority we pack our lives with activities that we believe will compensate for our felt sense of inadequacy.

2.   “I don’t have enough!” Here we literally become greedy for whatever we believe will fill that vacuum in our lives. So the more friends we accumulate, possessions we acquire, social events we attend, steps we climb on the corporate ladder, or business commitments we make, we believe that these behaviors will fill the empty but leaking bucket of our lives. The sad fact is that the activities we pursue never seem to fully satisfy us.

3.   “I love this busyness” The adrenaline rush from a hurried life keeps us feeling alive to the point of it becoming an addiction. We reach the stage where we think that we cannot survive without frenetic activity. As a result our lives are so out of balance that our health and relationships suffer. We literally become physically and psychologically hooked on our hyperactive lives.

4.   “I don’t want to be alone with my thoughts.” Sometimes we are suffering from hurts from the past or unresolved psychological issues in the present. We then attempt to avoid the pain by keeping busy. Our family is falling apart so we compensate by turning our fellow workers into a family. As long as we distract ourselves and don’t allow ourselves to be quiet and reflective we think we can eliminate our suffering. But every attempt to run from our inner demons leads to an array of psychosomatic and interpersonal disorders.

However, to be fair, busyness is not always a bad thing. It can be productive when we are…

Moving Towards

People may be busy for positive reasons.

1.   The Drive to Make a Contribution. This impulse is seldom found in a person compensating for a felt sense of insufficiency. Rather, it comes from a vision of a deep human need, an innovative challenge to meet that need, and a sense of the significant contribution one can make in serving the greater good.

2.   The Impulse of the Soul. In our heart of hearts, our very essence or soul, we are kind people with the impulse to do good. In order then for the soul to thrive it has to grow in the soil of personal awareness, balance, presence, and the practice of living as fully in the moment as we can.

3.   The Sense of the Oneness of EverythingThe more I travel and experience other cultures I sense that we have more in common with each other than the differences that often divide. It is these common bonds that drive us to ever be students of other cultures and celebrate common ties. The appetite for more of this oneness ennobles the human spirit.

Forces that arise from moving towards include contribution, soul, and oneness. Such are regenerative. They build us up and contribute in positive ways to others.

Activities driven by moving away, include the forces of the ego based on inferiority, greed, and addiction. These break us down, rob us of our vitality, and hurt others in the process.

Both forces are ever present in our lives. Both require that we stay awake to their presence, treat ourselves with compassion, be less judgmental of others, and require that we take intentional steps to feed the soul and starve the ego.

What have you done to manage your busy life?

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Think of a person who embodies graciousness. What personal characteristics come to mind? How do you experience that person?

On the other hand, think of the polar opposite of graciousness. A person with such a disposition typically is self-centered, brusque, irritable, and shows very little gratitude. He/she expects loyalty from others but does not give it in return. After you have had an encounter this person you feel empty, rejected, isolated, and ignored.

I recently asked a friend to describe the essence of a leader he deeply admired. The answer was that this person showed unconditional acceptance towards others and consistently sought to contribute to the common good. He also did not use people, rip them off financially, and use them for his own ego and selfish needs. In other words, he is gracious.

Here are some behaviors I have seen in gracious people.

  • A prominent politician who took time at a public function to focus on what I was telling her despite the fact that everyone also was clamoring for her attention. She also offered encouragement for my comparatively meager political activism.
  • A very busy CEO who responded immediately to my email requesting information about his key leadership best practices
  • A stranger from Mexico who greeted us at a restaurant table with a “buen provecho”. (By the way, this is typical social protocol in Mexico)
  • A friend who noticed that a stranger was feeling “down” and offered a word of encouragement

In all cases, the gracious person responded with generosity, consideration, and courtesy. They gave of themselves and their time.

Many of us, distracted by busyness and self-preoccupation, forget to be gracious. But such consideration for others can be a choice. Of course, the bigger the differences between ourselves and others (political and cultural), the more challenging graciousness becomes.

But eventually habits can become engrained in our character.

How have you chosen to be gracious?

Where have you observed graciousness in others?

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Simplify Like Picasso

Can you share complex ideas and issues using clear, concise and simple language?

As far as your “grand”  strategy is concerned, can you boil it down to one succinct statement?

If so, you are a top-notch communicator — your audience will understand your message easily, retain it over the long-term, and be more motivated to act on your ideas.

At Apple, designers live and breathe the notion that optimal function and great design arise from simplicity.

Consider this excerpt from the New York Times article By Brian X Chen “Simplifying the Bull: How Picasso Helps to Teach Apple’s Style”

Teachers in Apple’s internal training program, according to Chen,

Sometimes point to a collection of Picasso lithographs that artfully illustrate the drive to boil down an idea to its most essential components.”

 This quest for clarity and simplicity applies to everything we do in life, including:

* Crafting a personal mission statement

* Shaping corporate mission strategy

* Clearly expressing the essential message in our writing

* Having a conversation about an important subject with our children

* Pitching a new service or product to a customer


What do you have to do to simplify your ideas for maximum impact on your audience?

 Can you boil down your core idea to one short statement? 

Can you have a conversation about your ideas without beating around the bush?

In all these instances your overriding objective is to:

Simplify and clarify so that your message has maximum impact and influence.

 Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words: look at Picasso’s progressive refinements of his bull. Simplify and communicate like Picasso!

Bull images by Art Resource, NY; 2014 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Anything is Possible if You Have Enough Nerve

So goes the saying by JK Rowling.

Some time ago,

  • A colleague told me he wanted to write a book
  • A friend expressed an interest in living in a foreign country
  • An executive decided to explore a bold new business strategy

In each case I encouraged the folks to “go for it.” I knew that the path ahead would be rewarding as well as challenging.

What type of person goes out on a limb with major life decisions and subsequently enjoys the fruit of that adventure? Who are such people with nerves of steel?

In most instances they were seemingly “ordinary ” people that pulled off extraordinary results.

Certainly they did not habitually play it safe and were preoccupied with questions like “What if?” If so, they would live in a constant state of fear of venturing outside their comfort zone.

The flip side of being overly cautious in one’s decisions is found in an advertisement for the Mt Sinai Medical Center. Their philosophy states,

“But rather than going step by step, the goal is to make bold, conceptual leaps. Impatience is a virtue. Failure is an integral part of success, and no journey is as exhilarating as going out on a limb.”

So who are these risk-takers? They

  1. Are not afraid of experimenting.

Risk takers are the dabblers in life.

These innovators are the designers who will try out different styles knowing that some will not work, actors who experiment with scenes that “bomb”, or scientists who repeatedly try experiments that fail. Their philosophy is “Better to try and fail that not to try at all”. As a result they keep going with the knowledge that their efforts will eventually be successful.

When one looks at the disposition of innovators they

  1. Have a fierce resolve in the face of obstacles

A study of the biographies of great leaders reveals that many doggedly zigzag their way to success. What keeps them going is an underlying confidence and tenacious persistence in the face of naysayers and uncertainties. They believe that they have the ability, and history, to come out on top.

Such confidence is based on the memory of past accomplishments, inspired by the vision of realizing an idea, and is combined with the ability to suspend self-doubt. It can be the quiet determination of people with gentler and less bombastic dispositions.

It takes courage to try new things and to boldly adventure into new territory. The key is to face our inner fears and take the needed actions anyway.

3. Combine nerve with raw courage

The older I get the more I realize that in the pursuit of anything that matters one needs to be in it for the long haul. In the face of fierce opposition or cold indifference to our efforts sometimes the tendency is to give up. Courage is the one character quality that keeps us going in our pursuit of new goals. Courage is best defined by John F Kennedy in his book “Profiles in Courage” He writes that people of courage put their convictions “ahead of their careers”.

Having the courage of our convictions is then the heart and soul of raw nerve.


What new ideas do you want to explore?

What rewards would you miss if you held yourself back?

Where can you get the needed support and/or resources?

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The Ups and Downs of Cultural Conformity

A friend of mine moved to the South from New York because of a job opportunity. He told me, “People keep asking me, where do you go to church?”  To this community, fitting in with the culture involved one being part of a church. However, since my friend is Jewish, church attendance was not on the cards for him. This was the first of many cultural adaptations he had to make.

Every time we leave the bubble of our own culture we run into folks who do things in different ways. We then face the challenge to respect the differences and adapt to them as best as we can.

However, what do you do when you find yourself in conflict with the dominant culture that surrounds you? What if you don’t go to church? Do you conform or do you do your own thing?

I remember one time I was asked by a very traditional company to assess some of their junior executives for C-Level promotion possibilities. It was the holiday season and I wore a dark red cashmere sweater (in lieu of jacket and tie) to the job, which was held in a rented conference room at a local hotel. It was not long after that I heard that a complaint had been lodged with HR….that I had come to work in a “Christmas sweater”!

Should I have given a damn about that comment? Probably yes, if I wanted to work for that Company again. However, the attitude “I’ll live my life and you live yours” brings one into conflict with the unofficial “chief conformity officers” in the community where one lives and works. There are times when it is simply not prudent to try and fit in and follow the herd. The price of conformity becomes too high.

And so we determine our own goals, values, and behaviors and then live by them no matter how much flak we get from the dominant culture.

However, there are times when we choose to adapt to the cultural norms. What criteria do we use to make changes and to incorporate those values into our lives?

Three Rules of Successful Cultural Assimilation are

First, recognize that we live in a highly conformist society. Part of this conformity has a positive impact by a creating cohesion in a community. It’s that “they who pray together that stay together” phenomena. It is also the glue that brings people together to get things done like community action or charitable work. So next time I’m invited back to that company I won’t wear my Christmas sweater.

However, the downside of “enforced togetherness” is that it can set up a tension between one’s own personal preferences and the desire to belong. On the negative side, sometimes we don’t want to pay the price of being squeezed into a mold or controlled by others.

Second, know when to conform and when to draw a line in the sand and declare to all “I do things my way”. At times the choice I make is based on practical considerations. For instance, in Japan, it is customary for folks to bow to each other. The depth of the bow depends on a number of considerations like rank and age. As a Westerner, I don’t have clue how low to bow so I avoid the practice all together. Going native with my bow could get me into trouble. There are other times when I choose to at least greet people in in their native language. To me this is not conformity but an act of respect. They know that I cannot continue the conversation in this language but give me credit for trying.

Third, love and celebrate others. That goes against the drift of judging everything that is different. I like my independence and my own mongrel cultural mix but I value diversity at the same time. Over the years my life has been greatly enriched through contact with other cultures. The Mexicans, where we lived for seven years, have taught me the value of social protocol trumping transactional conversations. It is more important for me now that I greet people (Buenas dias), ask for permission to pass by on a sidewalk (con permisso), or wish people well when they are eating (buen provecho) than to jump into a conversation and ask directions to the plaza. I celebrate the fact that this particular culture values relationships over transactions. Differences are not bad or dangerous; they make me a better person.

The underlying message of this blog is: Be yourself by all means but be respectful as well of cultural norms that bind us together in an increasingly fragmented world.

What are your stories of cultural adaptation?

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The Gift of Failure

How do we rebound from life’s failures?

For years I have rehearsed some of my many failures. Some I carry with remorse. Others I have endured with a pain it the pit of my stomach and the thought “Damn, how could I have done that?”

For most failures I have clawed my way to self-compassion and forgiveness. Then today I read the following poem in the latest edition of the Sun Magazine. It helped me not take myself so seriously and recast personal failure as a gift.

I share the poem with you and let you arrive at your own conclusions about your own recovery.

The Diver

by Lynn Davis

Lynn Davis is a writer who lives in North Carolina. “The Diver” is her first published poem (The SUN Magazine), unless you count the one she wrote in sixth grade that everyone teased her about.

The Olympic moment I remember most
Does not involve gold medals
Or bright, enthusiastic faces in the Parade of Nations.
It’s one man, a German,
Who went in for a dive and landed on his back
And scored zeros across the board.
Imagine his disappointment,
Rage, even:
How stupid,
How incredibly stupid.
When I watch the video on YouTube,
I want to thank him
And tell him how much he means to me,
For who among us does not say, Goddamn,
What I could have done different,
What I could have done better.
And isn’t that so much more human:
Our persistent

View the video at

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How to Develop a Comfortable Approach to Being Appropriately Selfish

You have spent much of your life taking care of others. So when do you get around to taking care of yourself?

Maybe you are the

  • “Giving Tree” parent who burns out looking after the family day in and day out and your health goes to hell in a hand basket.
  • Manager who has difficulty saying “no” to a highly demanding boss. As a result you do the job of several people.
  • Leader who has difficulty delegating and does the work that reports should be doing themselves

So, at the end of your rope, you want things to change.

However, you also believe “servant leadership”.

Where do you find balance between self and other care? Here are some scripts you might find helpful.

“ I am not a doormat”

People pleasers are often exploited.

If you fall into that category, have you ever stopped to think that you may be reinforcing this behavior? What about saying, “I am not a doormat” and then shut the door to unreasonable requests? You might be surprised to see that your levels of resentment, anger, and frustration with the “users” in life goes way down. That’s because you finally took care of yourself.

The next message is for those who have become overly dependent on your help.

 “You need to take care of yourself”

While it is a good thing to take care of others, that caring should not be at the expense of your own health and relationships. The boundary you set here does not have to be all or nothing. Maybe a reduction of care for the other by 20% would be in order. A person I know, who feels that her role in life is to fix everyone who comes to her with a broken situation, now asks herself, “Do I want a friend or a caseload?”

Now, try this next boundary-setting script.

 Which part of no don’t you understand?”

The world is full of users who spit us out if we set boundaries with them by refusing to be available 24/7.

A good solid no, delivered firmly and repeatedly, comes as a shock to them. When we decline their requests they may squawk and wine and declare us public enemy #1. However, it is important for us to stand our ground.

If it requires saying no to your boss you might want to do it carefully. See my article “How to Succeed in Saying No To Your Boss”

Take the above steps and you will have found a comfortable way of being selfish.


What is your story about setting limits with others?

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