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In Their Own Voice: Intercultural Meaning in Everyday Stories

Earlier this year I read what I can only describe as an incredibly uplifting book, but I am only now getting around to sharing it with you.

Shame on me, because it is the kind of informative, thought-provoking book that stays on your mind long after you read it.

Its name? In Their Own Voice: Intercultural Meaning in Everyday Stories by Anne P. Copeland, PhD and Marissa Lombardi, with input from members of the International Writers’ Club (The Interchange Institute, 2011).

Some expats will recognize Anne as the founder and Director of The Interchange Institute, a non-profit research and educational institution in Brookline, Massachusetts (USA) which focuses on meeting the needs through information, coaching and training of people moving from one country to another, especially with regard to intercultural transitions.

Marissa is a member of the staff at TII, teaches cross-cultural understanding at Bentley University and is a PhD candidate. Both women have experience living abroad, and have ‘walked the walk’ to go along with their highly knowledgeable talk.

Anyone who has been following here for while will know that cross-cultural transitions are of particular interest to me, and this book does not disappoint.

In Their Own Voice offers dozens of short essays written by expats in the Boston area who have joined an International Writers’ Group led by Anne and affiliated with an internationally diverse elementary school.

Primarily from Japan, South Korea and China, these accompanying partners meet regularly to work on their English language skills and ease their intercultural transition by writing about their observations and feelings about similarities and differences between American and their ‘home’ cultures.

There is much to be learned not only in the stories themselves but also in the topics about which the International Writers’ Group member chose to write. These range from making friends and maintaining friendship, identity, personal space, loneliness, courtesy, parenting styles, educational philosophies, shame versus guilt, food, relationships, discipline, competition, manners, and social miscues and misunderstandings, to the challenges and opportunities of being first-generation immigrants.

The linchpin of this book is the careful depiction of what Anne and Marissa describe as cultural ‘dimensions’. These dimensions lay out the main aspects by which various cultures can be identified and categorized, and go a long way toward explaining how an individual might perceive differences when faced with other cultures.

They include factors such as whether a particular culture tends to be more individualistic or collective in nature, communication styles and whether that communication content is high context or low context, and where a culture falls in terms of interpersonal boundaries, effort optimism (i.e., sense of control over one’s life), values, acceptance of power distribution, homogeneity, harmony, choice, individual responsibility and obligation and modesty.

More importantly, these are explained simply and clearly, without bias or judgment. No right or wrong, no better or worse.

Not surprisingly, the authors also explain culture shock and the traditional adjustment cycle experienced by most expats. But they go further, sharing John Berry’s acculturation model in which a person’s willingness to participate in a new culture is weighed alongside their interest in maintaining their own culture.

Someone who wants to maintain their own cultural identity but also incorporate characteristics of their new culture will tend toward integration, while someone who has no interest in their new culture will tend toward active separation. Similarly, those who wish only to  take on characteristics of their new culture will assimilate while those who want nothing to do with either their own culture or the new one in which they find themselves tend to be marginalized.

Armed with a clear sense of how cultures vary and how individuals may differ in their approach to interacting within a new culture, we cannot help but begin thinking of our own and others’ experiences.

We start to see how one nationality’s preoccupation with individual rights and endeavors will be looked at aghast by someone from a collectivist culture that values the community above all else. We suddenly get how someone from a culture that values verbal communication will be flummoxed by a person from a culture that embraces silence and believes the less said the better, and vice versa.

In short, we begin to understand how lack of familiarity with differing aspects of cultures can leave us ill-prepared to deal with those differences. We see why certain things grate on our nerves , yet don’t seem to bother others; we realize why other things may ruffle the feathers of friends or colleagues, but are of no concern to us.

Lest you think this is merely an amalgam of recent arrivals’ musings thrown together in a thinly veiled love-fest of American culture, think again. The book goes considerably deeper and further in sharing much about expat experiences in general and intercultural transitions in particular.

Anne and Marissa have gone to great lengths to structure the book in such a way as to maximize both its entertainment and educational value. The stories are distributed into four general categories: communication, cultural adaptation, customs and education. An index is also provided that sorts the stories according to the previously discussed descriptive cultural dimensions reflected in their content.

Each story is accompanied by a series of questions for further discussion and reflection, followed by the page number toward the back of the book where the authors’ additional comments can be found.

These comments help clarify aspects of both American culture and that of the story’s author, giving readers a better understanding of why each culture approaches the issues raised within the story in the manner in which they do. We get a sense of where values and traditions line up, where they may overlap and where they differ significantly.

So why do I label this book ‘incredibly uplifting’? Because one of the key tenets in the creation of the International Writers’ Club is a commitment to write respectfully about the cultural differences they observe.

I tend to find it fascinating to read how someone else views another culture. Yet what is particularly refreshing is to see how unbiased and non-judgmental these stories are. As a result, they facilitate cross-cultural discussions that will benefit us all.

If you’re interested in learning more about The Interchange Institute, please check out www.interchangeinstitute.org I’ve also learned that if you buy the book directly from TII here http://www.interchangeinstitute.org/html/intheirown.htm they make more per book than Amazon gives them, which allows them to conduct further research. Sounds like a win-win to me, don’t you think?

If you prefer, you can also purchase the book at Amazon.

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