What is an Interculturalist?

"I want to be an astronaut!" "Me a ballerina!"

"I'm gonna be a ... [teacher, doctor, firefighter, cowboy, police officer...] when I grow up!"

Children fill in the blank with many high-visibility occupations.

As students graduate from school, they take on more nuanced and varied career goals: accounting, nursing, paralegal, sales, human resources, marketing, research, management, engineering.

Still, none of these youngsters grows up wanting to work in cross-cultural communication.  By definition, you have to go beyond your comfort zone, outside your realm of experience, and into places strange and unfamiliar in order to catch the intercultural bug.

Interculturalists: Finding your home among the world's nomads

Interculturalists: Finding your home among the world's nomads

So, how does one answer the ubiquitous cocktail-party question, "What is it that you do?"

interculturalist 1
interculturalist 2

My colleague Christian Höferle came up with this wonderful, illustrated way of talking about the work of interculturalists.

The questions interculturalists often hear:

Q: Do you have to speak dozens of languages to work with international companies?

A: No, but it helps to have learned one or two foreign languages in your lifetime. It makes you more empathetic to border-crossing businesspeople who are trading in tongues not their own.  It also makes you more flexible in how you approach problems and explain nuances.

Q: Do you have to have lived overseas to work in this field?

A: No, but the more experience you have abroad, the better equipped you are to emphasize with the frustrations of dealing with behaviors that weren't the norm in one's childhood. Life and travel overseas gives you great stories to share with your clients. Everyone relates to stories, and if you can tell a few on yourself, you will have more respect. And more humility.

Q: Do you have to memorize the etiquette and rules of all the world's cultures?

A: No, this would be impossible. However, the more cultures you have contact with, the more variations you will be aware of, the less rigid you will be, and the more open you will be to seeking out alternative solutions.

What have you learned working across cultures? Please share your stories so that others can benefit from your hard-earned learning.


Interculturalist Christian Höferle is a German native who lives and works in Cleveland, Tennessee (USA). He helps German and American businesspeople work together with less friction and more profitability. His intercultural blog is called Southeast Schnitzel.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.

Prima Donnas, Jerks, and Other Bad Apples at the Office

In a recent article called "Why it's so Hard to Deal With Office Jerks,"Stephen Balzac talks about why we tolerate bad behavior among our co-workers, even when they are really unpleasant people. His final suggestion is to fire these "bad apples" before they destroy the whole office. From the analogy with rotting fruit, Balzac is referring to an old saying in English: One bad apple can spoil the whole barrel.

Balzac gives good reasons for getting rid of such poisonous workers, even though they are often the most productive workers on the team.  His business advice is sound, but a big attraction is his use of many terrific slang expressions for the office.  Below are explanations of the tricky vocabulary he uses.  After reading the list, check out the article via the link above.

Sometimes the really productive workers are the biggest jerks.

Sometimes the really productive workers are the biggest jerks.

I have highlighted the top ten most useful expressions for you to know.

Vocabulary and Cultural Concepts

palpable = able to be felt

sidelong glances = short looks to the side

set Jim off = made Jim angry

set Jim off he did = This word order is for emphasis. It means: Making Jim angry is what he did.

laced into = attacked, strongly criticized

in no uncertain terms = very clearly, without any doubt

top player = best performer

cut him some slack = be flexible with him, don’t monitor him so tightly

lest = so it won’t happen that

not go there = avoid it, don’t talk about that topic

drag on = continue for too long

get on with = get along with, have a good relationship with

bad apples = people with rotten personalities (like spoiled fruit)

No one approached... = Nobody was even close to (his level).

egregious = horrible, offensive, obviously bad

contagious = spreading, infectious

bite back = criticize in return, attack back

pick on = criticize, be unkind to

edgy = nervous, on edge, uncomfortable

irritable = grumpy, in a bad mood

jerk = person with bad or rude behavior

spiral = increase, continue going

pretty much everyone = almost everyone

thrive = grow, prosper, succeed

After all, = Here’s a logical reason for this.

take = tolerate

obnoxiousness = being really unpleasant or rude

or whatever = or other bad traits

ambiance = atmosphere, environment

take his pick = have a choice of whatever he wants

all the while = the whole time, during

disengage = disconnect, retreat, pull away

mushy = soft, (about fruit/vegetables) over-ripe

this apple is pretty mushy = this guy is pretty bad (We expect apples to be crisp, not soft.)

skyrocket = to increase dramatically, to shoot upward

refrains I often hear = repeated stories that I often hear

inevitable = unavoidable, inescapable, destined to happen

What took you so long? = Why didn’t you do this sooner?

Stephen Balzac is a writer on leadership and organizational development. Contact him at  steve@7stepsahead.com.

Overcoming Expat Isolation In the U.S.: Ten Ideas For Fitting In

Source: fotolia.com

Source: fotolia.com

As an immigrant, expatriate, or refugee newly landed in the United States, you face a number of obstacles.  Americans may not look like you, dress like you, or talk like you.  How can you fit in when you seemingly have so many differences working against you? The simple answer is that you need to jump in!  The world around you is full of opportunities for getting involved, meeting Americans, and becoming a full member of your new community.* In a recent article for international students, Tra Ho from Vietnam talked about how new students needed to change their mindsets in order to make the transition from outsider to insider at American colleges.  Among her ideas, she talked about making new friends and pursuing activities you like.

The following list comes from years of working with and listening to immigrants and expats as they sought to make the U.S. their home.  The links below just scratch the surface of all the possibilities, but I hope they inspire you to begin connecting today.

Sometimes it’s all about you!  Here are some ways you can nurture yourself and make friends in the process.

Photo source: Grand Rapids Running Club

Photo source: Grand Rapids Running Club

1. Hobby groups: There are thousands of groups organized around interests.  When I lived in mid-Michigan, one of my clients belonged to the local orchid society.  They held meetings and put on an annual swap/sale for other enthusiasts to come buy or exchange these special flowers.  After I moved to West Michigan, I was eager to find others to run with and learn about area jogging trails and races.  The Grand Rapids Running Club is friendly and organized for people on a budget, only $17 a year for membership. What activity do you like to do?  Where is the group for that?  Maybe you could start a new group.

2. Self-improvement: If you’re a fitness nut, you may need to find a place to practice yoga or Pilates.  Most cities offer classes you can sign up for.  Maybe you need to improve your public speaking skills.  Several of my students have gained more confidence speaking English in public through membership in Toastmasters.

Bible study group (source: atlantavineyard.com)

Bible study group (source: atlantavineyard.com)

3. Spiritual support: In the U.S., many people find membership in a church a great way to meet people and experience a personal and spiritual connection.  For newcomers who are Christian, joining a congregation is a terrific way of gaining relationships with Americans.  Of course, once you join a church, the other members will probably invite you to participate in both social and volunteer activities.

4. Get yourself adopted: For those internationals who are lucky enough to have an American host family, you know how invaluable it can be to have someone looking out for you.  Exchange students are able to develop close-knit relationships that last decades, all the while getting advice on the mundane aspects of life like taxes, driver licenses, and RSVPs.

5. Be where you live: If you are new to a neighborhood, you need to get to know your neighbors.  This will be helpful the next time you lock yourself out of your house, have a flat tire, or need someone to accept a delivery for you.  A good way to meet people is to just go up and introduce yourself when you see someone walking on the sidewalk or watering their lawn.  I know not everyone is as outgoing as I am, so you can also watch out for upcoming gatherings through a homeowners association, Neighborhood Watch, or block party.

Neighbors get together at a neighborhood block party (source: KathyButler northjersey.com)

Neighbors get together at a neighborhood block party (source: KathyButler northjersey.com)

Sometimes it’s all about the community.  Here are some ways you can share yourself through volunteerism and make friends in the process.

6. Share the skills!  Even if English is your second language, you can probably read and write better than a child.  Perhaps you have really good math skills.  Consider becoming a community tutor at your local literacy center.

7. Money mentoring: Maybe you’re a shrewd businessperson.  Junior Achievement is always looking for volunteers to teach students about money management, entrepreneurism, and personal finance.

Source: mrsmillersclass.org

Source: mrsmillersclass.org

8. Be a good sport! Coaching youth sports teams (whether or not you have kids) is one way to stay physically active while sharing your love for your favorite sport.

Volunteers pose in their clean-up vests at the side of the road.

Volunteers pose in their clean-up vests at the side of the road.

9. Community activities: One of my students joined an Adopt-a-highway group to pick up litter along a local roadway.  He said every time he drives past that stretch, he feels such a sense of pride and ownership of this piece of West Michigan.  Another avenue for community volunteering is the Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts, the largest all-volunteer festival in the U.S.  Activities range from setting up chairs or painting designs on children’s faces to working on the clean-up crew.

These signs in Michigan are accompanied by a second sign listing the name of the organization responsible for that stretch of road.

These signs in Michigan are accompanied by a second sign listing the name of the organization responsible for that stretch of road.

10. Your kids, your community!  Your children’s elementary school is always looking for volunteers (room parent, field trip chaperone, technology assistance, shelving books in the library).  Most kids love seeing their parents involved at their school.  “That’s my dad/mom!” they proudly tell their classmates.  That could be you!  This local list from Grand Rapids gives examples of the kinds of volunteer opportunities available at American public schools. For more volunteer opportunities in West Michigan, go here. Across the United States, here are volunteer opportunities listed by state.

Kids get on a school bus for a field trip. Would you enjoy being a chaperone?

Kids get on a school bus for a field trip. Would you enjoy being a chaperone?

I’m sure you have many more suggestions from your own experience.  I invite you to share them here.  In the mean time, I wish you good connections in your adopted communities!

* Of course, meeting Americans and fitting into the community is important.  However, I don't dismiss the need to connect to your own ethnic group to give you a touchstone.  Belonging to a mosque or temple or other affinity group from your home country can be a source of stability and calm as you navigate the new waters of the USA.  Just don't become dependent on them as you make your transition to interdependence.