America 101 Published 2007-01-09 under

Did you catch the "America 101" segment on NPR's Morning Edition? It was about a class that the University of California, Berkeley offers to its foreign post-grad students that helps them understand US culture.

Many international students studying in the United States don't know when it's appropriate to say hello by giving a kiss on the cheek or using a handshake. Or what it is to "pig out" during dinner. Now, a University of California at Berkeley professor is offering a course to those students on how to decipher American culture.

This story got me thinking about how difficult it is to be a diplomat or international business person. Do we expect others to behave as we Americans do when negotiating an international treaty or business deal with another country? I guess I never expected that I would need such cultural awareness as an educator. But these post are read by folks outside of North America. If I were to meet with my Scottish colleagues, should it be over a wee dram?

I have been doing some research into ways of rating schools and game across the "Top Ten District Report Card" developed by Park City Education Foundation. The report card includes various metrics for measuring a school's success, but the one that really excited me relates to Foreign Language. To get an A, 70% or more of a school's seniors must complete at least three years of a foreign language. Well done! (And I am not just saying that to get in good with my wife who teaches Spanish) The study of a foreign language is much more than just congregating verbs. It is about culture and exposure to the idea that not everyone does things the way we do.

I heard a saying recently "those in the West have all the watches, but we in Afghanistan have all the time" (again on NPR - though I can't find a link to it.) It was mentioned in the context of negotiations with the Taliban and partly referred to how the West's presence in Afghanistan is only temporary and the Taliban can wait us out. But it was also used in reference to the way negotiations were held. The talks were over tea and could be marathon ordeals. To be successful, as was indicated in the NPR piece, one must learn how to drink lots of tea.

My brother-in-law travels the world, living in such diverse places as Bogota, Singapore, Buenos Aries, and Myanmar. I love to talk to him during his short stays in the US about the cultural differences. This is what he loves so much about traveling - experiencing the numerous ways to live your life. The Puritan work ethic may not be the only way.

BTW - I lived in Edinburgh for a while so I can attest to the importance a good single malt plays in most conversations.

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