spoiler alert: There is a free ebook at the end of this post.
I’m excited about something but not because it’s profound. I’m excited because it’s simple.
Like insanely simple but I’m watching it work already.
Here’s the dilemma. I’m a parent AND an expat. If you’re not in that same boat you can imagine some of the challenges. If you are in that boat you can feel them.
You know about the internal, nagging whispers of, “am I TOTALLY screwing up my kids by doing this?” You understand the quest for solidity in a life of unending transition. You can grasp the hope for deep connections in an experience that is defined by its disconnections.
The challenges are multiple, legit and generally strike a chord with the whole boat.
But the good stuff is REALLY good.
It’s a lot to process and believe me, I do. Sometimes intentionally but I don’t have to flip an “on” switch, it’s just my reality. It’s in my face, all the time, so my opinions, my understanding, and my paradigms are always being formed and reformed whether or not I even know it is happening.
Here’s the simple thing that I’m excited about. If I am constantly processing the paradox of this life abroad — then so is the rest of my family.
There is SO MUCH GOLDEN INSIGHT about this crazy, cross-cultural life packed away just behind their eyeballs.
What energizes them?
What frustrates them?
What confuses them?
What are they most looking forward to AND most afraid of?
What excites me is that all of that is available to me just for the asking . . . if I ask.
Typically though . . . I don’t.
I say, “Hey.”
“How ya’ doin’?”
“How was your day?”
It’s kind of like digging for potatoes in a gold mine.
I like potatoes but come on . . . GOLD.
So I’m trying to figure out how to dig for that gold in my own home and I’m starting by asking questions about my global family . . . to my global family. Not profound questions — simple ones — but deeper than “how was your day?” Questions that focus on the paradox of loving at least two places. Questions that root around in the messiness of living as a family of bumbling foreigners, perpetually on the edge of significant change.
This is what I’m finding — The questions may be simple but the answers are pure and priceless.
Sometimes it’s a nugget that I never imagined was sitting right there.
Sometimes we find things we weren’t even looking for.
Sometimes there is no answer at all but the conversation itself is the rich bit.
Sometimes it’s awkward and weird and it feels like we’re trying too hard so we move on but even then, we learn something.
Regardless — It’s always better than potatoes.
I wrote down 99 questions that I want to ask my family and I’d love to share them with you so you can ask yours too.
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This is the follow up to 99 Questions for Global Friends, another simple little ebook that applies the same principle to your cross-cultural relationships.
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Quality conversation starters for families crossing cultures
If this is helpful, let me know. I love hearing global people stories.
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I love me some community. Who doesn’t? Am I right?
It’s one of those super-slick buzz words that makes every experience sound better.
“Yeah, we live in a mud hut, have no internet, eat tree moss and get malaria twice a year . . . but the sense of community is amazing. “
“Heck yeah. Sign me up.”
It is by far what expats love most about their life abroad and what they (oh so naively) think they can reproduce when they go home — so they try . . . diligently . . . but they fail . . . miserably.
What’s up with that?
Why is it so hard to recreate that magical sense of comradery and connection that seems effortless over there?
I have a theory. Here it is.
Expat community rises and falls on two key ingredients.
PROXIMITY and NEED.
Let me put it a different way.
Community happens when incompetent people get mashed together.
It’s how we know we’ve arrived — we need each other in ways that we could never imagine on our home turf.
Incredibly uncomplicated, previously no-brainer stuff that we mastered at the age of five is suddenly and painfully beyond our grasp.
Stuff like buying toothpaste.
And using toilets.
And saying words.
We instantly feel like bumbling idiots so we lean on anyone who can empathize. They point us in the right direction and the seeds of community are planted.
They explain the difference between green tea and mint toothpaste — we have a laugh and share a story. They explain the hazards and strategies of local toilets and we find ourselves talking about things that we haven’t even shared with our best friends.
Relationships go deeper quicker because our conversations are fueled by vulnerability.
No one says it out loud — “Hey I’m a bumbling idiot and you seem like a slightly less bumbling idiot, think you could help me out here?” — but that’s the field where community grows.
We huddle up — and we help each other — because we would fall apart if we didn’t.
We move forward together and learn to function at varying degrees of competence but all of us (even the long time vets) are operating at a fraction of the functionality of the average local person.
And THAT my friends, is where the magic happens. Somewhere along that path we actually start loving it to the point that we CHOOSE neediness over self-sufficiency — and it makes perfect sense to everyone around. Why in the world would you go to the store for eggs when your neighbor has nine in their fridge?
It’s a solid system.
And we love it.
So much so that we long for it wherever we go, especially back “home” — but “home” is a different reality.
You’re not a bumbler there.
Scratch that. You’re not supposed to be a bumbler there. You speak the language, you know the culture, you’re HOME for crying out loud . . . which makes the incompetence upon returning all that much more painful.
It’s a shared ache for so many global “returnees” . . . “I miss my community.”
So then, we (oh so naively) come blazing back into our old world armed with our new discoveries, fully prepared to fix the less enlightened . . . if they would just listen . . . and do everything we tell them . . . and buy houses on the same block . . . and share eggs.
We tend to skip straight to the glorious comradery because we have long since forgotten the mashup of incompetence. It’s not hard to sell but it is nearly impossible to deliver. It’s a slow, painful realization that the whole world doesn’t want to reorganize their lives around our epiphanies about community. People don’t choose incompetence if there are other options and now you have jumped back into the land of the Non-Needies.
It’s awkward for competent, fully functioning, proudly autonomous people to ask for help. Why would you do that?
Go get your own eggs.
The natural consequence of competence is independence which is the flip side of community.
Write this down.
In any transition, it is unfair to compare the end of the last thing to the beginning of the new thing.
It just is.
But we do anyway.
Three simple thoughts and I’ll shut up:
This is your story — but it’s not ONLY your story. Consider the other angles and the perspectives of the people around you.
Go easy on the unenlightened — transition tends to inflate our sense of “rightness” and make it easy to judge the one’s who “don’t get it.”
Be patiently persistent — Great community CAN happen again. It will look different (it has to). It may take longer — but it’s worth the intentionality to never give up.
What is your community experience?
This ring a bell? Struggling to make sense of it? Got it all figured out and want to share it with the rest of us?
Comment below — we could use some help.
A little back story . . . I grew up in the largest cornfield in the world.
Illinois, (one of 50 United States), is geographically and politically broken into two distinct regions.
Chicago and corn.
You could literally travel for hours in any direction from my home and never leave the cornfield. You’ll pass through some tiny towns and an occasional “big city” (city in finger quotes) but from a bird’s eye you will always be engulfed in corn.
If you had asked younger me where I was from, I would have told you “Decatur” and likely followed that up with, “it’s the third largest city in Illinois”. I was pretty proud of that “fact” (fact in finger quotes) even though it was only true for a short bit of my formative years.
“There are 100,000 people here!”. That number blew my mind. It was also exaggerated by 5% and then 15% and then 27% as my childhood moved forward.
The stats (true or not) made me feel bigger. It was classic overcompensation especially since I didn’t technically live in Decatur.
I lived in the countryside nearby (population 212 counting cows and horses). We bought groceries in Decatur so it seemed right to say I was from there.
We played baseball in a cow pasture and used dry manure for bases. When the cows interrupted the game we would chase them away and they would leave new bases on their way out. It was a sustainable model.
Airplanes excited me. They made white lines in the sky that turned orange when the sun went down and I remember vividly standing on second base, looking up and thinking, “there are people up there . . . and they’re going somewhere.”
I wanted to go somewhere — but airplane travel would be overkill for people who never left the cornfield. I heard once that you could dig a hole to China but even with the shortcut it felt too far away.
If you had offered me a ticket to anywhere I would have chosen anywhere but Illinois.
Click here to read: The Day Grandma Got Us Kicked Out of Mexico
My daughter on the other hand . . .
only sees corn next to the steamed buns and shriveled hot dogs on a stick at the shop outside of our apartment.
If you ask her where she is from she will proudly tell you “America” but don’t let the quick answer fool you. It hasn’t come without some challenging forethought. She wasn’t born there. She doesn’t live there. She hasn’t spent most of her time there but right now . . . in this season . . . she feels like she is “from” there.
I say “fair enough”.
She lives in a big city. Like a real one with no finger quotes. I tell people there are 8 million people in Qingdao and she corrects me instantly.
“9 million Dad.”
She’s right . . . and we both feel a little bigger.
Airplanes excite her. They are the best place in the world for a movie marathon. Back to back new releases for 14 hours.
She prefers the aisle seat but if we fly to Chicago and she leans over at just the right moment she gets to see the largest cornfield in the world.
Turns out it’s a bunch of tiny squares and rectangles all smashed together. Who knew?
I don’t know what she thinks when she sees that but I look down and think, “there is probably some kid down there on second base . . . who needs to clean his shoes before he goes in the house.”
When I ask my daughter where she would like to go I try to throw out options that were unthinkable when I was her age.
I get giddy just thinking about it but she says, “meh.”
Paris on the other hand . . .
If you offered her a ticket to anywhere she would say anywhere but Asia . . . because Asia is her Illinois.
Here’s what I love about raising global kids
Our vast and dramatic differences are actually points of connection. Even though she is growing up both literally and figuratively a world away from where I did — even though we are so very different, I love those moments when it is crystal clear that we are precisely the same.
Sometimes, she thinks exactly like me — she just has a much larger playing field.
That makes me excited about her future.
Feeling different, distant or disconnected from your global kid? Take some intentional time and find your common ground. You’re probably not as different as it feels.
I fear your criticism.
I thought I would be better at this.
I sometimes feel like I’m faking it to get by.
If people knew ________ they would be SO disappointed.
I start things and never finish them.
I want you to think I look good.
I need you to think I’m smart.
I hope you think I’m funny.
I’m judging you.
I’d call it an epidemic . . . but it’s a subtle one.
Expats get pounded by perfectionism (more so than the normal-pats). That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.
I’m not a psychologist but I am a bit of an expert on this topic. It’s a part of my job to help expats get real about their issues and perfectionism comes up A LOT. Sometimes it’s an annoying stressor. Sometimes It’s debilitating. Sometimes it’s toxic. I’ve spoken with more than a thousand expats over the past seven years and . . .
I AM a perfectionist and I’m just now discovering it. It’s not pretty.
It took me so long because I’ve been busy fixing the other perfectionists AND I don’t fit my own stereotype. I’m not “type A”, over-structured, anal retentive, detail crazed, unreasonably demanding or hyper critical.
Turns out perfectionism comes in a lot of different flavors.
Here are some (there are many more)
- The Self-promoter — “If I convince you I’m amazing you won’t know the truth.”
- The Self-deprecator — “I’ll put myself down so you’ll raise me back up.”
- The Workaholic — “I’ll prove my worth by never stopping.”
- The Procrastinator — “I won’t start until I can do it right.”
- The Never Finisher — “There is always one more thing that could be better.”
- The Paralytic — “The way it should be is out of reach, so . . . I can’t move.”
- The Pleaser — “If everyone loves me, they won’t see my flaws.”
- The Hater — “If everyone hates me, I don’t have to care what they think.”
- The Dominator — “If I’m in control, you won’t know that I’m not.”
- The Toxic Defender — “If I can villainize the people around me, I can be the hero.”
- The Loner — “If I stay over here, you won’t see my flaws.”
At a root level for all perfectionists is an unspoken fear. There is an irrational drive to be something (or at least be perceived as something) that is out of reach.
Perfection is never an option but it is always calling.
The internal tension is daunting and the fear of exposure is relentless. To feel constant pressure pushing towards an unattainable goal is a draining existence.
Here’s why expats are especially at risk
The Creamy Crop Syndrome
Most expats have to pass a test to get the gig. It’s (generally) a high-functioning, motivated, well funded crowd. That’s a lot to live up to.
The Invisible Baggage
International assignments come with a clean slate. No one knows all of the stupid things you did in your past. Don’t mess that up.
The Superhero Mentality
People move abroad because they want to fix something and Superheros don’t make mistakes.
The Lone Ranger Complex
International assignments often involve heavy burdens shouldered by a handful of people. Failure would be tragic for the masses, and likely all your fault.
The Facebook Facade
Social media becomes even more significant for disconnected friends and families. However, people tend to post their best moments which creates the facade that everyone else is happy and successful — so you should be too.
The Underestimated Transition
You were a superstar back home. That’s why they wanted you so bad — but it takes time to adjust in a new world. You are never your best in transition which can create a fear of exposure.
The High Hopes of Home
Whether you feel the weight of “we believe in you, (don’t let us down)” or fear the thought of “we told you this was a bad idea (just come back)” pressures from your homeland can intensify the need to succeed.
The Revolving Door
Vulnerability takes time and trust. The constant incoming and outgoing of an expat community can put a strain on both of those.
Risks are compounded by the other risks of living abroad. Isolation. Anonymity. Distance from your traditional support structures. Grief and loss. The stress and shock of ongoing, never ending adjustment.
Cross-cultural transition is a breeding ground for insecurity. Perfectionism is a natural response.
Here’s what we can do about it.
There is something rich about the three simple words, “I’ll go first.” Step out. Take a risk. Be vulnerable. Finish the sentence, “I’m afraid that if I . . . ” Open the door for other perfectionists to own it.
Write it down
Just start writing. Don’t think. Don’t craft it. Don’t use spell check. Don’t give it to anyone. Writing is a powerful tool to make sense of senseless things.
Drag it into the light
Once people have seen your challenges, your issues and your insecurities, fear of exposure loses it’s grip.
Ask stupid questions
It’s hard to ask questions when you should already know the answers (even if you don’t). Intentionally asking questions that feel stupid breaks down the brick wall between you and learning something new.
Own it when you mess up. Creating a culture of learning when we trip not only pads the fall, it makes it enjoyable to get back up.
Know where your drive for perfection comes from. Who did you have to please as a child? What kind of perfectionist are you? What is it doing to you? What about the people around you?
Call it out
Practice the discipline of saying, “yep, there it is” when your perfectionist tendencies pop up. Then move on.
Find safe places
If you fear the consequences of vulnerability, who are the people that would never break your trust? Start there. Talk to someone.
Relationship, Relationship, Relationship
Perfectionism thrives in the shallows. You can hide, judge, please, dominate and appear perfect much more easily in a world full of surface relationships. All of that crumbles when people really know you and you really know them. Invite people into your space.
You’re not so perfect there.
Is this post about you? Do you live abroad and struggle with perfectionism?
If so, share your story. You are SO not alone.
I’ll go first.
I am paralyzed by the thought of criticism. When I write I delete 70% because it’s not perfect. I have started writing multiple books that are floating around on my hard drive,unfinished because they need to be just right. I start and stop ALL THE TIME. I love an accolade but lose sleep when I’ve offended someone. I tell jokes, which protect me, and keep me in the shallows where I’m safe.
I would prefer it if you thought I was perfect.
Hey, if you haven’t already signed up, don’t miss the free ebook at the bottom of this post: 99 Questions for Global Friends.
I love sitting down with people who have different lenses than I do.
I’m fascinated by the reality that we can look at the exact same thing and see something completely different.
The color red.
The number eight.
When it comes to understanding a different perspective there is NOTHING like the extraordinary power of questions. Not deep, scholastic, perfect questions — but simple ones that open up a whole new world.
If you are blessed enough to have cross-cultural relationships . . .
Here are ten tips for asking great questions that will take you deeper and give you more cultural understanding.
ONE: START EARLY
You’ve seen it over and over right? We kick off our our cultural research when it all hits the fan. When there is obvious tension and painful conflict someone in the mix recognizes, “hey, this could be cultural, let’s Google it.”
Too little, too late.
Questions (and answers) are so much better when no one is trying to win.
To be fair, simple questions don’t stop riots. They don’t fix racism. They don’t end wars, but asked in the right way and early enough they set a trajectory that leads to a different place where those things can be avoided.
TWO: BE WRONG
This is going to sting just a little . . . “You don’t know everything.”
Take a minute . . . continue when you’re ready.
Your understanding of any person or group of people has parameters. Expanding those parameters generally means discovering that there is more to it than you originally thought. In other words . . . you were wrong (or at least not completely right).
Did you catch that? Being wrong is actually an indicator that you are understanding more (which should be a good thing) BUT STILL, no one wants to be wrong.
If you can celebrate being wrong and create a culture around that you’ll be paving the way for people to go DEEP.
THREE: EXPAND YOUR STEREOTYPES
Can we skip through the awkward denial bit here? You have stereotypes. You just do.
They may be more informed and sensitive than others but you sum people up the second you look at them. Your expertise is based on all the information you’ve gleaned to that point.
What if you stopped fighting that, embraced it and then expanded it?
If you’re stereotype is, “Asians are bad drivers” just try expanding that statement a bit . . .
“I’ve always thought that — Asians are bad drivers — but there is probably more to it.”
That’s a COMPLETELY different thought. The first one shuts the door and the second one opens it. The first one convinces you that you already know, the second sets you up to learn.
The first one will see one bad driver, miss fifty good ones and say “see, I was right.” The second will see one good driver and say, “yep, I was wrong.”
Don’t ignore your stereotypes. Don’t pretend they DON’T exist just because they shouldn’t.
FOUR: CONFESS YOUR IGNORANCE UPFRONT
If you were Australian (and if you are please back me up here) which of these do you think you would rather hear from someone who is not?
(big cheesy smile and a slap on the back) “Ahh you’re from Down Under . . . (switching to a bad accent) G’day mate, let’s throw another shrimp on the barbie and then go on a walkabout through the Outback with some kangaroos . . . and koala bears.”
“You’re from Australia? I’m embarrassed to admit it but I know basically nothing except what I learned from The Crocodile Hunter. I would love to expand my understanding though.”
That first guy knows something . . . but he exhausted all of it in one sentence. He’s done. The second guy is ready to get started.
There is no shame in ignorance . . . unless you think you’re not.
FIVE: ASK IN THIRD PERSON
It’s usually less painful to tell you what someone else thinks of you than what I think — especially if I think you’re an idiot. Instead of asking directly for a personal opinion, try asking what THEY think someone else’s opinion might be.
So instead of “What do you think of my country?”, ask “What do you think your parents generation thinks of my country?”
This has at least three advantages:
- It takes the pressure of offending you off of your friend.
- It gives you the potential of more than one answer (see number six).
- It gives your friend an indirect way to share his/her own thoughts (more significant in some cultures than others).
Mix it up. Ask the same question from multiple perspectives?
SIX: GET PLURAL
Cardinal sin #1 in cultural understanding is saying “Ahhh, now I get it.”
Unfortunately we generally arrive at that spot after talking to one person. That’s how questions and answers work right? We ask, they answer, problem solved.”
Repeat after me — “There is ALWAYS more to it.”
No matter how strong your sources are there is always a different perspective. Even if one answer is right and five others are wrong you will understand the whole picture more by hearing them all.
Ask different people.
Ask one person about different people.
Ask locals and expats. Ask idiots and experts.
Ask Wikipedia but don’t think you’ve got it regardless of your source.
SEVEN: DON’T PROVE YOURSELF RIGHT
There is a psychological phenomenon called “Confirmation Bias”. It basically states that humans tend to embrace information that supports what we already believe to be true.
Click here to read “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds” from the New Yorker
It is the loudest voice in politics, religion and law. We not only love being right, sometimes we can’t hear otherwise. That’s dangerous when your goal is to learn something.
When you think you know something about a culture you may find yourself intuitively perched, waiting for verification of your rightness.
If you come away from a cross-cultural conversation simply affirmed in what you already knew . . . you probably missed something.
EIGHT: ASK FOR A STORY NOT AN ANSWER
“Why do Brazilians love football so much?”
Fair question right? You’re even being savvy by not calling it “soccer”.
Here’s the problem. This question puts all of the pressure on ONE person to give a definitive answer on behalf of 200 million others. They need to package the history and the passion and the politics of the entire question so you can carry it home with you.
Here’s the other problem. They will. And you will walk away with your answer — not needing to ask anyone else.
Maybe consider asking from a different angle.
“What’s your football story?”
“Did you play when you were young?”
“How did people in your home feel about it?”
“In your neighborhood?”
“What’s it like when the world cup rolls around?”
You won’t get your definitive answer, but by the end of this conversation you will know something about football in Brazil . . . and families . . . and neighborhoods . . . and passion . . . and politics . . . and history . . . and so much more about your friend.
Stories beat answers every time.
NINE: RESPECT THE BOUNDARIES
This is tricky because boundaries aren’t always clear and they change with relationship. A typical cross-cultural faux pas is to presume a deeper relationship based on misread cues.
A smile that means, “we’re best friends” where you come from may just mean, “I’m uncomfortable” for them.
The best way to respect boundaries is to keep it simple, especially in the beginning. Let the relationship grow and the boundaries will move. Eventually you’ll have a friend that you can ask anything without offense.
THAT is cross-cultural GOLD.
TEN: TRAIN YOUR BRAIN TO GO FIVE DEEP
We all do this — They’re telling a story . . . it triggers a thought . . . AS they are talking we start forming our own story in our heads just waiting for a pause to pounce on.
If you are normal it is difficult NOT to reroute conversations. It’s also NOT a bad thing to have a story.
Timing matters though. Develop the discipline of forming questions before you form responses. Don’t check out because you thought of a better story. Hear the whole story and dig some more.
Try going FIVE DEEP . . . proactively determine at the BEGINNING of the conversation that you will ask 5 questions before you add your story to the mix.
Know going in that 5 is not a magic number. Ask 20 if it feels right and don’t ignore them if they ask you a question after you’ve only asked 2. However, changing your posture on the front end will take you to places you won’t get to otherwise.
Were only scratching the surface here.
The art of asking questions, though, is more about doing it than learning how.
Sign up in the blue box below to get a free ebook: 99 Questions for Global Friends.
Pick a number from 1 to 99 and start asking.
I’d love to hear your story.
If you are living cross-culturally lean in a little bit here. This is important and frankly a bit confusing.
Here we go.
Asking questions is quite possibly the most significant determiner of your success or failure abroad. The evidence is in and the case studies (centuries of them) support the hypothesis.
Learners do this well.
Know-it-alls crash . . . hard.
Ignorance is never the problem. We’re all ignorant. Pretending you are not though is stressful . . . and unsustainable . . . and toxic.
That’s the important part. Here’s the confusing bit.
Even the good ones. The right ones. The correct and absolutely true ones. In fact the more solid, convincing and complete the answer is, the more problematic the end results are.
Follow my logic.
When we get an answer we are left believing that we no longer need to ask questions.
We’re good. Problem solved. Case closed. Now we understand so there is nothing left to explore . . . and that is NEVER, EVER TRUE.
There is ALWAYS more to it. Especially when it comes to cultural understanding.
I am a question asker by nature. I am curious about people and what makes them tick. I get giddy about the graphs and the charts and the infographics that compare and explain cultures. I geek out on the broad stroke data that paints the picture of how people group A is collectivist and B is individualistic . . . or high context and low context . . . or honor and shame . . . or time sensitive and people oriented.
I have to poke myself in the eye though to keep myself from declaring the four most fatal words of understanding people . . .
“Ahhh, now I get it.”
I DON’T get it. In fact with every layer that I peel back I recognize, just a tiny bit more, how complex IT really is. The more I learn about any group of people the less I know.
And I’m ok with that.
Answers are a slippery slope.
Personally, I think there is a better way to ask questions and gain understanding.
I think we should ask LESS SIGNIFICANT questions to FEWER NUMBERS OF PEOPLE for a MUCH LONGER TIME.
That sounds ridiculous and a little bit horrible but follow my logic.
Show me an outsider who sits down in any group of people for two months and asks the same question every day to a different person — something simple like “what do children want to be when they grow up?” and I’ll show you someone who understands collectivism and individualism better than any chart, graph or infographic.
Why? Because you get more than a single answer when you keep asking. You get nuance and personality and contrast and opinion and history and frustration and dreams and tension and hope.
But only if you listen.
Show me two very different friends who meet once a week and ask each other multiple simple questions like, “how do you define family?” or “what does the color red mean?” or “when do you dance?” and I’ll show you two people who get each other . . .
Who get IT.
There is something rich about understanding THEM by asking HIM or HER simple questions versus understanding HIM or HER by asking complex questions about THEM.
If you are blessed enough to have relationships with people who see the same world from a different perspective then don’t miss the opportunity to ask questions because you already know the answer.
If you need a place to start click below to get my free ebook, “99 Questions for Global Friends.”