All posts in Culture@Work

On the Move, Over the Years

On the move, over the years, we are a nomadic people, that’s what we are. Austrian physicists created this graphic of migration patterns (from 1990-2010) based on UN census data:



The graphic can also be found at

Morality, on a Global Scale


How it comes to be, that our minds sort actions into good or bad dualities is one of the great mysteries of neuroscience. Are we wired that way—to believe, for example, that oppressing others is bad? Or, is it a developed construct—malleable cultural clay, shaped by the hands of our environment?

The most repugnant of moral violations strike at our hearts, or at our primal human core, and signal, loud and clear that some actions are universally wrong: the killing of the innocent, inhumane treatment of life, etc. But then, percolating to the surface of our daily lives, are the social issues—the ones that, across cultures, tend to vary in their overall rating of good or bad.  Divorce. Gambling. Extramarital affairs. The moral compass of these, and others, is largely influenced by those with whom we share a language, a country, an identity.

The Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project conducted a survey and asked 40,117 respondents in 40 countries what they thought about eight topics often discussed as moral issues: extramarital affairs, gambling, homosexuality, abortion, premarital sex, alcohol consumption, divorce, and the use of contraceptives.

For each issue, respondents marked them as either “morally acceptable,” “morally unacceptable” or “not a moral issue.”

Here’s a glimpse of what the study says about the United States, as compared to other countries:

Extramarital Affairs: 84% of Americans believe it’s unacceptable, 4% acceptable, 10% say it’s not a moral issue.
(Palestinian territory is the most conservative, with 94% reporting it’s unacceptable, and France, the most liberal, with 40% saying it’s not a moral issue.)

Premarital Sex: 30% of Americans believe it’s unacceptable, 29% acceptable, 36% say it’s not a moral issue.
(Indonesia: 97% says it’s unacceptable, while France and Germany report 6%.)

Contraception Use: 7% of Americans believe it’s unacceptable, 52% acceptable, 36% say it’s not a moral issue.
(Pakistan: 65% says it’s unacceptable, while in Germany, 1% reports the same.)

To dive in to what the other 39 countries believe, you’ll need to click on each issue here.

The Pew’s study is a start into examining popular social issues across cultures, but is by no means a comprehensive one. What might other countries (not the United States) consider to be issues worthy of study? How different would those be? And, as a former professor once wisely prompted, how would one respond to cultural practices that are based on values different from their own? Is there a morality that is universal, and how is it defined? As individuals obligated to fostering a better common humanity, these are questions worth pursuing.

Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos via photopin cc

Brands That Were ‘Mmm, Mmm Good’ Back Then, Still Are Today

campbells soup

Recalling food experiences from childhood undoubtedly conjures up a bevy of beloved names that in our hearts remain as dear as the memories created around them: Dinty Moore. Kraft. Oscar Mayer. Jell-O. Betty Crocker. Heinz. Each could have been characters in a storybook—their impressions so indelible in our lives. Instead, they are brand names of popular foods.

Recently, a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, corroborated what we often feel—that loyalty to the brands we loved as children never wanes. Authors Paul M. Connell (Stony Brook University), Merrie Brucks, and Jesper H. Nielsen (both University of Arizona) say:

“…children develop brand loyalty and biases that carry over into their adult lives and are often difficult to change…Our research provides an initial investigation into how exposure to ads in childhood can lead to enduring biases that favor products associated with the ads once the kids grow up.”

The researchers studied subjects on the matter. Eureka Alert explains:

“In four studies, the authors examined adults’ judgments of the healthiness of various products, some of which were heavily advertised in their childhood years. Participants viewed images of characters that would have been widely advertised when they were children. Study results showed that when exposed to advertising using characters before age 13, we develop positive long-term feelings towards the characters and the brands’ nutrition for years to come.

Additionally, the researchers found that people who harbor strongly positive feelings toward the advertising character resist changing their minds about the products featured in the ads. They discovered that these effects are not limited to the products that were originally advertised. That is, if people continue to have positive feelings toward advertising characters, then they also rated fictitious new brand extensions as healthier.”

It is clear now that food (or rather food product) heavily targeted at children during the 1980s was not nutritious. But from a child’s point of view, nutrition was never an indicator of significance. As a child growing up the 80s, I can personally vouch for a brand’s power of influence. No breakfast memory is without Kellogg’s trio Snap, Crackle and Pop!

What scientists may fail to take into account is the association of a generally positive experience linked with brands still revered. I loved Kellogg’s cereal not because of its miniature cartoon mascots, necessarily, but because of fond memories of getting ready for school in the morning. I loved Oscar Mayer’s bologna not for its name (and catchy tune), but because of the holes I would cut out (to make smiley faces) of the meat product with my siblings.

In part we love old brands because of marketing genius, but we also love them because of the power they have to take us back in time—to a life youthful, carefree and, hopefully, positive.

Photo Credit: Pinterest

The Virtues and Challenges of Raising Bilingual Children


In a global world defined by diversity, language is a form of expression that delineates one cultural group from another. And increasingly, in our multicultural communities, children are exposed to the brilliant palette of languages and dialects that comprise our modern-day experience. Recently a couple of articles addressed the issue of bilingualism, and its effects on children.

A well-written, albeit lengthy, piece titled “Why I Want My Children to be Bilingual” in Aeon Magazine, recounts an author’s experience as a parent, struggling to inculcate in his children the appreciation, and practice, of non-English languages. Ben Faccini is a native English and French speaker and has high hopes that his London-born children will adopt his other mother tongue of French:

“Introducing French into the family equation has undoubtedly been an additional complication. It skews mealtimes, often setting off lopsided conversations, pitting my French against everyone else’s English. It makes the children feel they are being judged and tested. And, despite their growing comprehension of French, they’ll find any excuse to walk a few steps behind me on the way to school in case I’m overheard. They stick their fingers in their ears when the Petit Nicolas CD is played in the car…”

Mr. Faccini’s frustration with his children’s apathy is palpable, and like any logical parent, cites hard facts of bilingualism’s benefits:

“Studies by the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics at Cambridge University appear to show that bilingual children have a distinct advantage over their monolingual peers in their social interaction, cognitive flexibility and awareness of language construction. Research by the psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee at York University, Toronto, also noted this boost to cognitive abilities. Their 2004 study of pre-schoolers showed bilinguals eclipsing monolinguals when given tasks with conflicting visual and verbal information.”

The evidence for grooming a polyglot may be there, but children certainly don’t see it that way. I speak Japanese, minimally, having lived in Japan for three years (and being quarter-Japanese) and have tried to slip in words, even questions and commands, to my two-year-old. He is quick to replicate the sounds (chisai, for small; kudasai for please, even itadakimasu for blessing the food), but mostly reacts as if I’ve just told a bad joke: “Mama, you are sooo silly,” he says.

He is smart enough to know that I am speaking a different language, and is very keen to “play along” at home for a few minutes when my phrases turn high-pitched and tonal, but shuns it in public, when I point out produce in Japanese.

He is, I fear, embarrassed, as Mr. Faccini noted. In fact, as it turns out, children who have taken the leap to acquire a second language, prefer not only to be around those that speak the same language, but also the same accent.

Researchers at Concordia University found that children prefer to “interact with people who are like them, and might perceive an accent as the mark of an outsider.” In a press release by Eureka Alert, Professor Krista Byers-Heinlein says:

“This…has implications for parents. Since children lack the self-awareness to remind themselves that accent is a superficial measure of character, parents should be more direct in teaching their kids about accents.

We show biases early on, so it might be necessary to educate all kids, regardless of their linguistic background, about what an accent is and how it doesn’t reflect anything about people other than the fact that they are not speaking their native language.”

Though languages, and accents, may be mere facades of one’s true, full character, they can also serve as a window into another world. Faccini says it best in his essay:

“A knowledge of languages can foster versatility, an attentiveness to the world and an understanding of cultural difference. It can make sense of the make-up and narrative of nations, cultivating deeper and joyous communion with others. Without languages, I feel as though my children are going to be missing some vital limb, hobbling through life, cut off from their heritage and the possibilities of the world.”

photo credit: Dietmar Temps via photopin cc

Cultural Ties, Diversity Found in American Greetings and Dialects, Y’all

american diversity map

Humans are naturally cultural sleuths, thin-slicing the curious cases of language variation—not only what we say but how we say it—and mining troves of mental data to instantaneously assess: Do I know you?

Take, for example, Thanksgiving’s favorite nut—the pecan. How would you say it? Would it sound like “pee-KAHN,” “pick-AHN,” “PEE-can” or “PEE-kahn”? Your choice would likely indicate, according to the Harvard Dialect Study, where you are from (or at least the regions of the U.S. that strongly influenced your accent).

The New York Times picked up on this interesting project by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder, and with the help of their graphic editor Josh Katz, created an irresistible dialect quiz. I often rebuff such assessments, because “how could some silly test really know me?” but I was shocked to learn of its accuracy. It narrowed down my dialect (based on the words I chose to represent certain ideas) to northern Louisiana (where I spent my childhood years) and central Mississippi.

The quiz basically validated what we already intuitively know—that there is a great deal of dialect variation within our American borders, and that our usage is clustered within our cultural in-groups. Dialects are clues to the closest thing to “home”—to the places, and people, that shape our lives.

Husband and wife team James and Deborah Fallows, pilot and co-pilot of The Atlantic‘s “American Futures” project, have been traversing the country and reporting on the American experience; Deborah recently wrote not about how we talk, but what we actually say when we’re hoping to zero in on someone’s origin.

According to Mrs. Fallows, the questions “Where are you from?” and “Where do you live?” carry much more meaning than the literal translations. Here are some of the comments to her study:

For instance, in Cambridge and Somerville, people will often give where the live by their nearest square or subway station: Davis, Porter, Harvard, Central, Kendall, Union, Ball, etc.

From Chicago: Identity is defined in layers. First, whether you’re from the north or south side: the great, indelible divide. Secondly, what neighborhood you live in. There are so many gradations– “near north side”, “far south side”, “south loop” — but the orientation is always north or south.

Other intriguing follow-up inquiries to the question “Where are you from?” emphasize the transient nature of the place:

Here in Austin, a common follow up to “Hello” and “Nice to meet you” is “So what brought you to Austin?”

Down here in Florida you might actually expect the question to be, “Where are you from up north?”

Greetings are not merely polite small talk but investigatory overtures. As Mrs. Fallows states:

“…You are really after an answer offering some social-economic-cultural hints about a person’s life.”

Our patchwork culture is a defining characteristic of Americanaof the beauty of diversity that lends to greater awareness of difference and to commonality. Our minds work, at a frenetic pace, to know the unknown. But one would be remiss to overlook the potential pitfalls of this warp speed appraisal, which may result in misconceptions, stereotypes and the like; that is a topic I’ll explore later.

You can find Mrs. Fallows’ entire article here. For a collection of Mr. Katz’s linguistic maps, visit here.

Photo Credit: Marxchivist via photopin cc

The Fluid Identity of Olympic Pictograms

sochi pictograms-693X520

The purpose of the pictogram—an icon that communicates an idea or object—at the Olympic Games is to standardize understanding of basic, practical concepts: the mens’ and womens’ bathroom, for example, and the variety of sports. And yet, host countries can’t resist taking this very form, universal in its intent, and localizing it. Nearly each Olympic season sees the pictogram transform, from modern paint strokes to robotic renditions and child-like sketches. A single pictogram identity, apparently, is not enough.

In 2012, the Organizing Committee of the XXII Olympics in Sochi unveiled its pictograms. Here’s what it said about the design:

“When creating the graphic design of the Sochi 2014 pictograms, the artists were inspired by the experience and achievements of previous generations. They avoided simply reworking past designs, but instead carefully adapted the original visual historic style from the 1980 Moscow Olympics, taking into account modern views.

The style of the Moscow 1980 pictograms, with their incredible grace and emotion, are powerful symbols of unity from the past and resonate strongly with most Russians. The understated quality and visual simplicity, the combination of smooth and straight lines, the lack of sharp corners, all of this helped to give a sense of purpose and dynamism to the Sochi 2014 pictograms.

The pictograms complement the concept of the integrated Look of the Games in Sochi, the patchwork quilt (the combination of 16 ornaments of the most famous national crafts in Russia, from Gzhel to Khokhloma). The graphics used on the pictograms match the Sochi 2014 logo as they have the same line proportions and all the corners where the lines connect are rounded.”

Olympic pictograms—perhaps once a desperate medium utilized to communicate basic ideas to foreign visitors—are now venues for visual creativity.

Below is an amusing video by designer Steven Heller, for the New York Times. It’s an oldie (posted in 2010) but goodie:

Pictograms Photo Credit: Official Olympics in Sochi website