Richard G. Petty, MD

Cultural Competence

One of the problems about so many self-help articles is not only that their authors have often not done their homework, neglecting research and sometimes ignoring the dictates of common sense, but they also tend to be culturally myopic.

I’ve spent a great deal of time in different cultures and some of the advice proffered by a few American business experts would quickly get you shown the door in Japan or Germany!

I’ve just learned that Wal-Mart is pulling out of Germany, writing off a loss of around $1 billion. Part of the problem was that this super successful American company failed to understand German culture. It attempted to introduce the “greeters,” that are a familiar sight in the United States. Germans found it offensive to be confronted by someone ordered to smile at every customer. To a German, a broad toothy grin may be seen as intrusive and an invasion of privacy.

My personal background, extensive travels and work with people from every corner of the world, have made me very sensitive to these differences, and I’m often asked for advice before people head off to do teach, speak or to do business overseas. I was very pleased to find out about a company that specializes in training executives to be culturally competent, and one of the tools that they use is cultural profiling.

I just read an excellent article in the Telegraph by Michael Gates, in which he describes a moment in Finland, when he asked someone how they were, to get the response, “You asked me that last week.” Ask a German how they are, and they will probably spend the next ten minutes telling you.

Different cultures have very different ideas and attitudes toward time, space, truth, privacy, authority, individuality, and, of course, gender. The glass ceiling is still alive and well in many cultures. Children are raised quite differently in different cultures: I knew a British doctor working in the pharmaceutical industry. Her company sent her to the United States for three years, but in less than two she and her family were back in England: she did not like the effects of American education on her children.

The Expat Telegraph website has also launched a series of “National Cultural Profiles.” This is a terrific resource to help us understand the thinking patterns of the world’s major cultures. The resource has been taken from the CultureActive cultural web program that is used throughout the world by governments, non-governmental organizations and corporations. It is also the core of a project (InterCulturalEdge) based at Duke University’s Fuqua Business School in North Carolina.

CultureActive is based on the work of Richard D. Lewis, the author of When Cultures Collide, a book that I recommend highly. He is the chairman of Richard Lewis Communications. Lewis has developed a theory, known as the Lewis Model of Culture. He classifies cultures into three main types:

  1. Linear-active
  2. Multi-active
  3. Reactive

These National Cultural Profiles are different from typical country profiles that you find in the Encyclopedia Britannica or the CIA website that detail economic or political data. These profiles concentrate on key cultural questions such as values, beliefs and communication.

There are free mini-introductions available at the Expat Telegraph website, and there are much more detailed profiles available for subscribers.

CultureActive also allows you to complete your own Personal Cultural Profile by filling in an online questionnaire.

Learning how to communicate with people from different cultures is essential if you hope to expand your own personal horizons, as well as developing your business.

“Civilization is the order and freedom promoting cultural activity.”
–Will Durant (American Historian, 1885-1981)

English Cows Have "Regional Accents"

I once knew a man from the county of Yorkshire who could identify whereabouts in the county a fellow Yorkshireman came from: he was usually able to pinpoint people within eight miles of the place where they were raised.

I’ve never had quite that facility, but it still surprises American friends that I can tell them almost exactly which part of England someone has come from. And I’m not bad with most European accents.

Now if a report from the BBC is to be believed, English cows have regional accents. Picked up, perhaps, by spending a great deal of time with their humans. Listen to the audio and see what you think.

Birds pick up local variations in their songs, and our two Irish horses certainly seem to have different "accents" from their American-born bretheren.

Is this human projection or animal learning?

I’m pretty sure that it’s the latter.

What more do we need to learn about the abilities of animals before we realize that they are very far from being "dumb???"

Friendship and Psychological Distress

“To lose a friend is the greatest of all losses.”
Publilius Syrus (Syrian-born Latin Writer, 1st Century B.C.E.)

Severe and persistent mental illnesses are one thing, but there are many, many more people who are miserable and unhappy, without that unhappiness necessarily getting to the level of an “illness.” The offices of primary care physicians and therapists are full of people in genuine distress for all kinds of reasons.

I first began to think about this many years ago when a woman came to see me and promptly announced, “I’ve come for psychotherapy. I’ve been in therapy for seventeen years, and I want some more.” I wasn’t being in the slightest bit flippant when I responded by asking her if, after seventeen years, she really felt that it had offered her anything? She looked at me blankly, and it soon became very clear that what she needed was not more therapy, but a friend to talk to.

There has been another puzzle: why is it that women are more likely to develop depression than men? The most profound gender difference in mood disorders begins to emerge after puberty, so it would be easy to attribute it all to hormones. But that would be a mistake.

I recently pointed out that there are some fundamental differences in the ways in which men and women interact: women tending to be more relational and men tending to be more transactional. The female sense of self tends to be more entangled with her relationships, while a man’s self-worth and sense of self is more often associated with his achievements. Most of these differences begin to emerge in early puberty: when girls talk to their friends, their conversation tends to be more emotional and to be concerned primarily with relationships, while boys tend to be more reserved and to discuss facts, statistics and achievements. There is some evidence from research in different cultures that these different styles seem to be the norm throughout the world. Yes, there are of course plenty of people of both genders who behave differently, and so it is more accurate to relate these differences to the male and female factor or essence, rather than getting it confused with anatomical differences.

Emotional language tends to put more strain on a relationship, and it is well-recognized that girls’ relationships turn over much more rapidly than boys’ ones. An interesting hypothesis proposed some years ago by Professor Sir David Goldberg, is that this high turnover in relationships may lead girls to experience more disappointing experiences in their social networks, and it is this string of disappointments that predisposes young women to depression.

A happy, healthy, dynamic network of friends is a cornerstone of developing and maintaining psychological resilience. Without them you become progressively more vulnerable to the reversals that affect all of us from time to time.

“A friend might well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson (American Poet and Essayist, 1803-1882)

“To know how to live in a brotherly way with those around us is to be rich, for each of us, with our face, eyes, voice and thoughts, contributes something alive, something warm, which nourishes everyone.”
Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov (Bulgarian Spiritual Master, 1900-1986)

Gender, Culture and Communication

Regular readers will know that I’m very interested in gender differences. More and more evidence is confirming what most of us have always known: men and women tend to think and behave differently. Some of the differences are clearly neurological and some social. It is sometimes difficult to sort out which is more important: some research findings on gender differences have produced mixed results because of some of the assumptions of male investigators!

But notice that I emphasize the word “tend” to think differently. We are always dealing with statistical differences. My Y-chromosome should enable me to navigate from A to B without difficulty. In fact, I am seriously directionally challenged: I should probably have a GPS system with me when I go down to the shops!

I have spoken about my admiration for the work of Deborah Tannen, and I have also written about Christina Robb’s marvelous book, in which she charts the development of new insights into gender differences in psychology.

This weekend I was at the annual meeting of the National Speakers Association in Orlando, and I learned something very interesting that fits in with all of our previous discussions. I learned it from one of the speakers, named Julia Hubbel. I already knew that women tend to be more relational in their interactions and men are more transactional. Most women tend to spend a lot more time on the maintenance and development of relationships and most men are more interested in the bottom line: What is the solution? What’s the deal going to be? What I did not know is that there is some data to indicate that non-White males tend also to emphasize relationships over transaction. As soon as I heard that, I was sure that it was right: I have had a lot of dealings with people from the Indian subcontinent, and most would consider it very rude to get straight down to business before we had taken tea or eaten something while discussing family and other personal matters. Julia teaches networking skills that integrate gender and ethnic considerations.

As she was explaining her insights and methods, I was reminded of the work of the anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward T. Hall, who wrote a series of excellent books on cultural factors and thought.

Gender and cultural differences in communication are of such importance that I plan to return to the topic in the near future. In the meantime, you might be interested in a book by Richard Nisbett, entitled The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently and Why. After multiple trips to Japan, during which I learned a lot about cultural differences, I gave a copy to a friend who is a Canadian in a senior management position in the Japanese affiliate of a US-based company. He told me that he was astonished by the accuracy of the insights.

Some of the political misunderstandings that you see on the news every morning are often a consequence of different thinking styles. Learning how men and women and people in different cultures think and operate is not just interesting.

It is essential.

“Skill in the art of communication is crucial to a leader’s success. He can accomplish nothing unless he can communicate effectively.”
— Norman Allen (American Playwright, Recipient of a Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play)

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The Canine Gandhi: Cats, Dogs and Interspecies Communication

“Thousands of years ago, cats were worshipped as gods. 
Cats have never forgotten this.”
–Unknown Author

I need to tell you about something remarkable, that, if you think about it, has amazing implications.

We have a new little kitten. An eight-week-old little girl, and already a brave explorer who wants to play with everyone. Interestingly, she is already strongly right-handed. (Yes there is clear evidence of handedness in most mammals, and even some fish. But in cats, dogs and horses it’s not always clear until they are a little older than this.)

The other cats are not best pleased by this turn of events. After all this is their house, even if they do have to put up with the occasional human and a large mobile rug called Shannon. Shannon is an enormous dog of questionable pedigree but extremely calm disposition, who just hates any kind of noise or commotion: she is the original gentle giant.

The humans in the house are tolerated only because they are the suppliers of food, treats and comfy laps.

After all, as an unknown author once pointed out,
“Dogs have owners. Cats have staff.”

Little kitten thought that with Shannon fast asleep on the floor, it would be fun to play with another cat called Hannah. Now Hannah’s an older and very dominant cat who survived in the wild for a year. She didn’t take kindly to the small ball of fluff skipping toward her. Little kitten did not have the wit to understand that Hannah’s taut, crouched posture and narrowed eyes were not an invitation to a game, but preparation for the pounce that would quickly generate a kitten-shaped snack. We were about to intervene when something remarkable happened.

Shannon, who had been busily stacking ZZZZZs, got up shambled forward and put her enormous head between cat and kitten. No sound was made. She didn’t look at either of the protagonists. She was just like a great big bouncer getting between a couple of drunks in a bar.

She just stood there, unmoving and implacable. Like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "You shall not pass!"

After a few moments the kitten realized that there’d be no way through, and went off in search of one of her toys. And Hannah cat saw that kitten tartar was off the menu. She slunk off to go and groom herself.

With which Shannon went back to her spot, lay down and promptly fell asleep again. She was soon back to a dream that involved a lot of running.

There can be absolutely no doubt about Shannon’s intent. She wanted to keep the peace, and she woke from sleep to do so. It’s not the first time that she’s protected the cats from harm.

Late at night a couple of weeks ago, we couldn’t get her to come in the house. She kept running back outside and growling. Very odd for a sweet natured creature who normally always comes running when called. It was only when I went outside for a third time that I realized that I’d been a bit slow. A few feet away was a large feral cat that we’d not seen before. He had Hannah cornered against a pillar and Shannon was trying to protect Hannah and chase the away the interloper.

As soon as the dumb humans got out of the way, Shannon saw the gatecrasher off the premises and escorted Hannah back into the house.

These can’t be unique examples of inter-species communication. Do you have either anecdotes or research to share?

“Always remember, a cat looks down on man, a dog looks up to man, but a pig will look man right in the eye and see his equal.”
–Sir Winston Churchill (English Statesman, British Prime Minister, 1940-1945 and 1951-1955, and, in 1953, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1874-1965)

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Blogging and the Tipping Point

The blogging phenomenon is well under five years old, though many of us were communicating online long before that. The question for many of us has been whether blogging is just going to remain a kind of online graffiti or political sounding board which will eventually go the way of the dodo, or whether it has now reached a level of maturity where it will be an important social, business and educational phenomenon?

Have we reached the Tipping Point? This forty-year-old term refers to a dramatic moment in time and space when something unique becomes common. The term was popularized and applied to daily life by Malcolm Gladwell in his book of the same name.

You will remember the impact of bloggers during the last Presidential election campaign, but some skeptics thought that was just a flash in the pan.

Several recent items have convinced me that blogs are indeed beginning to have a significant impact:
1.    A white paper published by Market Sentinel, Onalytica and Immediate Future in December 2005 discussed the impact of bloggers on corporate reputation, after one individual named Jeff Jarvis had a significant negative impact on Dell Computers after relating his bad customer experience.
2.    In April 2006, Custom Communications organized an event – I thin the first of its kind – on Blogging4Business. The aim was to discuss how blogs could potentially damage a brand.
3.    In May of this year, traditional news producers, aggregators and distributors gathered at the We Media Global Forum to discuss the future of news in the light of the growth of blogging and what is becoming known as citizen journalism.
4.    The Internet is moving rapidly from being a read-only or buy-only medium to an organic, participatory, interconnected and collaborative network. Just look at the burgeoning popularity not just of blogs, but also of sites like and the energy and eagerness that is creating Wikipedia.
5.    The Internet is rapidly becoming a web of producers who are customizing their interaction, rather than passive consumers.

The BBC ran a nice discussion on some of the dynamics of what is now occurring.

How do you see all this developing?

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Historical Amnesia

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
–George Santayana (Spanish-born American Philosopher, Humanist and Poet, 1863-1952)

For a long time now I have been convinced that one of the many reasons for the social dislocation in much of the developed world is that we have lost our memory. If we do not remember who we are, what we are, where we came from or where we are going, we are doomed to a life of perplexity and confusion. Have you ever felt that there is something about you, some skill, some knowledge, some hidden fact that is there just beyond the horizon, but that you cannot quite grasp? That feeling can be very disorientating and anxiety provoking.

We need to remember our history, and the insights of the geniuses who came before us will help us to understand and to frame the chaos of our lives.

I was thrilled to read a piece by Richard Stengel, the new Managing Editor of Time magazine, in which he laments the epidemic of historical illiteracy that threatens every aspect of our lives. As he points out, being an American is not based upon ancestry or geography, but an acceptance of the ideas of who we are. A few years ago, a survey of Americans aged 18-49 found that only 10% could name the president who ordered the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. At the time of the study, I was having lunch with a group of faculty at a major Ivy League university, and one of the assembled company  – a very good clinician and researcher – responded to the results by saying, “Who cares who did?” We all need to care for these major events provide a context and a framework for us to understand our place in the world, and who we are as a people and as a nation. As Thomas Jefferson, our 3rd president said: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Historical illiteracy is a threat to democracy and may lead us to repeat mistakes.

I have spent years working on a series of antidotes to this historical amnesia. As one part of this effort, I have developed a database of quotations. Not cute sayings, but insights, comments and revelations that mean something and can transform our lives. As I said in the introduction to my book Words of Power:
“This book has been created over thousands of years and by thousands of minds. You will find here the fruits of many lifetimes of contemplation and study. From the marble halls of ancient Greece, to the steamy ashrams of India; from the sacred groves of the American Natives, and from the medicine huts of Africa right up to the startling insights of mystics and scientists walking amongst us today.”

Knowing what someone said is valuable, but only half of the equation. We are evolving as a species. If you met a persons from a thousand years ago, they might appear quite dull: our thoughts, beliefs and perceptions are also the fruits of the times and places where we live. It is good to know who said something, and essential to know when and where it was said. As in any conversation, the words are only a small part of a communication: context is key.

For many years now, I have strongly suggested that people interested in personal development should spend just a few minutes a day with a classic maxim or quotation.

If you are interested in quotations, I have well over 27,000 in my database, and I would be very happy to post some of them.

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Dolphins Have Names

It seems that not a day goes by without new research breaking down the barriers between humans and many of the other species that share our planet. I have reported on the burgeoning research into emotional expression in animals. No surprise to anyone who spends much time interacting with them, but a shock to some of my more conservative colleagues. Within the last ten years I have spoken to countless psychologists clinging to the notion that animals are just bundles of reflexes designed to protect them and allow them to reproduce.

The evidence for complex communication patterns in dolphin has long fascinated me. This was triggered in part by the work of the late John Lilly. One of my mentors in neurology was firmly of the opinion that it was impossible because they did not have the right neurological machinery. It seems that he was wrong. There is an extraordinary new report picked up by the BBC and the National Geographic  from a team of scientists based at St Andrews University in Scotland: the same place that Prince William attended for four years. In a three-year-study  of wild dolphins, conducted in Sarasota Bay off Florida’s west coast and funded by the Royal Society of London, they found that dolphins communicate like humans by calling each other by "name.” Using whistles, these mammals are able to recognize themselves and other members of the same species as individuals with separate identities. They have labels for each other just as we do.

This is important not just because of the implication that they have evolved some of the same abilities that we have, but because it likely means that they have a sense of self and of identity and that they able to differentiate each other as individuals.

I was talking about these findings with She Who Must Be Obeyed, and she pointed out that our horses appear to be able to do the same thing: if you watch them closely they have different calls for attracting each other’s attention, and these calls are different when they are at home or when they are in competition. Two of the horses are constantly going to competitions together, and after they have done well, they have a new repertoire of sounds with which they communicate with each other, and yet others with which they communicate with other horses. For people not used to being around these animals, they always assume that we are simply anthropomorphizing. But I don’t think so: it really seems that they call to each other in a precise and predictable way after they have done their jobs well. We have often said that they are bragging: perhaps we’re not so far from the truth.

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The Naked Ape

When I am looking for new articles to analyze for you, gentle reader, I am very fortunate that Carol Kirshner, my web mistress (is that the politically correct term??), is also a researcher, and she does a great job of finding new items that are relevant to our basic themes. But sometimes I wonder if she is kidding me, as happened when she pulled up an article with the enticing title: “All the better to see you blush, my dear…”

Researchers from the California Institute of Technology just published a study in the Journal Biology Letters in which years of painstaking neurophysiological research lead them to speculate that the reason that primates evolved complex color vision was not, as previously thought, so that they could find the most tasty ripe fruit, but so that they could detect a blush on someone else’s face or, ahem, their posterior.

The main color sensing cells in the retina are the rods and cones, and it turns out that the cones are exquisitely sensitive to skin tones. The trouble with the old theory about color vision and fruit is that there has never been much evidence for it, and as someone who lives with horses, I know that they have some quite sophisticated color vision, yet are more than happy to munch away on grass.

This new study shows that primates have three-color vision, and the system seems extremely well adapted to pick up colors that are prevalent in the skin, in particular the amount of oxygenated hemoglobin in the blood. This three-color recognition system can signal a primate if a potential partner might be having a rush of emotion in anticipation of mating. It might also be the mechanism for telling if an enemy’s blood has drained out his face because of fear. And rosy cheeks, like smooth skin, are subconscious signs of health and vitality in a potential mate.

As the principle investigator – Mark Changizi – points out; old-world primates are all unique in that they have bare faces and bare posteriors. After all, there’s not much point in being able to see miniscule changes in skin color if the key areas are all covered up. So there seems to have been some co-evolution of the ability to see color modulations in the skin and the loss of fur.

Could this be the real reason for humans being the “Naked Ape?”

And I think that I shall leave it for you to consider all the implications of hiding a signaling system that has evolved over millions of years…

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Online Therapy

There is a very interesting article in Newsweek that talks about the growing trend to offer psychotherapy online. The article highlights the main reasons for this new development: convenience, anonymity and low prices. Without the overhead of running an office, internet therapy is roughly half the price of a regular office visit.

I was initially rather skeptical about the potential effectiveness of internet therapy: any experienced therapist will tell you of the amount of non-verbal material which is used during a session. Body language is a potent indicator of internal psychological states, and there is often a meta-text in communication, that can be difficult to pick up if you are not in the room with someone. And good therapy requires a lot of intuition. But on the other hand, there are times when people will open up when they do not see another person. It is one of the reasons that psychoanalysts used to use a couch, with the therapist out of sight of the patient.

So I have reviewed the research literature on the use of the internet for psychotherapy for an array of conditions, including addictions, and found over 190 studies, at least a third of which were reports of well conducted studies. Although it is still early days, and most of the research studies are small, the results are almost all positive. Clearly we cannot use the internet for trying to treat people with severe or life threatening problems, but for many of the problems which create such difficulties in many peoples’ lives, I think that this is a very positive development. So much so, that I am currently considering setting up an online service myself. I would be interested to hear of other people’s experiences of online services, and whether they would like me to offer one myself.

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