The Human Freedom Index: How Free Are You?

Nelson Mandela said,

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

How would you define freedom?

Cato Institute, the Fraser Institute, and the Liberales Institut at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom defined it with a metric called the Human Freedom Index.

The Index measures freedoms using 76 indicators, rating countries from 0 to 10, economically and personally, with 10 being the most free.

Economic freedom, for instance, involves an individual’s ability to prosper without government intervention, the ability to make personal economic choices and compete in markets, the protection of personal property, etc.

Personal freedom includes freedom of expression, equality, freedom of movement, security, etc.

Averaging these two fields based on scores for each of these 76 indicators, the Index arrived at the base score for 162 countries.

The Indicators

History shows that human progress takes greater leaps and bounds through human freedom.

As Albert Einstein said,

“For everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.”

So, what human freedoms produce “great and inspiring” creations?

The Human Freedom Index suggests it’s such things as:

Using the most recent sufficient data available for each of these indicators, each nation was rated, averaging an overall score for the country.

The Scores

As you may have guessed, the nations that ranked as the freest are those whose cultural values emphasize personal freedom, many of which were democratic nations.

The top five countries in the 2019 Index were:

  • New Zealand 8.88
  • Switzerland 8.82
  • Hong Kong 8.81
  • Canada 8.65
  • Australia 8.62

The United States ranked 15th with a score of 8.46.

Those countries that ranked lowest tend to be totalitarian, one-party, or authoritarian states (or have historically been). 

The lowest ranked countries were:

  • Syria 3.79
  • Venezuela 3.80
  • Yemen 4.30
  • Sudan 4.32
  • Iraq 4.34

These data points can give you an idea of how you might fare in a foreign culture, based on your own culture’s relative freedoms.

Zookeepers Can Help

We’ve been talking about finding a Zookeeper to help you move in the world as an expat.

One of the reasons you might require one is if human freedoms are more or less restrictive in the country into which you’re expatriated.

Perhaps you’re moving from a country where you enjoy broad human freedom to one that’s restrictive – or vice versa.

The transition either way may be difficult. But having a Zookeeper can ease your integration and ensure you don’t do things wrong, impolite, taboo, or even unlawful.

Finding Your Cultural Zookeeper: How Your Assistant Can Assist You in Learning Culture

We’ve been talking the past few weeks about what types of people make the best zookeepers in a foreign culture.

Zookeepers are the intermediaries between you and the new culture. They can help you understand the nuances of the culture’s values, norms, and behaviors and provide you with metaphors or analogies to serve as mental models for better understanding.

While we’ve said that Third Culture Kids are amongst the best zookeepers due to their experience with multiple cultures from a young age, you unfortunately might not have any TCK connections.

So, who else might be a good zookeeper?

Assistants Assisting Cultural Learning

Don’t overlook your assistant as a teacher.

Executives often work closely with their assistants and, in a foreign culture, these assistants have the benefit of understanding their own society and having had previous experience working with foreign managers.

Upon arrival to Spain, I sought help in adapting to the local culture from my assistant.

She offered me daily cultural advice during a particularly difficult time for the company.

For instance, when my third female employee started crying in my office, I grew worried about my approach and wondered if there was something I could do differently.

When I asked my assistant if she had some insight, she told me, “That’s how it works in Madrid. Just keep Kleenex on your desk, so you can offer it to your employee if she starts crying. But keep talking to her rationally.”

I followed her advice and was able to continue making tough decisions without worrying about cultural missteps.

Advice & Explanations

Not only did my assistant offer advice, she offered an explanation for various aspects of her culture that did not gel with mine.

Regarding the tears, my assistant told me Spanish culture is more emotive and tolerant of crying at work than Swiss culture.

As exemplified by their expressive language, the Spanish are an emotive people.

My assistant/zookeeper also gave me insight into:

  • How to greet business clients
  • How and when to celebrate births/birthdays
  • How to/how not to dress
  • And, most importantly, that I should NEVER use the copy machine myself, as this is not a good look for a boss in Spain

The power distance index developed by Geert Hofstede puts Spain in the middle, while Switzerland is on the lower end. 

This means that Spain prefers a stronger power dynamic amongst its leaders, while Switzerland prefers a flatter hierarchy.

By suggesting changes in my behavior, my assistant/zookeeper provided me with concrete measures that would help me adapt to abstract cultural dimensions like power distance.

Zookeepers are International

The best zookeepers are not easy to find. 

And the monkey – YOU – must also be malleable to training. You must be open to criticism, both passive and active.

Friendship and trust are key to the relationship, as is some type of international background in regards to the zookeeper – whether they’ve simply worked with many a foreigner before or have themselves lived in different cultures.

Whatever the case, once you find yourself a good zookeeper, you’ll be good as gold.

I am a Third Culture Kid: Here’s What I’ve Learned

Third Culture Kids grow up in more than one culture.

Like Barack Obama or any other child who wasn’t raised in their parents’ homeland, I was expatriated and embedded in a foreign culture from a young age and learned how to adapt.

In fact, I grew up in three cultures.

My family was Swiss. At home, we had Swiss behaviors and traditions.

My school was French. I learned the French language, learned about French history and geography, and befriended my French peers.

My surroundings were African. The market, the neighborhood, the people, the culture – the reality of life all around me was that of the Mossi tribe.

I learned how to alter my body language and my behavior. Even my sense of humor differed depending on the audience.

This is what a TCK learns early on, which many only learn later in life:

Adapting is a necessity across cultures.

Perspective and Behavior

TCKs are in a specific cultural group all their own.

They are in a unique position where they are made to value various cultures, placing relatively equal importance on the behaviors and norms of them all.

The “rights” and “wrongs” that are culture-based and learned through primary socialization vary, and so the TCK learns that hardline views differ from group to group.

This allows some flexibility when navigating contradicting norms and values of the cultures into which the TCK is placed.

In this way, TCKs develop specific interpersonal behavior and standards of perspective that a child raised in a single culture does not, as they are not so exposed to opposing worldviews. 

A TCK’s lifestyle is different. Their communication is different, not only in its multilingual nature, but in its style, nonverbal and otherwise.

The complexity of their firsthand experience with multiple cultures produces in them distinct characteristics that enable their positioning as the perfect zookeepers.

Here’s why.

Zookeepers Know Different Species

Due to their knowledge of and relationship with multiple “species” in the “zoo,” TCKs have developed a natural understanding of various perspectives.

They can see through the eyes of the elephant, the eyes of the penguin, the eyes of the giraffe.

They can even see through YOUR eyes: the eyes of the monkey.

While those who have grown up in one culture develop firm values and norms rooted in that single culture, this can often hinder the acceptance of contradicting values and norms.

Those growing up in single cultures often view other perspectives as wrong, rude, forbidden, or even illegal.

Instead of seeing the whole picture and trying to understand the rationale behind another culture’s beliefs, their perspective becomes emotional, biased, and they tend to stonewall understanding.

TCKs, on the other hand, have learned how to monitor emotions about differing perspectives.

They are more adept at registering social cues and norms and more practiced at cultural sensitivity.

Just as they switch fluidly from one language to the next, they are able to fluidly adapt to behaviors of one culture or another.

To them, it is a way of life.

And this natural empathy allows them to be more understanding of YOU, the monkey, as you have “monkey moments” in a foreign culture.

In this way, they can help serve as a patient teacher between the two worlds, if you should be so lucky to secure their friendship.

A Foot in Two Worlds: Why the Best Zookeepers are Third Culture Kids

Imagine you were born in Bali as the child of an American.

You grow up at the slow pace of island life. Your days are spent on the beach, swimming and playing in the sand.

Your friends are local kids and the children of other expats.

You go to an international school. There, you have an Australian teacher, and your peers are from all over the world.

How would your worldview change if you were the child of an expat who grew up not in your parents’ home country, but abroad in a foreign one?

You might just have a broader perspective.

This can make you an ideal zookeeper (i.e. teachers for foreign expats working and living in another culture).

Two Worlds

Taking in the above scenario, it’s probably safe to say that, at ten years old, you’ve become chummy with more nationalities than many adults have.

Even more interesting, you are a child of two worlds: with one foot in your host country and an intimate knowledge of your parents’ culture.

This is what’s known as a Third Culture Kid (TCK).

Researchers, John and Ruth Useem, developed this term in the ‘50s to classify children of American expats who were living and working abroad.

These children are gifted with a unique perspective and can make the best zookeepers for those who are adapting to a foreign culture. 

As quoted from Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds:

“While growing up in a multiplicity of countries and cultures, TCKs not only observe firsthand the many geographical differences around the world but they also learn how people view life from different philosophical and political perspectives. Some people think of Saddam Hussein as a hero; others believe he’s a villain. Western culture is time and task oriented; in Eastern cultures, interpersonal relationships are of great importance…”

TCKs have grown up with more than one culture: speaking English to their parents at home and Balinese in their host culture.

Celebrating Christmas at home and Galungan in the streets of Sanur.

Barbecuing hamburgers at home and eating Nasi Campur on the beach.

During their primary socialization, these children grow up knowing and respecting the values and norms of the host culture, while also knowing and respecting their parents’ values.

Presidential TCK

This was the life of someone who was, at one time, the most powerful leader in the world: President Barack Obama.

Obama grew up as a Third Culture Kid. 

Born in Hawaii, he lived some of his formative years in Indonesia, where his mother taught English and was a Microfinance consultant who worked in rural development. His father was Kenyan.

Like many TCKs, growing up with multiple cultural influences and worldviews gave Obama a unique perspective.

Obama describes the joys of his youth in Indonesia as well as the tragedies he observed there.

He explains:

“It had taken me less than six months to learn Indonesia’s language, its customs, and its legends…The children of farmers, servants, and low-level bureaucrats had become my best friends…There was the empty look on the faces of farmers the year the rains never came, the stoop in their shoulders as they wandered barefoot through their barren, cracked fields, bending over every so often to crumble earth between their fingers…”

Through his experience as a TCK, he learned from a young age that the world wasn’t perfect or just.

He also realized that not everyone was aware of this or able to confront it. He notably refrained from sharing the unjust bits of his experience in the letters to his grandparents.

“The world was violent, I was learning, unpredictable and often cruel. My grandparents knew nothing of such a world, I decided; there was no point in disturbing them with questions they couldn’t answer.”

It is this worldly perspective that TCKs are gifted with and that make them great zookeepers.

Not only does such an experience open their eyes to a broader world, it can help open yours too as an expat adapting to another culture.

We’ll talk more about that next week.

A Zookeeper in Action: When Locals Help Explain Foreign Behavior

As a Third Culture Kid living in Africa, I would sit in the shade with my father when visitors came.

One day, a trusted employee named André stopped by.

As was normal in the Mossi culture, discussion unfolded at length in a friendly manner, while we drank cup after cup of water.

When the conversation wound down, André at last stood to leave.

It was only then that the aim of his visit became known.

The Favor

A wedding was approaching, and André wanted to ask my dad for help in transporting bags of sorghum (a type of grain). 

The pair sat down again to discuss.

My father told André that while he would like to help, he was unfortunately very busy and couldn’t take the day off that the bad roads would require to transport the grain.

André left and, from that day onward, their relationship was broken.

My father’s trusted employee and cohort now avoided him like the plague.

My father wondered what he’d done wrong. He felt helpless and couldn’t change what happened.

He also couldn’t find fault in what he had said or done. 

He understood he’d had a monkey moment but wasn’t sure what his blunder was.

He really was busy and, on such short notice, couldn’t accommodate André’s request. He had explained and apologized for this.

No matter how hard he tried, his relationship with André didn’t improve.

At a loss, my father sought out his zookeeper for assistance.

The Zookeeper Explains

Freeman Kabore was born of noble blood from Ouagadougou.

He spent time studying in Europe and so had familiarity with both cultures; the perfect quality in a zookeeper.

When my father told Zookeeper Freeman about what had unfolded between him and André, Freeman taught him something about Mossi culture.

An important request like this one should not be refused upon sight.

Instead, one should take the time to consider the request – or at least have the courtesy to appear to take the time to consider it.

If my father had told André, “I will think about it. Please come back tomorrow, and I will let you know,” and then, the following day, kindly declined, this would have been acceptable in Mossi culture.

To the Mossi, this face-saving formality shows your friend the respect he deserves.

Being delivered a direct “no” is considered rude and inconsiderate.

With help from Zookeeper Freeman, my father learned an important norm of the Mossi culture, one that would save him from further monkey moments and help him maintain valuable friendships.

Next week, we’ll talk about Third Culture Kids: the ultimate zookeepers.

The Zookeeper: Your Intermediary in a Foreign Culture 

As a foreigner in another culture, we are caged monkeys in a zoo.

This is a common theme in my blog and particularly in my book, I am the Monkey.

As monkeys in the zoo, we look outside our habitats and wonder at the strange animals called “humans” – i.e. the local people whose culture we’re living in.

Why are they staring at us all the live-long day?

The noises they make are odd. The fur they wear is multicolored. Their actions are diabolical.

But of all the humans who gather around our cage, there is one that we can identify with: the Zookeeper.

How Zookeepers Behave

Unlike the human spectators who throw peanuts at you, the zookeeper gives you real food.

More than that, she knows when you’re hungry.

Instead of making strange noises and pulling faces at you, she approaches you normally, she moves naturally.

As a monkey, you don’t fear the Zookeeper, because the Zookeeper doesn’t cause confusion.

Though she is not a monkey, she understands monkeys, and you understand her.

This is the type of person you need when integrating into a foreign culture: a local who understands you and who you understand too.

You may not speak the same mother tongue, but you are still able to communicate well enough to get by.

Cultural Food

The Zookeeper can feed you the cultural food you need to help understand their culture.

Good zookeepers understand both cultures well enough to hash out any differences and help explain their own culture in a way to which you can relate.

Knowing both monkeys and humans allows the Zookeeper to build bridges, providing explanations for behaviors and mental models to aid understanding.

Zookeepers can tell the humans, “You’re making too much noise and scaring the monkeys.”

They can tell the monkeys, “The humans don’t mean to alarm you; they’re just excited to meet you.”

They can tell the humans, “Don’t feed them; they just ate.”

They can tell the monkeys, “I know you’re not hungry but feeding guests is part of the human culture.”

Through understanding and effective communication, the Zookeeper is the intermediary between the two worlds, aiding both the monkey’s integration and the humans’ ability to help this foreigner integrate.

Next week, we’ll look at an example of a genuine zookeeper in action. 

Celebratory Food: How Dishes are Tied to History & Religion Through Sacred Stories

A soup of unleavened bread.

A crescent-shaped pastry.

A turnip harvested in the prairie.

What do these three foods have in common?

They’re celebratory foods made important through tradition and the stories we weave.

History, religion, and spirituality play a part in creating the lore and sacred stories behind our favorite holiday meals and treats, as well as our everyday gruel.

From Jewish passover to Viennese Christmas, let’s take a trip around the world with these celebratory dishes.

Jewish Matzo Ball Soup

Enjoyed during Passover, Matzo Ball Soup is presented at Seder supper.

In celebrating a holiday where the Hebrew slaves were freed from Egypt, the symbolic meal represents this tale in the Biblical Exodus.

The Jews ate unleavened bread when fleeing, which is represented in the Matzo.

The dash of bitter horseradish symbolizes slavery’s bitterness.

Austrian Vanillekipferl

The Vanillekipferl is a pastry that’s shaped like a “kipferl” – or crescent moon.

Originating in Vienna around four centuries ago, the pastry’s lore says that the kipferl was developed by Austrians to symbolize their victory over the Ottoman Turks, whose banner held a crescent moon.

Funnily enough, the Vanillekipferl’s shape was developed into other pastries – specifically, the croissant which found its way to France.

The French adapted it with puffed pastry, creating a whole new spin on the tasty treat.

Blackfeet Indian Prairie Turnips

Various native tribes in America viewed certain foods as sacred and tied them to important lore.

Prairie turnips, for instance, were believed to come from the “Sky realm” by the Blackfeet Indians.

Feather Woman (Soatsaki) learned how to harvest prairie turnips from her mother-in-law, the Moon (Ko’komiki’somm).

She then returned to Earth to spread the word, making the prairie turnip a staple in Blackfeet cuisine.

Food + Stories = Tradition

Each of these foods has its lore, and its lore is what makes eat bite special.

From the symbolic nature of the Matzo Ball Soup to the celebratory nature of the crescent-shaped Vanillekipferl to sacred staples like maize to the Mayans or prairie turnips to the Blackfeet Indians, the rich stories that accompany such foods keep the oven hot.

And they keep our traditions cooking.

Intangible Cultural Heritage: What Foods Does UNESCO Deem Worthy of Singling Out?

We can divine so much about a culture from their monuments, homes, pottery, and other physical objects and structures left behind.

From Incan temples to Egyptian pyramids, archeologists and other anthropologists are able to piece together the values and norms of past cultures through the tangible cultural heritage they created and built.

In other words, tangible objects – the visible branches of the cultural baobab – allow experts to infer theories about the culture’s invisible roots.

Intangible cultural heritage does the same.

So, what aspects of cultural heritage are considered “intangible”?

Intangible Cultural Heritage

UNESCO defines intangible cultural heritage as including:

“traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.”

Moreover, in order to check all of UNESCO’s boxes, intangible cultural heritage must be a) traditional, contemporary and living at the same time; b) inclusive; c) representative, and; d) community-based.

Food falls into this category.

What Can Food Tell Us About A Culture?

“The best couscous is my mother’s.”

Recently in 2020, UNESCO approved couscous as an intangible cultural heritage of Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia.

The four North African countries submitted a joint application for their signature dish which originates with the indigenous Berber culture.

Their successful application put couscous on the map, not only as an item of UNESCO intangible cultural heritage, but as an “example of international cooperation.”   

Made of durum wheat, corn, or barley, the preparation of couscous involves a ceremonial process, beginning with its cultivation and ending with its consumption.

After the cereal is grown, semolina is made by grounding the seeds. It is then rolled by hand – with plenty of olive oil – and steamed over a special tool called a couscoussière.

Apostrophekola-real, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Large batches of couscous are often made in a big bowl, as the semolina might be eaten over days and in various ways.

Seasoned often according to regional preferences, variations include couscous mixed in with a meat stew, with chickpeas, with various veggies, with turned milk.

Image by Patou Ricard from Pixabay 

A special seasoning blend called Ras El Hanout, which combines over a dozen spices, some specific to the region, is often mixed in.

The importance of couscous in every aspect of North African culinary life means that the dish is brought out for nearly every traditional occasion – weddings, family reunions, holidays – as well as for basic daily meals.

What rice is to many Asian countries, couscous is to North Africa. The versatility of the dish is part of its cultural heritage.

Gastronomical Dishes & Methods

Whether its the tradition of Korean kimchi-making, known as kimjang, or the art of Neapolitan pizza-making, known as pizzaiuolo, every culture has their own food traditions that could be considered intangible cultural heritage.

What are yours?

Food: A Universal Language

A plate of Italian pasta.

A dish of Japanese sushi.

A bowl of Ukrainian borscht.

Traditional dishes from around the world bring together many elements of the culture on a plate.

They’re like a sensory representation of the larger culture.

And even better – cuisine is a great conversation starter, because it’s rare that food is taboo.

No Food Taboo

Unlike other cultural areas – like dress, honor, sexuality – there isn’t much taboo surrounding food.

Every culture loves their traditional dishes, and every culture wants to talk them up.

Bring up religion at the dinner table, and you’ll be walking a minefield.

Bring up sexuality in some cultures, and you’ll likely be shown the door – or at the minimum, be on the receiving end of some death stares.

Bring up food, and nearly everyone will be overjoyed and will love to share their favorite dishes, their cultural heritage.

Food is not a hot button issue (unless you’re arguing which pizza is better: Chicago deep dish or a New York slice).

And you can talk about food all day, because not only does it vary across cultures, it varies across regions of the same culture.

For instance, a pizza in Northern Italy will be prepared with thin crust; the more south you go, the thicker the crust gets.

How it’s prepared, the regions’ special touches, what special treats are made for celebrations and holidays.

People of every culture are exuberant about sharing their food; this is one area of conversation you can be relatively sure about.

Food Culture: France vs. Denmark

Discussing one’s food culture can also reveal some pretty interesting discrepancies between countries and their approach to food.

As we talked about last week, the how, when, why, and with whom of food can give you some hints about the broader culture itself.

Danish Professor of International Marketing Dominique Bouchet knew this and so compared the differences between French and Danish food culture.

As one might expect, significant differences exist.

The French view eating as a social experience.

The importance placed on food is reflected by their language, which has a broad vocabulary for food, eating, and even specific tastes.

The Danes view food more as a source of nutrition and energy. Pleasure and the social experience takes a backseat.

While you might see a French person touching and smelling fresh ingredients at a market for a good deal of time before they purchase their products, you’re unlikely to see a Dane do the same.

What we eat and why we eat is a major indicator of who we are.

Bouchet writes:

“Fresh oysters and red meat are seldom appreciated in Denmark, whereas in France exactly red meat is perceived as being more alive, and thereby more powerful and appetizing. The animalistic aspect is seen as something positive in France and Spain, whereas the associations in Denmark and Germany are more in the direction of death and morbidity. The reaction is one of disgust, and therefore it is desirable to kill each and every trace of what is disgusting in a process of frying, boiling, or pasteurizing.” 

With food, our cultural differences are bolded and italicized.

This is why sharing food is so important to cultural integration.

If you are inquisitive and observant about your new culture’s food habits, you can deduce much more about a culture than just their food preferences.

You can discover the deep roots of their baobab.

Food Culture: What HOW You Eat Can Tell You About Culture

Do you eat your dinner at the dining table, or do you eat sitting crosslegged on the floor?

Do you share a communal dish of food, or does everyone have an individual plate?

What utensils do you use – a fork, spoon, and knife; chopsticks; your hands?

With whom do you eat? Family, friends, with only your own gender?

The answers to these questions are part of your food culture – and to a larger extent, your culture as a whole. 

On the surface, you see only the limbs of the baobab – the cultural norms – but the details of your food culture can tell you something deeper about the roots (i.e. your cultural values).

The Presentation: Food Plating

Another aspect of food culture is the amount of care put into food presentation.

One study delved into the differences between American, Italian, and Japanese food plating preferences.

Titled, “Looks Good Enough to Eat: How Food Plating Preferences Differ Across Cultures and Continents,” the study found that Japanese participants prefer more formally arranged plates, while Italians and Americans prefer more casually presented food.

The researchers concluded that this springs from the respective cultures’ individualist versus collectivist natures.

The Japanese are a collectivist culture, so formality and identical presentation may have roots in the Eastern collectivist tradition.

Italians and Americans are individualist Western cultures. Self-autonomy and informality, even in how one’s own plate is presented, may be rooted in this mindset.

The study also noted the fullness/emptiness of the plated food.

The Japanese and Americans’ plates were relatively empty, while the Italians preferred very full plates.

The researchers concluded that the preference for empty plates might be related to the Japanese and American ideal of open space.

How, When, Why, With Whom?

Food norms can tell you a lot about a culture, so when you’re trying to understand/learn a culture, consider these norms to understand the culture’s deeper values

Practice this with your favorite culture – or even your own.

Ask:

  • How often do you eat? How long do you take to eat? 

Many Mediterranean countries, for instance, spend hours dining each day, as sharing food is considered an important social event.

  • When do you eat?

The Spanish, for instance, eat dinner between 9 PM and midnight, and it’s a much lighter meal than lunch. This is historically linked to their afternoon siesta and being geographically located in the wrong time zone.

  • Why do you eat?

Some cultures tend to eat only for sustenance while others take more pleasure in eating.

  • With whom do you eat?

While eating is a family affair for most countries, for others this is not the case.

Answering these questions about food culture will help you understand that culture or learn something new. It will help you connect the dots between a culture’s norms and its values.