cultural idioms

Cultural Idioms – Every Culture has Something to Say

No matter where you travel around the planet, every community, culture and country has insider language. These are the cultural idioms that every traveller needs to learn if they want to sound like someone “who knows the score”

So as a traveller if you want to “hit it out of the park” then all you need to do is “buckle down” and “put your nose to the grindstone” for the task ahead. Are you the “one in a million” who can understand each one of these cultural idioms. “Don’t pass the buck” give it a shot and see if you can ace this test!

Here is a great list

check out all the various world idioms  – see how many you can get from the list

Cultural idioms fade and bloom

Wherever there are human beings who talk to one another, we form poetic and short-form language. It is easier to say “we made it by the skin of our teeth” and not going into a long explanation about traffic backup. Our idioms sound normal to us, but to a visitor, they sound foreign and sometimes a little crazy … After all, what kind of teeth would have skin on them?

If you are working hard to be a polyglot, you need to excel at language. It sure helps if you listen to and learn the local idioms.


Did I miss any of your particular favourites?

Racism in Canada

How to Understand Racism in Canada

Is racism killing black people in the US? I hope not, and as a Canadian, it is easy to pat myself on the back about our lack of racism when we watch our American neighbours implode every weekend with news about cops shooting another black kid. It made me wonder how racism in Canada affects me?

I was visiting family in Newfoundland when I began chatting with my father’s uncle, Bruce. That’s when I found out I was an Indian. It was a surprise.


I knew people would be upset, but you will NEVER guess what made people mad.

Last week I started up a war. I wrote a controversial post about the country of Africa and said that due to bad press because of the Ebola media hoopla, I was going to share some “lesser known facts” so people could understand the ‘real Africa’. I wrote a blog post. A lot of people complained when I said Africa is a country. It struck a nerve.

The Country of Africa

So why did I say that Africa is a country when I knew it was not true? It was all a joke of course. I know that Africa is an ancient city-state stretched along an enormous archipelago of 15 large and hundreds of smaller islands just off the western coast of India. For reference purposes, I have included a quick sketch of that fabled land (not to scale):

Africa is a country
A map of the Country of Africa

Why did I write the post? I had some noble reasons: I wanted to break stereotypes, stop the ‘poor African’ storyline, and to share a conversation with a wide audience, the same conversation I have shared with plenty of Africans  over the years.

I also wrote the article to have a little fun and I figured more people might read it.

There was a method to the madness, but if I am honest, it wasn’t until I saw the comments on Facebook or Twitter that I really understood what I had written. In the middle of the backlash one small niggling fact really stuck out for me. I learned a lot from it.



First of all, if you missed it, go read it and then come back here. I can wait.

In my post I tried to give plenty of cues that I was writing satire. I kept repeating that Africa is a country, and then wrote something else equally silly. Most caught the hints. If you were just skim-reading you may have missed what I was trying to say. Here are the clues I tried to leave:

  • I gave my article a sensational over-the-top title like the headlines that flood my Facebook stream.
  • I made sure that every single sentence I wrote was ridiculous or wrong, or both.
  • I made up absurd facts. Some were so crazy I thought that I had gone too far.
  • I used the most condescending language I could think of
  • I made up senseless quotes from imaginary people.
  • Each of my links in the post actually told the exact opposite story.
  • I kept the ruse going. I played an arrogant jerk or a clueless idiot in my Facebook responses when people reacted.
The Country of Africa
“up to your usual jackassery”

Africa is a Country: The reaction

I got a lot of confusing “WTF!?!” type responses. A number of people tried to correct my uninformed facts. But I must say that I was personally surprised by one little thing. Most people would only scold me about the error of my title. Again and again I was told:

“Africa is a continent, not a country!”

I was surprised that with all the dumb things I said about Africa, people were mostly concerned about my geography. They ignored the bigger picture. No one questioned my condescending tone about the needy people in Africa waiting for a brave hero from the west. People were fine with the thought that volunteers should go to Africa to hold babies and give away stuff. Or that an African’s favourite sport was war. No one challenged those statements.


I am not sure, but I have suspicions. Most people got the joke of course (many Africans loved it!). But for others I wonder if it has a lot to do with how we have grown up thinking about Africa, or maybe it is about reverse racism where we elevate people unrealistically. I don’t know. All I know is that I am sure glad I wrote the article. I loved the reactions! It has definitely given me some ideas for future posts!

Enough serious reflection. Back to the funny!

One of my favourite recent videos comes from a  group of students in Norway. SAIH has made some hilarious videos about this way of thinking. Do yourself a favour and please watch this genius clip! Maybe Africa is a country you can visit to save a child?

Other videos from SAIH are here on their Radi-Aid page. They are so brilliant that the only fault I can find is that I jealously wish I could have made them.

Know any other great videos like this? Share the link-love and post them in the comments below!

Mark Crocker 

The country of Africa

10 Astounding Facts about the Country of Africa (#6 will break your brain!)

The country of Africa is receiving a lot of bad press during this time of CRISIS OUTBREAK of EBOLA (the deadliest disease in recorded history). While these fears should probably be increased, I wonder if it is time to also share lesser known African facts.

I have travelled throughout the country of Africa, and while I am not an expert, I do have some experiences worth noting. Here are my views! CAUTION: although Africa is one of the world’s greatest destinations, during this deadly EBOLA outbreak, I would not recommend ANYONE to visit ANYWHERE in the country of Africa.

A little knowledge is a powerful thing – very little knowledge is the most powerful thing of all. – Nelson Malala

1. Africa is not only a big country it is a HUGE country.

A wonderful magical majestic country only slightly smaller than the USA and consisting of over 5 distinct people groups.


The second worst way to think about the poor. 

I was in the middle of a boring class and unfortunately I was the teacher.

My nightmare is to have too many people nod in agreement while I am speaking. If everyone already agrees with you, it feels comfortable like a warm hug on a sunny summer day. A great recipe if you are trying to have everyone enjoy a luxurious long nap.

Bloody terrible for a memorable teaching moment.


How do you think about the poor?

The people in front of me were preparing to get involved in poverty reduction. They figured that they knew more about poverty and travel than 90% of their friends and family and they were used to being the experts. They were not yet practitioners, but they knew the language, they understood the stats, they had made some visits. Everyone in the room identified with the poor. They felt their pain.

The problem was everyone in the room thought they already ‘got’ what I was teaching.

I was talking about how many people think about the poor. How we see their needs more than we see them as people. The students were nodding in agreement with me. It was terrible.

This is one of the toughest groups to train. People who quickly agree with you have invariably mentally checked out. I could read the thoughts coming from some of their heads, “I hope so-and-so is listening to this, THEY really need to understand!”

My friend Paul once taught me a technique I still use. Great teachers will occasionally create some tension and disagreements in the classroom. Everyone pays attention to an argument. The problem was that I couldn’t find someone to disagree with me. Everyone was being too agreeable – thus boring class.  Here is a hint, if you ever find yourself falling asleep in class, vehemently disagree with the prof. It will make the time go by a lot faster!

I felt like I was becoming the kind of teacher I hated –  a fool blathering about things everyone already knows.

As I tried to push people to think a little different about the poor, suddenly I caught a little break. A great student began to speak, she said “I understand the poor, I was recently spending time with some poor people and they began to complain about their poverty. So that’s when I told them “In many ways you are better off than me.’ …”

It was a perfect moment for a disagreement and I did. I responded. “Really!? If you really think that the poor are better off than you, go ahead and trade places”

How would you respond?

Would you trade places?

If you wouldn’t trade, then the poor people you are talking about are probably not really better off than you. Sure you may admire or even want some parts of their life or their community, but that is not the same as saying you are actually better off than me. That rings hollow.

That brings me to my point. The #1 worst way to think about the poor is that The poor are victims waiting for our help. Most international workers have learned how offensive and destructive this is.

The solution is not to try to think of the poor through the exact opposite lens. If you do, you will hit the #2 worst way to think about the poor. “The poor are magically noble.”  People who have worked with the poor for a short time will say things like:

  • The kindest person I ever met is homeless
  • The poor are so noble and super inspiring
  • The people in [insert poor country here] are the friendliest people you will ever meet!
  • On the street, they really know how to give


Is it true that the poor are inspiring?

Sure, sometimes, just like any group. But I am suspicious of any sweeping generalization. Places with extreme poverty also have people who want to manipulate and rip you off. Platitudes about the poor that ring hollow don’t help. The poor are not some second-coming of Gandhi, Buddha, Robin Hood and Jesus.

Stereotypes rip people off from real friendships
 Don’t get me wrong. I understand why people want to embiggen the poor. It comes out of a healthy wish to right the wrongs. To reverse the terrible tragedy of seeing the poor as hopeless and incompetent. But sharing any simple opinion about a huge community is not helpful even if it is tries to paint them in a noble light.

To deal with poverty we must stop all one-dimensional versions of the poor. Negative and positive. The people who make a difference in poverty are the people who see the poor as friends people. Actual friends people. Occasionally witty, sometimes annoying. Like your friend who is always late, the one your mom likes, the one who forgets your birthday, the one who always calls you to go for lunch at the exact right moment.

People we want to share our lives with. Real. People. Just like you or me.

Have you ever been guilty of talking about the poor in unhealthy noble terms? What has been the result?

5 things that you might think taste like chicken but really don’t 

“Tastes like chicken” – thats what people say when they try something new. In my travel I have eaten plenty of unusual stuff – much of which certainly does not taste like chicken!

One of the best and worst things about travel is eating all kinds of strange and wonderful new things. Once you get off of the plane and away from the abomination that is airplane “food”. I try to eat local.

Nothing gives your tastebuds a workout quite like local cuisine. My favourite is the roadside stall. Since I do this a lot, I have a quick internal checklist I follow to make sure I find the best place the first time. Usually a flavour-filled portion of something exotic and tasty! Read through for my hints on how to eat well!

In the meantime, here are 5 things I have eaten while travelling that definitely do not taste like chicken:

5. crocodile

This was on the menu at Carnivores Restaurant in Kenya, a great restaurant if you are ever nearby. Crocodile comes roasted on a sword-like skewer, you fill your plate with as much as you like, as well as Zebra, Impala and a few other local animals. A lot of people say that crocodile tastes like chicken – I disagree. I think croc tastes like something half-way between a fish and chicken, with a rubbery texture like squid. Not sure if that sounds appetizing or not, but I would eat it again.

4. emu biltong

Biltong is basically South African beef jerky. An emu, like a chicken, is also a flightless bird but thats where the comparison ends. An Emu is huge like an ostrich and is a red meat. It tastes a lot wilder. Like venison. Perfect for those long hikes through the African bush when you are tracking game

3. pigs ears

I ate them in China at a special Szechuan restaurant. Fish heads, green spicy peppers that numb the mouth, heaps of dry red chilies, and pigs ears. I am not sure why this fancy restaurant was serving pigs ears but I dug in with my chopsticks, took a bite, then surprised my hosts when I went back for more. i would compare the taste of Pigs ears to the tendon in a big delicious bowl of Vietnamese Pho. If you haven’t tried Pho you are missing out on one of the best meals on the planet.

2. caterpillars

I had heard that Zambians ate caterpillars and I was curious. I was staying overnight at a Zambians home and asked what they were like.  Luckily they had some in the cupboard!  The next thing I know is that the frying pan was out and caterpillars were popping in the hot grease.  The verdict? Delicious! Seriously you should try them if you ever have the opportunity. They tasted like a mixture of popcorn and peanuts. I can see them taking over the menu at hockey games.

1. chicken

I was in South Africa and the cook came out with some beautiful pieces of fried chicken. It looked great crispy, big pieces, juicy and hot. I took a bite and there was a sudden strange disconnection. I looked a little more closely, I thought this was chicken, but it sure tasted like fish. But what fish has a drumstick? It was only later that I found out that this chicken was raised on fish meal. A very strange combination and I must admit not one I wish to try again. The chicken tasted exactly like crocodile.

How to eat well when traveling to non-tourist destinations:

So if you stuck around through my 5 meals that don’t taste like chicken, here is my quick guide to getting great eats:
  1. Find the place that looks the busiest by locals.
  2. Ignore the place with the English sign in places that does not normally speak English
  3. Sit down elbow to elbow with a crowd on a rusty bench
  4. Look around you at the good looking things that other people are eating.
  5. Order one of those
  6. You will eat well, you won’t pay much money.
  7. Even if you don’t like it (rare) you won’t pay much money, so try something else!
  8. You may not want to ask for a translation of what you just ate

Share the exotic meal you ate that definitely didn’t taste like chicken?

Do not be the change you want to see

Have you ever tried to corral a group of friends and come up with a plan. What do we want for lunch? What movie do you want to see? Should we go camping for the long weekend?  It could be anything but when you get 5 or 6 friends together it gets tough to make a decision on something simple. Imagine something hard:

Hey friends, want to start a successful business together? “

Getting all your friends on the same page is not easy, add something as complicated as a new business and finding a way to agree just got a whole lot worse! That is why I think it is naïve and maybe even unhelpful when I hear people ask ‘why aren’t these poor people collecting together and collaborating to make their lives better’

Brendah on the right
Brendah on the right


“It’s naïve to say poor people should just collect together to make their lives better”

Liz is a woman I trained who is volunteering in Zambia. Energetic and adventurous only begins to describe this retired Dutch-direct woman. She started her work with a child program for a year and went back for a second year to continue with a group of 5-6 widows and single mothers. Her agenda was simple – Connections and support for the women. They would cook together and chat over a meal, sharing laughter and tears at the table.

As Liz walked deeper into the stories of her friends she saw the everyday hard decisions of poverty. She wanted to step in and lend a hand. She talked to the group and suggested that maybe they should start a business together. Liz had her retirement income and she thought she could swing a small loan.


Noble intentions.

When she told me the news I felt really uneasy. I have seen this kind of well-intentioned solution way too often. It usually ends in pain – for the donor and the recipients.

“Want to REALLY help? Give up on the romance that the #poor are waiting to hear your great idea.”

The idea is out there that no one in the village has thought of working together before and they need a visitor to arrive with plans for them to happily share a business together. This way of thinking romanticizes people. The local culture may certainly be a lot more collaborative than yours, but it sure doesn’t mean that they are all going into business together. Do you have the free time to find a group of five friends and start a new business? Think of how tough that would be.

  • What business do we start?
  • What do we need to buy?
  • Who is in charge?
  • Who does what?
  • How much do we chip in?
  • When can you work?
  • What’s fair?
  • Who bankrolls this?
  • Where will the profits go?

And another 1000 practical questions


Getting into business with friends is a recipe for complication.

I wanted to warn Liz about these questions, but since I was travelling all I had time for was to send her a strong email, written directly to her, asking her to hold on! I gave her some rushed quick points and asked if we could meet soon.

Liz told me that she read my email and suddenly saw the trouble she was getting into. She certainly didn’t want this project to end up totally dependent on the outsider. She wanted to change her plans but felt bad that she had already promised money. As a woman of strong faith she prayed and decided to lay her cards on the table.


She did something awful.

Liz opened up my email to her and read it to the group. When she told me this I felt terrible. I hadn’t known she was going to read my email out loud. I certainly would have written it differently if I knew I was directly communicating with her friends.

When Liz and I later talked, Liz laughed. She told me that my fears were unfounded. The meeting went really well. The women even told Liz that they had wanted to talk to her about the same questions that I had raised but they didn’t want to offend her. They liked her too much.

In the end Liz read my suggestion that the women start a savings group together. The women discussed and agreed. Each of them decided to pitch in a little each week, and at the end of the month one woman would get the cash, enough to fund a personal project.


Then Liz did something great!

Liz asked them to consider how much they could save each week and did something really helpful. She didn’t suggest an amount. The next time they met Liz discovered the women were saving double what she had assumed they could. They drew names and at the end of a month, Brendah received the group savings of $200. She immediately put it into buying more handbags to sell at her stall in the local market. No committee meetings. No profit-sharing. Just a hard-working woman who is building her business.

Every month, another woman receives her group savings cash and expands her own business. Some women are fixing their homes and shops, others are buying more stock to sell, others pay school fees and build up their sewing businesses. Community collaboration is vital for development. Unless it is the wrong kind (lead by an outsider)

Our solutions are easy – we think about them every day. Sustainability is hard. To be successful we must restrain ourselves. Maybe as outsiders we need “to not be the change we want to see in the community”

Did this post influence you? If so, tell me why in the comments below.

Mark Crocker 


PS. This is the email I wrote to Liz, unedited.

hi Liz,

thanks for the further detail … I love the heart you have to engage and appreciate the wealth of experience you have with the women in the room.
I want to give you some principles of a good project as this is a critical phase to begin well. There are many people who start these kinds of projects and the high majority of them fail.  I want you to succeed, so here are some principles to keep in mind.
  • i would encourage you NOT to be the one who holds the money and gives the loan.  Instead, I would do the training and ask if they would like to do a program like this.  the unspoken thought if you hold the money is that a foreigner needs to be involved to really make this work.  Good, sustainable development puts this back in the hands of the local people each and every time.
  • secondly, I would suggest it is very important that the project is owned by an individual, not the group.  If a group owns it, the group will commonly consider the project somewhat outside of themselves.  failure and success are not as important to a group as blame for the failure can be put on something outside of oneself.  the worst possible outcome would for the project to be seen as your project.  This is what we see with projects all over Africa … “That is Unicefs well..”, “That is ERDOs chicken farm…” for a project to be successful, it must be owned locally.  
  • Do not start them out.   Let the group build up savings together in order to build trust and anticipation – and most importantly long range project planning where there is a real risk for failure and lost money.  Even a failed project that is owned localy is good for a person, as they tend to be a lot more cautious with how they plan for the next opportunity. If failure is not a very real option, in such a way that it will affect the people personally, the project probably does not have local ownership.
  • Finally – realize that your suggestions are not suggestions.  As the richest person in the room, they are heard with Biblical weight.  IF Donald Trump ‘suggested‘ a business opportunity to you, you would probably pay very close attention and ignore your other plans, because you know that he is very financially successful. You are the Donald Trump to these women!
These concepts are not from me, but are the results of hundreds of thousands of others who are attempting this work around the world.  The principles I am suggesting are proven and I encourage you to slow the process to do the research on how to faciliate an implementation with the ladies you are partnering with.
In short:
1. you cannot be in charge of anything (suggesting a project to do, or even holding the money at your home)
2. have the individuals come up with individual plans (they can collect money together), and let the project fail or succeed
3. Dont suggest options – let people make up their own mind on what to do entirely.  fight the urge to suggest.

I am gone to Japan and Philippines for a few weeks, perhaps we can find a moment to chat after?

Mark Crocker


Did this post influence you? If so, tell me why in the comments below.

Is It Ignorant to Ask “Where Are You REALLY From?”

I was once called by a survey company. I began to busily give my opinion about whatever it was that interested them. As we neared the end, the interviewer needed to know some demographic information and he asked me “Where are you from?”


“Canada” I replied.

“But what is your background, where are you from?”

“I am Canadian.” I asserted.

He then asked where I was originally from.

I replied that I was an 8th generation Canadian (at the time, I didn’t know I was also Status Native). He was really stumped…


How to reduce the threat of militants who are trying to kill you

My brother was working in Pakistan, in an area where terrorist attacks have become commonplace. He was there to aid the local people rebuild after some devastating mudslides had torn up their homes, communities and lives. While he was helping, militants were actively looking for ways to kill people who look like my brother. It was and still is a dangerous place. Thankfully he made it back home safely and I recently asked him what he considered the secret to his safety.

I too have felt the results of war a few times – In the Palestinian territories as I talked to the soldier in Bethlehem square, blocks of concrete whistled past my head at a guard post. The soldier clicked his gun off safety and ran towards the youth. Later that same trip as I walked up a hill to find a moment to myself, my persistent guide began to shout for my attention. I ignored his cries until I heard him say “They are shooting up there!” I decided to turn around.


Driving the shooting gallery

I have worked in a war zone in DRCongo, the longest running war in the world with a death toll of over a 1,000,000 people in the last 20 years. I most remember the striking image of the rocket launcher slung across the shoulder of the militant. She was there to protect me I was told. I missed a border crossing and had to run the hazardous trail from Bukavu to Burundi in the afternoon – the time when the local militias got trigger happy. My friend, Raha, kept calling and checking in every moment he could reach us by cell phone, frightened for my safety.

In the grand scheme of risk, my stories do not share the same drama that others have faced. Much more horrible things happen to international workers. I got a call from a volunteer within hours of the moment when he held a man as he bled to death. A construction accident on a job site building a children’s home.

The equipment burst in his hands, sending a shard into his heart.

There is real danger in travel.

Most development takes place in places where there are greater dangers than home. Disease. The Environment. and Armed Men With Guns all play a part.

Back to my brother in Pakistan. He was surrounded by razor wire, and high fences. The guards on the compound carried guns. There were protocols and procedures. Safe areas and meeting points.  Still that is never enough. He let me know his secret to personal safety, the same one I use.

He got to know the neighbours.


Like most of life, the secret is relationships

He dropped in often to the neighbour next door. He brought over food. Learned the names of the kids. He drank endless cups of tea. He asked questions about their lives. He shared his own experiences. In short he became a neighbour, not a foreigner.

After getting to know them, at one point he asked about the dangers of local militants, “What should I do if something bad happens?” His neighbour pointed out how the neighbourhood worked, the narrow streets that felt so confining also held an advantage. The houses were all close together for a reason. He told him, “if ever you are feeling in danger get on your roof – jump over the gap to our house – we will shelter you.”

When surrounded by danger, no amount of protective razor wire or fire-power is as powerful as the protection of a neighbourhood. The first step to safety is to become a fellow human begin and get to know the neighbours.

Have you ever been in a dangerous situation?

Mark Crocker

Photo Credit: gfairchild via Compfight cc

The fatal flaw to understanding another culture

A few years ago I was in India and I met a travel writer for Outdoor magazine. We chatted about life, travel, writing. I was a little jealous of his life and work. I had overheard him talking to an Indian guy about his wife and so I asked about his family. He told me that he wasn’t actually married, but in Indian culture it made sense to refer to his partner as wife.

Indian Women with Headscarves

I understood why he did so. I was also there with my wife Supriya, although at the time she was my girlfriend. We had gone for a walk in Pune one night, we held hands and, looking for a place to buy water, made our way into a roadside pub. Almost immediately Supriya’s cousin Biyah appeared to ask why we were there? It seems we had violated a number of unspoken cultural taboos. (more…)

How to tell time

We left our guesthouse just after 7 am because our host had told us that the high mountain road was under construction. There was only one way in, and there would only be a couple moments when we could get through. We had to get there before 8 or we would have to wait until after noon.

How to Tell Time
We were cutting it close, but I felt good, we were going to make the deadline. We kept up the pace, until suddenly we rounded the corner to see a long line of parked vehicles in front of us. We stopped for what would turn out to be an unexpected lesson. (more…)

How language almost starved a 12 year old boy.

When I was a kid I went overnight camping with a group of other boys. We got into normal shenanigans. Lit fires. Chopped down trees. Got into fights. Our leader had enough of us and at one point in frustration he shouted his threat “if you don’t shape up you won’t be getting any mail!”

Mark Age 12Strange right?

I did not understand. It was a weekend camping trip. I didn’t expect mail and the threat seemed hollow. Weak. “Who cares about mail!?” I thought. But everyone seemed to calm down in a hurry. In the sudden silence I wondered if I was missing the point.

So I asked him, “What’s a mail”?

My question only seemed to increase his frustration. He grew visibly more upset as I repeated my question. A little louder. A little more forcefully.

“What’s a MAIL?”

I did not help to reduce the tension. If anything his temperature was sky-rocketing. I felt like he was going to lose it on me, and for what, “mail“!?!

Scott StillerIt all made sense

That was when my friend Scott grabbed my arm and told me to shut up. “Meal! Mark. MEAL! He is telling us we will have to skip a meal if we don’t listen!”

I immediately shut up. Few things matter more to a 12 year old boy than food.

Everyone there thought I was just bring a cheeky little snot and was trying to aggravate him. Fair enough – I often was. But in this case it was an honest mistake. His British accent, although tempered by years spent in Canada, still came on strong. Probably more so when he was sick and tired of playing babysitter to a dozen boys (…looking back – good on you Keith).

You don’t have to speak different languages to require a translator

As I travel I have discovered that people speak differently.  I am not referring to language. I mean that people who share the same language will use it in very different ways.  I may be speaking English to someone, but I need to know the other rules of communication. One key rule, is the difference between direct and indirect speech.

  • Direct speakers say things like, “What do I think? I disagree. Why don’t you try it this way?”
  • Indirect speakers say things like, “I love your plan! Have you heard Petra’s idea, what do you think about it?”

Not too complicated, but most cultures have preferences.  Roughly 3.5 billion people on the planet prefer to speak directly; and 3.5 billion people prefer to speak indirectly.

deceptive or unrefined

If you belong to a highly direct culture you will find indirect speech seems evasive and tricky, maybe even a little deceptive. If you belong to a more indirect culture you will find direct speech shockingly abrupt, it seems unrefined and rude. The same sentence will mean very different things.

As a Canadian I tend to speak directly and I wonder if I really understand how indirect communication works.  Maybe as a direct speaker I have some weird unconscious bias against indirect communication. I think it gets in the way of getting things done. Although, I must admit, Japan and India prefer indirect ways of speaking and they sure make things happen. They lead the world in productivity. So I wonder how they are able to get so much done, when it seems like they never directly confront problems? I wonder if I am missing a perspective? Do I have a cultural blind-spot? Understanding this would certainly be a valuable skill if I was working with people who prefer indirect ways of talking – Don’t you think?

Did you see what I did there?

If you followed that last paragraph, then guess what! You understand indirect communication. A much more direct approach would have been if i had simply stated: Direct communicators, like myself, have an unshakeable and somewhat arrogant belief that we have the right way of communicating. I am wrong.

Although all cultures have preferences about direct and indirect communication, cultures tend to use both. You do better if you know the preference for the place you are travelling.

Have you ever felt like you were communicating clearly, but totally missed the point?


Mark Crocker

Say Hello - Creole

How to say Hello in Creole

I am on my way to my 5th visit to Haiti and I am totally embarrassed to say that I don’t know how to say ‘hello’ in Creole.

Seriously. How lame is that?


I know how to say ‘bonjour’ of course, and knowing a bit of French can get me by. But in Haiti, the majority of people speak Haitian. A patois, partially French, partially local and all Haitian.

I have good reason as to why I don’t know how to say hello in Haitian. I travel to many different countries in my work. Much of my work is seminar style. I am in and out quickly. I don’t stay long in one place. Over the last couple of years alone it would have helped if I could speak French, Spanish, Filipino, Japanese and Swahili. I can’t learn them all!

Sounds convincing right?

The problem is that I can always find a good excuse not to learn some of the language. In doing so, I join myself to a special group of international workers. A group I am not proud to belong to.

Around the world I have met long term workers who have lived in their countries for years, occasionally decades, and they still don’t know the language. This, they assure me, is not a problem. There are plenty of local people who want to learn English. Translators are cheap. They have systems in place and look at what they are accomplishing. Ultimately, they tell me, they are too busy with their successful projects to stop and learn the language.

Still sound convincing?

I wonder, isn’t there more to life than accomplishing tasks and getting projects done. What about your evenings and weekends? Who do you hang out with then? Other expats only? The few who speak your language? Is this simply all about accomplishing tasks and getting projects done?

Knowing another language is more than understanding the code for your own language. It is a way to understand the soul of a community. Something different happens when you chat after the meeting. When you can walk through the community and discover your neighbours concern for their son. The grandfather who is ill. When you can come back on the weekend and hear what happened that week.

When Supriya and I travelled to Newfoundland soon after our marriage I found myself in the role of an interpreter. As the kitchen party went on later into the evening, my uncles grabbed guitars and sang the old songs, the stories of our history were trotted out again “Pops cup” gets told and retold, growing every time.

The dialect grew broader as the speech clipped along faster and faster. Stories evoked gales of laughter that I needed to interpret to Supriya as she was forced to smile and nod.

It was a lot more than than translating a few words. The language was the culture. The culture is the language. I need to be able to say hello, I know better.

By the way, “bonjou” is how you say hello in Creole.

Do you think learning the language matters that much?

Mark Crocker


How to know if you are a traveller or tourist

I don’t hear anyone saying that they want to be known as a tourist. If anything, when I find out someone has just got home from a cruise, they sometimes feel the need to explain themselves. They explain that they got away from the group every chance they got to have a ‘real local’ experience. What is a real hard-core traveller supposed to do, with travel so easy and cheap, it seems like everyone is doing it.  Don’t fret! Here are the top five tell-tale signs to separate the hard-core traveller from the cruise-line tourist:

Traveller or Tourist







 photo by Ian T. McFarland

1.  Tourists go and buy travel gear at travel stores before they leave – Travellers go and buy the more expensive travel gear at travel stores before they leave.

2. Tourists learn a few phrases of the local language before they go. Travellers explain that they could not possibly learn a few more phrases since they travel to so many other places in a year. The tourist is grateful when a traveller helps out, not with a few words in the local language, but with an iPhone app.

3. When walking down the street in a new country, tourists make eye contact with other tourists when they see one another. Travellers will pretend not to see each other.

4.  Tourists say, “Where are you going on your next vacation!”  Travellers respond with a world-weary sigh and suggest “When you travel as much as I do you don’t always know where the road may lead …”  Travellors know that eager desire to see new places is not cool – Yoda-like pronouncements are cool.

5. Travellers call themselves something funky like “expats” or “temporary nomads” – tourists call themselves ‘travellers’

What do you think? Are you a traveller or a tourist? Is the word ‘Traveller’ just a newer hipper word instead of ‘Tourist’?

Got any more to add to the list?

Mark Crocker

The 11 people you meet in the boarding lounge.

Sitting in the boarding lounge before a trip to haiti.
We are on travel time. Not real time. A portal to elsewhere.

Flight crew saunter in and wait in the no mans land between the gate agents desk and the security doors. Flight attendants read People magazine. Captains and first officers brightly chat as they carry and ferry Starbucks to flocks of flight attendants.

Wheelchair porters stand ready. Chatting quietly with one another until it comes time to push a passenger forward. Then the appropriate charm or chill will come out according to some internal barometer of passenger patience.

Gate agents try to create order of the mass of people. Continued calls for various passengers to approach. Facing down the horde who lie in wait for the hint of upgrade. The list grows ever longer. Super elite. Elite. Sapphire. Gold. First. Business. Emergency row. Plus. Group one. The crush forward. Older annoyed passengers exclaim ‘we are all getting on the plane – no use in rushing to sit down!’

STM team members wear matching tshirts. Comic sans font proclaim team name and English scripture references. The groups resting on and around luggage piles. Members smile and chat as middle aged men share the finer points of culture or travel advice back and forth with one another as Haitians listen on.

Young Aid workers wearing jeans and fashionable scarves sit hunched over macbook pros. Older more jaded NGO workers wearing wrinkled quick dry long sleeves sit hunched over beaten-up windows machines with stickers of their aid agency stuck on the back. Both read from spreadsheets, graphs and endless email.

Black men, affable and portly in clerical collars walk by with cheap luggage. smiling at everyone and no one alike, slightly baffled at the intricacies of the airport.

Mixed race couples with children sit together even as they are casually separated by various I-devices. Familiar with the routine they amble forward at the call for business class passengers.

White women with Haitian babies held protective and close. If you catch their eye they look a little longer. Willing you to ask them a question.

Business men in blazers on cel phones. Those with Bluetooth gadgets in their ear at some point in the call announcing the fact that they are in an airport, credentials as an international traveller appropriately noted, they continue with the more banal news of collegial deadline and meeting – the gossip of the office.

The modern backpacker – Hipsters rest with their girlfriends. Sharing screens and earbuds. Carry on luggage artfully aged in vegan dyed leathers shunning the convenience of handles and wheels.

Young men dressed in dark jeans, loud t-shirts and gold chains sport bright red Beats headphones. They point at friends greeting and meeting their way along to the gate.

Then my group is called …


We are on travel time. Not real time.

Have you ever stood here?

Mark Crocker

3 secret rules to learn a new language quickly and easily.

I once sat with a guy in Guatemala. For over 30 minutes we talked about our lives, our families, where we came from and where we were going. The funny thing is that we didn’t actually speak each other’s language! He spoke Spanish, and I didn’t.

How do you learn a foreign language?

Photo Credit: tobyct via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: tobyct via Compfight cc

Ever wonder why some people seem to learn a language quickly? They seem to have it so easy. Do you wish you had their skills? Here are the secrets: (more…)

Start Using Your Head

Today was market day, so everyone was out in full force.  The merchants and craftsmen carried their finished products along the long roads.  A carpenter walked along with the carefully balanced wooden framework for the couch on his head.

African heads, protected by a twist of cloth, are used to carry almost anything you can imagine.  They balance the large plastic water cans to and from home, children are often the ones sent running down to the well, to slowly and carefully picking their way home along the roadside, yellow jerry cans balanced high.  For everyone else, the black plastic bag full of the days shopping, countless bundles of firewood, long long lengths of lumber and bamboo, an unopened umbrella ready for the rain, ruddy woven baskets, trays of tiny fish, each sway perfectly balanced, atop men and women as they walk the red dust. The most unusual and incredible things can be carried on top of your head! (more…)

Close but no Engrish!

No Parking in IndiaPeople in other countries sometimes go out of their way to communicate with English-speaking tourists. Here are several signs, seen in locations around the world.

Cocktail lounge, Norway:



See all the Famous Sites of London in 1 day

Travellers are well aware that Heathrow in London, England is often the hub through which you connect to the rest of the world. Often the stopover is several hours, or a day. If you have a few hours to kill, here is my recommendation on how to spend the day in London … enjoy your next Stopover!


Photo Credit: -Jeffrey- via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: -Jeffrey- via Compfight cc

London is a walking city

You can and will have to walk any and everywhere, but it can take a toll on your feet. Bring really, really, really comfortable shoes. Bring an umbrella or a raincoat, or be prepared to be damp, London is famous for fairly constant rain.

Drop your stuff at the airport short term storage, Heathrow charges by the individual bag, so cram one into another, or find a garbage bag and stuff in two or more backpacks.  Voila! one bag.

There are many tourist maps that you can find at info booths, in the tube stations (subway), at almost any attraction, etc. Grab one, they are often helpful. Even better, download the tube map on your iPhone now. You may not find wifi to do it after you arrive. The freebies will not be as good as the London Mini-map that you can often find in a coin-operated vending machine in a tube station for a couple of pounds.

Get an all day tube pass that includes the zones that you want to see the sites of, that will probably roughly include everything within the Hammersmith and City and the District lines of the tube. If you look on a tube map, those two lines form a rough circle around the most popular tourist destinations.

Things are expensive there, most prices will look like a price you would pay in Canada, but because it is one pound instead of one dollar, depending on the exchange rate it can cost you a lot more. If the cost of an item looks like a Canadian price, then it probably is a fair price for England.

After paying for short-term luggage storage, the Tube and meals, the following suggestions are for the most part free.

Itinerary for a perfect day in London

Head to Piccadilly Circus, have a look around at the sights.

If you want to go to a play or a musical in the evening either download the TKTS app, or be at the lone building at the south center of Leicester Square (pronounced Lester) for 11 am. There you can buy ½ price tickets to many of the evening shows from TKTS (formerly The ½ price ticket booth). do not be fooled by the many, many other places selling half-price tickets they commonly inflate the price to make it look like a discount. There will be a line-up, so getting there a little early would not hurt.

From Leicester Square, you can walk a couple minutes south stopping in at the National Portrait Gallery as well as the National Gallery a few steps beyond that. Both include originals of many famous works of art. In the National Gallery you can see original Van Gogh’s, Monet’s, Manet’s, Gauguin’s, etc. It is worth a visit.

The National Gallery fronts onto Trafalgar Square (of Mary Poppins fame), there you will find thousands of pigeons, hundreds of people feeding them, and interesting statuary. Also the square is ringed with embassies, including the Canadian.

If you continue walking south on Whitehall street for another couple minutes, you will come to the Admiralty Arch, which leads directly down The Mall to Buckingham Palace. From the arch it may take 15-30 minutes to walk to the palace. There is not really a closer tube station to the palace.

If, instead of walking through Admiralty Arch you continue down Whitehall, you will soon arrive at the Horse Guards. If you are there at the right time, you may see them marching about. A little further down Whitehall takes you to 10 Downing Street (The British PM’s house).

If you walk through the Horse Guards Arch you enter St. James Park this is a pleasant walk through the park to get to Buckingham.

Say Hello to the Queen

Once you have finished gawking at Buckingham, which is fairly unimpressive, unless you can convince the guards in to let you have tea with HRH, you can head over to Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. To get there either walk about 5-10 minutes south to Victoria station, hop on the tube (Circle or District line) and ride to Westminster station. Or you can simply walk east 15-30 minutes up Birdcage Walk (on the south side of St. James Park) back to Whitehall and then south on Whitehall about a block.

You have to pay to tour Westminster, unless you arrive at some service time. If you want to step inside during a service, pop around the side entrance, let the guard know you are there for the service and they will let you through. There are often choral groups inside and you can also see the headstones of the many famous people who are buried there (ie. Churchill, Sir Isaac Newton), it is a beautiful building. You can also walk into the Houses of Parliament, to view the House of Lords as well as the House of Commons if they are in session (this is a great idea if it is raining and you want to dry out for a while. Take note of the massive entrance hall as you enter into the Houses of Parliament, it is built without a single nail. Ask the guards there for more history, they are often happy to oblige and let you know who was killed there (hint – lots of people). Big Ben is actually the bell of the very large clock outside the Houses of Parliament. The Thames river is also immediately east of the Houses of Parliament.

At some point grab lunch, I do not have good suggestions about places to eat, but there are thousands of places all around (try to avoid anything that says “special prices” or “where Londoners eat” in places such as Leicester Square for lunch, they cater to tourists and are usually awful.

Choose your own adventure

There are many other things to do/see from this point. But it is best to get on the tube to get around. Some suggestions.

The Big Ferris wheel across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament is called the London Eye. This slow-moving ride is a nice way to see the city and it takes about ½ hour to complete. The Tate Modern Museum is also nearby at this point, use the funky Millennium Bridge

If you go to the Tower Hill station you can get out and see both the Tower of London as well as the London Tower Bridge (and no, it is not falling down). It is best to go in the early evening as this is when they are all lit up with their lights.

If you want to do some upscale shopping, get off anywhere on Oxford street (Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Circus or Bond Street stations)

There are also other market areas to shop in. Camden Lock (Camden Town station) for antiques and crafts. Petticoat Lane (Aldgate East station), Sundays for all kinds of stuff.

If it is raining you may want to visit the British Museum (about a 10 minute walk from Tottenham Court Road station). They have free days, and often the last hour of the day is also free.

St. Pauls Cathedral is also a beautiful church (St. Pauls station)

Winding Down

For a rest, hop on a double-decker bus (the regular public transport with the closed top is included with your tube pass not the open top-type with a tour guide) , get to the top and ride around for a while as a self-guided tour. Do not worry too much about getting lost, if you are not sure where you are, get into a tube station and it is pretty easy to find your way back to where you want to go.

For the evening I would suggest you go to a show, (Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, The King and I, Cats, Oliver, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Mousetrap all play somewhere in the theatre district). Almost all the seats are good as the theatres are fairly small. Before or after the show, you can wander a little through Soho, the theatre district. This can be a little seedy, but there are great places to grab a bite.

Those are many suggestions, and I know there are many other places I have not yet gone myself. If the above itinerary is not too appealing, look on a tourist map and explore

Have fun. Tag me in your pictures!

Mark Crocker

Carry a knife on the plane.

I used to carry a pocket knife on the plane. In fact all of my life, including every day to school as a kid, I carried a knife. It came in handy for opening boxes, cutting string, even trimming my fingernails. carry a knife Of course that all changed a while ago and now I find myself donating knives that I offer when I arrive at airport security. Which is why I find the following story so funny. (more…)

4 stages of stress when you travel

When I travel, I find that sometimes I just hit the wall. I am sick and tired of being there and just wish I was home already. The adventure fades and reality is just tiring … I know! poor me! what a hard life I have 🙂

Hard Luck Life

I also know that this is normal. I am a unique individual who feels these feelings just like everyone else!

I just taught a session in Saskatoon where an old friend, Rob Shepherd graciously hosted me. At one of his sessions, Rob talked about the Five Stages of Cross Cultural Stress.

Stage 1. Expectation and Optimism

Stage 2. Acceptance and Fascination

Stage 3. Frustration and Rejection

Stage 4. Regression and Hostility

Stage 5. Adjustments, Acculturation and Assimilation.

Rob unpacked the normal responses to stage 4: Regression and Hostility in this way. People choose to fight, flight, filter and flex. I have definitely felt each of these responses during my travels

  1. Fight – for change
  2. Flight – escape, go home
  3. Filter – see only the bad of the present culture
  4. Flex – work thought it.


Have you  experienced any of these stages?

Mark Crocker

What it feels like to be your victim

This is a poem i often use as I assist volunteers to prepare for work and life overseas. Consider the words. They are incredibly important:

Great White Mother

You, great white mother,
take beggar-African-Indian children;
You who feel so much for yourself and your world
will reach out to touch them and save them!?

You, great white mother,
and your mate, the great white father,
working ceaselessly in your own ways
to save and to touch us all;

He bombs us
in Lebanon and Libya,
massacres us
in Central America and Abyssinia,
starves and mutilates us
wherever he finds us,

while you pour out your sick, guilt-ridden love
over our tired and broken bodies
the spirit in us chokes — and suffocates — and is

What your mate, the great white father,
could not accomplish
with all his bombs and armies and churches,
you, great white mother,
will have accomplished
with your charity and goodness-filled heart.

He would break our spirit
and disempower us with his might;
You would break our spirit
and disempower us with your love.

So you, great white mother,
who give birth to dead children,
massacring their humanity in your womb
and in their childhood
by silent compliance with the great white father,
will love and touch us?

You, who cannot respond
to your poor-jobless-starving-homeless-battered-heatless
white sisters–will love and touch us?

Do you not see
that we are still burning from your touch?
That my sisters are being butchered and sterilized
while you are having fantasies
about birthing like women do in Africa?

That our children are poisoned by the drugs and pollution
your mate dumps onto us,
while you sit dreaming of poisoning their humanity
with your lily-white love?

Your New-Age missionaries
to replace
the great white fathers’ old church missionaries,
all attempting
to dehumanize us,
deny us our rage,
our hatred,
our strength,
our right to liberate our humanity?

And you, great white mother,
do all this in the name of love.
Yet, we both know that your existence depends on us!

You cannot play
the saviour,
benefactor, civilizer,
pure-white, charitable, loving, forgiving,
noble, highly-evolved, good mother
unless you make us become
poor-starving-sick-beggar-African-Indian children.

Well, great white mother,
you just try to touch me or my children …
You just try to love us into your salvation!
From your nice white position,
high up there,
above the rest of us;
You just try–and I will smash you!

Sunera Thobani
Editor/Publisher of Aku, magazine for forum on East Indian views in Asian immigrant community, Vancouver. The Brown Bagger Vancouver Cooperative Radio, May 10,1991

Would you like to be the victim in someone else’s story?

Mark Crocker

The culture shock cycle

I found a great illustration that describes the cycle that we go through when we find ourselves in a cross-cultural situation … i think the interesting thing is that at any point of the cycle, we can choose to follow the high or the low reactions.

The link to the site where I found this is here.

culture shock cycle