When Even Generic Smile Is Seen As Dishonest And Suspicious

To strangers to American culture, Americans’ smiles can be unnerving. “Is there something on my face?” “Did she know something I missed?” “It’s so inappropriate for him to smile at me.” According to some Russians, for the longest time, American’s smile was a symbol of the evil American capitalism. Non-verbal communication is just as much of a socially constructed phenomenon as verbal communication. Cultural shock is akin to bacteria invading our bodies, annoying, inconvenient, and we just want to find some drugs to zap them away. We rarely see cultural adjustment as a challenge to our emotional well-being.


The second story of the Invisibilia focused on changing one aspect of a national culture, Russian specifically. When McDonald’s opened its first franchise in Moscow January of 1990, it was a huge deal. Not only the symbol of capitalism invading a former communist country, the Russian employees of McDonald’s continued the Big Mac’s culture of smiles in their greetings and services. However, it was the totality of the “customer service,” a la American/Western/Capitalistic ways, that tested the uninitiated and curious Russians. From “Hi, how are you?” “What can I get for you?” to “Is there anything else?” and “Hope to see you soon,” it was the complete opposite of what Russians usually experienced in their own restaurants where servers were surly, rude, slow, very slow, and sometimes downright nasty.

How did the average Russian customers react to their own fellow countrymens’ Americanized behavior, at least inside McDonald’s? Would they be suspicious of such unwanted friendliness? Not just smiling, but eye contacting and “faked” chumminess? Guess what people of all cultures would prefer? To be treated kindly…with or without smiles. The featured Russian in the radio story, Yuri, considered the question whether Russians going to McDonald’s are for food or emotional culture, and his response was, “I think emotional culture. People – some people liked food – some people were kinda, like, eh, food is OK. But, you know, it’s really a great place to just hang out.” Contrary to American’s perception of the uniformed soulless fast-food corporate culture, Russians saw McDonald’s an “island of light and humanity.” Socially constructed reality!


Such attitudinal change in Yuri and his co-workers took hold of their psyche over time, and some of them began feeling impatient with general Russians’ old ways of taking everything so seriously. In fact, two years after Yuri’s foray into the world of Big Mac, he and his family immigrated into the US, and settled down in Boston. Yuri had a honeymoon period in the States. Then, one day while waiting for bus, a fellow rider struck a conversation with Yuri, and they had a great back-and-forth on some personal stuff. Yuri saw a budding friendship and was delighted. The bus came; his “new friend” boarded after Yuri and sat away from Yuri, like all those talking points had just evaporated into thin air. Yuri concluded, “And I still remember that feeling. I was, like, I thought you were my friend. That’s really strange.”

Of course, you know by now that very few things in social science/social world are absolute. So it is with smiling, it can get carried away in customer service. Many American workers who are on the frontline dealing with customers feel burnt out after a prolonged period of smiling too much, a disguise for suppressed frustration. The forced smile has also created the expectation on the customers’ side to think they are always right and can become wholly unreasonable. So, there is a dark side of “keeping up with the smile!”

I remember vividly my first trip to the People’s Republic of China in 1985. The country had barely opened its doors to outsiders. Almost everything was still state operated with zero concept of “customers;” the few mom-and-pop shops were accustomed to not seeing too many happy customers. Everyone seemed dour and impatient. The only friendly people were your relatives, connections with your relatives, or small merchants who’d like to take a little bit of advantage of you if they could. My western style combined with impeccable Chinese often unnerved the strangers, and if I could be quick, I could enjoy a little break of getting what I needed while they were recovering from being caught off guard. My second visit two years later saw dramatic changes across a large swath of the country, and by my last visit in 1991, Shanghai was on the cusp of becoming a cosmopolitan center. By then, my reaction to seeing the smiling Chinese wait staff was, “They are just being obsequious.” I haven’t been back since and have no idea of how people have changed.

Globalization has upended many carts, such as customer services, labor forces, attitudes toward “strangers,” or cultural habits. My take on of the two stories presented in the Invisibilia episode is this: Top-down changes are achievable in a small group and when the leaders practice what they preach. This was the case of the oil rig, presented in the previous post. The McDonald’s case was initiated from the top HQ down to one Moscow store, but it eventually caught fire as more McDonald’s opened up throughout Russia. More than two decades later, Russians’ smile score was higher than Americans’ in the 2015 “Smiling Report.” Yet, when it comes down to individuals living cross-culturally, such as in Yuri’s case, there is still much internal struggle and negotiation with the external world.


After being in the States for 40+ years, and happy like a fish back in the water, I still occasionally experience a cultural shift and puzzlement. Actually, such a feeling of disquiet occurs to many people when they move from one region to another, e.g. east coast to west coast, or north to south, and vice versa. Sometimes, English-speaking people moving from one country to another English-speaking country, say, US to UK, or UK to Australia, etc. experience even stronger cultural shock precisely because the changes may be subtle and easily taken for granted.

There are no magic medicines or programs to help us overcome the cross-cultural malaise. However, like all emotional issues, we need to take time to understand, really and deeply understand, not just our cultural environment but how we fit in that environment. It’s stop-and-go; it’s constant; it can be tiring and exhilarating; it’s personal, individualistic and collective. And it can be rewarding whenever we “get” it.  Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

When Tough Men Can Cry Openly…

Why do we take our emotional well-being for granted? We talk a lot about “taking care of” it, but do we do as much about it as we talk? The phrase “mental hygiene” is apropos, but the premise of this metaphor conjures up a gross feeling, like, flossing teeth or basic grooming (yet, what’s wrong with doing these acts?!). (The phrase also belittles the complexity of our mind, as if it could be cleaned in a quick ritual act after each meal.) Of course, someone’s emotional/mental mess may be something easily shrugged off in another person. I think that’s part of the problem; the yardstick against which we evaluate our emotional situation and mental state is a fluid measure. When do we know we really need to do some serious mental flossing? When can we get away with a little tooth-picking? Gross…well, we’d better deal with it.


Thanks to a friend who sent me a link to an Invisibilia” episode in which the focus was on suppressed emotions and forced “positive” attitude. According to the program’s website, “Invisibilia (Latin for invisible things) is about the invisible forces that control human behavior – ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and emotion.” The two stories in this episode explored whether it’s possible to change habits of an entire group of men and to alter a deeply-rooted cultural behavior. The former story took place on a Shell’s deep-water oil drilling rig, Ursa, the size of about two football fields. The latter took place in the first McDonald’s in Moscow.

Most of us are probably ignorant of the nature and degree of danger for oil rig workers. Seeing deaths of colleagues is not uncommon, while physical challenge and injury are common. The culture among oil rig workers is one of ultimate stoicism and hypermasculinity. No show of emotions, even upon witnessing a death; keeping the work process uninterrupted is the key. Most men carry the same bottled-up emotional practice at home as well. Would the practice for regular oil rigs work just as well for an unprecedented deep water drill? In 1997, the first deep water drilling, 4,000 ft deep, even for the experienced oil workers was “like going from Earth to Mars.” The typical 20-person crew for a regular rig would swell to more than a hundred for Ursa, with all the potential hazards and dangers increasing exponentially.ursa-1_custom-8358af5fba589f61d21864036b6ce4551c33fa4b-s900-c85

The main character in the oil rig story, Rick, was put in charge of Ursa. “He was stressed at home, barely able to speak to a son who was about to leave for college. He was stressed at work, in charge of a giant, really complicated venture that he didn’t know how to tackle. Things felt like they were spinning out of control.” Rick’s saving grace was that deep down he suspected and sensed that something was out of kilter and that he didn’t know what to do.

When the student is ready, the teacher will come.

Out of blue, a “crazy one-eye lady” made a cold call to Rick and offered to work with him on leadership issues. Claire Nuer, now deceased, heard about Ursa and thought that she could offer something useful. Rick accepted a meeting and they talked, through an interpreter mostly since Nuer spoke little English; her native language was French. Rick began the meeting with the typical business of scheduling, planning, production, etc. Claire cut him off with “…if you just don’t tell people you’re scared, you’re not going to create safety together.” That caught Rick’s attention. One can bottle up one’s emotions, fears in this case, only for so long. It would work well…only for so long. One might even coast along on another smaller rig, the old familiar environment…only for so long. When all emotions have no outlet for relief, something has to give. At home, Rick was risking losing his emotional ties with his family, and at work, the risks wouldn’t just be Rick’s “incompetence” in managing, but the potential injuries and/or deaths of some colleagues.

So, who was Claire Nuer? She was a leadership coach, founder of Learning As Leadership. Based on new age Est’s method, popular in the 70s and draconian to many, digging deep into one’s emotions to lay the foundation for healing and emotional well-being. The typical Est experience was a day-long encounter (well into 10 or 11PM) that often made grownups cry (by itself, there is nothing wrong with that). Claire and her husband fashioned something similar in their business, mostly breaking down business executives.

Eventually, Rick joined Claire’s sessions, usually conducted through translation. Since Rick’s motivation was largely his broken tie with his son, he even persuaded his son to join him for an encounter session. That session lead to a 180-degree turn for Rick and his son. That was enough for Rick to get his men from the rig involved.

Now, when a boss wants you to do something outside of work, in this case personal development for the better productivity of the team, even when the offer is on a voluntary basis, you take it, however reluctant and dubious you may feel. So, most of the rig workers went; a few refused to do some of the exercises, and remained skeptical. However, those who were more willing to participate ultimately learned to show their vulnerability, and couldn’t say enough good things about the outcomes, not just about work, but more so about their personal lives. Most of these sessions took place while they were waiting for the completion of the rig construction that took 18 months.

During the few long days of sessions (from 6AM – 11PM on some days), these super macho tough guys gradually broke down, cried, shared their stories and feelings… Even the ones who thought “I’ll just reveal a little…” couldn’t stop once they began the process. I understand these principles, but it did creep me out a bit when I read that they eventually managed to overcome revulsion and massaged each other’s feet, demonstrating deep trust. (Author’s note: In many of these intense workshops, participants are required to do things they would normally eschew. Breaking down old boundaries is an important foundation. While I am not totally against some of these exercises, I always find it obnoxious that participants have to behave according to the program’s demands. I mean, there have to be other ways of showing trust. Yes?)

The efforts and money paid off. The accident rate at Shell fell by 84%, and the productivity exceeded the previous industry record. The energy that formerly preserved the hyper masculine norm was now invested in working together, sharing technical information. Instead of fearing to show lack of knowledge or admitting mistakes, the new refrain of “I need help” made the work process much smoother.

All the converts to the new culture openly admitted that as they become more themselves, they like themselves better. “The old way is no fun.”

Darn it, when it comes to story telling, I just cannot economize and fit all the themes and nuances in one post. I will conclude in the next post the changing cultural habits for some Russians who wanted to work for McDonald’s. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com






Words Aren’t Really Innocent

…you must accept the alien idea that your actions and your emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware.” — Daniel Kahneman, from Thinking, Fast and Slow

This “priming” effect can take place in words, ideas, emotions, or behavior. If we are hungry or just ate, the word EAT is likely to prime us to fill SO_P with U and make it “soup.” However, if we see WASH, we are likely to fill the blank with A and make it “soap.”

This isn’t just about word association; it goes deeper than we realize. If we happened to eat at a restaurant where the setting was stuffy and warm, we might remember the food as kind of stale. If we just recovered from a cold, we might see in our mind’s eye “soap and wash” with more scrubbing than we normally might feel.

In a study that has made the “Florida effect” well-known in the academic world, college students

First sign of fall colors and cooler temp "prime" me to think of snowy winter!

First sign of fall colors and cooler temp “prime” me to think of snowy winter!

were asked (or, primed) to construct 4-word sentences from a set of five words. Half of the students were given words associated with ageing, such as, “Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, or wrinkle.” The measurement of effect came afterwards when the students were asked to walk the length of a hallway. The students primed by the old-age related words walked significantly slower than those primed by non-age related words. None of the students were aware of the impact.

The effect may be opposite if you happen to dislike old people. In that case, you are likely to walk faster. Not only words can impact your behavior, your subsequent behavior may affect your thoughts. In other words, those words that lead you to act old may in turn make you think of old age and feel slightly older than you would otherwise. But not to worry; this effect isn’t long lasting, unless some diabolic politicians want to design programs to mess with your mind.

Unfortunately, some politicians do try to employ priming effects…whether or not knowing the term. A study showed that for issues of school funding, voters tended to favor school funding when the polling station was at school than when it was at a nearby non-school building. Such an effect might not be huge, but were it a close election, that difference may be enough to tip the outcome.

Money-primed studies are particularly depressing. When participants were primed by money-related words –therefore thinking they were better-off than others – they tended to be more independent/individualistic, less willing to engage with or help others, and more selfish. In one study, a research assistant walked by the participants and dropped a bunch of pencils; the money-primed students picked up far fewer pencils than students without such priming. In another setting, money-primed participants would choose to sit much farther away from someone else in a meeting than participants without such priming. (I am not sure if these studies took into account introversion/extroversion.)

As Kahneman reminds us, “The evidence of priming studies suggests that reminding people of their mortality increases the appeal of authoritarian ideas, which may become reassuring in the context of the terror of death.” In other words, words matter. Now I wish I wasn’t so testy whenever my mother said, “Be careful,” before each of my trips.


Of course we all like to believe that we are in firm control of our thoughts and behavior, and that we are rational beings who would not do silly things from “simple” suggestion. The priming principle doesn’t negate this belief; it just reminds us that we aren’t always in control. So, I embrace Kahneman’s admonition, “The idea…is that disbelief [of priming effect] is not an option.”

One more fascinating study, and I’ll stop. At a UK university’s break room where coffee and tea were available and suggested prices were listed, purely on honor system, people left money in a collection box. One day, without any notification, a poster showing a pair of eyes went up right above the counter where tea and coffee, and the collection box, were placed. A week later, a different poster showing flowers replaced the previous one. No one paid much attention to this little addition and alteration. The posters were basically two types, one with a pair of eyes and the other with flowers; various posters of these two themes alternated in the break room. This went on for 10 weeks, and yes, this was a study.

Researchers tabulated the amount of money left in the collection box. Whenever the poster with eyes was up, the contribution shot up and whenever the flowers poster was up, the contribution went down. Of course, the ups and downs were not of the exact same amount or magnitude, but the differences were striking. Not surprisingly, the largest difference was marked between the first week, a pair of eyes, and the second week, flowers. Remember, people didn’t realize what was going on, and somehow the difference between 9th and 10th, the final week, was profoundly sizable as well. Visualize a zig-zag line, side by side with eyes-flowers in alternate order for 10 weeks. (I’d offer an image but it’d take too long to get copyright permission to use the figure in the book, so I invite you to create your own image.)


When big brothers and sisters watch you…

This is also why “fake it till you make it” works. Priming yourself with a smile, e.g. holding a pencil horizontally with your teeth for a few minutes, does get you in a more relaxed mode. When our minds are less strained, we think more clearly. So,


Stay Sane, and Charge Ahead

Direct Contac: taso100@gmail.com

Quick To Judge, But Slow(er) To Understand The Reasons

In case you haven’t heard of the Invisible Gorilla short film… The authors of the film, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, also wrote a book with the same title. The film was a study tool. In the film, there are two teams, one wearing white shirts and the other black, passing basketball to each other within the team. In the study, the participants were asked to count the number of passes for only the white team. It’s a task demanding a high level of focus. Half way into the film, an actor in a gorilla suit came on the court, stared straight at the camera, and thumped her chest…for 9 seconds. Upon finishing the film and the task of counting the passes of the ball, the researchers asked participants: Did you see the gorilla?

Only half of the thousands of participants in the study saw the gorilla. The ones who missed it couldn’t believe that they would miss something so in-your-face obvious. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate of economics, states in his Thinking, Fast and Slow, “The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.”

(The unanswered questions are: How accurately did the participants who noticed the gorilla count the passes? How did the accuracy of the counting compare between the ones who noticed the gorilla and those who didn’t see the gorilla?)

Some things are slow by nature...

Some things are slow by nature…

I am sure you have experienced many times in your life when you are deeply involved in a task, a conversation, a book, or any other activities, that you block out most noises from your environment. Kahneman in his Fast & Slow book introduces the principles underlying this phenomenon: system 1 and system 2 in our ways of thinking.

System 1 is based on our involuntary senses where we can operate instinctively, like driving in the “right” lane where Brits would drive in their “left” lane. Or, turning our heads toward a startled cry. Or, knowing 1×2 is 2 without a pause. If we live in generalities, system 1 would be terrific. However, when it comes to dealing with specifics, system 1 can be unreliable. For example, all women should be hysterical after being raped; so, one — even when she is your friend — who is calm or even giggling must be suspicious.

System 2 is based on our voluntary senses, once the reaction from system 1 requires more information. So, upon turning toward that startled cry, system 2 kicks in to assess if the source is in distress or is sounding a warning for others; if the former, we further evaluate to see if our assistance is called for, if the latter, we decide whether to run away from the danger or toward it to thwart the danger. Or, when you drive your hired car out of a garage while vacationing in UK, your system 2 kicks in to remind you to do it “right.” System 2 is about self-control, a way to check system 1.

For the most part, our system 1 allows us to go through our days fairly confidently with few hiccups. Yet, if we rarely check with system 2, we can let our biases dictate our emotions and behaviors. On the other hand, constantly checking minutiae with our system 2 results in hardly getting anything done. The trick, as always, lies in the how; how do we decide when to check with system 2? There is no 12-step program to guide us. However, as Kahneman says, “It is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own,” so we keep learning. And hopefully, we can learn from others’ mistakes to shore up our system 1’s accuracy, increase our awareness, and better recognize when to invoke system 2 for better judgment.

Other things allow you to be fast…

What Peggy, Marie’s foster mother, did in the “Anatomy of Doubt” of This American Life – divulging her doubt to the detective of Marie’s rape case – was jumping to conclusion. As Kahneman explains, “Jumping to conclusion is efficient if the conclusions are likely to be correct and the costs of an occasional mistake acceptable…[It’s otherwise] risky when the situation is unfamiliar, the stakes are high, and there is no time to collect more information.” Uncertainty and doubt really belong to system 2, and that’s why I asserted in my last post, that when Peggy called the detective, she had already erased her doubt. And since system 1 is guided by experience, and further, since the detective working Marie’s case had had about two or three rape cases prior to Marie’s, his system 1 would be at infant stage on working with rape victims. As a result, he relied on Peggy’s knowing Marie well, and assumed Marie was being untruthful in her rape account.

When we attach our emotional response to the first impression, of a person or a situation, and interpret the subsequent evidence based on our first impression, we are committing to the “halo effect.” We are likely to consider someone we just met, who has a nice smile and soft voice, to be “kind and generous.” In job interviews, confirmed in social science studies, taller people are regarded to have more managerial potential than shorter people. And not surprisingly, extroverts get more positive reactions than introverts. In reality, none of these first impressions offer any valid clues to what a person is or is not.

We use halo effect on organizations as well. Eron was the darling…till it collapsed. Companies that have shown wide swings in performance still get high ratings on leadership, strategies, or execution if they established a good impression years ago, even though these very same companies have been using the same strategies, under the same leadership, and behaving pretty much the same over the years.

We are humans; we are fallible; we have biases; we have blind spots. We get it right most of the time, but we also get it wrong more often than we realize or are willing to admit. So, back to that “humility” that I often extol…

Labor Day weekend is coming up. I wish you a fantastic weekend, and please be safe if travel is involved. I’ll be back in this space after 9/11. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

On “Doubt”…This time, doubt was addressed with evidence

The second crime story of the “Anatomy of Doubt”  of This American Life took place in Colorado in 2011, two years after the crime against Marie of Lynwood, a suburb of Seattle (see previous post). In Colorado, there was a series of three rapes, which took place in three locations in close proximity. The lead detectives of at least two of the three cases were female and a crime analyst providing one piece of key (in retrospect) information was also a female.

I highlight the female part because I think it’s relevant in rape cases. In addition, one of these two female detectives, Stacy Galbraith, had handled at least 50 rape cases by the time of this story.


The latest victim of Galbraith’s case was unusual; the young graduate student didn’t show much emotion while being interviewed right after the assault. She also managed to notice quite a few striking features of the perpetrator, partly because she chatted up with him afterwards: He traveled a lot; he spoke at least four languages; he talked about math, he had no problem finding girlfriends but disliked the consensual relationships; and most importantly, he has a birthmark of a size and shape of an egg on his leg. In addition, she noticed his height and weight, the pink Sony camera, and described him “gentleman, calm, and mannered,” even though she was raped at gunpoint, and was told to take a shower afterwards to wash off the DNA.

Detective Galbraith didn’t always understand her rape victims, some were more hysterical than others. However, the victims’ manner was never part of her investigation. When she discussed the case with her husband, a policeman, he mentioned the similarity to another case in his district. So, Galbraith contacted the other detective, also female, and their comparison of the cases revealed a large degree of overlap, with one notable difference, the other detective’s case had a theft component: A pink camera was stolen. Further, the other detective mentioned yet another similar case, in a neighboring county.  huntington 2

Five weeks into Galbraith’s latest rape case, there was a meeting of lead detectives of recent rape cases, officials from Federal, state, and local levels, and a crime analyst who presented information of suspicious vehicles in the vicinity of an attempted rape. When she showed a picture of a Mazda pickup, it caught Galbraith’s attention. Galbraith had seen only a fuzzy image of a pickup truck in a surveillance tape some time ago, but the coincidence struck her. Since this analyst had the pickup’s license plate — it belonged to a Marc O’Leary – it was their first break in the cases.

With FBI’s assistance, agents were sent to trail O’Leary while others went to his apartment to collect a DNA sample. What the team didn’t realize was that they had been trailing Marc’s brother, of similar build and appearance. When they thought Marc was out of the apartment, they knocked on the door before going in. The agents were taken aback by the person answering the door, the very Marc O’Leary who was supposed to be out. The agents quickly made up a convincing story: They were canvassing the neighborhood for a suspect, and even produced a photo of the person of interest.

In the meantime, the agents who were following Marc’s brother managed to collect the brother’s DNA from his meal at a diner. The DNA results showed that one of the two brothers committed these crimes, but was not conclusive. The birthmark would help.

Two days later, Galbraith and her team went to O’Leary’s place again, with a search warrant. While inside the apartment, she patted down Marc, and it just so happened that he was wearing a cargo pants. She could lift up his pant legs, and saw the egg-size birthmark.

Afterwards, Galbraith processed the gathered evidence; she encountered many images of his victims on a thumb drive. Most of these victims were from Colorado. And then, Galbraith saw a woman, gagged and bound, with a Washington driver’s license on her chest. It was Marie.

Marc O’Leary was convicted of five rapes, including the one in Washington, 2 months after Marie’s case, and 20 other felonies, and was sentenced to 300 years in prison.

Lynwood’s police chief personally went to visit Marie and apologized. Marie described,” They were just like, we’re sorry. We’re deeply sorry, you know, about what had happened to you. But it didn’t mean much to me at all.” Marie demanded a personal apology from her case investigator and she received it. She was reimbursed the $500 court fee (no interest?) and her record was wiped clean. She sued the Lynwood police and settled for $150,000. No one at the Lynwood police was disciplined.

Her apartment management? “Our hearts go out to Marie and her family. We strongly believe that Cocoon House and its employees acted appropriately on behalf of the client [Marie].” Wow. They were also sued and settled out of court.

Marie forgave both Shannon and Peggy, her foster parents, and remains friends with them. Shannon still cannot quite forgive herself. After the case was closed for Marie, Peggy, the one who reported her “doubt” to the lead detective in Marie’s case, said, “OK, now this is going to sound really bad, like I’m blaming the victim. But some of the way that she [Marie] was acting was part of the reason why it had the outcome that it did. And I am not the only person that didn’t believe her.” Wow!


When doubt becomes certainty, it shouldn’t be considered “doubt” any more. By the time Peggy called Marie’s case detective, she was hoping someone could confirm her doubt. Voicing her “doubt” to someone, especially a figure of authority was a strong symbol for her; the doubt was off her chest and now became real. When the detective pursued Marie based on Peggy’s statement, he had no doubt in his mind about Marie’s guilt, and proceeded accordingly. When all hell broke loose on Marie, there did not seem to be any trace of doubt left in Peggy’s mind…hence her last words still put the onerous burden on Marie.

Doubt, a form of uncertainty, makes us uneasy and uncomfortable. It’s in our nature to minimize or erase doubt. There are gaps of information associated with doubt and uncertainty. In those moments, we tend to fill in the gaps with certain assumptions to generate a more-or-less complete story to ease our doubt. Since the assumptions come from our own worldview, lens, or logic, we usually are satisfied with the story we come up with, and feel little need to check those assumptions. What’s more interesting is that even when we want to check our assumptions, we tend to check with a third party rather than with the source of our doubt. So, Peggy called Shannon and they two commiserated with each other’s doubt; Peggy never checked with Marie directly.

I will get into a more full-bodied analysis next time. Till then,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com


Some People Are Very Certain About Their Doubt

This American Life,” a weekly public radio show, not only presents interesting human stories, but also often provides insightful social commentaries and analyses. NUMMI of pre-bankrupt GM is a good example (read here, here, and here). And the episode with the intriguing title, “Anatomy of Doubt” still lingers in my mind. While remembering all the key facts, I nonetheless reviewed the show’s transcript to erase all doubts before writing the following.

The “Doubt” episode is yet another reminder that “common sense” can lead us astray. It also reminds me of the classic exercise for communication, or miscommunication, that some of you might have done. This exercise asks groups of five to seven people (or more) to relay a simple message within each group; by the end of the relay, the message can sometimes be unbelievably garbled. It’s a lesson, or a warning, about the reliability of our memory, our tendency to rewrite messages according to preconceptions, and unintended consequences. Yet, we keep doing this on a regular basis…because we are humans.


There are two stories in “Doubt,” and they are convoluted, as life often is. The stories are based on crimes made more gripping because the doubts that seemingly inevitably surround sexual assaults. (Now, why does sexual assault elicit more doubts, especially from those who are close to the victims?) I am sure that I will not be able to capture all the twists and turns in this short space; however, I will sketch out the essentials; of course, that reduces the mystery and suspense. So, I urge you to read the transcript or listen to the episode.

The first story took place in 2009, in a Seattle suburb, Lynwood. An 18-year old Marie found herself tied up, under threat of a knife, and raped in the middle of the night. Afterwards, the assailant, still wearing a mask, took a picture of her and threatened her with publicity if she reported. She reported.

Marie grew up through several foster care homes; one caregiver, Shannon, became close to Marie even after she moved out. Marie’s last foster mom, Peggy, a teacher, also kept in touch with Marie. Because Peggy lived closer to Marie, she was by Marie’s side when the police were still processing Marie’s apartment. They did a rape kit, documented various bruises, especially around her wrists, and found all the materials the assailant used, his mask, knife, and the shoelace. No fingerprints were found except one set on the sliding glass door.

Peggy recalled her doubt about Marie’s story from the get-go. “ I was like, oh, my God. She’s telling me that she got raped. But I felt–I just felt horrible. I felt horrible that I didn’t believe her.” Later, Peggy called Shannon who shared the same doubt. The basis for their doubt:

  • Marie called too many people the next day to tell her story.
  • Marie had a tendency to seek attention.
  • Marie was surprisingly un-emotional when she related the story, as if “she just made a sandwich.”
  • All the materials used by the assailant belonged to Marie, and Peggy wondered if shoelaces were strong enough to stop someone’s struggling.
  • Days later, Marie was her giggling self, rolling in the grass, and flirting with her apartment case manager who was trying to help.

Peggy eventually let her doubt take over. She called the investigative detective and shared her doubt, and that began Marie’s nightmare. Both of the detectives on the case were men, and the senior one had had little experience in sexual assault cases. Marie’s case was his 2nd or 3rd one.bridge

After Peggy’s call, the detectives brought Marie in to the police station for further interviews, though this time, it was clear that they treated her more like a criminal than a victim. They saw inconsistencies and suspicious points in Marie’s story. Another round or two of more interviews later, Marie broke down and agreed to recant her story. Though when she wrote, “I dreamed…” she was forced to rewrite, “I lied about…I made up this story.” At one point, the police threatened her with a polygraph test, which should have raised a red flag but the detectives later claimed that Marie herself brought it up first. Regardless, Marie eventually was charged with false reporting, for which she had to pay $500 court fee, go through mental health counseling, and meet other conditions for a year.

When the news broke that she lied, it was all over the local TV stations. Marie got hate mail and was crucified online. This was an 18-year old woman who was trying to be independent, with her support network faltering around her. She was alone; she needed help; she needed a lawyer. Her subsidized apartment, housing recently independent former foster children, would normally provide assistance. However, the case manager called the police station and was told that there was no rape.

Later, the case manager called a residents’ meeting, without revealing the purpose of the meeting, and exposed Marie’s situation. Needless to say, the majority of the residents were hostile to Marie. (There was one young woman who saw Marie’s tone and posture as those of someone who was traumatized…this young woman had a similar experience.) After this public shaming, for the first time in her life, Marie thought about suicide.

The false reporting charge meant that Marie’s rape case would be officially closed. The physical evidence police had gathered at the scene was destroyed except for a single fingerprint card that was left behind. Everything else– the rape kit, the bedding, the DNA swabs– they were never even tested in a crime lab, never analyzed.”

Two months after Marie’s case, Shannon saw on TV a news story of a rape case in a neighboring county with the exact same M.O. as Marie’s. Shannon realized then that her friend probably was a true victim. Shannon contacted the detective in charge of the new case and told him about Marie’s story. The current detective called Marie’s case detective and was told that she lied and there was no rape. The current detective never followed up with Marie.

Years later, there was an outside review of the case by a police investigator, a sex crime specialist named Sergeant Gregg Rinta. His report said, quote, ‘The manner in which she [Marie] was treated by Sergeant Mason and Detective Rittgarn can only be labeled as bullying and coercive.’” 

You didn’t really think that I could finish this story in one shot, did you? And I promise there are implications for social psychology and management. Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Using Self As An Instrument

In my brief bio, I mentioned an important keystone of my methodology: that I see myself as “part of the instrument from which to gain quality data.” A few readers have found the statement puzzling. Let me explain. What I presented last week on my immigrant’s view of inter-racial issues was an example. I wasn’t going to just write a personal journey; there is purpose in such a seemingly self-indulgent method. The “using self as an instrument” is particularly crucial for conducting qualitative studies in social science. And it also has a bearing on management.

For my PhD dissertation, I started with a different topic on cross-cultural issues, and considered the usual questionnaire-survey for data collection. In the end, my desire for deep knowledge won over statistical breadth of cross-cultural comparisons, and I ended up doing a case study on “The Role of Culture in Business Networking,” focusing on entrepreneurs. I paired Americans and immigrant Chinese in two industries, cafes and fashion design.

The main driver for doing the case study was my thirst for understanding how culture influences the cross-cultural interactions in business decisions and operations. While many cross-cultural studies have taught me the importance of different cultural values, I found captures of the interaction between people of different cultures wanting. Memorizing all the cultural dos and don’ts feels limiting and exhausting. Knowing that Chinese are more collectively oriented than Americans, who are more individualistic, doesn’t address how to work with these differences. So, into the deep I went.

sky on fire

The traditional survey questionnaire provides a veneer of “objectivity;” researchers keep the subjects at arm’s length for fear of the intrusion of biases, from both the researchers and the subjects. But as my friend and professor, Kewyn Smith, pointed out, the very term “subject” is denigrating. It’s as if the subjects are some simple vessels from which we, the researchers, just extract needed information. To really understand the perspectives of the researched, or the respondents, the researchers need to first establish relationships, where there is give and take. Otherwise, why would perfect strangers reveal their deeper reflections?

My first lesson on cross-cultural differences between American entrepreneurs and Chinese entrepreneurs (who had been in the States anywhere from less than 10 years to more than 20 years…I interviewed some 20 people in my pre-case study phase) was that that Americans were a lot more willing to participate in my study than Chinese. Americans were also more ready to reveal their business operations and principles than Chinese. With Americans, the quality of my relationship with them was an important factor in but not necessary for the case studies, while with Chinese, the nature and the quality of my relationship with them were both important and essential for case study access.

I was also keenly aware that I was a lot more comfortable with interacting with Americans than with Chinese, having been in this country for more than a decade by then.ElenaY_003

Knowing my own “biases” helped me understand how to better approach the potential Chinese respondents as their levels of comfort with American (and Chinese) cultures varied widely. Some found my American-ness refreshing, and others were wary of my relative indifference to the Chinese norms. To navigate through these cross-cultural currents, I had to be sharply and constantly aware of my own thoughts, behaviors, and emotions.

If I found my American interviewee/respondent too “chatty and revealing,” I asked myself if my judgment came from my Chinese tendency to be reserved or whether I should be suspicious of the interviewee “spinning” the information. If my Chinese respondent seemed hesitant or to put up a wall, I wondered if being more American on my part would make it better or worse. Doing this qualitative study was a lot more challenging than designing questionnaires, inputting the numbers, and conducting statistical analysis –by which, I am not implying that doing quantitative study is easy; it’s just that by then, I had done plenty such quantitative surveys in my career.   (This is one of the reasons why I have written frequently in this space arguing the difficulties of handling “soft” dimensions at workplace, and the relative ease with which to absorb measurable features.)

In addition to use of “self as an instrument,” an equally important tool to minimize the biases in gathering and analyzing qualitative data is triangulation. As a researcher, when I interview a respondent, I am bound to have some internal emotional reactions, whether it’s about culture, educational background, gender, or any other topics. If I find myself siding with one particular respondent’s point of view, I need to keep finding other respondents with different perspectives till I no longer feel more vested in one particular respondent’s view than in another’s. That’s as objective as I can get.

How does this relate to management? In a sense, it’s what I have always argued: That each manager needs to be highly self-aware in his relationship with each and every one of his direct report, colleagues, and higher-ups. A manager cannot assume that she is always fair and objective to everyone around her. Robots can; humans can’t.


So, how can managers develop self-awareness?

For example, of all the management  education courses I have been involved in (teaching and/or observing), I think the experiential type is generally the most powerful and sustaining in the lessons learned. So, I would propose a course in which participating managers are required to conduct interviews on a certain topic, say, “performance evaluation.” Have them collect data on people’s reactions on this topic, and record their own emotions, reactions, and judgment… I’ll bet that the data on the topic would be enlightening, and the data on “self” would be revealing.

I hope this essay has clarified my methodology. As always, I welcome your feedback.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com