Etiquette Be Damned. Stop Asking, “Do you speak X language?” It’s Rude and Pointless.

Copenhagen Cafe Dogs

In a previous post Learning Danish – Surprising Realizations I discussed my evolving relationship with Danish.  One of the things I didn’t discuss was the surprising advice I received from Danish friends regarding one of the cornerstones of a traveler’s phrase book; the oft used opening inquiry, “Do you speak X language?”.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably perfected the art of opening every conversation with a friendly hello, and then the language intro.  Sometimes it is delivered in English and other times in whatever the local language is. While necessary in some areas, I view it as an essential common courtesy as well. After all, it’s bad enough that I don’t speak the native language in whatever country I’m in, to then assume that they should speak my language without asking smacks of arrogance and inter-cultural intolerance. Unless, that is, you are in Denmark.

While well intentioned, Danish proficiency in English is so high and their use of it so common, that to ask a Dane – especially those under 40 – if they speak English when voicing an inquiry, is to insult them.  Don’t get me wrong, they appreciate the sentiment and I doubt you’d ever find a Dane that would respond to the question harshly.  However, the inquiry is generally received here in Denmark much the same way it might be if you asked the same question, “Do you speak English?” on the streets of New York. Which is to say, you’d get a strange look, followed by a patronizing smile or a quizzical eyebrow and a hearty “Of course!”.

Weigh in, what is your experience? Have you found other regions or countries that are similar to Denmark?  If so, which?  Please share your experiences in a comment below.

Of further interest for me is the question it raises.  Who is the language inquiry really for? Is it an identifier which benefits the asker by helping compensate for their embarrassment about not knowing the language while notifying the individual being asked of their preferred language?  Is it a form of social contract where the asker is requesting permissions to proceed in a set language?  Or, is something else going on?

I have begun to suspect that in reality the inquiry, while well intentioned, is actually an obstacle to effective communication.  For the sake of this discussion let’s use English as the default language. If I ask an individual if they speak English, I’m really asking a procedural question which is actually very poorly constructed.  If they speak minimal to decent English, they’re inclined to be shy and respond with a modest “no” or “a little”. If they speak good to above average English, they may respond with a yes or still hedge their bets and understate their ability. If they speak above average to excellent English then the question mirrors the insensitivity highlighted with the Danes.  Of course, if they don’t speak any English at all, they’ll offer a completely blank look, understand the sentiment of your question and respond in their native language.

Ultimately, my hunch is that skipping the question all together will give you access to the same information without putting the individual you’re asking on the spot.  If they understand, then they can try and respond to the level of their competency.  If not, then they won’t be able to at which point it will be immediately clear allowing you to graciously thank them for their time and apologize for not speaking their language.  I don’t believe this is indicative of cultural insensitivity, as long as you’re not assuming they should speak English.  Only that it is a possibility, and they might be willing to do so.   Rather, I’ve begun to think that it is in fact more a matter of effective communication.

It is time to cross the question, “Do you speak English” from our travel books, advice columns and procedural etiquette.  Weigh in – where do you stand on the issue?

Moving to Study and Live Abroad: Why I Chose Europe for My Masters Degree

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

If everything goes according to plan with my Visa and class registration I’ll be starting my two year Masters in Communication and Cognition at the University of Copenhagen in just under a Month.  Eager to get settled and begin the culture shock process I jumped the Atlantic and came over a bit early. So far I’ve got two weeks as a Danish resident under my belt and am starting to get my bearings.

While worlds apart I’ve found that the Danes and Arizonans have at least one thing in common.  When I tell them I’ve chosen to re-locate to Copenhagen I always get a quizzical look and the question, “Why Denmark?”.  Most follow the question up with “Why the University of Copenhagen?”, especially when they find out I passed up on an invitation from Georgetown in Washington D.C. to attend.

A lot of factors went into my decision making process and I’ll try and share some of them with you in this post in the hope that they help those of you facing similar decisions and perhaps offer insights into the process for everyone else.

The Application Process

In applying for Graduate programs I knew I didn’t need to return to Grad School. I had a good job, a great resume, decent job security, and a network that allowed me the luxury of turning down several jobs over the course of the recession. Simply put, I missed the academic environment and felt that there was significant potential to improve my social circle, resume, and future prospects with a return to academia.  Especially one that would allow me to work on my existing passions and projects while getting extra credit for them.  I studied lazily for a week for the GRE, took it and operated on the assumption that my resume and body of work would be far more valuable than test scores.  I also knew that the difference between a PhD and a Masters was significant, both in cost and weight so I decided to split my energy between the two.

To select the Schools I’d apply for I made a list of schools that I felt had a very respectable reputation and then pulled up several University lists and rankings.  With these lists in hand I made my way through them making note of the Universities which were in a location I’d be willing to move to and which ranked in the top 50-75 world wide. From there I researched the University’s list of programs and looked for schools with a Communication oriented program or something that would allow me to study social media, virtual worlds, and online education. It is important to note that the one consideration I didn’t take into account was my chances of getting accepted.  I didn’t need to go back, and so as a result the $75 application fee and $15 transcript fee was a small cost to pay for an application and the chance to explore my curiosity.

I was surprised that several of the schools I was most interested in (Harvard, Cambridge) didn’t have any programs remotely connected to the area I wanted to study.  On the opposite end of the spectrum others (Columbia, Edinburgh) had programs focused in my area, but which were taught exclusively online.  Something I wasn’t interested in despite that being one of my central areas of research. I wanted to improve online courses, not struggle through existing ones.

I also felt that it was important that I not fight the language barrier any more than I had to. So, I focused on researching Universities that had English based programs or were based in English speaking countries.  I was surprised at just how many Universities world wide offer courses and programs in English. They’re out there, the trick is finding them.

After doing my research (which took much longer than I expected), I ended up with a list of 8 Universities.  Of those I found 4 PhD programs and 4 Masters programs to apply to. I targeted faculty in the programs I was interested in and sent out a barrage of e-mails asking questions and introducing myself.

Though unorthodox I felt it was worth the effort to apply directly to a few PhD programs as they offered better financial support and would have provided an accelerated program.  Of the 8 Schools I applied to the 4 PhDs were Stanford, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania and University of Washington. The 4 Masters I applied to were Georgetown, University of Copenhagen, Oxford, and a joint program between University of Southern California and the London School of Economics.  Key elements in my application were strong statements of purpose and letters of recommendation, my undergraduate participation in Arizona State’s Barrett, The Honors College w/ Honors Thesis, my professional research and expertise, and my GRE scores which were mediocre with a 530 Math, 590 Verbal and a 5 on the Essay portion.

To make things more challenging I later learned that I had applied during one of, if not the hardest application cycles in the last 50 years.  Ultimately, I received compelling invitations from Georgetown and University of Copenhagen.  Both offered cities and experiences completely different from Arizona, storied histories, and excellent reputations.  However, where Georgetown was only able to offer student loans and $30,000 a year in tuition fees University of Copenhagen offered a complete tuition waiver.  After additional research I also learned that Copenhagen ranked 40th/45th on the lists of Global Universities which was significantly higher than Georgetown. Additionally, the University is a member of the International Alliance of Research Universities which consists of 10 of the world’s leading academic institutions: Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Australian National University, Berkley, Peking University, National University of Singapore, University of Tokyo, ETH Zurich.

This is when it became real. I wasn’t just enjoying fanciful dreams of applying at the major universities around the world. I was faced with a very compelling opportunity to actually live those dreams and see them brought to reality.  Frankly, it was absolutely terrifying.  That may shock some of you, as a veteran traveler and repeat solo traveler, but the prospect of a trip is vastly different than the prospect of 2 years in a foreign education system, in a alien country. Even the age of the University was mind boggling. University of Copenhagen was founded in 1479 – keep in mind that Columbus didn’t even sail until 1492.

I wasn’t sure if I had the balls to do it. Then I thought through how much I regretted never spending a semester or year abroad during my undergrad, about how incredible the opportunity laid out before me was, and how fear aside it was something I truly wanted to do.  I fired off my letter of acceptance and began researching just what exactly I had signed up for.

The Role of Location and Culture

I moved to Arizona from Colorado when I was six.  I spent the next 18 years of my life in various parts of the state where I lived in Sedona, Prescott, Tempe and Scottsdale.  During that time I spent an additional two years on the road. The first was in place of 5th grade and was a year spent home schooled and backpacking with my parents through Europe. The second was in place of 7th grade and a year spent RVing and home schooled through the US.

The one thing all that time in Arizona taught me was that Arizona and I aren’t kindred spirits. The state has some incredible people, world class natural beauty and a bucket of potential. Unfortunately, it is also dominated by a world view and behavioral culture which is 180 degrees from me.  The state as a whole is anti-education, anti-intellectualism, anti-entrepreneurship, anti-humanism, anti-multiculturalism and the embodiment of what happens when you have 30 years of the GOP party line in action.  As someone who takes a strong humanistic approach to life, values education, curiosity and intellectual pursuits, isn’t religious, values science and history, has a global world view, relishes different cultures and fiscal responsibility Arizona left me miserable.  Outside of my group of friends I found myself surrounded by people who actively embraced and relished in waging war on everything I view as important and essential for progress, sound governance, and a healthy population.

Similarly, Arizona has absolutely zero long-term plan for economic development.  The State has been bleeding all of their top talent for years due to dreadful policies and their short sighted approach to business and education.  The job prospects and opportunities for people 25-45 in the state are nearly non-existent beyond the basic service industries or a job with Intel, and the chances of that changing any time soon in the current environment are non-existent.

So, when it came time to relocate for my Masters I knew I wanted a destination that would provide a community and culture that valued long-term thinking, that took a humanistic approach to life, which had significant potential for professional development and networking, as well as an area that put heavy emphasis on cultural and educational development.

With these criteria in mind the Scandinavian countries immediately jumped to the top of the list.  You’ve probably heard that Denmark (and Scandinavia at large) are some of the happiest countries in the world.  That’s with good reason.  They’ve spent the last 30 years investing heavily in education, infrastructure, health care and innovation while embracing a  humanistic approach to governance and policy.  To a person they are some of the best educated, friendly, helpful and least religious people in the world.

During my 18 day trip to Scandinavia in July of 2010 I was absolutely floored by how helpful, friendly, and genuine the Norwegians and Danes I met were.  Their willingness to have a conversation, answer questions, and to look out for each other was refreshing.  As was the ease I found when seeking out stimulating conversations that were based in well educated, global perspective and insight.  In the three days I spent in Copenhagen during that trip I fell in love with the city and developed an incredible respect for the Danish people.  That feeling and experience has only been magnified over the past two weeks as I’ve gotten settled and worked to navigate the city.

The city itself is a perfect reflection of its people.  With beautiful ancient architecture the city is clean, well laid out, has a great public transportation system, is lined with canals that nearly rival Amsterdam, and is one of the greatest biking cities I’ve ever experienced.  Some 36% of the population commutes to work by bicycle every day. Despite being an ancient city, efforts have been taken to clean up the harbor and river system and the water in the inner harbor is so clean it is safe for swimming.  The coast is decorated by massive wind turbines, and the general feeling is one of an ancient city that is retaining its spirit and essence while charging into the future.

A Global Network

Ultimately one of the biggest resources in life is your social and professional network. It is what drives a successful career, business venture, and makes for a rich and informative personal network.  I developed an incredible network of friends, peers, and professional contacts during my time in Arizona many of whom have since re-located further diversifying the information they can share and the insights they are able to offer.  But, I knew that to truly live the life I want to live I need a network of friends and professional contacts who are truly global and as diverse as the places they were born, educated and raised.  I knew that that by relocating either abroad or to one of the coasts that I’d be exposed to a completely different mixture of people to share, collaborate, relax, learn from and explore with.

The opportunity to live, study, and socialize abroad offers me an chance to develop an entirely new network from the ground up, while maintaining the existing networks I cherish. It provides me the opportunity to radically re-structure the aspects of society I engage with regularly, as well as the cultures, nationalities, and professional backgrounds of my peer group all in a way which wouldn’t have been possible if I stayed in the same region and the same communities I’ve spent the last 20 years in.

So, Why Denmark?

Obviously, there isn’t a simple answer.  We’ll see how I feel about the decision as I start my classes and start to integrate into the local culture and truly see it as a local instead of just a visitor.  That said, it’s amazing to be surrounded by wonderful people who truly seem to understand the importance of charting a path forward, of looking toward the horizon and of embracing new information and relishing it, not trying to quash or discredit it.  I’ll tell you one thing, it sure is nice being surrounded by people who don’t live their lives believing the earth is 6,000 years old and that corporations will always have their best interests at heart.

I’ll be continuing to write on the experiences, revelations, and lessons learned during this adventure so stay tuned. Also, if you’ve got a question you’ve always wondered about or a challenge in your own process don’t hesitate to reach out.

Interested in doing more research? Consider browsing Amazon’s assorted titles on Denmark or Study Abroad.

Is E-Mail Dead? A Millennial Weighs In

Orkney Islands - An Old Rusted Tractor at Sunset

I was recently approached by Scottsdale Airpark News Magazine to write a piece on social media. I chose to weigh in on the life (and death) of e-mail, the generational gap in usage behavior and explain the conundrum baffling many business experts: why don’t young business professionals rely on e-mail as their primary source for communication?  This post is a follow up to another piece I wrote entitled; Social Networks, E-mail and User Behavior in August of 2008.

From Scottsdale Airpark News:

Is E-Mail Dead? A Millennial’s view on today’s trusty tool

Stop! Before you click the send button and fire off that next e-mail, ask yourself, “Who is my audience and what is their age demographic?” As we prepare to enter a new decade, it’s time to think about how the use of e-mail has changed since 1995. Those who are 26 years and younger—“Millenials”—have a very different attitude about it than Generation X or even Y.

In the mid to late ’90s, e-mail was the leading edge. It offered unparalleled utility, was time effective and cost sensitive. It quickly became a requirement in most places of business and a part of our daily routine. Yet, despite its apparent necessity, the next few years will see e-mail moved to the endangered species list.

Change of Address

Non-Millennials embraced the Internet during a period when Internet Service Providers (ISP) and work-associated e-mails were king. If you’re over 26, you’ve probably had one e-mail address associated with your home ISP and a second professional e-mail for work. Most non-Millennials change their e-mail only when they move or change employers, so they have had maybe two addresses in the last 10 to 15 years.

Millennials, on the other hand, have been forced to adapt. During the peak of the tech boom, America’s youth were flooding online. Hungry for privacy and their own piece of online real estate, they signed up for free e-mail providers like Hotmail, Yahoo and eventually Google. They had free time, a burning curiosity, and a native understanding of the web which drove them to explore … sometimes recklessly.

What many discovered was an inbox inundated with spam. While older generations used e-mail for conversations, Millennials had instant messaging. The end result was a transient relationship with e-mail. Too much spam? Just register a new address. Interests changed? Register a new address. Pokemanmaster87@hotmail.com too childish? Time for another. An environment quickly evolved where keeping your address book up to date was impossible.

Enter Social Media

Many people were shocked by how sites like Facebook became so successful among young people. The answer is simple. Social media sites provided a “one-stop shop” for most of the resources Millennials desperately needed. They wanted a simple service that essentially replaced e-mail with a database-driven address book that users automatically updated—and one that provided real-time chat, e-mail-like functionality and the ability to share rich media.

Facebook and co. rocked the boat but didn’t end e-mail’s dominance. After all, e-mail still offers value not readily duplicated by social networks. It remains our go-to resource for sharing documents and files, the preferred medium for professional communication (especially due to its archival value) and a necessity for trans-generational communication.

It’s time to prepare for a new decade, one that’s no longer shackled to e-mail. File sizes are skyrocketing and have quickly swamped e-mail’s capability. This has spawned spinoff resources, such as Drop.io, which allow quick and easy file sharing. Social media is no longer the sole domain of Millennials and the occasional early adopter. It’s reached a critical mass where Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are commonplace. They’ve become the new status quo, paving the way for the mass adoption of Google Wave and similar products delivering a more engaging, real-time, collaborative and user-friendly experience. It all points to a future that is sure to retire e-mail to the domain of rotary telephones, typewriters and fax machines.

So, before you hit send, ask yourself, is e-mail really the right medium for your message?

Alex Berger, a Millenial, is the author of the blog VirtualWayfarer.com, as well as an analyst with Fox & Fin Financial Group, 7333 E. Doubletree Ranch Road, Suite 200, Scottsdale. Alex@foxfin.com; www.foxfin.com; @MandAAZ.

View a .pdf of the print version here.

Have thoughts, comments, or your own insight to add?  Please join the discussion with a comment below!

Reflecting on Ignite Phoenix

I had the pleasure of sharing the stage this past Tuesday with 16 incredible presenters.  Together, we all overcame our fear of the stage, of the spotlight and of failure to ascend one of the valley’s largest soap boxes for 300 seconds.  During the course of our 5 minute presentations we battled our nerves, time and the intense desire to ramble in order to share our passion with some 600+ attendees.

Truly, the Ignite Phoenix experience is a rare and incredible opportunity.  It is a synergy of random ideas and passions.  An assemblage that transcends genre in a way that has become rare and difficult to find. Ignite 5 saw presentations on Bats, Education, Gundam Action figures and Dance to name but a few – short of random links posted by particularly eclectic friends on Twitter, or social link aggregators like Digg/Reddit there are only a few events like Ignite Phoenix and TED/TEDxPhoenix which truly embrace random intellectualism and curiosity.

The thing about Ignite that really makes it that much more special is the pace. 20 slides, 5 minutes, 15 seconds a slide…what a rush! It’s a format that gives even the most experienced public speaker pause.  All the while it creates a platform which is incredibly audience friendly.  With the standard format typically consisting of 18 presentations, tuning out for 5 minutes if you don’t care for a topic or find it interesting is painless. It’s the exact opposite of the 90 minute lectures droning on about something that failed to catch our interest which many of us came to dread in College, Business courses and seminars.

A Presenter’s Reflections

Presenting at Ignite Phoenix pushed my comfort level and boundaries.  I’ve presented in the past to smaller groups, traveled the world for months on my own, delivered business pitches and successfully navigated social situations – but this was different. This was terrifying. It took me back to a time before I’d developed my current social competency.  It took me back to the first day of High School every year when the fear and anxiety of the High School social experience/social shark tank left me physically sick to my stomach. Heart racing, palms sweating, imagination running wild.

Applying to present was a challenge in and of itself.  I found 15 excuses every time I went to fill out the application. Was my idea good enough?  Was I truly passionate about it?  Would people care?  Why would I want to do it – after all, no one was forcing me to apply.  Eventually, I put aside my excuses, nervously re-read the my brief topic submission and hit submit. That action came with the same sensation I typically feel when making a big purchase online. Do I really want this? Did I order the right item?

So, in light of all that – why did I do it? Because it was worth every piece of energy I invested – both positive and negative.

Overcoming those challenges, those discomforts and those excuses was an incredible learning experience.  Sure, Ignite is about sharing your passion and knowledge with others but it’s also about something more.  For the presenters it’s about learning about yourself.  About building and internalizing your self confidence and belief in your self – and that alone is invaluable.  Making the decision to present was worth it long before I even took the stage and actually presented.  That was the icing on the cake – A lucky bonus and exciting opportunity to share.

What of the presentation itself?

There’s something special about the Ignite crowd. They’re happy.  That sounds silly, but in this day and age it’s significant.  They’re not there because they have to be, they’re not there because they should be, they’re there to learn and because they want to be! That’s over 600 open, supportive, eager eyes, ears and minds that want the presenters to succeed.  They want to learn, be inspired and captivated. That positive energy is a force to be reckoned with.  It is contagious and it makes presenting much, much easier. There is no competition, no back stabbing or anything of the sort. It’s just open, sincere cooperation, collaboration and sharing. That positive approach stretches beyond the crowd and was shared by the other presenters. There were words of advice, suggestions, encouragement, jokes, smiles, fist bumps, high fives and shoulder pats throughout the course of the evening.

Tips for future Presenters

I really hope this post helps encourage each and every one of you to submit a proposal to present at Ignite Phoenix 6. If you get selected, here’s my advice:

Go simple. Go big. – Your slides are the life of your presentation and an indication of how professional it looks and feels. Listen to the organizers and past presenters. Go with big, simple images and very simple statements or text. One lone word is best, 3 or 4 is good, more than that? Try and avoid it. There’s a temptation to feel like you need to read what’s on your slides. Even if it’s only a sentence to “remind” you. Don’t do it! Anything more than one word encourages you to awkwardly change from a conversational delivery to a quickly read interjection. This breaks your flow, changes topics abruptly and can be awkward. If you put more than two words on a slide IGNORE THEM – they’re for the viewers, not you as presenter.

Rehearse – Yeah, yeah. I know it’s a pain, but look at it this way. Your presentation is only 5 minutes. Running through it two or three times a day before you present is no big deal. Your presentation should change EACH time you present it. Why? Because you need to focus on the main points you want to share and get comfortable with your time frame – NOT with a memorized statement you’re going to regurgitate. Think about what you like in each practice run, then work on incorporating it next time. That way, no matter what happens during your presentation you can adapt and respond without getting stumped!

Warm Up! – Don’t present cold! For Ignite Phoenix 5 we began at 6PM. I practiced the night before, which was great – but you also need to practice as close to your actual presentation as you can. For me, that meant going through my presentation twice at 4PM before heading to the event. A cold start makes it MUCH more difficult to remember what you want to cover and leaves you less comfortable with the timing, slides etc. – it means you have to think more…and that’s the last thing you want to be doing.

Don’t Narrate – It wastes time! Pausing your presentation to say, “woah, here we go”, “whoops, that went fast”, or “umm….where was I” will throw off your rhythm, undermine your confidence, and tells people there’s a problem. Silence is golden and less expensive! You’ve only got 15 seconds a slide and 300 seconds total – don’t waste them!

Have an Intro Slide! – The Ignite Phoenix team will introduce you with an intro slide, but have one of your own! It helps make the presentation your own AND it gives you valuable time to get out there, look at the audience, get comfortable with them, and let your brain catch up before you’re performing at full presentation speed!

Above all, get out there and try it. Ignite Phoenix 6 applications are already open. It truly, truly is an incredible experience. One that everyone is capable and qualified to participate in. Go SUBMIT your idea now!

Want to learn more about Ignite Phoenix? Check out http://www.ignite-phoenix.org.

Lastly, thank you again to everyone involved in the Ignite Phoenix process. Those who made it possible, those who presented and the wonderful audience.

On the Subject of Failure

Failure is something that each and every one of us deals with on a daily basis. It weighs heavily as we consider our options. It can be a crippling force that leaves us unable to make a decision or take action. It is the storm cloud on the horizon that terrifies us. For some, it can even be deadly.

I’ll let you in on a little secret – I have a bit of a perfectionistic streak. In fact, I hold myself to a very high standard and can literally make myself sick to my stomach, beating myself up over my failures. Even worse, they stick with me for years as jagged thorns in my memory. Often much more memorable and easy to remember than my successes. Recently, however, I’ve had an epiphany. Failure is not the end, but rather the pre-cursor to success.

That epiphany is quite simple. It’s something I’ve understood for years and based on observations which I think we all innately know to be true. Simple little life lessons. At an early age you no doubt learned the hard way that fire was hot just as you learned what foods you liked and which ones you detested. We don’t classify these as failures, we classify them as learning experiences. So what changes when you get older? The reality is … nothing.

When Edison was questioned about his 10,000 failed experiments to invent a storage battery, he put it best with his witty response, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” However, the issue often requires a more complex exploration before it becomes internalized. Which leads me to an important and difficult concept I’ve been working to incorporate into who I am.

Simply put there is no such thing as failure. In short, failure is a state of mind. To explain, every action changes us. If you look at life like a a maze, every decision takes you down one of several paths. Some lead to dead ends which conventional thinking would call failures. The catch is that each of those decisions has changed who you are. Moving forward you’re better equipped to deal with future decisions and challenges because of that ‘failure’ than you would be if you had not experienced it. Though you may not realize it, that “failure” will serve you later down the road. It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, and you may not even realize it when it does, but it will shape your future and who you become.

So, next time you find yourself facing failure remember it’s not a bad thing. You’re not defeated. You’ve just taken one more step toward success.