Thursday, December 12, 2013

Body language 101 for leaders

Dear leader,
Ever wonder how your gregarious and hand-talking presentation style will be perceived on your next trip to China?  How your casual style, self-deprecation and biting sarcasm will be received in Canada?  How your "get to business, I'm pressed for time" way of running by checking your watch and drumming your fingers while running the meeting in Brazil will affect the outcome of the negotiation?  New take on a leader's body language and the cognitive cultural mapping of the brain provide critical insights.

Click here for full article

Cultural ignorance on display in the US Congress

Likening a discussion with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to "talking to the Republic of Korea", US Congressman Shimkus displays his cultural ignorance for all the world to see.  How did this aggressive, dismissive, ignorant person get elected to the US Congress?  He essentially downgraded the quality of our US political leadership with this inaccurate analogy, likening a disagreement to talking to South Korea.  A little self-awareness and a lot of cultural competence is in order for Mr. Shimkus.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Outsourcing: Driving to success after signing

As the leader of the outsourcing initiative, after signing the Master Service Agree (MSA) you just want to “get to work”.  It makes perfect sense – to you.  However, consider for a moment what “get to work” means for your outsourcing partner.  Even if your partner is co-located geographically, the corporate culture, leadership model, decision-making processes and basic organizational structure are all likely to be very different.  These differences are even more pronounced when the partner is offshore. 

Realizing how that one phrase, “get to work” could be interpreted differently by both organizations, how do we get the newly formed unit to work together, ramp up quickly, enable knowledge transfer, ensure alignment of goals, encourage self-monitoring of milestones and ultimately hit the targets agreed upon in the MSA?  I recommend two must-do’s: 1) research and 2) alignment.
First, do your research to understand your partner.  Research on a Fortune 500 organization is relatively easy, companies are ranked based on many parameters including revenues, corporate governance, sustainability, equality, diversity and the like.  Discover where your partner organization is headquartered.  The Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, an organization advocating for stricter implementation of the UN Convention against Corruption, is a good place to start for internationally headquartered organizations.  Once you understand this larger picture, dive deeper by connecting with cross-industry colleagues to gain an insider’s perspective.  Better yet, leverage the most-often missed pool of knowledge by canvasing your internal associates to understand your own enterprise-wide history with the partner.

Second, starting from this knowledge base, align with the partner on multiple levels: a) goals; b) structure; c) reporting relationships; and d) communication model to launch the initiative and see it through to completion. 
a)      Goal  - This may be common sensical first step, but surprisingly it is often missed.  The team lead’s role is to hold the team ABLE to achieve alignment, and drive the goal through the entire project. In order to achieve this, create shared ownership of the goal by enlisting key leaders within your partner organization to co-author components of the plan.  Research in the communication field, particularly by Charles R. Berger’s Uncertainty Reduction theory, demonstrate that a key component in a team dynamic is curiosity - resulting in strategic questioning that enables better planning and ultimate execution of that plan.   
b)      Structure -Striking the structural balance between partnered organizations is also a key to success.  When developing project teams that are working toward a common goal, the integrated team structure is vital.  Integrated structures can be best achieved with the extension team model— where the corporate team is paired as peers with the outsourced team. Led by one team leader, the members of the team are strategic collaborators on daily decisions, key portions of the plan are driven by team members from both organizations, and both tactical and strategic work is spread evenly amongst the team members.  This structure leverages the diversified ideas and experiences of the membership represented on the team.  In fact, diversified teams are proven to be more innovative, if managed well, and more productive overall, as Nancy J. Adler, of McGill University School of Business, reports in her insightful book International Dimensions of Organization Behavior

c)      Reporting relationships – Surprisingly few professionals know exactly how to define the matrix organizational structure, although it entered the business lingo back in the 1970’s.  The most common understanding of a matrix reporting structure is where the product structure is overlaid by the functional structure.  Think of this visually as a grid rather than a hierarchically organized organizational chart.  Typically, this means one professional has at least two different, direct reporting relationships where one manager is often co-located with the employee and the other functional manager is located remotely.  This basic structure, with increasing usage in globally distributed workforces, requires leaders to have extremely well-developed influencing skills.  Gone are the days when a leader has her team co-located, allowing for team lunches on Fridays and Monday huddles in the conference room.  More frequently now, that same manager has responsibility for people located in other geographies who may also have direct managers sitting with them.  The team lead’s primary task is to keep her project a priority for the remote team member by developing a strong alliance with her team member’s geographically-situated manager, using highly tuned influencing skills in order to keep her project on the top of the task list.
d)      Communication model – Integrated communication is only achieved through individual commitment.   You can build the best plan out there, but if your team isn’t personally committed to it, it will not work.  Research proves that the more frequent and varied the contact between team members, the higher the productivity.  In order to build this commitment, co-author the plan with your team, keep the lines of communication open, foster an atmosphere of discovery and curiosity amongst your team members and, most importantly, model the communicative behavior you are expecting from your team.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Waiting for Service

            Stifling, closely packed bodies wait with hushed voices.  Eyes penetrate the other’s space, searching for something interesting to distract our vacant minds.  I peer out over my towering arm-load of packages, counting again the number of line-dwellers in front of me.  I try to notice each cultural nuance in my new surroundings, most notably each of the line-dwellers are holding perhaps a few letters or at most one small package.  Noting the difference in my armload of packages and their handful of letters my stomach begins to churn with a sense of foreboding, subtly questioning the wisdom of my decision to ship lovely handmade clay jewelry half-way around the world.
            Having arrived at 10 am I am confident that I will be done by lunch-time.  By twelve-thirty, I have moved a few steps closer to the counter so I am hopeful that my three fellow line-dwellers will hasten their transactions so I can make my lunch appointment.  However, one step closer and thirty minutes later we are all informed in a clipped tone by one of the two postal employees, that they are closing for lunch.  Recognizing the dismay on our collective faces, the diminutive clerk assures us all to keep our places in line, as it will be only two minutes before they return.
            What to do?  Take a number?  I look and find none.  My seemingly brilliant plan of making a pact with my fellow line-dwellers to maintain ordinal status quickly meets with reality when an older, be-speckeled man leaves the line to sit down and his remaining gap in line is immediately closed.  Alas, the choice is difficult; remain in line and fight to keep the line-dwellers behind me at bay with my elbows spread wide like a bird in flight, or return another day to repeat the saga.  The pressing holiday timeframe is indisputable, so I chose to remain in line, steadfastly splaying my arms like an eagle in flight.
            Two minutes plus sixty-eight more minutes later finds us line-dwellers drenched in sweat, hungry and, at least for me, returning in my mind to the unwittingly bad decision when I refused my driver’s offer to mail my packages.  Lost in these thoughts of regret, I almost miss my chance to step up to the counter, had my favorite fellow line-dweller not pushed me hard.
            Fumbling up to the chest-high counter, not having spoken for hours, my dry, parched lips open to utter the words “international post”.  The diminutive, rested postal employee eyes me for a full thirty seconds before requesting my first package.  With a satisfied sigh, I hand over my largest parcel destined for my homeland.  Twisting it over and over in her hands while alternatively eyeing me, she settles on the address, slowly hen-pecks the numbers and letters into the vintage 8088 computer, then holds the package to the side and casually drops it to the floor where it meets with sickening crunch.  My protests are met with more aggressive tossing into crunchville, and more animated stares and pressing bodies against my back by my fellow line-dwellers.
            Disheartened with the futility of the adventure, I stumble out with my culturally-integrative mindset grasping for the learning moment; finding only astonishment with my new home, the country called India.

Author note - this is a paper I wrote for my graduate writing class. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Multitasking: Strategies to better manage your tasks

             I, like most of my peers, have my cell phone beside me so I can respond to texts while I am researching this topic for my graduate-level paper, simultaneously monitoring my 4 email addresses and periodically adding to a powerpoint presentation for my next consulting assignment.  I am passionate about what I do and, in living this passion, I am a moderate multitasker surrounded by technologies.  In fact, because I multitask regularly, I have reached a level of proficiency.  Or have I?
According to the PBS Frontline film Digital Nation, the plethora of multimedia inputs and outputs is “dumbing down the world”.   In this paper, I examine the role multitasking plays in the concept of tapping human capital by engaging employees and individuals to live their passion as, for example, Google strives to do with their 20% rule.
The researchers and scientists whom I site in this paper are fairly consistent in their negative views on the topic of multitasking, described as the “performance of multiple tasks in a relatively short time period, with shifts in attention among the tasks” (Oberlander et al, 2007).  Due to this commonly-held position about both the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of multitasking, I conclude this paper with a few strategies on how to multitask to enhance productivity, although some may argue that productive multitasking is not even possible considering the brain’s capability. 
How our brain processes multiple tasks
In considering how our brain processes multiple tasks, we first turn our study to the “attentional spotlight”, or Broadband Area 10 portion of the brain which houses the sequential arousal system, and, cannot multitask (Medina, 2008).  This scientific reality, along with various other findings, has lead to state-based laws banning the driving of a car while talking on a cell phone, as it has been proven that driving while on a cell phone reduces the reaction time to the equivalent of driving while legally drunk (.08 blood alcohol content).  
Further to this, Jack King, Director of TCU’s Koehler Center for Teaching Excellence has documented neurologic “brown outs” during multitasking where the brain loses some of its computing power, creating surface learning in which the brain attempts to only understand procedures, numbers and facts without synthesizing it into deeper learning and understanding.   In fact, “power” multitaskers processing five or more inputs at once (cell, IM, text, email, social media, etc.) are consistently more susceptible to interference from irrelevant stimuli, such as the random text message from a friend or pursuing a random thought for trivial purposes while abandoning the central project that brought them to that data.  These same “power” multitaskers take more time to break from their current task and divert to the other as compared to light to moderate multitaskers managing 3 or less tasks simultaneously (Saunders, 2009).
This synthesis of input required for deep learning an understanding is predicated by “down time”—a chunk of time when the brain is unoccupied and free to associate as it will.  Only in this state is the brain able to fully process the patterns of events and data in a way that seems to create persistent memory, make connections between ideas, and even develop the sense of self.  In fact, researchers go so far as to say “downtime to the brain is what sleep is to the body” (Richtel, 2010).  This downtime is not achieved often, as our habit of pulling in the data deluge, the continual checking of our iPhones for the rare urgent and important email, the sense of disconnect we feel when we haven’t checked our FaceBook account recently all prevent us from controlling our time and allocating ourselves the much-needed downtime that our deep thinking requires.
As referred to above, regular sleep cycles are also linked to higher success in multitasking.  The longer we work in a sleep deprived state, defined as 5 hours or less per night, the lower our ability to multitask and subsequent higher rate of error (Haavisto et al, 2010).
Multitasking in learning environment
Consider that the average internet user is subjected to 3000 commercial messages in a day.  Add to that statistic the average U.S. child is exposed to digital media about 50 hours per week (Detzin, 2010).  No wonder we have trouble focusing on anything when multimedia’s bi-directional blanketing covers our environment!  Shakespeare’s words precisely describe this modern day scenario, “We are consumed by that which we are nourished by”  — a quote that Neil Postman would heartily agree with as well. 
So, if the digital media deluge is hitting us at such a high daily rate, which type of media has the most detrimental effect on our attention span and ability to multitask?  Consistently researchers point out that video games take the worst toll on the brain (Richtel, 2010).  The intensity of the environment and the simulated reality combine with other factors to make the emotional stimulus of video gaming override all other brain functions and, in fact, contribute to poorer REM cycles of sleep due to the over activity in the brain sparked by video games.  In essence, all other forms of media, including TV, are less disruptive to the brain than video games. 
The US has yet to implement controls and pre-emptive educational programs to arm our Millenials (born between 1986 and 2000) and M2 generation  (Kaiser Foundation term, born 1992-2002) with knowledge on how to manage these media forces bombarding them.  In fact, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that half of the students from M2 Generation are using the internet, watching TV or using some form of media while they are doing homework.  In fact, the average of this generation is over 7 hours of media time per day.  Factoring multitasking time, that number jumps to almost 11 hours per day.  This age group does not have the self-control or discipline to choose schoolwork over the computer, but only 3 in 10 have rules set by their parents about media use.  Of course, other diversions are readily available at their fingertips.  It’s clear that when adults are not supervising, kids are using these mediums for entertainment, not education. 
In the business environment, multitasking creates a scenario in which employees are prone to mistakes due to the brain’s aforementioned “attentional spotlight’s” inability to multitask.  These errors in multitasking are comprised of two types:  a) errors of commission—that of performing an incorrect action, such as writing a report on the wrong project (often related to low working memory) and b) errors of omission—that of not performing a correct action, such as not writing the report at all (often related to inability to quickly perceive of and shift to new priorities).  Oberlander et al (2007) found that three failures generally can be found when analyzing errors in simultaneous work tasks:
1.       The employee perceives the elements of the current situation inaccurately,
2.       The significance of the elements as a whole is not understood by the employee, and/or
3.       Potential future implications of the situation are not shared with or considered by the employee.
Of course, equally important individual differences predict multitasking performance as well.  Another key finding in Oberlander et al’s research is that anxiety levels of employees impact both types of errors, but the level of conscientiousness of the employee had no relevance to the error.  In other words, an employee’s high level of loyalty to the employer cannot be used to predict fewer mistakes but if we are able to decrease an employee’s level of anxiety, we increase the odds of the employee actually doing the task, and doing it correctly (2007).
How can we be more productive in our multitasking?
                Most of us multitask, and in reality, the capability to multitask is becoming even more important.  Thus, five simple considerations are provided to help us manage our time more effectively and efficiently, freeing us and those we work with to be fully engaged in what we are passionate about on both the personal and professional level. 
First off, there is hope.  Researchers have found a small contingent of the population (3%) that is naturally capable and highly skilled at multitasking (Watson, 2010).  This small segment of the population is able to switch between tasks quickly without losing any speed or ability to comprehend the tasks, and is not experiencing the mistakes the majority of multitaskers are making.  However, not much is known about this population so additional research is being conducted into this group to fully understand how their behavior differs from the majority and/or how their brains may be different.  The HR Professional should keep a watch on this emerging field of study.   
Secondly, as Oberlander et al (2007) discovered in the error-trending research, multitaskers would benefit greatly from reduced anxiety levels as the researchers found a clear relation between anxiety levels and both mistakes of commission and omission.  This is a great opportunity for the HR professional to assist managers in decreasing levels of employee anxiety utilizing proven methodologies, including high frequency communication and transparency in decision-making.
Third, renowned technologist Pierre Khawand, Lecturer at UC Berkley’s Haas School of Business and Founder of People-OnTheGo, suggests structuring cycles of forty minutes total focus time into your daily calendar, followed immediately by thirty minutes dedicated collaborative time to get the most from your every minute at work.  These forty minutes of focus requires that you ignore or turn off all interruptions in order to allow your brain to gather thoughts and concepts in order to achieve rich levels of concept maturation and ideation.   
Fourth, national emphasis is required to ensure members of the M2 generation understand what the digital deluge means to them, how they can and should use it and, most importantly, its inherent dangers to them as students, individuals and members of society.   South Korea has taken a leading role in legislating change at the national level due to recent and disturbing cases where teenagers have committed murder or suicide due to internet addiction.  This national endeavor has been developing over the past 5 years, and includes education at the elementary level on internet etiquette, online safety and moderation when using the technology.   Presently the S. Korean government is also contemplating banning those 16 and under from visiting the popular 24 hour internet cafes known as PC Bangs between the hours of midnight and 6 am.  The national agenda in the US could include a similar type of education for those just entering the digital deluge, preparing them for the onslaught and creating awareness of the risks the technologies carry.    
Fifth and finally, I share a humorous story that I heard from one of my webinar participants.  Her colleague Jim was running a global team meeting with 35 participants joining from all across the world.  His intention was to share slides over the internet with the participants while also speaking over a conference bridge line for one hour in order to reach a decision on a project.  He started the meeting with a verbal introduction, then asked everyone to log into the website where he was hosting the meeting.  After everyone was logistically situated, he proceeded to share his desktop mistakenly rather than just his powerpoint presentation.  While discussion was ensuing between the members of his team, Jim started two skype chats—a spicy chat with his girlfriend and another chat with a colleague —all while his team was discussing the matter Jim had placed before him.  Unbeknownst to Jim, all 35 of the team members that logged onto the shared website could see every one of the somewhat racy chat boxes popping up on Jim’s window. 
Multitasking can be your friend with careful and attentive management, but, if not managed well, it quickly becomes your enemy.     
Consuming kids: the commercialization of childhood. (2008). Media Education Foundation. Retrieved from
Dretzin, R. (Producer). (2010, February 2).  Digital Nation. Retrieved from:
Gates, B. (2006, April 7).  How I work: Bill Gates.  Fortune. Retrieved from:
Garber, M.  (2010).  Attention versus distraction? What that big NY Times story leaves out. Retrieved from:
Haavisto, M.L., Porkka-Heiskanen T., Hublin, C., Härmä, M., Mutanen, P., Müller, K., Virkkala, J. & Sallinen, M. (2010).  Sleep restriction for the duration of a work week impairs multitasking performance.  Journal of Sleep Research 19, 444-454.  doi:10.1111/j.1365-2869.2010.00823.x
Kaiser Family Foundation. (2010).  Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds.  Retrieved from:
King, J. (2010).  Multitasking or Multidistracting? Retrieved from
Medina, J. J. (2008).  Brain Rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.
Saunders, F. (2009).  Multitasking to distraction.  Science Observer, November-December, 455.  Retrieved from:
Oberlander, E. M., Oswald, F. L., Hambrick, D. Z., Jones, L. A., United States, Bureau of Naval Personnel, & Navy Personnel Research, Studies, and Technology Division. (2007). Individual difference variables as predictors of error during multitasking. Millington, TN: Navy Personnel Research, Studies, and Technology (NPRST/PERS-1), Bureau of Naval Personnel.
Ritchel, M. (2010).  Growing up digital, wired for distraction.  The New York Times.  Retrieved from:
Montagne, R. (Host), Shapiro, A. (Host).  (2008, October 2).  Think your multitasking?  Think again [Audio podcast].  Retrieved from
Watson, J.M. & Strayer, D.L.  (2010).  Supertaskers: profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability.  Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17(4), 479-485.  doi:10.3758/PBR.17.4.479

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Technology is not Value Neutral

How far would you go to help your new baby boy born with a neural defect?  What if the doctor’s prognosis was that your son’s brain would not develop past the age of an average two year old?  Would you consider utilizing the technology of stem-cell transplantation, despite its controversial methodologies, to save your son? 
Through this scenario analysis, I propose that no technology is value neutral.  To further explain this position, I hold that a value proposition was inherent and decisively made in order to develop of the stem-cell research technology.
Stem-cell research is the technology that allows the study of the basic building blocks of the human body.  Stem-cells are unique in that they have the capability to differentiate into any type of cell.  As a result of this unique and highly useful characteristic, private and limited public research has been and continues to be conducted on stem-cells to understand the process of embryonic development and to capitalize on tremendous advancements that stem-cells allow in the development of medical treatments for a wide array of conditions, including neural defects and cancerous tumors.  The technology that makes this research possible is hotly debated, as one of the two sources of stem cell research is the human embryo, which scientists agree has more potential for development of treatments than stem-cells from adults.
How did this understanding that the human embryonic stem-cell has more potential than adult stem-cells come about?  Many historical decisions and events played a part, but two specific events brought this potential to the forefront – a) legalized abortion, the result of the court case Roe v. Wade in 1973 and b) into vitro fertilization research that resulted in its first live birth in 1978.  These decisions placed into researchers’ grasp the potential of experimenting on embryos that were otherwise not coming to term.   
On what value base was this technology developed, that has pushed us far down the road of debate on a topic that wasn’t conceived of until the 1970’s?  Marshall McLuhan states in Understanding Media that the “medium is socially the message…technology can do anything but add itself on to what we already are” (18).  In other words, technology cannot simply be developed for positive or negative effect, leaving all else equal.  Rather, technological advancements fundamentally alter our ecology; just as an earthquake can shift an entire street by one inch, or global warming can raise the oceanic water tables by one inch.   The stem cell research technology was developed to conduct research on embryonic stem cells, predicated on the fact that this research concluded the existence of that stem cell.  Rather than value-neutral, I see a specific value statement inherent in even conceiving of this research.
Indeed, had I found myself in the scenario presented above, I would face a complex maternal debate to save my son.  Consider even the word ‘save’ takes on a different meaning as “radical technologies create new definitions of old terms, and this process takes place without our being fully conscious of it” (Postman, 8).  Does ‘save’ mean life-saving or simply that his life would be more normal with the transfusion?  How would you decide, considering your own values as they relate to the values you perceive to be inherent in the development of the stem-cell technology?
Department of Neurobiology and Physiology, Northwestern University.  (2002).  “What are stem cells?”  Retrieved from
McLuhan, M.  (2003).  Understanding Media.  Gingko Press, CA. 
Postman, N.  (1992).  Technopoly.  Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., NY. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The shift away from Oral Tradition to Technology of Writing

The study of Ong, Plato and Homer together allow our thoughts to converge on the practice of oration as compared to the technology of writing, and the effect oration has had on civilizations past and present, and equally important what ill-effects have occurred as civilization moves away from honoring oration. 
Uni-dimensional writing
 Walter J. Ong, S.J. brought some wonderful insights to the study of oration, I find the most profound of those insights to be that “sight isolates, sound incorporates”.  In stating this, Ong breaks down the main attributes of these two senses as they relate to the technology of writing.  Sight is what is required (or touch if you consider braille) in order to communicate through the technology of writing which is uni-dimensional in nature and monochronic, or linear, in appearance to the consciousness. Take a moment to read the  visual depiction of multiple translations of “Thank you” and note for yourself how your eyes move over the words in a sequence.  Hearing is what allows us to multi-dimensionally experience the world, in that the wrap-around sense of hearing embeds rhythm, melody and resulting memory into our very being, as this “My Thank You Song” video by Guillermo Echevarria demonstrates.  If you consider that vision is a sense that requires slicing of the world into small digestible sections, or the “dissecting sense” per Ong, you can see where he is going with the idea that auditory is a “unifying sense” in that one is required to synthesize all the sounds coming in all at once without being able to section it into smaller slices.  We know, for instance, that memorization of passages or complex concepts is made easier through song or storytelling.

Misuse of Technology, or not ready for technology?
Plato seems to agree with the perspective that writing is a uni-dimensional mode of communication, as compared to speech, when he pens a dubious view of the new technology in Socrates’ dialogue with Phaedrus—in fact we feel almost a disdain for writing in the following exchange, “I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence.”  In this Socrates also shares that he fears that technologies and new discoveries (writing) may become viral and spread to those who are not ready for it nor understand it, and thus may misuse it.  Interestingly, this same concern for the “misuse” of the newest discoveries is a cycle we see throughout history, and I hypothesize this is a result of a age-old and general feeling of superiority and hubris by man.  Those that “have” consider those that “have not” to be inferior and, thus, have the opinion that the “have nots” would be unable to comprehend or make use of the newest innovations in an appropriate and approved way.     
Theseus son of Aegeus
In fact, the fear about the misuse of writing is indeed rampant in the oratory cultures as well, as oration is indeed prone to misuse and misunderstanding.  As revealed by Ong, the orator, in the act of reciting the stories, changes the content based on the audience, his own mood and even the political events of the day.  Just because an orator says he used some verse as before doesn’t mean he used it word-for-word as we would interpret from a literal, verbatim-focused society.  So rather than subordinating to the parent verse, an orator uses an additive technique that enhances the story and thereby changes it, even if the change is slight.  To moderate this potential misunderstanding, aggregative methods are incorporated into oration that allow for clarity from the reader’s point of view.  For example, to ensure the reader understands who a character is, name-triggering phrases such as “godlike Plyphemus, Theseus son of Aegeus, or dread son of Saturn” are used to ensure the reader is tracking with the story line in the Iliad.  When these phrases are regularly sprinkled about in the text, this may sound repetitive to the reader of the written word, which rewards the concise writer who uses sparse word choice in their story.  However, when hearing the entire Book 1 of the Iliad, these repetitive structures are key to helping the reader follow along. 
 We see this repetitive nature of oration as key to modern day success of public speakers, a recent examples of this strategy is from President Barak Obama’s presidential inauguration speech sprinkled liberally with the phrase Yes we can!”   
Oratory, or storytelling, by elders
Although we see some traces of the oratory tradition in modern day, the loss of oration as a tradition in the culture of the United States has had negative effects on a specific population— that of our elders which belong both to the silent generation (1927-45) as well as the baby boomer generation (1946-64).  Elders of communities that prized oration used to hold the collective’s past in their minds, reinforcing their place of importance and honor in the community as they shared their memories through stories and parables.  Their specialty was the relating of parables based on the past so the young could use the messages and morals of the story to solve modern-day issues. These communities position their elders in positions of honor and power in their family home.  Homer reinforces this respect for elders in the words spoken by the smooth-tongued Nestor, the facile speaker of the Pylians, who was presiding over his third generation of Pylosians, “I am older than either of you; therefore be guided by me.  Moreover I have been the familiar friend of men even greater than you are, and they did not disregard my counsels…Not a man now living could withstand them, but they heard my words, and were persuaded by them.”  Nestor commanded respect as a cultural norm and by clearly outlining where he was positioned in the political hierarchy and his demonstrated powerful influence over others.
Comparatively, the US culture, in which I live, has an aging population where almost 13% is aged 65 or older, a percentage that is estimated to grow to almost 20% by the year 2030.   To care for this growing percentage of the population, one in four households provides care to a relative or friend aged 50 or older (  This means that 75% of the aging population in the US is or will be cared for in assisting living communities, where they are taken out of the key influential positions and made to feel tangential and removed from the younger generations.  This separation diminishes the opportunity for knowledge sharing between generations, and the oral tradition of telling stories about “when they were young” and the lessons those stories may teach are decreased significantly.
In order to preserve this historic knowledge-base, one that is not recorded in the technology of writing, rather shared mostly in the oral tradition, we will need to find alternative means of connecting generations and bridging the gaps between those members of the silent/baby boomer generations and members of the younger generations.  Whereas this relationship is fairly automatic in the 25% of US multi-generational homes, this gap-bridging structure is not present in the balance of homes in the US—thus the need to expand alternative models such as “Connecting Elders to Kids” by Junior Achievement and KAETA (Kids and Elders Through Arts) or this unique program in Kankakee, Illinois which brings four generations together regularly as community outreach.

Homer.  (800 B.C.E.)  The Iliad, Book 1.
Ong, W.  (2002).  Orality and Literacy; Chapter 3.  Routledge, NY.

Plato.  (370 B.C.E.).  Phaedrus.

The Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy.  “Facts on Aging.”  Retrieved from

US Government Administration on Aging, Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from