Category Archives: Psychology

First impressions of countries and people

So I was walking off the plane last month in Brisbane airport still feeling decidedly unstable after my in-transit bout with food poisoning and there they were. Two photographic murals ten feet high and thirty long, one on each side of the concourse, full of spiders. There were hundreds of spiders dotted across these pictures. Maybe thousands.

That seemed to be the point.

“Australia has more than two thousand types of spiders,” the mural proclaimed. “The most deadly of these is the funnel web. If you see one, run!

Right below this statement there was a picture of a funnel web so greatly enlarged that that the spider looked as if it could have brought down a pony without even biting it.

This visual gauntlet of spiders was all rather horrifying. It was also (for reasons I have not yet managed to figure out despite having been puzzling over this for a month now) an ad for a phone company.

What could have possessed anyone (much less the entire team of people that were undoubtedly involved) to: (a) create this ad; and (b) place not one but two of them in an international arrivals terminal? I guess if people are walking through the arrivals terminal they’re already in Australia and are unlikely to turn around and leave the country on the spot. But, really, is this the first on-the-ground impression we want to make as a nation? Really?

First impressions are important. Multiple research studies show that we judge things like attractiveness and trustworthiness very quickly, within 1/10th of a second after meeting someone or even seeing a photograph. We make very persistent judgments about whether or not we like someone and want to have a relationship with them within the first half a minute. Mind you, these aren’t necessarily accurate first impressions, but they are self-fulfilling ones. Most of us form first impressions and stick to them, looking for further cues that confirm our assumptions (for all you psych geeks this is called the Halo Effect).

Part of me doesn’t like this. I don’t want to think that I sum people up so quickly, but I have to admit that I do tend to trust my instincts when I meet people, and I would say I’m right more often than not when I’m judging whether I like them or we would get on. I am sometimes wrong, however. I can think of several instances during the last five years when I’ve been spectacularly wrong. All of them have been times when I’ve mentally written someone off as silly, shallow, and not a person I could ever be close to. Often I met these people at church.

Church is funny like that. I can’t think of any other part of my life that consistently throws me up against so many people I don’t naturally get along with. I also can’t think of any other area of life that facilitates me spending time with people that I have mentally written off as obnoxious and annoying. Sometimes when I spend time with these people in ways that allow me to get to know bits and pieces of their stories and to see some of their different facets I find much more there than I had ever expected – kindness, beauty of spirit, valuable insights on life, and fun. Sometimes, of course, I don’t find myself revising my first impressions much at all, but those I’ve met at church have taught me far more about not judging others too quickly than those I’ve met in bars.

I no longer have much idea what all this has to do with Brisbane airport and spiders except to say that I still think those murals are in extraordinarily bad advertising taste. Even if the entire country is literally crawling with spiders (and I did have three encounters during my first ten days back – one fell out of a bath towel and onto my foot right before I touched said towel to my naked, clean, self!) there is no reason to visually assault people with an arachnid parade the minute they get off the plane in Australia. After all, first impressions are hard to overcome.

PS, I was going to illustrate this post with a picture of a funnel web, but then I googled funnel web images and decided I couldn’t do that to you. So here’s a picture of one of Australia’s better-loved animals instead.

(photo credit:

Deep into resilience

Apologies about being MIA on Monday, it’s a very busy week here in Luang Prabang.

I’m working hard on drafting this resiliency report I’m working on all day, every day. I’ve asked 15 fabulously interesting people all over the world questions such as, “do you think there are differences between the qualities that can make someone resilient in the short term versus the long term?” and woefully underestimated the amount of time it would take me to data crunch 25,000 words of interview notes. It’s a good thing I’m interested in the topic, or I’d be a bit dark at the way it’s consuming my life at present (and all my email, blogging, and showering time).

Just kidding. I have been showering. Most days, anyway.

Then there’s the toddle… I mean, the puppy. He’s not shy anymore, more’s the pity. Zulu has fully recovered from his brush with rabies/panic. He alternates between looking angelic and adorable (when he’s fast asleep) to racing around the tile floor in here as if all the hounds of hell are after him, yipping and screeching just for the fun of it. He also has a charming habit of biting hands. Playing with him when he’s excited (so, basically, anytime except the first 47 seconds after he wakes up from a nap) is like juggling a set of very small knives that have no handles. Any number of gentle admonitions not to bite have yet to break him of this habit. So has smacking his nose, although that does sometimes make him go and sulk under the ant pantry where I cannot reach him.

One of our friends here, Chloe, took pity on me this last couple of days and has come over twice to dog-sit while I am trying to write. Bless her.

So that is my life at the moment – report and dog. Oh, and pain in my bad foot.

Mike and I have been trying to find an English speaking physiotherapist here in Luang Prabang on and off, and on Sunday we followed up on a tip and went to a hotel on the Pennisula where, lo and behold, we met a lovely woman who did indeed speak some English.

She also looked as if she knew what she was doing with my leg – at least until she started working on it.

I think she probably is good at treating some issues, but not lymphedema, because she subjected my foot to everything that all my research thus far suggests is bad for it – deep pressure massage focusing only on the foot itself, and lots of heat. She also recommended acupuncture, which I had the good sense to turn down.

I let her go with the rest of it because I wanted to see whether it might help. Perhaps she knew something I didn’t. She studied here in Laos, I thought, and perhaps Western medicine isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

Yes, well, unless continuing pain and swelling three days after treatment is a good sign, I now doubt it. In this case, anyway.

I stared at it crossly at my foot after I got up this morning. Then I had a heart to heart with God about it that went something like this.

“Look, God. I was trying to do the right thing here and be proactive in taking care of this stupid foot. And so it didn’t exactly work out, but I think three days of pain is enough to learn my lesson about treating it gently. So you can just get your act together and sort it out now, OK? Be a pal and do your part.”

“Well my child,” Mike said from the bathroom where he was shaving (and eavesdropping). “One could say I have done my part by organizing against the odds for you to procure a very expensive piece of medical equipment called a lymphatic drainage pump before you left for Laos, and then moving your medical insurance company to reimburse you for two thirds of the cost, and then moving the pump company to ship you a new part for that pump at no extra cost all the way to Laos when it broke six weeks after you go there.* You have not used this pump in three days, so get your ass upstairs this afternoon and do your treatment.”

“Wow,” I said, amazed. “That was a really good impression of God you just did there.”

“Thank you,” Mike said modestly.

That’s it from me for now, I need to go and rescue Zulu from Mike, or vice versa. I’ll be back later this week, hopefully to report that the resilience report is fully drafted and that the foot has demonstrated resilience.

*Whether they believe their actions were divinely inspired or not, I must give a heartfelt shout out of thanks to Flexitouch for all the remote troubleshooting they’ve helped me do with the pump since I got here. They’ve gone above and beyond. I’m grateful.

Resilience – what does it even mean?

Today I’m going to do some thinking out loud on the blog. Sorry guys, but Mike’s been in Vientiane for the last three days, so you’re it.

You see, I’m doing a consultancy project at the moment focused on resilience as it’s related to managers in humanitarian organizations.

I’m loving this project. It’s given me the perfect excuse to call up some really smart people the world over and ask them all sorts of questions that I haven’t yet decided how I would answer. This morning I talked to a friend and colleague in New Zealand. Last night I was chatting to a new acquaintance in Bali – she and her husband are starting a program to provide retreats for international aid workers (Satori Worldwide). On Friday night it was someone in the Central African Republic.

Among many other things during this last discussion, I learned that skype does have immutable limitations. To whit… it will not work for longer than one minute and sixteen seconds when you are trying to connect Laos and the Central African Republic.

(Thank you to the person I was interviewing for ringing me after the fourth time the line was dropped. I do not even want to think about how much the mobile-mobile call cost her, but she had some awesome insights to share and I’m grateful.)

Of course, at some point (like next week) I’m going to have to start weaving all of these insightful commentaries together, figure out what I think, and write a big thought/research paper. That sound suspiciously like hard work to me. But in the meantime, good times!

You might think that by this stage of the process I would have figured out exactly what I mean when I say the word resilience.

Yeah, well, you’d be wrong.

Apologies for perhaps sounding like a professor here, but the definitional waters around this concept of resilience are incredibly, frustratingly, muddy.

The Latin root of the word resilient is resilire – meaning to spring back, to recoil, to return to the original form after being bent back or stretched.

When it was first grafted into the psychology domain, resilience was used in precisely this manner – to denote someone’s ability to “bounce back” or recover quickly from traumatic events and other types of adversity.

Over time, however, resilience has also come to be used in at least two other ways.

Some researchers argue that resilience goes beyond the ability to bounce back from trauma. Rather, they claim, it is an ability to cope well with fast-paced and continuously changing environments – to cope well with high levels of pressure rather than simply being able to recover quickly when you’ve been knocked for six.

Another group of thinkers and researchers have been even more ambitious in trying to broaden the scope of the term. Steve Wolin, for example, defines resilience as, “the capacity to rise above adversity—sometimes the terrible adversity of outright violence, molestation or war—and forge lasting strengths in the struggle.” This takes the concept well beyond merely bouncing back to the status quo and burdens it with the expectation of positive post-traumatic growth.

What to do with all of this? I can’t very well write a thought paper if I don’t settle on a definition now, can I.

This is still a work in progress, so I reserve the right to change my mind – but the definition I’m kicking around at the moment is: The ability to successfully navigate high levels of challenge and change.

I could go on and on in detail, trust me, but I’d much rather hear from you on this topic at this point.

If you’re still with me: What do you think of when you hear the word resilience? Do you consider yourself resilient? What behaviours, beliefs, or attitudes do you think are related to being resilient in life?

To close, here’s a mini-story I stumbled across recently that made me laugh out loud. I think it’s a gorgeous illustration of one facet of resilience:

Daniel Boone was asked by a reporter if he had ever been lost in the wilderness.

Boone thought for a moment and replied, “No, but I was once bewildered for about three days.”

Humanitarian work, psychology, and staff support

Happy Monday! I hope you had a great weekend (and spent less time at the computer than Mike and I did). Never mind – this time next week we’ll be in Cambodia at Siem Reap.

Primarily because there are no good medical or dental facilities in Luang Prabang, Mike’s organization provides for one week of Rest and Relaxation (R&R) leave every six months. Thankfully, we don’t need to use this R&R to head to a doctor or a dentist, so we are going to explore one of the wonders of Asia instead. There are even rumors that Mike will not bring his work computer on our five day trip.

So this week, before we take a bit of a break from it all, I’m going to have a humanitarian-work week on the blog. I’m going to tell you the next installment in the story of little orphan girl, and talk about how difficult it can be to spend money to help others in ways that do no harm. I’m going to think a little more on blessings.

Before that, however, I’m going to flag a new page on my blog for you! While Mike was drafting reports and signing many, many, documents this weekend, I was working on a page for those interested in finding work in the humanitarian field.

I received a letter from a stranger last week that set this in motion. She is studying psychology. She said:

“I have always hoped to find a way to combine my passion for community development work and psychology. I was wondering if would be able to tell me what your pathway was getting into the work you have done, and whether you have any contacts or suggestions of ways I might be able to gain an internship next year?”

During the almost seven years that I worked as Director of Training and Education Services for the Headington Institute, I was asked something along these lines fairly frequently by students and by interviewers. So I’ve pulled up some of the interviews, brushed off my answers to the most frequently asked questions, and put it all in one place. If you’re interested in humanitarian work and staff support, wander on over and check it out.

Back on Wednesday with more stories.