The Safest Cities in the World

According to 2015 Safe Cities Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Tokyo, Japan is the world’s safest city, scoring high in all factors, from low crime to pedestrian-safe urban planning.

According to The Guardian:

The EIU looked at a wide range of factors when putting together the index. It examined digital security, and considered the number of cyber attacks and how they were tackled. It looked at the obvious area of personal safety, but also infrastructure security – sanitation, roads, and management of natural disasters. In the health security category, it looked at quality of healthcare (for instance, how many hospital beds and doctors there were per 1,000 people), but also at issues such as pollution. As the report puts it, “Living in a safe and healthy urban environment can make a real and measurable difference to city inhabitants”. In the index’s top 25 cities, average life expectancy is 81; in the bottom half, it is 75.

As the article cautions, however, a sense of safety is highly variable depending on one’s lifestyle and priorities.

Before you start packing your bags, however, the conclusions aren’t simple: Tokyo also happens to be considered the world’s riskiest city, in part because of the huge number of people who would be harmed in an inevitable future earthquake. Nor does the report actually say which city is safest for you. From an individual’s point of view, as opposed to the municipal officials responsible for the smooth running of a city, isn’t personal safety more important than the threat of cyber crime? In that case, maybe you should look at Singapore instead. And what if health security is your priority, but you’ll take your chances on the streets? Move to Zurich: first for health, 13th for personal safety.

Other studies have revealed other issues that might be of personal importance. Amsterdam, for instance, is – perhaps unsurprisingly – a good place to be a on a bike. In 2011 and 2013, the Dutch city was ranked safest for cyclists by urban planning consultancy the Copenhagenize Design Company, using criteria such as bicycle facilities, drivers’ attitudes, and political will to promote cycling. The sheer proliferation of cyclists helps – cycling in the city, notes the report, is “about as mainstream as you can get” – as does cycling infrastructure and a 30kph speed limit.

Here are the safest cities by region:

safe_cities_index_world-map-2

Here is a detailed breakdown by the EIU:

  •  Tokyo tops the overall ranking. The world’s most populous city is also the safest in the Index. The Japanese capital performs most strongly in the digital security category, three points ahead of Singapore in second place. Meanwhile, Jakarta is at the bottom of the list of 50 cities in the Index. The Indonesian capital only rises out of the bottom five places in the health security category (44).
  • Safety is closely linked to wealth and economic development. Unsurprisingly, a division emerges in the Index between cities in developed markets, which tend to fall into the top half of the overall list, and cities in developing markets, which appear in the bottom half.  Significant gaps in safety exist along these lines within regions. Rich Asian cities (Tokyo, Singapore and Osaka) occupy the top three positions in the Index, while poorer neighbours (Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta) fill two of the bottom three positions.

  • However, wealth and ample resources are no guarantee of urban safety. Four of the five Middle Eastern cities in the Index are considered high-income, but only one makes it into the top half of the Index: at 25 Abu Dhabi is 21 places above Riyadh at number 46. Similar divides between cities of comparable economic status exist elsewhere.  Seoul is 23 positions below Tokyo in the overall ranking (and 46 places separate the two on digital security).

  • U.S. cities perform most strongly in the digital security category, while Europe struggles. New York is the only U.S. city to make it into the top ten of the overall index (at 10). However, it is third for digital security, with three of the four other US cities in the Index (Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago) joining it in the top ten. Meanwhile, European cities perform relatively poorly.  London, at 16, is the highest-ranking European entry in the digital security index; Rome is the lowest, at 35.

  • Leaders in digital security must not overlook real-world risks. Los Angeles falls from 6th place in digital security to 23rd for personal safety. San Francisco suffers a similar drop, falling from 8th to 21st.  For these cities—both home to high-tech industries—a focus on technology and cyber security does not seem to be matched by success in combating physical crime. Urban safety initiatives need to straddle the digital and physical realms as the divide between them blurs.

  • Technology is now on the frontline of urban safety, alongside people. Data are being used to tackle crime, monitor infrastructure and limit the spread of disease. As some cities pursue smarter methods of preventing—rather than simply reacting to—these diverse security threats, a lack of data in emerging markets could exacerbate the urban safety divide between rich and poor. Nonetheless, investment in traditional safety methods, such as bolstering police visibility, continues to deliver positive results from Spain to South Africa.
  • Collaboration on safety is critical in a complex urban environment. Now that a growing number of essential systems are interconnected, city experts stress the need to bring together representatives from government, business and the community before threats to safety and security strike. Some cities have appointed an official to co-ordinate this citywide resilience. With the evolution of online threats transcending geographical boundaries, such co-ordination will increasingly be called for between cities.
  • Being statistically safe is not the same as feeling safe. Out of the 50 cities, only Zurich and Mexico City get the same rank in the overall index as they do in the indicator that measures the perception of safety among their citizens. Urban citizens in the U.S., for instance, tend to feel less safe than they should, based on their city’s position in the Index. The challenge for city leaders is to translate progress on safety into changing public perceptions. But cities also aspire to be attractive places to live in. So smart solutions, such as intelligent lighting, should be pursued over ubiquitous cameras or gated communities.

Aside from Tokyo, the next five biggest cities in the world do not fare well in terms of safety.

the-big-five

Granted, some analysts are skeptical of the very idea of ranking cities based on safety. As The Guardian reports:

But is it really possible, or even desirable, to rank cities according to their safety? “We are quite wary of doing that”, says Dr Michele Acuto, principal investigator for UCL’s City Leadership Initiative, which is working with the UN on how to improve urban safety. “Rankings pit cities against each other. If you say London is safer than Manchester, it’s a blunt generalisation. You can say London has a lower crime rate than Manchester – that would be correct – but making judgements on safety is perception-based”.

How do you make a city safer? Nobody wants to live in a police state. “You have to reduce crime, but it’s also things like improving safety of transport. If you make a city more sustainable, with more bike lanes, for instance, you can redesign it so that it’s also safer for pedestrians”. The wealth gap also has an important effect on a city’s safety: “There is no safer-city agenda that can proceed without a social-equality agenda”, says Acuto.

And if there’s one factor you might want to consider as a sign of how safe your city is likely to be in future, look to the immigration rate. Studies in the U.S. have shown that, far from what the anti-immigration lobby would have us believe, a city with more immigrants has lower crime rates. A study by Robert J Sampson, professor of social sciences at Harvard University, found that first-generation immigrants were 45% less likely – and second-generation immigrants 22% less likely – to commit violence than third-generation Americans. As Sampson has summed it up: “If you want to be safe, move to an immigrant city.”

Whatever you think about the results, or indeed about ranking cities by safety in the first place, this research is very insightful in a world where a large and rapidly growing proportion of human life is centered.

The Importance of Gratitude

Though feelings of gratitude should be a regular activity, one might as well take advantage of the spotlight offered by Thanksgiving to reflect deeply on both what we are grateful for, and why gratefulness itself is so important.

The Greater Good Science Center, based in the University of Berkeley, California, unveils the social, psychological, and even physical benefits of practicing gratitude, as told by a leading expert on the subject, Robert Emmons.

The social benefits are especially significant here because, after all, gratitude is a social emotion. I see it as a relationship-strengthening emotion because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.

Indeed, this cuts to very heart of my definition of gratitude, which has two components. First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good thing in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.

The second part of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. It didn’t stem from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride. We can appreciate positive traits in ourselves, but I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.

Emmons’ research on the power of regular thankfulness has gleaned four “transformative” effects: Continue reading

Five Short Exercises for Boosting Happiness

Happiness is one of the most elusive yet universally sought-after goals in humanity. Clearly, much of what makes us happy, or facilitates our capacity to pursue happiness on our own terms, is dependent upon a range of circumstances beyond our individual control — brain chemistry; access to healthcare, food, and other basic needs; socioeconomic stability; strong social and familial bonds; and so on. Hence why so many of the happiest countries are those that meet all or most of this criteria.

But many of us fortunate to live in conditions that are relatively conducive to happiness, nonetheless still struggle to experience it in any substantive or sustainable way. Part of this is a matter of framing — happiness means different things and takes different forms for different people — but setting aside that semantical and philosophical discussion, there exist habits, activities, and values that we can commit to that may help us to feel a general sense of mental and physical well-being.

Here are five daily activities that can go a long way towards mitigating anxiety, stress, and despair. They were formulated by “happiness researcher” Shawn Achor in an interview with The Washington Post. Founder and head of Goodthink, an organization devoted to researching and propagating happiness, and author of “The Happiness Advantage“, he is a leading figure in the positive psychology movement, a branch within psychology that focuses on cognitive and behavioral solutions to promoting mental wellness.

Now, I admit to having a fair amount of skepticism for at least some of the claims advanced by positive psychologists; my encounters with lay proponents suggests a shocking lack of empathy and basic common sense, encapsulated by the common refrain that just thinking positively would, in some vague and often spiritual way, lead to positive results — small comfort to those living in impoverished, war-torn countries or who are ravaged by advanced terminal cancer.

Granted, cursory research of the field suggests that my quarrel is more with these lay individuals who are misapplying or misconstruing the science, rather than with the academic and scientific field itself. By all accounts, positive psychology is simply a way to complement medicinal and therapeutic solutions to psychosocial problems with cognitive ones. And insofar as it seems grounded in sincere research and scientific framing, it does not seem so out of depth. Perhaps someone can enlighten my ignorance on the subject.

Anywhere, leaving my baggage at the door, I can see how the following tips can be pretty effective, both intuitively and by experience.

1. Three Acts of Gratitude. Spend two minutes a day scanning the world for three new things you’re grateful for. And do that for 21 days, The reason why that’s powerful is you’re training your brain to scan the world in a new pattern, you’re scanning for positives, instead of scanning for threats. It’s the fastest way of teaching optimism.

I was working with a large financial company, and we got them to think of three things they were grateful for for 21 days, and it didn’t work. The reason why is they were always grateful for the same three things: their health, their work and their family. So they weren’t specific. And they weren’t scanning the world for new things.

So this only works if you’re scanning for new things and you’re very specific. So if you say, “I’m grateful for my son,” it doesn’t work. But if you say, “I’m grateful for my son because he hugged me today, which means I’m loved regardless,” that specificity actually gets the brain stuck in a new pattern of optimism. It works with 4-year-old children and 84-year-old grumpy old men.

You can take them in a 21-day period from a low-level of pessimism to a low-level of optimism. There’s nothing magical about 21 days. We stole it from Alcoholics Anonymous. But after 21 days, the hope is, the path of least resistance in the brain tilts toward the habit, rather than away from it. So the hope is, it becomes not just a daily habit but a life habit.

It’s really getting people to feel like the change is possible. The habit seems to matter less than the fact that they’ve dedicated time to choose happiness.

2. The Doubler. For two minutes a day, think of one positive experience that’s occurred during the past 24 hours. Bullet point each detail you can remember. It works, because the brain can’t tell the difference between visualization and actual experience. So you’ve just doubled the most meaningful experience in your brain. Do it for 21 days, your brain starts connecting the dots for you, then you have this trajectory of meaning running throughout life.

I did this with the National MS Society. Previous research from the University of Texas found that if you have a chronic neuromuscular disease, chronic fatigue and pain, and you do this for six weeks in a row, six months later, they can drop your pain medication by 50 percent.

3. The Fun Fifteen: 15 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day. It’s the equivalent of taking an anti-depressant for the first six months, but with a 30 percent lower relapse rate over the next two years.

This is not a repudiation of anti-depressants. It’s an indication that exercise works, because your brain records a victory, and that cascades to the next activity.

4. Breathe. We did this at Google. We had them take their hands off their keyboards two minutes a day. And go from multitasking, to simply watching their breath go in and out. This raises accuracy rates. Improves levels of happiness. Drops their stress levels. And it takes two minutes.

5. Conscious Acts of Kindness. The final habit is the most powerful that we’ve seen so far. For two minutes each day, start work by writing a two-minute positive e-mail or text praising or thanking one person you know. And do it for a different person each day.

People who do this not only get great e-mails and texts back and are perceived as positive leaders because of the praise and recognition, but their social connection score is at the top end of the scale.

Social connection is not only the greatest predictor of long-term happiness – the study I did at Harvard is 0.7 correlation, which doesn’t sound very sexy, but is stronger than the connection between smoking and cancer.

Achor also adds the importance of getting restful sleep, which squares with mounting research showing that good sleep helps with everything from boosting happiness and concentration, to reducing the likelihood of obesity and heart disease.

I also like his concept of “social investment”, described thusly:

I’m constantly investing in people around me, especially when I feel stressed, sad or lonely, instead of doing the opposite, which is what most people do. So I’ll write a positive e-mail. I’ll meet up with a friend. If I’m going to a new city, I’ll e-mail somebody I know who’s there to have drinks.

What we’re finding is that it’s not the macro things that matter, but it’s the micro choices for happiness that actually sustain happiness the best.

Indeed, the social component of happiness and well-being seems especially weighty. Just as various international indices have found community-oriented societies to generally be the happiest (even if they were not the wealthiest or most stable), so too do individuals with active and health social lives react better to adversity (again, generally speaking).

We’re finding that happiness is a social creature. If you try to pursue it in a vacuum, it’s very difficult to sustain it. But as soon as you get people focused on creating meaningful connections in the midst of their work, or increasing the meaning and depth of their relationships outside of work, we find happiness rising in step with that social connection.

The big threat to happiness is social fragmentation, which industrialization and globalization of course can contribute to. We don’t find much difference in happiness levels based on economic structures of society. We do find them based on the depth of social connection.

I’ve worked with farmers in Zimbabwe who’ve lost their lands. I’ve worked with people in Venezuela, under threat of kidnappings, whose external world is unstable. But they have very strong social connections with their family and friends. And as a result, they’re able to maintain a greater level of happiness and optimism than I’ve seen from bankers, consultants, or salespeople who are on the road all the time, who follow jobs separated from their families, and, as a result, find themselves missing out on the happiness that comes from those very connections that they severed.

Personally, I can attest to the effectiveness of most of these methods. I am always at my happiest when I am helping people, being mindful of my fortunes in life, or engaging in physical activity. It can be difficult to keep such things in mind, let alone find the initiative to execute them (especially exercise and good sleep), but that is why it is important to consciously cultivate these activities until they become habitual — a part of everyday life that creates a virtuous cycle of happiness and active engagement with the world and one’s self.

To be sure, these exercises are emphatically not a substitute for therapy or medication, nor do they make up for the daunting external conditions — such as lack of employment opportunities, oppressive labor or political environments, etc. — that make cognitive adaptation just half the battle. But given how simple they are to try, and how intrinsically valuable things like physical activity and gratitude are regardless, these exercises seem worth a shot at least.

What are your thoughts?

Early Humans Had Considerable Gender Equality

From The Guardian:

A study has shown that in contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes, men and women tend to have equal influence on where their group lives and who they live with. The findings challenge the idea that sexual equality is a recent invention, suggesting that it has been the norm for humans for most of our evolutionary history.

Mark Dyble, an anthropologist who led the study at University College London, said: “There is still this wider perception that hunter-gatherers are more macho or male-dominated. We’d argue it was only with the emergence of agriculture, when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged”.

Dyble says the latest findings suggest that equality between the sexes may have been a survival advantage and played an important role in shaping human society and evolution. “Sexual equality is one of a important suite of changes to social organisation, including things like pair-bonding, our big, social brains, and language, that distinguishes humans”, he said. “It’s an important one that hasn’t really been highlighted before.”

Continue reading

The American Values Atlas

Keeping up with politics is tough, especially if you are going state by state. There are a wide range of issues, policies, and social attitudes spanning the nation’s fifty subnational entities, and things are changing all the time.

Thankfully, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has launched the unique American Values Atlas (AVA), an online tool that allows users to navigate the religious, political, and demographic landscape of the United States in real time, as well as Americans’ attitudes toward key issues like immigration same-sex marriage, and abortion. The details even go down to the local level, with most of the major metropolitan areas represented.

Here is a sample of what the AVA looks like:

You can see the breakdown by state (which includes a comparison to the nation as a whole):

Screen Shot 2015 02 23 at 3.14.23 PM 640x358 Introducing the American Values Atlas (AVA)

And can also view the breakdown by individual state:

Screen Shot 2015 02 23 at 3.00.08 PM 640x631 Introducing the American Values Atlas (AVA)

The PRRI explains how it gleaned such meticulous details about the cultural and religious landscape of the U.S.

[The AVA draws] upon data from 50,000 bilingual telephone interviews conducted among a random sample of Americans in 2014. Roughly 1,000 interviews were conducted every week, with 40,000 interviews on political issue areas. Because of the vast amount of data and large sample size, users have the ability to use the AVA’s dynamic online map to explore specific census regions, all 50 states, and 30 major metropolitan areas. The AVA also provides a rare look into smaller religious communities and ethnic groups, such as Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and more.

You can read more about the methodology here.

The AVA will be updated annually with 50,000 fresh interviews to reflect the changes in demographics, culture, social views, and political policy. It is an invaluable resource for policymakers, academics, and anyone else interested in these details.

Quote: On The End Of Trends

How about this: these days there are no scenes or genres, only “aesthetics.” A scene implies a physical community in physical architectures, and as such is a fatal slur against the URL everspace and its viral lungs. A genre implies limits, intentions, rules, fixity, and—as every itchy-fingered Facebook commenter knows—is a hateful thing. Nothing exists anyways, not really, only names, only hyperlinks, only patterns that work up to a point and then need an upgrade. Backspace your tearful emojis, hypocrites, it’s always been that way; it’s just more obvious now that code flows through our arteries rather than squeezes of blood and other smells. But it’s not homogenous out there and never will be, the online underground and the cultures tapping its magma are built on a vector field that ripples and clumps together, each blob too quick and continuous for your Dad’s rock collection. An aesthetic is not an object, it’s a way of looking, a way of finding beauty and sifting experiences, originating with process and behavior rather than product, or, indeed, a journalist with a butterfly net.

[…] “Aesthetic,” a word that doesn’t prioritize any one particular medium of art and even suggests them all together, is a much more suitable term than “trend” or “genre,” and highly applicable to previous online-underground-led movements like vaporwave and sea punk for which imagery and multimedia is a hugely significant and probably defining factor.

— Adam Harper writing in The Faderas quote in The Atlantic

I for one welcome the end of rigidly defined, strictly enforced subcultures — assuming such a thing really existed in the first place. One of the most defining and influential aspects of the Information Age is the widespread access to all sorts of aesthetics, ideas, fashions, styles, and other cultural and intellectual outputs. With so much to command our attention, how else could any individual simply stick to one narrative, idea, or aesthetic preference?

Why keep only to rock music, sports fandom, or comic books when you can have all of the above and then some? Why feel that you need to be part of some cohesive and internally conforming subculture — akin to membership in a formal club with strict rules and guidelines — when you can follow the patterns, practices, and preferences you want based solely on what you genuinely enjoy; social circles built around particular interests need not be mutually exclusive from other activities and interests. There is no reason why loving sports and fitness puts you at odds with nerdier pursuits like video games and science fiction (or why those things should even be the exclusive purview of nerds to begin with).

For that matter, highbrow and low-brow pursuits can sit perfectly comfortably with one another: the idea that one must be a high-class auteur to enjoy orchestral music and Broadway plays is at odds with observed reality. Yes, there are some correlations between one’s class and identity and what one tends to enjoy doing — though that has as much to do with economic barriers to certain activities more than anything — but that is not always the case when people have freer access to the sorts of trends and interests they genuinely would enjoy if they had the time, resources, exposure, etc.

Of course, as usual, it is more complicated than that. People like categories and labels, however much they try to convince others (and themselves) otherwise. By neatly organizing these things, as well as other people and ourselves, we make all the information and stimuli out there easier to manage and keep track of. This is especially salient in an age where we are bombarded by ideas, concepts, designs, and other data all the time.

It is perhaps understandable then that people are threatened by, or even resentful of, perceived outsiders encroaching on their traditional territory: their subculture was fundamental to their identity before the walls began breaking down and the lines blurred, allowing people who once lacked any stock or interest in these activities to take part more easily than before (again, the increasingly mainstream nature of nerd culture is the most recognizable example, but hardly the only one).

Moreover, in the social media context, wherein everyone feels the need to sell or present themselves to a wider network of contacts and friends, listing one’s preferred musical or film genres, political persuasion, or religious adherence is a way to stand out and feel validated. As a social species, we need our peers — from loved ones to even strangers — to have some sort of impression, reaction, or conception of us: as intellectuals, sports fans, artists, blue collar laborers, etc. How will we adjust to the ever-growing circle of social connections to worry about and be accountable to? How will we adapt to the fact that so many previously exclusive and inaccessible things are increasingly available to all?

At this point, I am just expressing a stream of consciousness, so I am sure I missed something. What are your thoughts guys?

The Importance of Making Civility a Habit

Civility really is a more broad term compared to being considerate. Civility is simply just being nice, and it’s not only an attitude of benevolence, thoughtfulness and relating to other individuals. It also entails a real, active interest in the well-being of communities and even concern for the health of the planet. You have to really do an effort in order to be civil. And being considerate is a part of being civil.

— Abdulla M. Abdulhalim, in Seven Habits Of Considerate People by Alena Hall of HuffPo

As someone who was steeped in the values of good manners and conscientiousness from early childhood — thank you mom and dad — I am fortunate to know firsthand how personally and existentially fulfilling it is to do good in the world; whether it is going out of your way to help a loved one or strange, offering a kind word, or simply smiling, we must not underestimate the value of any kind deed, however seemingly mundane in the grand scheme of things.

Of course, none of us are consistent in this regard; I have had many regrettable lapses in patience, courtesy, and altruism. We all do. But that’s what makes being considerate and civil so valuable: it takes effort and mindfulness, and therefore shows a strong commitment to be as continuously thoughtful as possible. That sort of active interest and concern, as highlighted by Abdulhalim, is precisely why we must all strive to make such behavior a collective habit. It inspires others to do good and in the aggregate leads to a better world.

I am fortunate to have had a broadly positive experience with humanity; to have encountered and continued to encounter good, decent, and well-meaning people who display the better (but woefully underrated) aspect of human nature. Were it not for my fortunate and loving upbringing, and the example set by all those who were kind to me and kind in general, perhaps I would not hold onto the optimistic view I have of human nature (one that has nonetheless been tested time and again).

But ultimately, being civil and considerate should be a given in almost every circumstance or interaction. While the article highlights the importance of balance — of learning when to say no, for example — it is also clear that we have to dare to be kind to our fellow humans even if it seems counterproductive and hopeless in the first place. After all, change has to start somewhere, and how will we ever bring out the best in ourselves and others — and in doing so, help elevate the human condition — if we do not take that first step in showing just how we are capable of?

Parenting Habits From Around The World

Globalization has allowed us to discover and learn more about all sorts of previously unknown ideas and concepts, and parenting is certainly no exception. Cultures across the planet have wildly different approaches to raising or education children, some of which may shock Americans — although the feeling is often mutual.

NPR has gathered an interesting collection of general parenting trends from around the world, some of which may catch on here, while others would be unthinkable. It is interesting to consider how and why certain societies adopt the parenting norms that they do. How each generation is raised has a tremendous impact on overall values and attitudes, and those parenting methods are in turn influenced by all sorts of other external factors (climate, geographic, prevailing economic conditions, etc).

Ponder this while taking a look at the following.

1. In Norway, kids nap outside even in subzero temperatures

In Norway, childhood is very institutionalized. When a kid turns one year old, he or she starts going to Barnehage (Norwegian for “children’s garden”), which is basically state-subsidized day care.

Parents pay a few hundred dollars a month and their kids are taken care of from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Toddlers spend a ton of time outside at Barnehage, even in extremely cold temperatures. It’s not uncommon to see kids bundled up outside during a Scandinavian winter, taking a nap in their strollers.

Even with the obvious benefits provided by the government in Norway, some parents complain about the lack of creativity in people’s approaches to parenting.

One American mother adjusting to raising kids in Norway wrote:

“There’s a sense that there’s just one right way to do things. And everyone does it that way. In America there are different parenting styles — co-sleeping, attachment parenting, etc. Here there is just one way, more or less: all kids go to bed at 7, all attend the same style of preschool, all wear boots, all eat the same lunch … that’s the Norwegian way.”

2. Vietnamese moms train their babies to pee on command

Here’s a good one. In Vietnam, parents train their babies to pee on command. Kind of like Pavlov with his salivating dogs. Except this is moms with peeing babies. The Chinese do it too, apparently. Parents start by noticing when their baby starts peeing and making a little whistle sound. Soon enough, the baby starts to associate the whistle with peeing and voila!

Think this sounds a little odd? Or a little like someone is conflating a kid with a pet schnauzer? Well, researchers say Vietnamese babies are usually out of diapers by 9 months. What do you think now?

3. Traditionally, Kisii people in Kenya avoid looking their babies in the eye

Kisii, or Gussii, moms in Kenya carry their babies everywhere, but they don’t indulge a baby’s cooing. Rather, when their babies start babbling, moms avert their eyes.

It’s likely to sound harsh to a Western sensibility, but within the context of Kisii culture, it makes more sense. Eye contact is an act bestowed with a lot of power. It’s like saying, “You’re in charge,” which isn’t the message parents want to send their kids. Researchers say Kisii kids are less attention-seeking as a result.

4. Danish parents leave their kids on the curb while they go shopping

In Denmark, writes Mei-Ling Hopgood in How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm, “children are frequently left outside to get frisk luft, or fresh air — something parents think is essential for health and hearty development — while caregivers dine and shop.”

As you might imagine, this idea sends shivers down the spines of many parents in the United States. In New York, a couple (one of whom was Danish) was arrested for leaving their child outside a BBQ restaurant while they went inside to eat.

“I was just in Denmark and that’s exactly what they do,” Mariom Adler, a New Yorker out walking with her 2-year-old son, told the New York Times. “We would see babies all over unattended. We were stunned, frankly. But Denmark also struck us as exceptionally civilized.”

5. In the Polynesian Islands, children take care of children

We’re not talking any old big brother baby-sitting little sister here. We’re talking organized kid collective.

Hopgood writes in her book that adults take the lead in caring for babies in Polynesia, but as soon as a child can walk, he or she is turned over to the care of other children.

“Preschool-aged children learned to calm babies,” she wrote, “and toddlers became self-reliant because they were taught that that was the only way they could hang out with the big kids.”

Jane and James Ritchie, a husband-and-wife anthropology team, observed a similar phenomenon over decades in New Zealand and the Polynesian Islands. But they don’t think it would fly in the United States.

“Indeed in Western societies, the degree of child caretaking that seems to apply in most of Polynesia would probably be regarded as child neglect and viewed with some horror,” they wrote in Growing Up in Polynesia.

6. Japanese parents let their kids go out by themselves

Parents in Japan allow their kids a lot of independence after a certain age. It isn’t uncommon for 7-year-olds and even 4-year-olds to ride the subway by themselves.

Christine Gross-Loh, author of Parenting Without Borders, lives in Japan for part of each year, and when she’s there she lets her kids run errands without her, taking the subway and wandering around town as they may. But she wouldn’t dare do the same back in the United States.

“If I let them out on their own like that in the U.S., I wouldn’t just get strange looks,” she told TED. “Somebody would call Child Protective Services.”

7. Spanish kids stay up late!

Spanish families are focused on the social and interpersonal aspects of child development, according to Sara Harkness, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Connecticut.

The idea of a child going to bed at 6:30 p.m. is totally alien to Spanish parents, Harkness told TED.

“They were horrified at the concept,” she said. “Their kids were going to bed at 10 p.m.” so they could participate in family life in the evenings. The same is true in Argentina, according to Hopgood.

8. Aka pygmy fathers win the award

For the Aka people in central Africa, the male and female roles are virtually interchangeable. While the women hunt, the men mind the children. And vice versa.

Therein lies the rub, according to professor Barry Hewlett, an American anthropologist. “There’s a level of flexibility that’s virtually unknown in our society,” Hewlett told The Guardian. “Aka fathers will slip into roles usually occupied by mothers without a second thought and without, more importantly, any loss of status — there’s no stigma involved in the different jobs.”

This flexibility, apparently, extends to men suckling their children. Ever wonder why men have nipples? That’s why.

9. French kids eat everything

Set mealtimes; no snacking whatsoever; the expectation that if you try something enough times, you’ll like it. These are among the “food rules” in France that are taken as given. The result is French kids who eat what adults eat, from foie gras to stinky cheese. Tell that to my nephew.

Of course, it goes without saying that most of these are just generalizations: not every Argentinian parent lets their kids stay up very late, nor do all French parents have such a liberal attitude towards what their children eat. Individual and subcultural nuances doubtless exist.

But perhaps like many other globalizing trends, we may start to see the development of trans-cultural approaches and standards. Just as cuisines, art styles, and consumer trends have emerged across the planet, so too will certain parenting ideas.

Then again, as I noted earlier, child rearing is a fundamental characteristic of a given society, and thus not something that can be transcribed nor altered so easily. Granted, the pace of globalization continues to accelerate, challenging all sorts of established cultural norms and concepts. Only time will tell, but in the meantime it is interesting to learn about — and learn from — how our fellow humans practice this vital social institution.

A Brief Address to Former Strangers

One of the strangest feelings is looking back on the period of your life before you knew your current friends or lovers, while keeping in mind that they were still around out there. Before I knew any of you, we were each going about our own independent lives completely unaware of each other’s existence.

Then all of a sudden, on some fateful day, our lives intersected. Your presence became known, and our lives were no longer totally separate. From my perspective, your history doesn’t begin until I meet you.

Furthermore, you were a very different person before I got to know you, and visa versa: with time, I began to forget what it was like not to know or love you; it starts to feel like you were always there in my life. Even if we lose touch, our lives will remain irreversibly influenced or impacted in some way. You’ll be a part of my narrative in some way or another until my story ends (and visa versa).

I wonder what other former strangers will enter my life. People I could never conceive may some day spontaneously cross paths and become acquaintances, colleagues, friends, lovers, and maybe even enemies. It is both exciting and, given my recurring social anxiety, a bit scary at the same time.

An Interesting Reflection on Casual Love

Everyone seems to have their own opinion on love, a word so loaded with meaning and interpretation that it’s no wonder that it continues to elicit so much confusion and emotion across history and society. But every so often I come across a fairly engaging and insightful musing on the subject, such as the one expressed by indie jazz musician Carsie Blanton on her blog. It’s a somewhat long and interesting read that I highly recommend, but the following is the crux of her point:

There are advantages to separating the wacky, butterflies-in-the-gut, unpredictable feeling of “love” from the ideally rational, cool-headed decisions and agreements of “commitment”. For one: love is just not a good enough reason to commit to somebody (trust me, I’ve tried). You need a few other ingredients: mutuality, compatibility, and availability, for starters.
The big advantage for the lover is that falling in love will feel less scary, life-threatening, and crazy-making. As long as love is theoretically reserved for people whom you want to date and possibly marry, falling in love will be confusing and dramatic. If we interpret this particular set of feelings and thoughts as an epic, life-changing event, we’ll have no choice but to get really, really attached to our beloved. We’ll throw a lot of expectations at them (“Love me back! Love me only! Love me forever!”), and feel hurt and resentful if the feeling is not mutual. We’ll imprint upon them like baby ducks, and resolve to stick with them through thick and thin, through hell or high water, through abuse and neglect and lies and bickering and frustration and mutually-assured destruction, whether or not it brings us (or anyone else) any kind of joy.
The big advantage for the beloved is that being loved will feel less like an attack, and more like a gift. The little-discussed fact is that it’s super uncomfortable to be loved when the feeling is not mutual (see my song Please). So uncomfortable, in fact, that many of us would rather act like callous, cold-hearted assholes than be in the same room as the person who loves us. We panic, we get distant, we deny any interest or care for the other person, we stop returning their texts. But that’s not an aversion to love, or to the lover; it’s the attachment and expectation being hurled in our direction with such intensity. If love was casual, we could take it as a high compliment, say “thanks!”, and feel some warm fuzzies. We might also begin to feel some compassion for our lover (who, after all, has a stomach full of butterflies and can’t eat or sleep very well), which might allow us to make better and kinder decisions about how to respond.
If love was casual, perhaps it wouldn’t collide into our sense of identity or our plans for the future at such high velocity. It wouldn’t feel so personal. If it’s not mutual, so what? If it doesn’t turn into a relationship, so what? I have feelings and desires all the time that go unsatisfied. Sometimes (okay, a lot of times), late at night, I want Chef’s Perfect Chocolate ice cream, but Creole Creamery closes at 10pm. Do I panic? Do I call Creole Creamery and leave a series of desperate messages? Do I curl into a ball and lament that without Chef’s Perfect Chocolate, I am a broken person who is not worthy of ice cream? No. I deal. I feel my feelings, whine a little if I need to, and go without. Like a grown-ass woman.
And here’s my favorite part: if love is casual — not something rare and dramatic and potentially painful, but something common and easy and mutually enjoyable — we all get to feel more love, and share more love.
As usual of late, I sadly don’t have the time to weigh in much further, although I will say that I’ve felt very enriched to have large and diverse individuals that I would consider loved ones. There’s a certain taboo about using the word love so loosely and broadly, and I can understand how it might seem odd or even cheapening of the concept.
But in a world where we encounter and interact with more and more people than every before, I feel it’s untenable to restrict your platonic and romantic aspirations to just one or a few people for life. So many more individuals come and go and we find ourselves making unexpected connections with someone new regularly — whether online or in person — that try as we might, we still find ourselves changing up and/or expanding our existing circle of loved ones.
Obviously, we can only have so many people to love — due to lack of time, emotional investment, etc — but as Blanton notes, the wider we expand our circle of compassion to include baseline kindness and consideration, the easier it will be to deal with the inevitable changes and losses in our relationships that occur throughout our lives. It’s chaotic, stressful, unpredictable, and at times maddening, but it’s also quite a lot of fun and education along the way.
I’m not sure if I’m making any sense — that’s love for you — but as always, please give your two cents.
Hat tip to my friend Miri for first sharing this article.