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Working Interculturally in China and Saudi Arabia. An interview with Dr Mike Jones.

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Mike Jones InterviewGuest Experts Speak English Episode 141

My Podcast Interview with Mike Jones about working internationally and the impact of cross cultural differences

Thanks for sticking around folks!

Hello and welcome to a new episode of Experts! Speak English! It’s great to have you here today and I’ve missed you guys because those of you that are listening regularly will have noticed that the last three weeks Corinne has not been showing up in the podcast feed. Now, why is that? Well, basically, I was selected to take part in a founder’s institute programme, which is an incubator for start-ups, and I was very proud to receive a female fellowship.


 So, it started about six weeks ago and I was very committed, but I’ve realised that it was kind of taking over my life and the most important thing for me are: family, my clients and sport. And all three of those things got very sadly neglected. It was very consuming, which is okay, you know, that’s all part of setting up a start-up, but I realized, when I was doing this that, actually, I could roll out my idea – and I’ll tell you more about that in a minute – without investors or certainly not on that scale. Maybe I can work with an angel-investor or grants, maybe there’s another workaround, or maybe I can just bootstrap it, which is the way I’ve always done my business. But I was kind of hoping to go global with this.

 Anyway, that’s why I’ve been gone. I’m really sorry I’ve neglected you all, so sorry about that. I would give you all a hug if I could but, anyway, I’m back. Thank you very much for sticking around and not unsubscribing to this podcast.


Corinne: Hello and welcome to a new episode of Experts! Speak English!

And today on the show, I have a young man, well, actually, when we met, we were quite young. Ten years later, both of us have a few more wrinkles. And one of us, not myself, but Mike is now Dr. Michael Jones. So welcome to the show!

 Mike: Thank you very much. It’s been far too long and I’m very glad to be here with you today.

 Corinne: Oh, fantastic. Well, the last time I met Michael, he was working at a kindergarten, and I was actually selling children’s books to the families there. And they always loved the children’s books. And I used to always give lots of books to the kindergartens for free because that’s the way Usborne works. So, I went there very regularly, and I got to work with all of the wonderful teachers there, but also speaking to lots of the expats who were moving around a lot. So it wasn’t just for expats, but I think the company was called “Be Smart”, wasn’t it? And the company, they did have quite a few expats there, didn’t they?


Michael: At the time we had room for 83 children and we had over 40 nationalities represented amongst staff and children. I don’t think there were any children that had two German parents. There were plenty of children who were half German, plenty of children who were entirely from foreign backgrounds. But no children who had both mother and father who were German.

 Corinne: Yeah. And it was the kind of place you never knew, how do I speak to that person, in English or German and I had to just kind of feel my way in and find out.

 Michael: Yes, and of course, for most of the families, neither German nor English was the first language. It was a fun place to work for that reason, the cultural dynamics, which is something that I love.

 Corinne: Yes, indeed. And it was a very unique working environment, actually, . You could tell that the people that work there loved working there. How did you manage to secure that?


Michael: That was (errr, modesty kicks in) in many ways a stroke of luck on my part. Of course, building a team and showing leadership is an important skill. I think at the time I learnt on my feet, I learnt to hit the ground running. In hindsight, reflecting upon it, I made some very clever decisions without necessarily realising that I’d made those clever decisions.


Corinne: Ahh, intuition.


Michael: You can call it intuition, maybe just luck. A lot of it had to do with understanding the cultural differences between the German and the international workers and building a communicative dynamic. And I think what was very important in that environment and in any multicultural environment is that you clear the pathways of communication, and you allow them to flourish because it takes a lot more effort and more time for people from different cultural backgrounds to get to know each other, to understand each other. And of course, in those kind of intercultural working environments, if you’re not careful, small, misunderstandings can cause division.


So fast. So, I put in that job a lot of time and effort into trying to help the different teachers socialize with each other, meet each other, spend time with each other, get to know each other better. And I did that actually, simply because that’s my personal preference for a working environment. But in reflection, looking back on it, it was extra important in that multicultural setting, because we had to break down not only the walls between people, but the walls between cultures

Corinne: And there were quite a few male kindergarten teachers there, as well, weren’t there? That was quite unusual.

 Michael: Yes, we had a target unofficially to have at least one male in every group, and that was because we recognised the importance of diversity and of course there are very few industries in the world where men aren’t the powerful majority, but actually that’s one setting in which men are underrepresented. And just as if I was working in perhaps chemical engineering, I’d be arguing for more female representation when I was working in early years’ education, I was arguing for more male representation because I think it’s not about being male or female or being from one culture or the other. It’s about recognizing the benefits of diversity.

 Corinne: Yeah, absolutely. Because I think that’s where innovation starts, isn’t it? And that’s where true relationships form that connection, that drive things forward.

 Michael: Exactly. I couldn’t agree with you more.


 Corinne: So, then you moved from Berlin, didn’t you, to …


Michael: No, I went to Saudi Arabia, of all places, first. I was there for two years in a small desert community. And obviously, coming from a European context, gender was then again very different in terms of gender roles and expectations when I was living in the deserts of Saudi Arabia.


Corinne: Right, yeah. So, what did you have to deal with there? Did you have, for example, female teachers that found that they weren’t being taken seriously or what did you come across there?


Michael: From an outside perspective, it’s very difficult to understand cultures that are so different to our own. What you’ll find in a setting like Saudi Arabia is that, yes, it is absolutely true, but there are limitations to the rights and freedoms of everybody, but especially women. However, I would venture to say that life you live is not necessarily what Europeans expect, not that they’re better or worse, I think it’s different in many ways from the vision that we have in the European and the Anglo world. Women and men are generally very separated in every aspect of life. So, when you ask me about the female teachers, well, I did know the foreign female teachers, but I would never meet female students or female local teachers.

Corinne: Right. They would just be separated physically from the males.

Michael: Absolutely. So, the university had two campuses, a male and a female, both of which were very, very modern, very heavily invested in. There were actually more female students in Saudi Arabia than male when I was working there. They put a big effort, they wanted all women. And I think they had a very high percentage, much, much higher percentage of university attendance than any European country and more female than male. But they work entirely separately in many ways. Right up from the very bottom to the top, women run the women’s university and men run the men’s.

Corinne: It’s a bit like when I was younger, I went to a convent for a while. It must be similar, really.

Men with men, women with women

Michael: Quite possibly similar, yes, because my understanding is that even at the government level, there are women who are in charge of one section, men in terms of the other. So it’s almost like a society where a lot of these things are divided. For example, if you go to a bank, you will often have men, one door, women and families, as they call them, women, children, the other door.

 Michael: And female bank managers in the female section, male bank managers in the male section.

 Corinne: Wow, that’s interesting. I remember when I was living in the UK for a year after I’d moved to Germany and there was a Saudi Arabian lady and we got on quite well and I remember going around there one time and she was always in her full garb and everything, you know, from head to toe and I went in there one time and she kind of gestured to come in the door and you only saw her head. And when I came in, she had a little mini dress on. I was like completely gob smacked and I was just completely thrown, you know? And yet, on the TV she had the news on in the background and the TV-presenters were all there with their, you know, modern Western business suits on. I was just like, culturally, I was just doing cognitive somersaults, you know?

 Michael: Well, one thing that was very interesting I found is that the female teachers actually got in trouble, the Western female teachers, because they would tend to what the cloak, the black cloak or what was called “abaya” and a lot of the European and American teachers would use that as an excuse effectively to just wear their pajamas underneath. Actually, it was not culturally appropriate because they were expected to and eventually ordered that once you enter the complex that is female only – you take off your abaya,. Because the abaya is only to stop effectively men you do not know from looking at you. But yes, privately, the women would wear in their day-to-day life, again, the other thing you’ve got to remember about a desert community, (is) you don’t spend an awful lot of time walking around the streets.

It’s 50 degrees Celsius, you know, so actually the vast majority of your life you’re not wearing that cloak. And of course, that might be different if you live in the UK where you’re walking to the supermarket. In somewhere like Saudi Arabia, you spend the vast majority of your time either with your family behind closed doors or with other women behind closed doors, or if you’re male with other men. And once you’re in that environment, you dress however you wish. And yes, they were very keen – one of my friends, a teacher, said to me that some of the girls were kind of punk rocker-esque in their appearance once they took the abaya off, lots of dyed hair, lots of funky clothes, because, of course, amongst other women, they were free to express their personality through their choice of clothes.


Corinne: And they’re often very beautifully made up as well. Put me to shame with my laziness there. And how is it then in Saudi Arabia then? Is the expectation that once they’ve had children, that’s it with work or how does that work?


Michael: This is a dynamic change of this era. I think Saudi Arabia is a country that, again, for all of its faults, we need to view it in context. And the context that shocked me the most was realizing that I was working at a university that was going full digital, hadn’t quite made it yet, but it was fully English language based. Every course apart from Islamic studies was taught in English and it was fully digital in many respects. And yet almost all of those students’ parents had had no formal education at all. Many were illiterate. So, you’re jumping in one generation from illiterate, nomadic people to a digital university where you’re learning in a foreign language. (Corinne: Wow. Yeah, that is amazing.) And, you’re really talking about change from effectively the seventies to now. A lot of the families now had city homes, but would still be nomadic for some parts of the day or the week or the month.


Corinne: Oh really? They kind of needed that still.


Michael: They enjoyed it, yeah. And a lot of the nomadic tenants would have Wi-Fi. Well, they needed that for their iPads. There is a lot of money in that part of the world now. So, a lot of the nomadic people would drive Range Rovers and Land Rovers. They would have a Rolex. They would still be, unfortunately, have no toilets, so, they’d have to go behind the bush. But they’d have a Wi-Fi-enabled iPad while they did it. (Corinne: Fabulous.) It’s a very culturally fascinating juxtaposition.


Corinne: Right. So then after – sorry to come back to the question- once they’ve done this, once the women have studied then and they’ve got their Bachelors or their Masters…


Michael: Yes, indeed. So, with the working, so that has changed in this time. Historically, women were expected to raise children and lots of them. Saudi Arabia, again, one of the biggest changes demographically in recent years is their plummeting facility rate. It now is only, I believe, something like 2. something, which is more than we have in Western Europe, but it’s comparable with replacement rates of children, whereas most people who are now in their – say – thirties or twenties will have 12, 15 brothers and sisters. So again, you’re talking about the same kind of demographic change that Western Europe saw spread over 150 years happening in one generation. With this new lifestyle and with – I mean, it partly it’s medical, of course, because the babies survived then, exactly the same as in the West, in term of causes, but also there’s an economic push by the government in Saudi Arabia to encourage women to work. A lot of the plan is put down to kind of post-oil vision.

Corinne: Right. Okay. They see that the oil is running out and they’re looking for alternatives.


Michael: Exactly. And I think it goes by various names, various plans. There’s a current big plan called the “2030 Vision”. But that would be of course, followed by the “2040 vision”. But a lot of it requires a dramatic change in the attitudes and the systems and structures. And that’s why you’ve also seen not only have you seen the push for women to get educated and to work, but you’re now seeing women driving and you’re seeing the advent of things like tourism, which was never allowed before. You’re seeing pop concerts again, which was completely forbidden.


Corinne: So, those pop concerts then, do they have like two audiences split in female and male?


Michael: My understanding is some of them don’t now. I’ve not been there since some of these changes, but I’ve heard and I’ve seen even on CNN that there are now mixed gender events happening.


Corinne: So, when you left Saudi Arabia – sorry, I’m picking your brains here – when you moved from Saudi Arabia, you went to China, right?

Michael: China, yes.

Corinne: Now, China has had a real rollercoaster with this whole Corona time. But I think you arrived before that, right?

Michael: Yes. I’ve been here for seven years now, so I got to have some wonderful years before the Corona virus. And I do think it’s very interesting to be a foreigner in China during this time, seeing the mixture of Chinese perspectives on this and international perspectives. I think the West, for want of a better term, is a little bit complacent in some of their reporting on this matter. I think rather selective, perhaps the word is selective in what they choose to report and not report. Of course, China is exactly the same, but the West would like to believe it’s better in its reporting.

Corinne: The West believes that they’re being impartial, right?

Michael: They certainly are not. The big difference is that for 2020 and 2021, while the rest of the world was in panic and turmoil, China ran a strict closed border policy and effectively – life continued, push the shove the same as before inside China.

Corinne: Right.

Michael: This entire period where the West is going to lockdowns and with millions of people dying, or at least tens of thousands of people dying, and there’s all these travel bans and things, inside China – not that much had changed.

Corinne: That’s good. So you see this discipline has definitely paid off.

Michael: Well, it certainly did in terms of deaths, for example. So, Beijing is a city region of approximately, I think, 30 something million people. And the Corona virus death toll so far is nine.

Corinne: Wow, that’s amazing, isn’t it? Well, we could learn something from China then in that case.

Michael: Certainly, the first stages were handled way better here. And China did for a while completely eradicate. There were – I forget the exact statistics, but there were, at least in Beijing, we had over 200 days in a row with no new cases confirmed at all.

Corinne: Wow.

Michael: If the whole world had clamped down that quickly, that fast, then it would have been something that we could have eliminated.

Corinne: Yes, it would have been a quick sneeze, you know?

Michael: Exactly. Now, what’s happened since is because the world has chosen to live with the virus – for understandable reasons, because let’s face it, once the virus took hold in certain communities, especially in more underprivileged countries, there was probably no realistic chance of containing it. And certain communities can’t afford the lockdown that others can.

So, for understandable reasons, the rest of the world has chosen to live with the virus but it has put China in a very difficult situation because really China was hoping the rest of the world would eliminate the virus as China had. Now China has started to allow people to come back. So, you have flares up of cases, but they are all from effectively returning Chinese people coming back to the country despite the strict quarantine rules. This is why you’ll see when there is an outbreak that’s why they react so fast and so furiously to it.

Corinne: So, it might seem a little bit over the top, but it’s been seen to work.

Michael: Yes, it’s seen as being over the top if you’re in amongst it. But actually, I mean, this is a country of 1.2 billion people. So, by locking down 20 million, another 1.18 billion of us are allowed to go back to daily life freely.

Corinne: Yeah, which is a perfect example of our idiom, our British idiom. You’ve got to be cruel to be kind.

Michael: Exactly. Now, there is growing pressure from certain business sectors for more international travel, the richer classes. However, you also must remember that China has a huge population. The vast majority of whom are not connected to international schools or international travel.

These are people who – it’s a different world, you know? There are very few foreigners in China per capita. There is something like a million foreigners in China, but if you look at the statistics, what fascinated me was per capita there are more foreigners living in North Korea than in China.

Corinne: Oh, wow.  That is quite intriguing.

Mike: It is. And of course, that is largely due to the disparity in sizes and of course, in North Korea, a lot of these will be diplomats. But still, it’s a fascinating statistic. And it goes to show how the circle of Chinese people who are integrated with international communities is not representative of the masses. While there might be a lot of richer Chinese people and business people who are feeling the pinch from their inability to globally travel, the average Chinese person has never, ever travelled abroad and probably never will. So, they would probably much rather keep the border closed and maintain this health and safety guarantee, than care about the fact that the upper classes can’t go to Paris for their honeymoon.

Corinne: Yeah, absolutely. So, you’ve had an experience of Germany.
I think you’re in Germany also for about ten years, right?

Mike: Yeah, eight years.


Corinne: And then you went to Saudi Arabia and China. So, tell us a little bit about the communication differences between those four places. Maybe there’s some more I’ve missed out, I don’t know.


Mike: I think what’s fascinating in the kind of life that I lead, and in the kind of international world that I operate in, I work in education industry, but on the operational side of things. So, I work with a lot of business people. I’m also the chairman of the Education Working Group for the British Chamber of Commerce here.


Corinne: Oh, okay.

Mike: I do work a lot with business people. What I’ve noticed is it’s fascinating when communication is disrupted by cultural expectations and often where there’s a rise from. And the lesson I think I’ve learned is that they’re often in places you wouldn’t expect to look. Often, it’s when you assume that people will understand you that actually they don’t. (Corinne: So, there’s blind spots) Exactly! And that can come, for example, from something as simple as communicating with a native English speaker from another country.


Corinne: Right.


Michael: You can find British and American people can clash without realising. And then there are the cultural expectations that you just don’t know about, and you wouldn’t know without either being told or experiencing it.


Corinne: And even if you’re told you don’t always believe it or get it.


Michael: Exactly. And we put a lot of effort I think to the surface things. You learn very quickly in China that you must always offer people warm water. So, if a Chinese businessman is coming to you anywhere in Germany, you must offer them warm water, always warm water. But it’s the more subtle differences. And I have a few examples that I was discussing with some teachers earlier, and I found some of them quite fascinating. I’m going to paint a scenario for you, okay? I’ve given these two characters quite generic names, Jenny and Paul. And I’m going to tell you that Jenny and Paul do not get on very well at work because they come from different cultural backgrounds. At the end of the working day, Paul finishes what he’s doing and leaves, whereas Jenny, on the other hand, stays working at her desk at least an extra half an hour, sometimes more. In this situation, Jenny thinks that Paul must not be very dedicated or hard working, whereas Paul thinks that Jenny must be either inefficient or that her department needs more staff. This is a classic situation we face in China. Jenny, who, for this role, could be a typical Chinese person, is proud that they do this extra time because they see that culturally it’s been very important. Whereas Paul, the archetypal British person, is quite proud of accomplishing their work efficiently and is proud to get off to the pub on time. Maybe they even work through lunch and leave a bit early.


Corinne: Yeah.


Michael: In both these situations, the characters involved are doing what is culturally expected of them in their own backgrounds. They both believe they’re doing the best thing. They both believe there is logic and rationale behind what they they’re doing. And yet it will cause conflict. 


Corinne: Yeah. Oh, what a great way of explaining that. That’s really great. Thank you.


Michael: The other classic one – very, very classic – is in meetings. So, if we take Paul again, well, Paul, as a Westerner is very likely to challenge and question the boss’s plans. Jenny is very likely to listen carefully to the boss’s ideas, write them down to make sure that she does them and she executes them perfectly. Jenny will have the perspective that Paul is rather insubordinate, disrespectful. But Paul is going to think that Jenny is reserved, shy and unable to carve her own creative ideas.


Corinne: Oh, yeah.


Michael: They’re both proud of what they do. Jenny is proud that she listens carefully and she achieves the company’s objectives. Paul is proud that he authors new and fresh ideas to help improve the company. And that itself, that construct comes from the idea of what’s called power distance. So, high power distance cultures expect lowest status members of society at upper status members of society to have unequal power.


Corinne: Mm. So that is interesting, isn’t it, because somebody might think, “Oh, well, if nobody’s challenging the boss, how does innovation happen?”, and yet it must happen because in China they are also innovating, right?


Michael: Yes, I think it’s a difficult one because, of course, I come from the opposite, a low power distance culture where we expect power to be more equal.


We come from Europe, which is typically a lower power distance culture, meaning that you expect power to be more equally distributed.


Corinne: Right. You expect to have a voice.


Michael: You expect to have a voice. Similar to how you might look at decision making. You have consensus decision making where decisions are made by having an agreement and then top-down decision making. Where everyone is expected to support the leaders’ decisions. And in those situations, again, China is a classic and Saudi Arabia. A classic top-down decision-making structures where we come from more of a consensus-based approach. Because of our backgrounds it is so difficult not to say, “Hang on a minute, what about…” (Corinne: Yeah) However, if you look at the success of somewhere like China, but equally the success that we have in Europe, it’s clear to see that each approach has advantages. It must do otherwise we wouldn’t have these successes.


Corinne: Yeah, absolutely. And if you think about it, the whole Agile thing comes also from one of these cultures, it comes from Japan, I believe. 


Michael: I believe so


Corinne: And so, you wouldn’t expect it from Japan and yet it works brilliantly and the West have adopted it and welcomed it with open arms.


Michael: Well, I think that’s where the answer has to come, is that if we accept that there are advantages and disadvantages to these perspectives, how can we collate the best benefits of both work into culturally, work with other people from different perspectives, and use those new perspectives to fill the flaws in our own perspectives. So rather than have to fight against each other, this actually offers us an opportunity to be bigger than are some of our parts.

Corinne: Absolutely. So, as we draw to an end – sorry, I am conscious of your time and the time of our listeners – I wanted to pick your brains about how is it then with maternity leave in some of these countries? Now, I know in the UK and Germany it’s fairly similar. There is maybe more requirement to pay for rather expensive childcare in the UK, whereas in Germany that’s kind of a bit more affordable. But you know, there are differences, but what happens then in companies in such dramatically different cultures like the ones that you’ve had the good fortune to work and how does it work there?


Michael: Maternity is treated very, very different here in China. Unfortunately, the length of maternity leave is shorter.


Oh, it’s longer, no, it’s better here in China than it is in America. You do have a few weeks off paid. What’s interesting perhaps is more the world around the maternity leave. Unpaid maternity leave is more common after the paid period. Chinese women are expected to spend a long time, a number of weeks without leaving the bed after having given birth, without washing because they’re supposed to regain their lost energy from a child. It’s a rather interesting construct, which is still quite common in China, but is becoming shorter, perhaps for the younger generations, but typically, foreign mothers who give birth in China do not choose to follow those traditions. How it really affects people, though, unfortunately, is when it comes to discrimination in workplace hiring. Sadly, it’s quite common because of the expectation, the societal expectation, the women all want children and want them at a young age. It can be difficult for women of a certain age to get a job. If a young woman has not had her children people will unfortunately expect that she is going to have children soon and they’ll factor that into their decision whether to employ her, especially if it’s a married young woman who doesn’t have children at the moment. It will be suspected, sadly, that she’s only taken the job to have the paid maternity leave when she gets pregnant.


Corinne: Oh, I see. They see it as a strategic move.


Michael: Exactly. And they will ask as much in interviews.


Corinne: And that’s legally okay, is it, to do that in China?


Michael: I believe it’s not legally okay, but unfortunately, it’s highly practiced (Corinne: It happens anyway. Okay.) For older women and by this, I do not mean older, I mean sadly, as young as 28 onwards, if they have not yet had children, they’ll be perceived to be desperate for any child as soon as they can.


Corinne: Oh, right. So, they’re really in a rush to have children then, supposedly?


Michael: Yes, in fact especially if they’re married. It’s perhaps easier for an unmarried woman to get a job, though unfortunately, there’s then cultural stereotypes by that, too. Unfortunately, women do have a much harder time with various cultural pressures in being taken seriously in the workplace.


Corinne: Right. And I guess the boards are reflected by that as well.


Michael: Yes. You do get a lot of Chinese women in upper echelons in the boards, but you can – from my understanding – it’s not an easy place to get to. So, it’s not a glass ceiling and there is a a-hole in the ceiling. And indeed, all of the three companies I’ve worked for in China, two of them were headed by women, however, I believe that the effort of the challenge it takes for a woman to get to that position is far greater than that for a man.


Corinne: Yeah. And I guess that loops back to what you were saying earlier, is that education is a female-led industry, predominantly.


Michael: Yes, I think that might be part of it as well. And with the expectations that people have and the pressure on young women from their families to start having children at a young age, I think it is understandable that some women will only start to climb the career ladder later in life. (Corinne: Oh, okay, it happens but it’s later. Okay.) And of course, by which point they’re maybe five or ten years behind their male peers.


Corinne: Yeah, that’s interesting. I’m in the process of setting up a programme for women, going back to work after their maternity leave and my idea is to have a very global network around that. And I’m hoping that there will be some women from China joining me on that programme. So, I might have to pick your brains about that later.


Michael: Oh, I’m sure that I can introduce you to some who would love to.


Corinne: Great. Okay then. Well, thank you so much for your time, Michael. It’s been wonderful having you on the show, especially now that you’re a doctor, that’s so exciting. And maybe we will see each other when you come back to Europe. I would love to see you. I’ll treat you to a beer, all right, Michael?


Michael: I would love that. I would very much love that.


Corinne: And I rarely drink just one beer.


Michael: Me neither.


Coco's Communication Challenge

Corinne: Fabulous. Thank you so much for your time.  I always give them a “Coco Communication Challenge”. So, what could we challenge them with?


Michael: Oh, well, then how about: “Where would you like to work the world?” or “What’s the most challenging inter-cultural experience you’ve ever had?”.


Corinne: Yes, I like that: Tell me about your most challenging inter-cultural situation, and you can do that with the hashtag “Experts! Speak English!” and you can do that on LinkedIn or Instagram, Facebook, wherever you happen to be, I’ll see that. And I will be keen to see what you write and maybe you will comment on some of these as well, Michael.


Michael: I would love to.


Corinne: Fabulous, well, thank you so much. Have a wonderful day and I will speak to you and my listeners very soon. And all that remains for me to say is: Be the very best communicator that you can be – no matter where you are in the world and no matter who you’re speaking to.


Take care now. It’s Corinne Wilhelm from Experts! Speak English!