I have always been hyper sensitive about not speaking another language very well and about behaving like a “typical US American.” I try not to perpetuate stereotypes about US Americans. I also try very hard to understand local culture and behaviour so that I can be respectful and not do something stupid; just because something is normal and “what we do at home” does not make it normal and acceptable in the new place.
I find myself always apologising for being me – a fiercely independent woman who needs order in her life. I am always trying to explain that my behaviour isn’t intended to be rude, or disrespectful so please ask if it seems like I am being either.
Recently, I spent some time with a friend . . . .
Hang on – I should explain that I don’t have many Italian friends; I actually have more Italian friends in Portland than I do here in Italy. Most of my friends here are foreigners/expats/immigrants. The same was true in Portland as well. I guess I’m weird.
. . . Anyway, I spent some time with a friend of mine and he and his family from Morocco. They are lovely, and incredibly welcoming and generous. It was a cultural explosion of behaviors, languages, and food. When I thought my friend and I would spend time together exploring, we ended up spending time doing mundane errands with family members. When I understood we were going to dine somewhere just the two of us, we spent the evening with his family dining. None of these are terrible, but they were not what I was expecting. Was this my fault for making an assumption? Was it his for not making it clear this would be group activity?
I’m very much an extroverted introvert. Spending too much time with others – any others, including my kids – can be overwhelming. I started to look forward to going home just to recharge. All the exposure to family and activity was exhausting.
But my introversion isn’t the point of this post. The point is, I found myself expressing my expectations, asking direct questions, and then getting annoyed because I wasn’t being understood (language barrier aside). I spent so much time explaining my world and why I act the way I act. It wasn’t until I got home and recharged that I realised that I was so busy explaining and overcompensating for my culture preferences, that I completely missed out on his/their culture. As a result, I am pretty sure I behaved disrespectfully and rather selfishly.
There is something to point out here. Having studied culture, I am more aware than the average person that cultural preferences and behaviours exist. Many people just assume the person behaving differently is weird or rude; seldom is it a positive impression. So, when I try to tell someone that “US Americans tend to be x,” my intention is lost on them. They don’t stop to think how their behaviour may manifest. It is entirely my job to observe acceptable behaviours and try to adapt where I can and modify where adaptation isn’t possible.
What does that mean in this example that I gave? Well, I should have stopped to think about the intention of my friend’s actions. He may have said “we’ll spend time doing things together” and I assumed he meant just he and I, but actually we did spend time together. I, at the time, didn’t see that because my assumption blinded me. He may have said “we’ll have dinner together,” I again assumed he meant alone somewhere, but we did have dinner together. I also forgot the significance of being invited into his family circle. He obviously considered me decent person to invite me into his world and to meet his family. He fussed over making me comfortable. I was constantly being shown respect. But I missed it.
It’s ironic that I so badly wanted him to understand that I’m not being disrespectful but rather I’m just being me and I’m from another world. Instead, I completely missed what was happening, I was disrespectful and acted unappreciative. I exerted energy that I desperately needed to keep in reserve as my introverted self was already being drained with all the people and activity.
Hopefully I get another opportunity to be present and to really appreciate the incredibly rich world he exposed me to.