I have always tried to understand people. I have also always wanted to be multilingual, have been consistently patient with non-native English speakers, and I had tried to communicate in other languages all while living in the U.S. Then I got my Master’s in Intercultural Relations and became aware of cultural differences. Then I started trying to communicate culturally, trying really hard to decode cultural behaviours and separate the behaviours from the words used. Bottomline, I had learned that behaviours cannot be interpreted the same way across the board. I had a new set of criteria with which I could understand the world.
Keep in mind that I am mostly a very direct communicator. If you say you like something, then I understand that you like something. Period. Nuance on how you said that you like “x” is lost on me. But knowing that people will communicate an idea without saying what they mean allows me to try to probe for better understanding. And, when all is said and done, I suck at it.
I seriously try so hard to understand. I know that I’m not understanding what is being said (remember that I’m not talking language here, I’m talking about cultural communication styles), and I still manage to fuck it up. Part of the problem is that I have too much information and my interlocutor has a single reference point – his or her own cultural perspective and is unaware there are other perspectives. So whatever I try to do doesn’t have meaning to him/her. Which means, I seem like a nutcase.
“Culture” is often perceived as “the Arts.” People don’t know what they don’t know (I think I’ve mentioned this before). Their ignorance (defined as “lack of knowledge, education, or awareness;” Merriam Webster) warrants them a blissful unawareness of their culturally-learned behaviours. Conversely, I’m trying so hard not to offend, I am trying to understand and to learn and I end up irritating people. And I irritate myself – there are many times that I am wondering if what someone said actually has a different meaning that what they said. Did I interpret that correctly? Do they know that I am aware that we communicate differently? Should I have done something/said something differently? Do they think I’m being rude? Am I coming off as an “ugly American?”
All of this “trying” is exhausting and causes me to hide — literally, I mean hide. The language barrier is hard enough, but when we’re speaking English and I still don’t understand you, and you don’t know why I don’t understand you, then I really have NO idea what I’m supposed to do. Of course, the onus shouldn’t be only on me to negotiate meaning but it goes back to (not) knowing what you don’t know. Still, pissing people off is a gift of mine and no matter how hard I try, the more I fuck things up. More and more, hiding seems like the best option.
For anyone reading this who is planning on moving either to Italy or anywhere in the world, do your homework. Cultural differences are real and the misinterpretation of behaviours (or words, honestly) have started wars. It’s a big deal. Be patient when you get to your destination, be observant, ask what is the local way to do something. It’ll save a wee bit of your sanity and you might find you adapt quicker to your host country. And remember, ignorance is bliss for the locals; they are already functioning the way they need to. But for us, we don’t have the luxury of being ignorant of our new home – at least, not if we want to fit in.