The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, know when to put a clamp on your native mannerisms, and remember: patience works


This month our transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol has found a remarkable polyglot (not unlike herself?) and multi-country expat to quiz for culture shock, and reverse culture shock, advice.

Buongiorno, Displaced Nationers!

How have you been? This month, I’m introducing you to the lovely Claudia Landini. She is the founder of Expatclic.com, a treasure trove of resources for expat families, provided in several languages.

A native Italian, Claudia speaks Italian, English, French, German, Spanish and (what she remembers of) Portuguese, and thrives on coming up with creative ways to communicate in languages she hasn’t yet mastered. She has lived all over the world and has had some pretty intense experiences that have taught her many things about culture shock, which she has kindly agreed to share with us today. Along the way, she learned to dance salsa and to cook Balinese fish, among many other skills. She is most proud of her two sons, whom she sees as living proof that “growing up changing countries, languages and homes is absolutely beneficial to the person and to the world at large.”

Like many of us, Claudia is often glued to her computer, which she says she loves almost as much as her sons. She manages four websites, including a blog and a platform for her online courses. When not staring at the screen, she might be found with her nose in a book. Like me, she is a bookworm and prefers reading paperbacks.

And Displaced Nationers should note that she’s keen to encourage creativity. In fact her latest article for Expatclic, written in French, is about a Frenchwoman in Indonesia who has mastered the art of batik. It’s called Créativité sans frontières.

Now let’s talk to Claudia about the difficulty of overcoming one’s own, deeply ingrained cultural habits, the possibility of having one’s native mannerisms misinterpreted, and the importance of developing meaningful personal projects to help ease the trauma of moving from one country to the next.

* * *

Hi, Claudia, and welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox. I understand you’ve lived abroad for over twenty years. Which countries have you lived in and for how long?

The short answer is that I’ve lived in four African countries, two Latin American ones, Israel (Jerusalem), and am presently in Jakarta. The long answer: Indonesia, where I am at the moment, for 1½ years; Jerusalem, 4½ years; Peru, 6 years; Honduras, 4 years; and Africa, 7 years: Congo (Brazzaville) 2½, Guinea-Bissau 2½, Angola 1 year, Sudan 1 year. When I was very young, before meeting my husband, with whom I lived in all the above-mentioned countries, I spent one year in London to improve my English.

In the course of so many cultural transitions, have you ever ended up with your foot in your mouth?

You know, as much as I strive to remember, I can’t seem to come up with anything really interesting, which is surprising given the sheer number of foreign cultures I’ve come in contact with. Like anyone else, I have the typical stories of cross-cultural misunderstandings when greeting people (such as offering hands to men in Sudan and Palestine, to be met with cold stares or looks of pity). In general I’ve had to control my overly expansive Italian manners, which are not always interpreted in the right way by other cultures. I have to control my spontaneous reactions, those gut instincts that come from my own deeply ingrained cultural frame. Sometimes I am too open and warm with people who perceive this as a violation of their privacy. Sometimes I talk too much, when the local norm would require discretion and silence.

Recently, and despite all my cross-cultural experience and my work as an intercultural trainer, I rushed to kiss my Indonesian maid good-bye. She was so shocked I thought she would resign. Indonesians do not appreciate close physical contact and intimacy, especially in a well-defined hierarchical situation.

How did you handle that situation? Would you handle it any differently now? What are the tools that you think are most useful for adapting to this kind of scenario?

Well, I have learned that when you do something that clearly violates local cultural rules, and you realize the extent of the offense you may have committed, it’s sometimes worse to try to take out that toolbox right away and try to mend the situation. In the case of my maid, I simply turned around and went away, knowing she would soon regain her composure (as a matter of fact, when I came back from Italy to Jakarta, she was the one who kissed me!).

Other tools I use to control my spontaneous reactions, those gut instincts that come from my own deeply ingrained cultural frame, include counting to three before I speak, and observing myself from the outside before acting. These techniques help me quite a lot.

In other words, there may be times when we expats and international travelers might need some light-duty clamps to keep us from saying or doing the wrong thing. So can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

I don’t know if we can call this finesse, but all the times I left from the Tel Aviv airport, I lied with embarrassing nonchalance… Israeli authorities are hard on people who admit to living in occupied Eastern Jerusalem and to having Palestinian friends. After a few months, my ideals gave way to the fear of being searched and interrogated in isolation by the airport authorities, so I lied about where I lived and who my friends were. I had gained quite an insight on Israeli culture and understood what was okay to say and what wasn’t. I even had a list of Israeli names I used as my dear friends, and I was so convinced when I recited them, that sometimes I even felt a rush of affection for these people who did not exist…

That’s quite a story! If you had any advice for someone moving abroad for the first time, what tool would you suggest they develop first?

Patience. It takes time to get to know a culture and to feel confident enough to move around in it. It takes moments of loneliness, confusion and isolation. Of course, if you can give it that time, it pays back in the end. Be patient and know that the moment will come when you’ll feel familiar with what is going on around you, and you’ll be able to relax and enjoy it because you no longer have to worry about getting things wrong, or will know how to fix things when you do. Sometimes it’s better to leave well enough alone instead of pulling out our tools and trying to fix things right away.

And since you are also familiar with reverse culture shock, can I ask: Do any experiences stand out for you?

When we had to leave Congo in ’97 because the civil war suddenly broke out, I spent two years in Italy waiting for the next mission abroad. It was awful. Not only had all those years of living in Africa changed me a lot, but I also had the traumatic experience of having to say good-bye to country and friends in a matter of hours, knowing I was leaving them behind in a horrifying situation. People in Milan tried to be sympathetic but simply could not understand the magnitude of what I was going through. I felt very isolated. Besides, after having had such powerful experiences (not only the war, but also all the other amazing things I had gone through in Africa), life back in Italy seemed sort of dull. I did not want to offend anyone, so I kept that to myself. It was a pretty rough time.

What tools have helped you to cope with reverse culture shock?

Three things helped me a lot:

  1. Realizing that if I was going through such a terrible time “back home,” it was because my experience in Africa had really touched my deepest core. That made me proud and gave a lot of value to my life abroad. It reinforced my conviction that living outside my passport country was a strong and valuable experience, and that it was okay to pursue it again.
  2. Being able to identify a few people who showed interest in my stories and with whom I felt I got along well. It was clear I should invest in those relationships.
  3. Hanging onto projects I had started back in Africa that were meaningful to me. Being able to continue gave me a sense of structure, and helped me through some very confused times.

 

Thank you so much, Claudia, for giving us the bonus of your repatriate advice! I can relate to that sense of isolation you describe when you returned to Italy. And I like the idea of building meaningful personal projects with the tools you’ve picked up in a new country. Those are the kinds of activities that can sustain you during the transition back home, or when moving on to the next culture.

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, do you ever have to clamp down on some of your “natural” traits for fear you may offend others, and do you know when to leave well enough alone? Do tell!

And if you want to learn more about what Claudia Landini has to say, I recommend you check out:

You can also check out her blog and her online courses, and you can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” until next month.

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox and the newly published Reverse Culture Shock. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads, and, of course, her author site.  

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab post.

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Photo credits: All photos supplied by Claudia Landini or else from Pixabay, with the exception of the two women greeting each other in the second collage, which is from Flickr: TED Fellows – The arrival[], by afromusing (CC BY 2.0).

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