What is culture for expats?
World travelers go overseas with a sense of excitement and aspiration for novelty. Only later, when we start building connections with the local culture, we notice how stereotypes don’t work and profiling fails. This causes the feeling of confusion and failure of our expectations. So, what is it all about?
Going overseas, we have an idea about the country we are traveling too. Sometimes we do research and ask those who have already been there, to share their thoughts and give us some tips about what to expect in a new country. We create a certain image of the culture we are going to spend time in, and certainly, we make ourselves somewhat ready for what we might experience there.
It is wise to do all that preparation. However, as soon as we start settling into the new environment, we often notice that all that knowledge works only on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes it doesn’t help us at all. Every situation is different and we need to be flexible and prudent making our own judgments when it comes to cultures and their representatives in particular.
The inevitability of Profiling and Stereotypes
When faced with a new situation we naturally start assessing it from the perspective of our safety and prior life experiences. We profile and create stereotypes. The Google dictionary defines profiling as “the recording and analysis of a person’s psychological and behavioral characteristics, so as to assess or predict their capabilities in a certain sphere or to assist in identifying a particular subgroup of people.” A stereotype is “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing”.
Here, I describe the steps of profiling and stereotyping, as it happens regularly with world travelers and not only.
Assess Your Safety
We profile all the time, especially when we find ourselves in unknown places. Analysis and assessment of the situation we are in allow us to make sure we are safe. We look at the people, notice how they talk and behave. Often times we see some unusual for us gestures, manners, features, but we are comfortable with that as long as we feel safe.
Look for the ways to relate
When we make sure, that we are safe, we start looking for ways to relate to an unusual situation. This is when the prior knowledge about the culture we are in, becomes handy. We start to remember what it is all about; why this happens; why it is normal for this part of the world to be that way; and why it is beneficial for us to just observe and accept. At this point, we start making the distinctions between differences of the cultures we represent and the culture we are guests in.
For example, when in Turkmenistan, I knew that many of the population there are Muslims and historically this country never adhered to the dress requirements of the religion. Nowadays, you can see women wearing long embroidered dresses and head scarfs skillfully arranged and folded in a tall hat. With the obtained independence from Russia as a result of the Soviet Union’s collapse, this has become a norm and a part of Turkmen identity and culture.
Did I have to do the same being a woman in Turkmenistan? No, I did not. But at the same time not falling under the profile of a typical Turkmen woman puts me into the stereotypical category of a person, who is a foreigner or a stranger, and therefore to be treated differently. With that in mind, in my interactions with Turkmen people, I knew that there will be bias, genuine curiosity, and a sense “how I can benefit from you being my friend”.
Being a stranger in a foreign culture doesn’t mean that we are to face problems and struggle all the time. As tourists, we visit the country for a brief period of time and leave. As expats, we stay in the country for a long period of time and try to make it home and a comfortable place for us, our loved ones and be productive as well.
After establishing a sense of safety, going through the process of understanding and relatedness with what we observe and notice in a new environment, we eventually want to connect with it. It is natural for people to be social and look for ways to belong to a group. We keep profiling, assessing, analyzing where and how we can meet people, start conversations and develop relationships. We have to stay open-minded to cultural differences and peculiarities of the environment. Some we are able to accept and then it’s easy for friendships to grow. Some cultural differences make us keep a distance until we see that we are safe and then we search for the common ground for connection to happen.
Profile – relate – build connections is a fascinating process, which requires time and wisdom of all parties involved. We can make it happen faster and smoothly only when we create peace and connectedness in our own hearts. Happy people attract the same, so we always have to start from ourselves when it comes to adjusting to foreign environments and connecting cultures.
What helps you to adjust to your new environment? How do you connect with people in a foreign culture? Please, post in the comments below or connect with me following this link.
Remember life is a journey of joy. Embrace it!