Adapt to the local etiquette, but allow yourself minor concessions.
At the beginning of my book, I wrote about universal instructions, not restricted to one single area of the globe. However, some rules may apply in more distinct ways than others depending on what is the difference between your current and previous country. This is especially true for what I will tell you in this article: when adapting to Life Abroad, respect the local etiquette but allow yourself minor concessions.
If you, dear reader, moved out from Canada to the USA or from Scotland to England, maybe you will see my next paragraphs and think:
Oh, Bollocks! My adjustment to the local way of life was so smooth, why such a drama?
Well, the adaptation on my first move, from Brazil to Chile, was also not difficult. The few obstacles were only internal (missing family, friends, and all other things from home – in this article I wrote about how to overcome homesickness) because the externals like language or customs were not very different from what I had before. That is because Chileans are not that different from Southeastern-Brazilians, as much as residents from Toronto are not that different from New Yorkers.
On the other hand, if you are moving to a country with a distinctive courtesy code, formalities, and behavior conventions, you may find yourself lost. Without even noticing, you might gain a poor reputation or enter a fight. My whole life I crossed my legs when sitting for longer times. For me, it was just an insignificant gesture done to feel comfortable. I thought that until I move to the Middle East.
In one of my first days in Doha, while I was in the HR department waiting for some bureaucratic procedure, I crossed my right leg over the left, leaving it parallel to the floor and with the sole of my shoe visible to everyone at my left. After a few seconds, a man around his 50s, dressing a typical thawb, told something in Arabic to me in an unpleasant tone.
I realized I made something wrong and later understood that showing the sole of your shoes to someone there is an insult. So, if you are reading this, middle-aged stranger in a white thawb, I am sorry for showing you my shoe’s sole.
There are two great ways to fire up your understanding of the local etiquette. The first one is also the easiest:
Watch other people!
The quickest way to adapt to other cultures is to watch the locals. Do not be cocky and realize that the meaning of certain traditions may be inaccessible to new joiners, particularly if you don’t know the idiom or ethos of the place. Rachel Heller, the author of the page Rachel Ruminations, wrote an interesting story about her time as an American in the Netherlands:
Sometimes the biggest differences are the smallest. It took me a couple of months before I realized that, rather than just placing a plateful of cookies on the table in front of visitors when we sat down to drink tea, I had to explicitly offer the cookies to them. They wouldn’t help themselves to cookies without being offered. I thought they just didn’t want any. And I had to offer them a second cup of tea, rather than expecting them to take it. I sat there, eating cookies and refilling my own tea, and didn’t realize how incredibly impolite I was being! So watch their behavior carefully: notice how they shake hands, how they sit, how they handle food, and so on.
Maybe Rachel could see in the guest’s faces that they were not serving themselves because she was not doing what the local etiquette tells in the Netherlands (explicitly offer it to the guests). When you live outside your country, it can be challenging to interpret facial expressions.
The research of the American psychologists Hillary Anger Elfenbein & Nalini Ambady concluded that we recognize facial emotions better when observing people similar to us in terms of nationality and ethnic group. Therefore, if you are in an unfamiliar environment, with conspicuous differences to your homeland, maybe observing people will not tell much to you. Therefore, as Rachel Heller advises, just ask people what are the local rules of politeness.
Learning the language while adapting to Life Abroad
The second great way to assimilate the local etiquette is more demanding, but (at least for me), very rewarding:
Learn the local language, or at least try.
To learn the idiom of your new country will open a whole new world to you. Not only you will be able to say things like Thank you or Please when shopping at the grocery store or ordering in a café, but you will take the nuances that shape people’s mood in their daily activities. To understand the local jokes and insults will give you a great idea of what is funny and what is outrageous in your new home.
The cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky in her research affirmed that language shapes the way we think. Therefore, by learning the local language, you will be able to think like a local, and that escalates your chances of success (or at least survival) in your new environment. Which incentive can be better than this? As the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote:
The limits of my language mean the limits of my world
While I recommend you adapt to the local politeness standards, especially in public, it would be delusional to expect that someone simply changes his whole behavior just because he/she is moving abroad. The good news is: you don’t need to.
There are always plenty of concessions you can allow yourself without being rude. I am used to eating pizza with a fork and knife, something common in my region since the pizza dough there is quite thin, so grabbing it can make a mess.
Neither in Qatar nor Poland people eat in that way, but still, all the time when I go to a pizzeria I ask for a fork and a knife. Some people look to me and some probably think that this is weird. However, the comfort of eating pizza in my way outweighs any discomfort from people looking to me and asking themselves “why this guy is doing this?”. It is not impolite, but just weird. And it is not rude to be slightly weird.
The more you adjust to the local customs, the more people will allow you to be peculiar. It is almost like there is an expat behavioral bank account. If you adopt a posture of inflexibility, always answering invitations to traditional dishes with “No, I am not used to that”, or replying questions about local matters with “I am not interested in it”, the balance of your behavioral bank account with people around will be empty. When that happens, even minor signals, like your clothes, may send a message you don’t want to integrate, and people will just give up.
However, if your colleagues or spouse’s family see that you are trying to learn the basics of their language, appreciating their dishes and drinks and even commenting on the local sports news, they will not mind your eccentricities. When I am watching TV, sometimes I like to sit in a lotus position (maybe I am revealing too much in this book, sorry). My wife told me it was weird, but since I was watching their favorite sport and trying to talk in their language, they just were ok with it and thought it was some typical way of Brazilians to sit (it is not).
That is part of the beauty of being a foreigner: others often will think that whatever oddness you have is just a typical thing of your country, and you will not look so odd.
So aim to adjust to the local etiquette, but allow yourself minor concessions.
Levi Borba is the CEO of expatriateconsultancy.com and a best-selling author. You can check his books here and some of his articles here. This article was inspired by the content of his book, Moving Out, Working Abroad and Keeping Your Sanity: 11 secrets to make your expat life better than you imagine.
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