Becoming a Cultural Insider
In the movie, Avatar, Jake had to make some serious adjustments in order to connect with the 10-foot tall Na’vi of Pandora. The fact that he was able to LOOK like the Na’vi was certainly an advantage, but it did little to cover for his near complete ignorance regarding Na’vi culture and values. He was an outsider needing to become an insider, and it was going to cost him if he wanted to make it.
As expats, we must always remember that we won’t become locals in every way. We don’t share the history. We didn’t grow up in the context. The language is being acquired as an adult through disciplined effort, not as children acquire it effortlessly. We have a different “home country” that will always seem more “comfortable”, while at the same time our local friends’ home country is HERE. But if we cannot become complete “locals” or “natives”, then what is it that we CAN become? That question is commonly answered with the phrase, “cultural insiders”. We can become “clued in”. We can become connected, well-related to local friends and associates, feeling each month a bit more “at home” and more “comfortable” in our new world. We can overcome daunting obstacles, and eventually enjoy a sense of being “a part” of our new community. Locals will be able to spot us as expats pretty easily, but anyone who gets to know us will see that we’re on a path toward increased relevance, social ease and relational enjoyment.
I was interviewed a couple weeks ago by Pocket Cultures, asking me questions about becoming Cultural Insiders. Here is a copy of that interview:
How to Become A Cultural Insider: Remain a Learner
Ron is an American who has been living abroad for over 25 years, currently in Northern India. Ron’s blog, Culture Happens, focuses on helping people to become “cultural insiders”. In Ron’s many experiences living in different cultures, he has observed that although expats moving to another country start out wanting to connect, they often become disillusioned along the way and wind up as “cultural outsiders”. In this interview with Ron, we explore a bit more what a “cultural insider” is, why this distinction is so important and Ron’s advice for those moving to a new culture.
Ron, your blog, Culture Happens, focuses on helping people become cultural insiders as opposed to cultural outsiders. Can you explain a bit more about what that distinction means to you?
I’ve observed that most expats begin with a desire to connect in their new world; to make friends, become a part of the community, and work toward feeling like they ‘belong there’. Unfortunately, that initial desire or hope is not enough to take one through the hurdles that are inherent to that journey. It is not an intuitive process for most people! What is more intuitive is to be ethnocentric: without even intending to be arrogant, it’s just the feeling that “back home we do it right, and here they do it weird”. So many people get stuck there, and they don’t even realize it.
I feel terribly for those who start well, but stall out pretty early, and end up living completely isolated from their community, never really being understood or appreciated, and unable to understand and appreciate the rich world around them.
The distinction I’m making is one between these two approaches: (1) learning to make changes in our own lives (how we view things; the language we use; etc.) that gain us entrance into our new world and (2) neglecting to make changes, remaining stuck in the isolated world of comparing everything we see to the “correct/good way we do it back home”.
Why is being a cultural insider so important to you? Tell us about some examples of ways that transforming from a cultural outsider to a cultural insider has been so beneficial for your readers or for the cultures they are living in (or both).
I think we all want to connect. We all want friends (not just names in our contact list). We all want to learn and grow and expand into being people that actually became comfortable and at ease in more than one context. People that work through the change process enjoy a new life on the other side of that process. They can stay in their new context, and build a rich life there. They can participate, becoming more effective in their work, and more relevant in their social life. Those who will take themselves through that transformation — as tough as it is — are always the richer for it.
On the other hand, those that resist the transformation (or live in ignorance of the need for it) don’t last. They have sad stories to tell, usually loaded with inaccurate generalizations that show a very shallow understanding of things, explaining why they just simply “can’t stand it over there”. Friends vs. no friends. Increased business opportunities vs. missing out and actually marginalizing and repelling opportunities. Longevity vs. burn-out. Feeling at home vs. feeling isolated. Being happy vs. being miserable. Becoming an insider vs. remaining an outsider; the stakes are high!
You write a bit about how common misunderstandings can be for expats trying to adapt into a new culture. Sometimes these are funny and light-hearted and sometimes they can be truly sad, frustrating moments for people. How do you advise people to avoid these types of misunderstandings? Or to recover from them and get back out there?
The best advice I can give is to remain a learner (well, for some the advice has to be to become a learner!). It’s pretty tough, when facing misunderstanding and embarrassment, to remain humble, and find the heart to go back at it. Being able to laugh at yourself is a huge help in this area of being learners.
Like recently, when asking my landlord’s wife if her husband was home, I was pretty sure my limited Hindi could handle it. “Is your husband home?” (Yeah, I think I said that right). But she just looked at me silently, with genuine confusion on her face. So I repeated the question (maybe my pronunciation threw her off). Nope. Still confused. Man, I thought, why won’t she just tell me? Is it that sensitive of a question?! Well, it turns out that I was asking her if she HAS a husband. I left out a little one-syllable word that changed the whole thing. So the poor lady is left there thinking, “C’mon Ron; you know us very well. You are friends with my husband. We’ve all been living together – upstairs/ downstairs – for 6 months. You KNOW I have a husband, and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why you are quizzing me like this!”
Once her husband, later that night, explained to me how I had confused her with my stupid question, I needed to laugh. No, I didn’t really feel like laughing. But I just had to!
How important is language when it comes to being a cultural insider? Is there a way to be a cultural insider in a country where you don’t speak the language?
There are a lot of cultural adjustments that can be made to help a person move toward being an insider even without being able to learn the local language. This will, of course, depend on being able to use a second language that you share with the people there (like using English in different parts of Asia). I’ve seen expats use English to demonstrate a very ugly and ignorant ethnocentrism that drives people quickly away from them. I’ve also seen expats use English to demonstrate real respect, humility and grace. Sometimes we’re not going to be in a place long enough to really become proficient in a new language. A few phrases, however, can go a long way toward showing that you recognize that you’re in a place that uses a different language, and that you wish you could use it in order to connect.
Do you find that it is easier in some cultures than others to become a culture insider? Why or why not? Does it make a difference what culture you are coming from, or just which culture you are integrating into?
That’s a BIG question! Similar to acquiring a second language, the acquisition of a second culture is easier when there are similar cultural themes and undercurrents (things like basic values) in the new context. Let’s just take the issue of “direct” vs. “indirect” communication. American culture is pretty direct, and only made to feel slightly indirect when compared to, maybe, German expectations. Knowing how to “get your point across” as an American in Europe takes adjustment, but not too much. Latin America is more indirect than North America; and Asia even more indirect. So, yes, it will be difficult for an Asian to learn to manoeuvre in the direct communication style of Americans and Europeans, and likewise difficult for Americans to adjust to the indirect approach of the Asians. This little area, all by itself, is enough to knock people right out of their journey toward becoming insiders!
What is the #1 piece of advice you would give to someone moving to a new culture and trying to truly become a part of the culture?
The number one piece of advice would have to be: remember that this community functions just fine in the way they do things. They’re fine. It works. They’re comfortable. They’re connected. Notice this, and believe it! Let go of your pre-conditioning that makes you think this new community isn’t quite “right” because they’re so different from wherever you came from. Get it into your head that they have a way of doing things that works fine, and that YOU are the one in need of learning how to fit into it. If you can keep that in mind, you’ll probably do quite well. (To see the Pocket Cultures post, click here)