LIVES IN BETWEEN

The somewhat different intercultural communication blog

Category: Communication

New Year’s Resolution: To Find My Voice as a Blogger

Possibly inspired by the movie The King’s Speech, I found my new year’s resolution: I will dedicate 2017 to finding my voice as a blogger and writer.

Being a development professional in “real life”, I immediately picture this logframe (short for Logical Framework, a widely used tool to manage development projects, and measure progress and results):

Overall goal: Find my voice as a blogger and writer

Outcome 1: A small piece of writing produced every day (or at least very regularly)

Outcome 2: Different styles and formats experimented with

2016 has been a good year blogging-wise. During a 3 month sabbatical over summer I finally decided to act on my desire to write. I took the time to set up a website and published my first posts. Following various bloggers’ advice on what works best, what a blog should look like and how it should be structured, I have experimented with different topics and formats. I’ve done some typical “how to” pieces” (e.g. Intercultural Communication 101 – How to prepare for your trip abroad), I’ve written posts inspired by real life events (e.g. Thanksgiving Thoughts – Celebrating Extraordinary Encounters), I’ve written book reviews (because when I don’t write, I read, and one of my favorites this year was Americanah), and I also shared some more personal reflections (e.g. about that funny thing called home).

While it has been a great journey so far (taking baby steps, really), I am well aware that I haven’t arrived yet at where I want to be as a blogger and writer. That’s why it is time to look back to the roots, to why I have started this blog in the first place. It might sound cheesy, overly ambitious, perhaps even a bit naïve, but – apart from my love for writing – my underlying ambition for this blog was to inspire people to see the good in each other. To act with kindness and respect for other human beings, regardless of their cultural, social or other differences. I deeply resent all forms of racism and discrimination, and what is happening across Europe and many other countries in “the West” these days is deeply scary and disconcerting to me.

But enough with the rambling. Here is what you can expect from this blog in 2017 in the quest to find my own, authentic voice as a blogger: more opinion pieces on contemporary issues I care about, more experimenting with free flow formats, more creativity, more inspirational stories from people I meet through life and work doing good, more personal reflections, and many more book reviews.

To fellow bloggers: What have you done to find your personal style, your voice?

Let’s see what 2017 holds in store for us, I can’t wait.

Going home for Christmas? Last minute expat Christmas survival tips

I am certainly not the first person to write about the expat Christmas experience: that time of year when you buy overpriced flight or train tickets, stand in endless lines of security checks, and don’t find anymore space in the overhead lockers on the plane because they overflow with Christmas presents. And we bravely endure all of this only to go on what a fellow blogger suitably called a “speed-dating frenzy” with family and friends “back home” (which sometimes is not really “home” anymore, but that’s another story and you can read more about it here).

Over the years, I have accumulated quite some experience in trying to get through this season without major dramas or nervous breakdowns, sometimes more successful, sometimes less so. While I can’t say that I have figured it all out, I have gone through a series of “trial and error loops”, adjusting every Christmas based on lessons learned the year before.

So, in the spirit of generosity, I am sharing with you my painfully acquired wisdom in the hope that it may help you to make the most of this festive period and avoid major disasters. My top 4 pieces of advice are…

1 – Plan well ahead & share your agenda

I find that everybody making requests for my time is flattering (they love me after all and want to see me), but it can also be a pressure to try to satisfy everyone. Reach out to people well in advance to ask them about their plans and availability. Then put together your personal Christmas schedule, and share this document (or, if that’s too much transparency, only the “allocated time slots”) with people. This helps to set expectations straight and avoid misunderstandings and disappointments (e.g. mum breaking out in tears because I stay out late for drinks with friends while she expects me home for dinner… I don’t need to mention my age for you to see that something’s wrong here).

I also found it helpful to present my agenda simply as a given fact rather than a basis for negotiations as to how much time I spend with whom.

2 – Schedule 1 on 1 time with people you really care about

As lovely and fun as large family gatherings or Christmas parties can be, there is nothing more precious than spending time with a friend or family member to have a personal, meaningful conversation. In groups the discussions tend to be about things like politics, the weather or upcoming vacations. In a one-on-one meet up on the other hand, you can really focus on the other person and make the most of the little time you have.

3 – Be open about what you want and don’t want for Christmas (and I don’t mean presents)

Your family might plan a large gathering with everybody including your 2nd degree cousins, but you’d much rather have an intimate, cozy dinner. Your grandmother wants to go to Midnight Mass, but you’d rather stay by the fireplace to continue good conversations or more nutmeg. My point here: dare to express (again, ideally with some leeway) how you envision to spend Christmas. Your family and friends are likely to respect your wishes and take them into account, but they need to know about them. Again, it’s about communication and alignment of expectations.

4 – Plan for some R&R (rest and recovery)

It is easy to get carried away with all the people you want to see, and all the people who want to see you during this short week or two. If you are not careful, you might end up feeling as if a truck just ran you over, flattened out from all the social interaction (this is the introvert in me speaking here), needing a holiday after the holiday. People often don’t realize that you are essentially telling the same story over and over to answer questions like “So, what’s new in life?” However tight your agenda is, ensure you take some time out, get some fresh air, some alone time, or whatever it is you need to recharge your batteries. The key is to listen to your needs and respect yourself.

With this, I wish you a relaxed Christmas full of meaningful conversations and valuable time with people you care about.

As always, I’d love to hear about your experience with Christmas as an expat. Have you got any other coping strategies to share?

Thanksgiving Thoughts – Celebrating Extraordinary Encounters

Last weekend I was invited to celebrate Thanksgiving at a friend’s house. Although this gathering around an enormous turkey is not a European tradition, it lives on through the many Americans who import it to Europe and keep it alive. The origins of Thanksgiving lie in an encounter of two very different cultures: the encounter of European settlers (now commonly known as Pilgrims) with Native Americans sharing an autumn harvest feast in 1621.

Around the wonderfully decorated dinner table sat a colorful bunch of people. A Swiss-American dating a Swiss living in France, another Swiss-American married to a Peruvian who runs a business in Madrid, an Austrian dating a French living in Geneva (guess who that is ;)), an American who just met a Sudanese during studies, a Canadian dating a French, and the list actually goes on. Throw into the mix the occasional “Swiss only” couple from next door, and what you get is a lively and lovely crowd of people having fun and conversing in approximately 4 languages.

To fellow Geneva residents this might seem like just another multicultural gathering. I call it creating encounters. In the spirit of the original extraordinary encounter – where Native Americans taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants – it is this kind of personal interaction that fosters understanding, tolerance and respect for “the other”.

Two disclaimers here:

I realize that all of us at that dinner table come from similar socio-cultural backgrounds, well-educated, well-travelled global citizens, winners of globalization, if you will.

I am also aware of a certain level of romanticism and naivety in my observations here, viewed against the backdrop of a highly problematic relationship (to put it diplomatically) between European colonists and Native Americans throughout history.

Nevertheless, I wanted to share with you through this little anecdote my firm belief in diversity and the creative energy it can unleash. It is my vision and hope that such personal encounters can break down the metaphoric walls politicians literally put up these days. We need more of that. The world needs more of that.

Home Sweet Home? What you should know about reverse culture shock

In my last blog post I wrote about the notion of „home“, and to what extent it changes once you live abroad for a while or are confronted with very different realities through travel to foreign places. You start questioning things that seemed completely normal before, and appreciating things you had previously taken for granted. Old norms and values from your home country are viewed from a fresh perspective.

And herein lies the tricky part: when you go abroad, you expect to encounter challenges in the new culture. When you return “home”, however, you expect to find a certain familiarity and comfort – only to realize: home is no longer home. It feels different. The experience abroad has changed you substantially. And it’s the unexpectedness of reverse culture shock that hits you hard.

What to expect when returning home – The stages of reverse culture shock

The concept of reverse culture shock can help you make sense of your feelings of disorientation and alienation back in your original home country. Like “outbound” culture shock, it has a number of stages.

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Overall, it goes like this:

  1. Initial euphoria: At first, you may be excited to return home – seeing friends and family members again, eating your favorite food at your favorite restaurants, and speaking your native language.
  2. Alienation: The initial euphoria eventually wears off, and that’s when you find yourself feeling out of place in your own culture. This can even lead you to feel hostile and overly critical towards your home country and culture.
  3. Readjustment and adaptation: Eventually, you will gradually readjust to life at home. You will build up daily routines again, and things will start to seem a little more normal, even though they will never be exactly the same as when you left. But don’t be discouraged. Instead, incorporate the experiences you’ve made abroad into your new life back home.

There are ways to better manage re-entry into your native culture, and better cope with re-adjustment to your original home country’s way of life. Being aware of the emotional ups and downs you will be going through is already a good start. Stay tuned for some useful tips in my next post!

Have you ever experienced reverse culture shock? What did you do to cope with it?

Cultivating empathy – Have you tried meditation yet?

Today I dare you. I dare you to try something unconventional.

One of the basic, underlying principles of intercultural communication is empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Without this capacity to imagine yourself in somebody else’s shoes, an encounter of people from different cultural backgrounds will not automatically lead to understanding and tolerance.

I have been astounded lately by the lack of empathy and compassion displayed by members of our society towards people who are experiencing terrible things in life – war, loss of loved ones, violence, constant danger, and humiliation. A study conducted at the University of Michigan in 2010 showed that levels of compassion and empathy are lower now than at any time in the past 30 years. Most alarmingly, trends suggest they are declining at an increasing rate, despite globalization and massive improvements in telecommunication. Thanks to television and internet, we are better connected to other people across the globe, but at the same time we care less about their lives and fates.

Only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquility and happiness we all seek. Dalai Lama XIV

In essence, empathy is a cornerstone of a peaceful and tolerant society. Is there a way to restore and cultivate it? Research suggests that meditation in general, and the practice of mindfulness in particular, encourages caring and benevolent behavior toward oneself and others. I found this encouraging and thought, let’s give it a try. I did some research and found this short (10 minutes) guided meditation focusing on cultivating compassion, kindness and forgiveness. It aims at increasing one’s capacity to feel empathy for people who you would not normally relate to, people from different cultural or social backgrounds, complete strangers.

I invite you to try it. It will only take 10 minutes of your time.

What do you think? How do you feel?

Intercultural Communication 101 – How to prepare for your trip abroad

Back in 2011, one of my first international assignments brought me to Bangladesh. I was part of a team evaluating a livelihoods reconstruction program, which was implemented after Cyclone Sidr had hit the country, killing thousands, and destroying homes, crops and livelihoods of many more.

Ahead of the trip, I prepared everything meticulously: the technical details of the program I was going to evaluate, travel logistics, medical and security considerations, etc. Everything? Well, if only I had thought about the implications of working in a very different socio-cultural context than my own. In all my enthusiasm for the new project, I overlooked one tiny but crucial point: culture. The consequence? For starters, I didn’t bring culturally appropriate clothing (such as T-shirts covering my behind, or a scarf to cover head and shoulders – it is a majority Muslim country after all). I also committed a faux-pas during my first interview with a local farmer: I heartily shook his hand to greet him. What’s wrong with that, you might think. As I learned afterwards, Bangladeshi men do not generally shake hands with women (out of respect). You can imagine we were off to an awkward start.

Conducting interviews in affected areas

These 6 intercultural communication tips will help you avoid cultural pitfalls on your trip abroad:

1 – Do your homework – on sights AND culture
This might sound like a no-brainer, but once you’ve bought your Lonely Planet, have a look at the History & Culture sections in the back of the book in addition to reading up on places and sights to see. This will give you an initial idea of what to expect and some basic ground rules.

2 – Talk to people who have been there or – even better – who live there
Talking to locals or people who are very familiar with the place you are travelling to will help you get an even better sense of important dos and don’ts, especially regarding dress code, gestures and general behavior.

3 – Learn the language
… or – if you’re staying only for a short period of time – at least a few key words and basic phrases like “Hello, how are you?” and “Thank you”. It shows that you care and will earn you smiles and friendly reactions.

4 – Watch movies and read literature
… from the country you are going to. Immersing yourself into local arts will open up your horizon to local issues, politics, and different points of view.

5 – Be prepared for culture shock
… especially if you’re staying for a longer period of time. Read my earlier post to learn more about it.

6 – And finally: Be flexible and patient
No matter how much you prepare, you will encounter situations which do not quite go as you had planned them. This is normal. An open and friendly attitude will go a long way, and get you out of most dilemmas. And at the end, you’ll have learned something new.

Finally appropriately dressed

In case you were wondering, my trip to Bangladesh went fine in the end. It was an extraordinarily enriching experience, not the least thanks to my local colleagues who helped me out by lending me appropriate clothes and guiding me through the cultural mine field.

Do you have any other tips to share? Which cultural pitfalls have you run into?

 

 

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