How to Adjust to Foreign Cultures

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”  Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You

One of the hardest things I do is try to explain to people who move to the foreign country where we live that this country is… foreign. It is not like our home countries. It is not worse – it is not better – it is different. And all the things we had, did and believed before will not help us here.

Do people understand this simple concept? NO. It’s like watching people who have lived their whole lives in Arctic climates move to a Somali desert and insist on putting on parkas and wool socks when it is 40 degrees Celsius. Take off the polar fleece – it is not a good choice. But they have always worn polar fleece so day after day they put it on regardless of the weather.

The security people in the business complex where my company has its offices recently decided to not let food/ package delivery people in. Many expats complained about this. And when a package delivery company called me to say that their delivery person was at the gate of the complex and I needed to go to the gate to get the package, I said, “no.” The person on the phone insisted, so I said, “no” again and set down the phone (not hung up, just placed the phone on the desk). After five minutes, the delivery person was in my office with my package. You see I knew that there was no way that food and package delivery was going to be stopped at a large complex of many offices. I didn’t know why the announcement was made, but I knew I should ignore it. While other expats, grumbling away, trekked to the gates of the parking area.

Why did I not help the suffering expats? Because all previous advice (including: don’t wear sexy clothes to work, tip extravagantly, always be nice to the cleaning staff and don’t talk in meetings) was ignored.

Darling, if the plebes are not going to listen, I shall not strain my voice in repeating excellent advice given in dulcet tones. If, with 8 weeks experience in-country, you feel the need to lecture me on how to get things done, I shall smile every so politely and then chortle once alone in my office with the door shut. And yes of course, I will lend you a shoulder to cry on when it all goes pear-shaped, but when you insist that bright red leggings and a cut-to-the waist, skin-tight tunic are appropriate work clothes in a conservative Muslim country… it is pretty much guaranteed to go pear-shaped.

A lovely movie to help explain this concept is Snake Eyes, one of those silly action movies that is full of excellent guidance. (I know my dear, people natter on about documentaries, but if you really want to understand how to live well, watch silly action movies. In their special way, Jean Reno and Jet Li are as instructive as Miss Manners.)

Now in this film of wisdom, there is a challenge with 3 parts that our hero must pass to become accepted as a trainee fighter in a special fight school. Now of course one expects 3 huge, spectacular fights in which our hero must battle scads of bad guys or perhaps monsters or run up mountains or hold his breath for half an hour.

Well… the first challenge is that the two fighters each have a bowl of water and the newbie (our hero) has to take the master warrior’s bowl of water without spilling any. He has three chances and the first two go horrible wrong. But then our hero thinks (that’s why he is the hero) and for the third round, he walks up to the master warrior, holds out his bowl and politely asks for the master’s warrior’s bowl in exchange.

The second challenge is to remember something painful and the third is that you go into a snake pit and if you have a bad ‘vibe’ the snakes eat you. Lovely. Three challenges – no fighting at all.

You see, the fight school will teach you how to fight. Anyone can be taught to fight, Darling. Pekinese can fight, but before they let you in the school they want to know if you can think. Darling, so few people can think through new situations (and certainly not Pekinese).

Most people are trained to see every situation as a fight; they don’t imagine that you could get the bowl without force but by asking for it. And of course, you can’t go forward in life if you are trapped in a negative past event (as Ted Lasso has demonstrated so well) and if you are inherently evil, you should be eaten by snakes.

C’est très simple. Watch silly action movies and when you move to a foreign country, listen and adjust.