A while ago, I found Brene Brown’s “Life lessons we all need to learn”. She makes 4 very legitimate points, but the first one struck me right to the core: “Fitting in is Not belonging”. While all these points can be useful for everybody, this one point certainly strikes a chords with expats. Why?
“Behave like a local”. “Get integrated”. In the words of a Polish proverb: “If you walk among the crows, you must behave like them”. When you learn about intercultural communication, you learn the words, the gestures, and the behaviours to adopt when talking to a person from another culture.
Is it helpful? Yes, it is. It might tell you why the other person seems offended or you have the feeling that you can’t really reach an agreement with them. Knowing all this, you will be able to reach your goal: negotiate a contract, make an offer, seal a deal or have a discussion without anybody being offended.
In short, you will learn to behave like a crow. You will paint yourself black and make the same sounds, but will you really become a crow? Will you feel like one?
For some of us, yes, we will turn into a crow, into a local. Maybe you will get the feeling that you really like being a crow more than you liked being, let’s say, a duck. Others, on the other hand will decide not to come in contact with locals at all, because they feel weird and they feel that whatever they do, they won’t belong. They might try their best and even speak Dutch and do everything the Dutch do but it doesn’t make them Dutch. They don’t feel Dutch, and they wouldn’t be comfortable in having to act Dutch.
There is a difference between fitting in and belonging. Fitting in means behaving like a crow, but not feeling like one. Belonging, on the other hand, means being fine with what you are, whether it’s a crow, or a duck or a chicken. It is also means being accepted for what you are, even if those around you are not like you.
If you’re an expat, you are often given the advice to behave like locals, in order to communicate better- but let’s remember that communication is a two-way process. You might try all you want, but if somebody is not willing to make the same effort you’re making, communication might fail.
I think the majority of expats are somewhere in the middle, between these two poles on a spectrum. We might celebrate Sinterklaas but refuse to participate in orange fever during football season. Or do it the other way round. In any case, these are individual choices and experiences. So I prefer to see it that way rather than on a spectrum where integration (understood as behaving, acting and feeling like a local) is seen as the ultimate goal, and alienation is the price you pay if you don’t want to get integrated.
When I was at University, during my transcultural communication course, I came across a process called appropriation. It might seem complicated but it just means that if you come across a certain medium (like TV or video games, or whatever), you find ways to make it your own. This could happen by accepting the way that medium works, understanding it in a very subversive way (like adding elements to a game, or laughing at a show where everybody cries), or being somewhere in the middle. The same can be said about expats- each one of us can find their own way to deal with being in a different culture, but we make it our own- we appropriate it- in a way that is individual and unique for each and one of us.
Integration shouldn't be about fitting in-behaving and talking like locals. It should be about belonging- about not having the pressure to "twist yourself into a human pretzel in order to get them to let you hang out with them." In fact, as Brene Brown tells us,the desire to fit in may in fact interfere with getting the feeling of belonging. Dear expats, please remember that!