Navigating Cross-Cultural Waters
In the FIGT (Families in Global Transition) blog recently, Dr. Anne Copeland posted an interesting article about a study on cross-cultural identity and how we convey who we are.
“People transmit signals about who they are in countless ways – including fashion and physical appearance. Bright colors vs. black, neatly trimmed hair vs. scruffy-chic, modest vs. revealing clothing – all of these choices send a message about the kind of person we are, at least within our own culture. But what happens when we move to a new land?”
This so aptly described my experience that I winced as I thought back. I remembered things that had happened to me, the mis-cue of my Office Manager, early visits to government offices. You name it, it took time to get on the same page.
“When asked what they were trying to convey through their appearance, participants …most often reported the desire to project an air of elegance, competence, and beauty, but recounted many stories about how their appearance had been misinterpreted when in a new country. The suit that felt chic to the wearer was met with disdain by co-workers in a new country who saw it as inappropriate for the workplace.”
Talk about a fly on the wall! That perfectly described the morning my Office Manager waltzed into the office in a very pretty dress- light blue organza, flowy skirt, nice jacket- somewhat over the top but… whoa, put that jacket back on. It’s waaay too early in the day for this look! Ok, yes, I like the dress and I appreciate that you want to look pretty, but save that one for the “after-5” events. “The what?” she asked. I’ll explain it later- right now though, please just take a cab and go home and change into something more conservative to work with our young students, please? She was trying to convey who she was, a professional young lady, but the kind of “pro” she was conveying when she removed her jacket was most likely not the effect she intended!
But, I understood where it was coming from. I was in the same boat on different cultural waters. When I landed in Baku, I made almost every cultural misstep I could make, despite my daily dose of Molla Nasreddin parables.
The picture with my friends above was one of many examples. In every photo I see from that time, invariably, if I am with local hosts, I am the only one smiling. And usually a very broad grin. That’s me, that’s who I am. I am outgoing and gregarious- and for a long time it showed. (Ok, that was a giveaway- you’ve probably guessed by now which is me in the photo. But, can you guess the type of event by the faces?)
Much later, friends told me that they don’t smile because the Communists said “only foolish people smile”. Oops! Well that certainly explained a lot!
Not knowing or understanding the cultural markers, in my first week in Baku I visited the university where Elmira (our exchange student’s mother) taught and did what I always did in Houston. I dressed up for the meeting. And, as a result, the photos are sometimes painful to revisit. There we are, 20 of us lined up for the photo, one grinning fool in the center. Oh, but it gets worse!
I had packed several business suits, shoes and other things that we used to routinely wear in the U.S. (like pantyhose).
One particular suit, a favorite of mine, was pink. Not your average baby pink. No, my favorite was a skirt and jacket in a very bright hot pink… Yeah, this one belongs in the “What was I thinking?” category. Talk about standing out in a crowd. Oh, and did I mention that I even brought my matching pink suede heels? Sheesh! Well, it sounded like a good idea at the time. So again, here’s the image: 20 of us lined up for the photo, 19 brown/black/grey suits and one grinning fool in the center sporting a hot pink suit and hot pink suede heels, (standing out) standing in the dusty courtyard.
I admit all that to say, learning the cross-cultural signs isn’t easy or natural. We all may have to make some mistakes to learn. And we may not recognize the signs as we see them- it takes time to understand this particular “sign language”.
By the way– The photo above was a celebration, a party (really), though it’s hard to say for sure from the photos.
I didn’t know about the serious look for photos until I went to get my passport renewed and they actually told me not to smile for my photo.
After 10 years in Baku, I packed my three boxes to come home. By then I had learned. I brought home two navy suits, three black suits and three pairs of black shoes- no pink at all. My wardrobe had acclimated, even if I hadn’t completely.
It has taken me just as long to adjust to getting comfortable with putting the color back into my wardrobe on the re-patriation transition.
Hopefully, I am still smiling though!