houses of parliament

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock: A Franco-British Experience

houses of parliament

If there is one thing that all expats have in common, it is the experience of culture shock. Put two displaced people together and they will soon be commiserating and bonding over some funny story from their first few months in the country. Culture shock is an unavoidable and necessary aspect of moving abroad. Let’s face it, we are talking about a major life change, as significant and stressful as moving house or getting married. It should come as no surprise that it takes time to deal with change, both good and bad, and that this process can on occasion be painful.

When I was day-dreaming this post up late at night, I figured sharing 4 phases every homesick person goes through would be a good idea simply because 4 seemed like a friendly round number. I was therefore gratified to learn I wasn’t just making them up; existing research on the subject shows there are broadly 4 stages of culture shock. How convenient! Here’s how it was for me:

1. ‘OMG I’m in another country, isn’t everything wonderful?’ a.k.a. The Honeymoon stage

Everything was indeed wonderful.

  • I found a job within a month of arrival by just talking to people in shops and handing them my CV (unheard of in France, seriously).
  • All the books were so cheap and I would spend entire afternoons alone with a book and a hefty dictionary.
  • I was strongly encouraged to watch the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice and for the first time, I actually got the jokes.
  • I had lessons at the dinner table on how to pronounce ‘sauce’ (not as easy as you’d think), rough and ploughman, and I learnt the British had many synonyms for ‘cold’. After about three or four months, one person declared I was officially getting there when I described the weather as ‘a bit nippy’. My year-long trip was turning out great!

2. The ‘Everything was so much better at home’ stage, also known as Raging Homesickness, the Crisis

This stage can be made even worse if you are learning a new language. Withdrawal and anxiety doesn’t begin to describe the experience;  think alienation. If you don’t understand half of what people are saying and when you’re at the pub you can’t get a word in edgeways before the conversation moves on, it goes downhill very quickly. Communication is key to feeling accepted; being unable to express yourself beyond the basics can scramble your sense of identity in ways that are difficult to explain. Don’t be surprised if there is a lot of crying involved.

You notice every little thing that is different and your first reaction is ‘this is totally useless and stupid, why would you do it this way?’. First you can’t open a bank account because you don’t have a passport. You didn’t need one to get over the border because ‘EU’ but now you have to hide your cash-in-hand job money under your mattress like you’re a freakin’ refugee.

This is even more true when you go to the weekly outdoors market in the town centre and here’s one bloke selling mattresses (outside? Really?), another chap is selling cheap phone covers, and here’s a fishmonger handing out little polystyrene pots full of cold jellied eels or cockles. To eat there and then. Yep, that’s an actual thing. You spend your days comparing your home country to this strange new place and finding it wanting. It has nothing to do with the actual culture though, it’s just your brain and emotions processing change and trying to adapt.

3. The ‘I’m starting to get the hang of this but you’re still stupid’ stage – Adjustment

You’re adjusting! You might even appreciate that some things are much better than in your own country. Like fish and chips and Indian food! Vaguely unbiased press! Decent TV (TOWIE notwithstanding, it really really is decent. The BBC rocks, you have no idea how deprived France is).

You can even have conversations with people: the Essex habit of dropping the end of each word is starting to enter your system so you can understand whole sentences! You have a job you don’t suck at, you’re no longer scared when people speak to you and you have friends. You can laugh at your misfortunes instead of simply drowning in them. Things are looking up.

4. The ‘I could totally pass for a native’ stage – Acceptance

You are bi-cultural, how amazing is that! Also known as total wishful thinking on my part but I once nurtured the fanciful notion that like Charlotte Gray, my English would become so good that I could be taken for a native and be hired by MI6 or whatever the French equivalent is and become a spy in wartime. Except for the fact that I would now prefer to spy for the English so yep, maybe I swung too far the other way. Anyhoo…

This is the stage when you regain your enthusiasm for your new home and may even adopt habits and preferences because of it. You may still moan about the things that you don’t like but you do so as a fully immersed participant, no longer as an outsider.

culture shock diagram

Even with the culture shock and homesickness, living abroad is an amazingly rich experience. I can’t stress enough how wonderful if is to broaden your horizons in this way and I highly recommend it to anyone seeking to gain a better understanding of the world and all that is in it.

Now your turn: What’s your culture shock story?

My Writing Process Blog Tour

my writing process - by Alejandro Escamilla

Picture by Alejandro Escamilla

I was rather astounded the other day when Muriel, who blogs at French Yummy Mummy, invited me to participate in the #mywritingprocess blog tour. She writes humorous yet insightful stories about the hazards of being a French woman in London and even had an article in The Times, so you know, between her and the other illustrious writers who take part in the blog tour, I’m not intimidated at all!

I say astounded because despite the fact that I’ve written over a hundred posts on this blog, I don’t really think of myself as A Writer. I’ve never published anything and aside from the occasional paid translation work, the closest I’ve got to writing a proper story was a romance when I was fifteen; embarrassing doesn’t begin to describe that piece of trash literature… I’ve never really thought about writing processes and whether or not I have one so it’s been fun thinking about the four questions I had to answer as part of the blog tour. I found the introspection informative and I hope you will too!

1. What am I working on?

Right now, I can honestly say I am not doing very well on the writing front. Recently, my time has been spent party-planning, holding clingy babies and toddlers and thinking wistfully about our August holiday to France, the first time we are going away in two years!

I am spending more time thinking about writing than I am taking pen to paper. This said, my brain is buzzing with threads of posts and I am trying to be more disciplined in writing them down for future reference.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I write about anything and everything if it strikes me as interesting, which is to say that I can’t focus on anything in particular, so the blog has quite an eclectic feel with an emphasis on the differences between the French and the English way of life. Over the last four years, it has evolved to encompass reflections on parenting, book reviews, and more personal stories, opinions and insights (as well as completely fluffy subjects like TV shows). I also share recipes and make brave yet doomed attempts at taking pictures to go with the posts.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Blogging is very much a hobby to stop my life from revolving entirely around the kids. I love them very much, but I need other things to think about and the blog has been wonderful in providing this. So I guess I write for me and it has been a great outlet for processing my life. I have had a lot of fun with some of the posts whilst others have been more challenging, personal and even cathartic. What it hasn’t been is boring.

I do wish I was more organised and more prolific, as well as maybe a tad more daring, but if I’m honest I often feel a bit out of my depth. I know there’s a lot more I could be doing and would do with the blog if I had the guts, time and head space to do justice to the subjects I am interested in (such as mental health and religion to name but two). But I’m one of those people who knows a little about a lot of things and who is an expert at nothing. So I can share opinions and anecdotes from my experience but I am not able to do the amount of research to accompany the pieces that would convince me I’m not just talking rubbish.

4. How does my writing process work?

So I don’t really have a set process but there seems to be method to the madness.

  • Some posts I just sit down and write in one go, whereas others get rewritten over a number of days.
  • I keep a notebook of ideas and save drafts in WordPress that I revisit every so often. Sometimes, I will just jot down a title or a sentence to use later.
  • I read a LOT of other blogs that cover a wide variety of subjects, including some written by people I completely disagree with on most things! It’s often very challenging but also illuminating and definitely inspires my thinking and my writing, both in style and content.
  • I must confess that I have occasionally sat down with a pen and paper and written the old-fashioned way. It seems to help me think better. It’s probably for the same reason that, as much as I love my Kindle, it hasn’t replaced the simple pleasure of opening a physical book.
  • Other than that, I tend to think about things and write in my head during my morning shower but my writing time is in the evening once the kids are in bed. So I often forget what I was thinking about in between, which is not super helpful. I take ages to write a post, I always rewrite a hundred times, and basically press ‘publish’ because I run out of ideas to improve the post, rather than because I am 100 % happy with it.

Continuing the blog tour next week, I am delighted to introduce you to:

  • Sophie, who lives in London after spending 12 years on the French Riviera. She is married to a Frenchman (who is a mean cook) and blogs at Franglaise Mummy. One of the best things about her posts is that every time I visit I want to leave a comment, they really are that interesting. If there ever was a sign of a healthy blog, this is it!
  • Sarah at St Bloggie de Riviere, who makes me feel quite homesick at times with her stories about daily life in France. Her recent posts about her kids’ school experience is bringing back all sorts of (mixed) memories.
  • Deb writes at Sixtine et Victoire. Not only is she a very talented photographer, but she’s really hands-on with her kids in a practical and non-threatening way and shares particularly nice recipes that kids can make themselves.  Her Montessori-inspired toddler activities are also wonderful but a bit more awe-inspiring for me so I only admire them from afar most of the time…

Argumentative Me – personality style or cultural bias?

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

 

Someone I looked up to once said about me that I was argumentative, and also “it must be because you’re French. I could tell from the way it was said that this was a complaint about my character. Despite the fact that it was many, many years ago, it has kept cropping up in my mind time and time again, which tells me it was a watershed moment in my life, and it was. It had implications for how I viewed myself from then on. In that moment, a label was assigned to me; in my youth and immaturity, I believed it was negative and true and I let that label define me even as I rebelled against it in my mind.

The comment was made as part of a bigger conversation about the fact that you couldn’t just have a discussion (about faith specifically but it could have been anything) and expect me to be silent if I disagreed. In these early years in England I struggled quite a bit trying to build friendships, so to be told in essence that I was a bit uncomfortable to be around because I wouldn’t settle for the easy answer was very difficult and caused me to question myself. I wondered if it was because I was ‘difficult’ that I had so few friends within my immediate circle, why I didn’t feel that I fitted in with the crowd. Trying to find out who I was, separate from my parents and from just being ‘the French girl’ was hard. Add to this the many hang-ups I was carrying about my less-than-stellar upbringing and the fact that I was still culturally a fish out of water, and you can imagine how my self-esteem was shaken up.

Go forward ten years, and I am very much aware that I am more forward in my opinions than many English people around me. It is seriously quite the recurring theme. ‘Pauline, she’s quite blunt really, but at least you know what she thinks!‘ And yes, I tend to favour directness of speech and I know that it can come across as bluntness on occasion despite having the best of intentions because I don’t bother with all the niceties. I can’t be doing the whole ‘apologizing for having an opinion’ thing before sharing that often happens in British social settings. How very French of me!

Know Thyself

So I am a bit blunt at times, and in some ways it is in my nature to do so, in line with the Thinking part of my personality type, which according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is INTJ. I can’t begin to explain how helpful discovering my personality type has been to me over the years, especially in the area of personal growth. One of the things about being an INTJ is that I tend to place more value on truth and logic than in people’s feelings. I am super aware that it can turn to insensitivity if left unchecked so I have worked at being more flexible but it does occasionally surface without my meaning to. Add to that the fact that one of my biggest anxieties is being misunderstood so I try to go for either directness or waffling to make my meaning as clear as possible (hence the long blog posts…!)

I should explain that by ‘bluntness’, I don’t mean the social awareness bypass sufferers who must-say-what-they-think whether or not it is the right context. Sharing an ‘honest opinion’ doesn’t give people license to express every thought, even if it might be The Truth. There’s a time and a place, and people’s feelings to be considered, so no, I am not going out here and there, shooting arrows of personal opinion about people and situations, even in the rare moments that I might be right about them. I don’t believe in ‘if I care about you, I must tell you the truth always. It’s for your own good’. That’s not the way to go about your relationships if you still want to have friends at the end of it! You have to earn the right to speak truth into people’s lives, and pointing out flaws is not being a friend, it’s being an insensitive jerk, and if it comes across that way, let me apologize straight away because it is never EVER intentional.

Is it ’cause I is French?

The other thing that was said was that “of course you’re argumentative, you’re French“. And I can’t get away from the fact that this accusation is deeply insulting and also just a bit racist. It implies that French people are just naturally difficult, and they can’t be nice and easy-going like us English people. In calling me argumentative, the person was pointing out something in me they considered to be flawed. The problem is that the best way for this perceived flaw to be corrected would be if I would only learn to behave more, well, British. Thanks, but no thanks, because there is actually nothing wrong with me.

Now I don’t doubt that culturally, the French and British are miles apart in many ways. The French are, fundamentally, more Mediterranean in their emotive expression, as well as placing high value in reason and the intellect in general, and it is reflected in their love of a good debate. See two French people discussing an issue they are passionate about, and they will quite likely express their emotions externally, with, like, gestures, and loud(er) noises. Yeah, I know, how ridiculous…

I’ll admit to having enjoyed playing devil’s advocate a time or two to liven up a discussion by throwing a new angle in that I don’t even agree with. Generally though, I just like a good debate for its sake, not because I am looking for an argument; it is just part of the culture I was born in. You don’t spend 8 hours a week debating philosophy in high school without developing this trait.

In Conclusion, beware of labels

One thing of which I am certain, is that one should be careful what words they use when describing people. Labels are rarely helpful, especially negative ones. There are differences between character flaws, personality traits and culturally prescribed behaviours, and it’s not as simple as black and white and people being unkind on purpose. If a problem has to be addressed, in a work environment and especially when talking to kids, one should be careful to confront the bad behaviour and not dig into a person’s identity. People should not be defined by labels, even when their behaviours need to be addressed head-on.

Accusing people of being quarrelsome is not nice, especially when it is false. I’m going to start looking for new words to describe this aspect of my identity. Controversial maybe, open to questions and discussion certainly but not argumentative. I just like to question. I am completely happy to live with a fair amount of doubt in my life about faith and the other big questions, and I am not afraid to pitch in with the ‘but what about…?’ that people don’t like to talk about. And so I will continue on, annoying people with my deep questions and candid manner, asking questions and investigating ideas, being neither French nor British and living in the discomfort even though I really don’t like it that much.