Over the past five years, I’ve lived in four different cities, in three different countries. Every country has its own culture, language and social norms which should definitely be taken into account when moving abroad. However, looking back, I do wonder which of these is most important when trying to integrate into an unfamiliar society. How do you really fit in, if you stand out?
Speaking the language
This seems like one of the most obvious parts of ‘fitting in’, speaking the same language. Many of us would like to reach the level of native speaker, but for most, that’s a lot harder than they had expected beforehand. We want to be able to communicate with others and find our way around, but ideally, we also want to be able to make jokes and come up with catchy phrases at the right moment. For everyone who recognises himself in all the above, I can give you some reassurance. It has been found that you can actually use your status as a foreigner to advance yourself professionally or socially. In many situations, a foreigner is not expected to follow everything that’s said or done at local get-togethers and if he does follow them too closely, this may even be seen as unusual.
Even more important than the language may be a country’s social rules and regulations, the honorifics. What is seen as polite, rude, considerate or inappropriate? Research is very clear about this. It’s most important that you come across as being comfortable about who you are. If you’re trying really hard to fit in by using all the honorifics really well but at the same time stepping away from who you are, you’re not going to fit in well, even if you use the language correctly. Unnatural politeness won’t work in your favour.
In a very interesting study three groups of American business interns in Japan were compared. The first group focused on mastering the Japanese honorifics. The second one had the right language skills and knowledge of the honorifics to find their way around the Japanese business world effectively. The third group intentionally used the language incorrectly and played up the fact that they are foreigners.
Perhaps surprisingly, the third group had the most positive results. They used humour and had a playful way of communicating with others, which allowed everyone to laugh and connect on a more personal level.
Different situations call for different approaches, but these findings suggest that it’s not about the perfect language skills or knowledge of the honorifics. It’s about the general interest in the country and its people and staying close to who you are as a person. Standing out is actually your biggest asset when trying to fit in!