What beverage do you order with lunch?
In the US, you might have a Coke.
In Germany, you’d probably order a beer.
And in France, perhaps a glass of wine.
For those moving to one of these countries, this is a simple enough behavior to adapt to.
But what happens when the behavior is not that simple? What happens when becoming “one of the locals” is impossible?
One of the Locals
Speaking a foreign language. Learning a special set of skills. Drinking unfiltered water.
Due to their complexity or the body’s own limitations, these are the types of behaviors where adaptation may be more difficult.
Learning a language requires patience, dedication, and time. Not everyone who is living abroad has all of these in abundance, especially if living in the foreign country for only a short period.
In regions of Africa, the handshake requires a special set of skills, because it’s rather elaborate. Without practice, the finger-snapping greetings are difficult to master.
And, in certain cases – like drinking unfiltered water in Africa, for instance – your body may simply not allow you to adapt. Although it’s the tradition in a number of ethnic communities in Africa to offer visitors water to drink, sometimes your health must take precedence over local custom.
And refusing to speak, greet, or drink may provoke monkey moments.
Although your inability to adapt may not be by choice, but rather by time, skill, health, or any other restrictive factor, this inability may still provoke monkey moments.
(Remember: a monkey moment is when your foreign nature is revealed to everyone through your actions…or, in some cases, your inactions).
How do you overcome these monkey moments?
If the short duration of your stay doesn’t allow you enough time to learn an entire language, learn the local greetings and short phrases. Doing so will show the locals that you are making an effort to communicate.
Don’t have the skills to master the complex local handshake?
Give it your best shot, and the locals will surely acknowledge you’re trying.
Can’t stomach the water?
Declining the customary drink may cause a monkey moment, but you must make clear that your health is the reason that you decline. Any other reason would likely be considered rude or disrespectful.
So, my advice is three-fold: make an effort, explain yourself when you physically cannot adapt, and respect the local culture.
This is ultimately what a successful cross-cultural relationship comes down to. We’ll talk more about respect next week.