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I am a localization manager/translator and intercultural consultant living in Berlin (Germany), passionate about languages, cultures, diversity management, body art, dancing, self-empowerment, coaching, effective communication and, last but not least, vegan gluten-free food and good movies.

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

The first secret of intercultural communication, or why screaming a name in the wrong language is not always the best choice for making new friends

It is a wonderful and sunny Spring evening in Berlin and I am glad to meet new, interesting people during a well-organized event. 
The Vegan buffet is delicious, people are nice and the atmosphere is friendly and relaxed.
On my way to the kitchen, to help a little out with the dirty dishes, I suddenly hear... him.

Experience is not what happens to you, it's what you do with what happens to you.
Aldous Huxley [1894-1963]

The guy is tall, good-looking (but somehow not attractive) and fit.
The guy is an actor, and a voice coach, and a radio speaker, and of course an alternative practitioner too. And probably a dozen of other things.
The guy... Or maybe I should use the word "man" for describing him since he is definitely over forty years old.

And yet, he doesn't act at all like a man. He reminds me more and more of a scared, insecure and troubled child desperately looking for attention, any kind of it.
And if he would just not be so rude and verbally aggressive, I would probably feel very sorry for him. For his pain, his fears, his compelling need to be seen.

[When it is about attention seeking behavior, 
I still prefer Calvin and Hobbes, and you?]

I met him briefly before, during a lecture we both attended to. We talked for some minutes and of course, he asked immediately THE loathed question. Where do I am from!?

(I just detest this question. 
To put it better, I profoundly dislike it, I am sick of it, I hate it. 
But this is another story that deserves another post, 
so stay tuned for it)

[Where are you from?
is not exactly my favorite question while doing small talk.
Nope.]

AFTER hearing where I am from, and only after that, he: 
- said that it was totally clear, where I am from; [Internal dialog with myself mood ON: Then why did you ask, pal? mood OFF]
- made fun of my pronunciation and my way of speaking, even when I was not talking to him; [Oh thanks, this is so polite of you... after all, we met already over ten minutes ago, so we are basically best friends now and you can be sarcastic, right? Please help yourself]
- wanted at any cost to give me tips on what to see and what to do in my hometown; [Well, I only spent over thirty years there, but thanks for giving me your insider tips even if I didn't ask at all about them]
- started to brag about having been able to perfectly learn Italian in one year. [Oh really? So interesting then that you are not speaking a single word in my mother tongue and that you are pronouncing my name in a terrible way all the time! Fantastic!]

Instead of being pissed off, annoyed or just as ill-mannered as he was, I smiled and did my best to remain friendly and not to pay too much attention to him. To enjoy the evening anyway, while discussing with other people and learning something new.

So I was busy while replying to a question someone else posed me when he interrupted me in mid-sentence and he said quite verbally that he strongly disagreed with me and that I was wrong. 
Polite silence on my side. He insisted anyway to give his own opinion - absolutely not required, ça va sans dire - about the matter, even if he didn't hear what it has been said before and he didn't know why someone was asking me a question that was all about my personal experience. 
[Apparently, you think you know me better than I do. Good job, old sport!]


I replied very quietly and I explained why his opinion was not really relevant, and the person that asked the question agreed with me. So he suddenly changed his opinion and after a while said that he completely agreed with me and we were basically saying the same. [Whatever, darling]

Not satisfied with this silly and useless game, after not even twenty minutes he behaves in the same way while interrupting the person giving the lecture... And then...
You got it, right?

In a movie, this would have been the first scene of some cheesy romantic plot about two people detesting each other and yet falling in love before the closing credits. 
In real life, it was just an unpleasant situation. Something not to think too much about and to forget after the lecture, hoping not to meet this person again.

[Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles in 
10 Things I Hate About You (1999) by Gil Junger,
or how to re-write Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew 
for the cool kids]

Life has very often a wicked sense of humor, so here we are, a week after that unlucky lecture.
The buffet is still very tasty and people are still smiling and nice, and yet the magic of the event has been somehow broken, and there he is, screaming at me from the other side of the room.

He - Hey Azuurr! Bonsoir!
He, talking to another man and explaining with his best John Wayne attitude how the world works - Yes, you know, this is how you have to greet an Italian woman, if you want to make her happy. 
Me, speaking in German, with a quiet voice and going away - Wenn Du meinst... [If you think so...]

He doesn't know anything about me. He doesn't know me as a person. He doesn't know who I am, what I like, what I want, what I dream, what I prefer, what I hate.
All that he knows is where I am from. And yet he is ironizing about my nationality with another stranger while thinking that he is charming and fun. 
[Yes, of course, please more of this! Scream even louder so everybody can hear that you are not even able to pronounce my name or to use the correct foreign language for that! Irresistible!]
Pathetic. And so sad.

[The puppy eyes of Puss-in-Boots in Shrek 2 (2004) 
by Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury and Conrad Vernon
THIS is irresistible]

While interacting with people from other cultures or other countries, it is so easy and yet so tricky to assume that just because they are from that place XY or that other place ZW, one knows exactly what to say, what to do, how to deal with them. 
To think that just because one has been to that place for a short holiday or got to know other people from that place before or got interested in that culture, one can assume to be able to read like an open book every person from the same place or culture. To do the same thing over and over again while getting the same reaction, independently from which person one is actually talking to. 

Just because people from a place or a culture share some common background traits, it doesn't mean at all that they are all the same, or that they enjoy the same things. Or even less that they will do exactly the same while being in a certain situation. 
That could happen... or not. And assuming that one already knows it all can cause misunderstandings, problems, frustration or embarrassment from both sides. 
The other person could be hurt or offended, while one only wanted to be nice, or funny, or whatever.

[Not only this gorgeous Purple Blythe doll is a customized OOAK
We are all very special one-of-a-kind]

Even if each of us got influenced by a specific culture or from specific experiences while growing up in a place, every person is unique and one-of-a-kind and he/she can embrace his/her culture or have mixed feelings about it. So one could react in an "unexpected" way because of a lot of different factors, like:
- his/her character type and personality;
- his/her way of life;
- his/her personal or professional choices;
- his/her previous experiences in similar situations;
- his/her social milieu;
- his/her values, dreams, expectations, standards;
- his/her current personal, professional or financial situation.

While interacting with a person from a different culture, the most important thing is trying to see the person, instead of seeing just another someone coming from no matter which place. 
The real person, with her uniqueness, her preferences, her personal story, her specific skills set, her dreams, her good and bad sides. A real human being, not someone one can put in a box with a label on it, as soon as it is clear what's the country on their passport. 


Never love anyone who treats you like you're ordinary, said Oscar Wilde.
I would add, never let anyone treat you like you're a living cliché.

Tags: Clichés about Italians, Diversity, People, Quotes, Intercultural communication, Cultural misunderstanding

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