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Localization manager/translator and coach/intercultural consultant living in Berlin (Germany), passionate about diversity management and intercultural communication, self-awareness and coaching, SFBT and NVC, languages, cultures, body art, dancing, self-empowerment, and, last but not least, vegan gluten-free keto food and good movies. How about you?
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A Lot Like Purple is my personal blog.
I'm the only person responsible for its content and the views and opinions expressed here are solely mines.
What I write doesn't represent my clients or any other group, organization or agency.

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Monday, March 13, 2017

The kind of compliments one should better not pay while practicing intercultural communication, or the one about toothpaste, beauty and purple steampunk elegance

"Of course you are beautiful, you are Italian! Italian women are always so beautiful!"
"I really like the sound of your Italian voice!"
"Gosh, you are so sunny! Well, like every other Italian I met so far..."
"Your style is so unique. It makes totally sense since you are Italian!"

Gee, thanks. For nothing.

Thanks for taking something you like about me and making it... not about me any longer. 
Thanks for making it about my passport, about my nationality, about something that has very little to do with me as a person, since I had no influence whatsoever in where I was born.
Thanks for actually taking away from me something I own, something I take responsibility for every single day.

[Would you like to check my passport, 
before paying me a compliment?]

It doesn't matter where I was born, it doesn't matter where I come from.
It just matters where I am now and what I do with my life every single day.

Remember this: Nothing is written in the stars. 
Not these stars, nor any others. No one controls your destiny. 
Gregory Maguire

Every single day I decide to be sunny, friendly and positive. No matter what. Because this is how I want to be and to spend my time.
Every single day I decide to take care of my body and my looks. Being beautiful costs time, money and effort and requires a lot of self-discipline and self-respect. 

Every single day I decide to go all in with my very personal style, something I like to call with a smile "purple steampunk elegance". 
Even if people find it strange sometimes, even more than that, due to my blue hair and my tattoos that for most people just "don't match" with the rest and can create a sort of cognitive dissonance.

[You don't know what to buy me as a present for my next birthday?
How about this Victorian steampunk necklace in gunmetal 
with a purple cameo? This is steampunk elegance!
Image source: Shes-A-Belle]

And would you mind to tell me how exactly an Italian voice is supposed to sound?

Paying a genuine compliment to someone is always a nice gesture and most people try to be nice while saying sentences like the ones above. Believe me, I get it. And I appreciate the intention behind the words and what they are trying to do.

So the scenario looks like this:
They think that they are expressing appreciation, admiration or some kind of acknowledgment for me as a person. They are instead creating a distance between us that was not there before. 
How? You ask. Glad that you do.
They don't realize that while saying so, they are actually culturizing something about me without knowing me well enough to understand if it has to do with what is considered "normal", natural, common sense and socially accepted in the place I am from, or not. 
What if the answer would be no?

They think they "know" why I am like I am because of the place I am from, and because of some cliché they heard or read or experienced before in their own life, they associate me with something actually related to their experience and not to mine. 
I am just a mirror of their ideas about something, or of how they feel and relate to something "exotic" to them, something that can be for them something positive, or negative, or just different. 
In any case, something "other" that has to be defined and labeled. 

You don't need to label what you know, what is natural and clear to you, what you consider part of your day-to-day life, right? 
Would you need to find a cultural label for your toothpaste? Your shampoo? Your couch? Your cutleries?

[Marvis toothpaste in multicolor luxury packaging:
so classy, so elegant, so exotic... so Italian!]

You would do it, only if they were something different than the classic, "normal" thing everybody knows already.
The expensive toothpaste. The shiny new shampoo with that many vitamins, the couch with the eccentric decor, the cutleries made by some famous designer. Not the ordinary thing. Something else.

So while saying something about me or my life or my traits that is somehow special to them and putting a cultural label on it, they are involuntarily stating a difference between us and seeing it as a part of me being from some place. They are putting distance, where they wanted to connect with me thanks to a compliment.

They have no clue about my past, my story, my background, my values. About the decisions I took. About how it has been for me living where I was living. And so on.
While putting a label on something about me, they are saying "I like/see this about you. It is new to me, it has to be related to the place you are from, that is different from what I know and experience every day and I consider normal. So you are different from me".

Do you want to be nice and pay a compliment to someone with a different background than yours?
Please go ahead, but ask yourself first: "How would I feel/react if someone would say this to me while suggesting that it has to do only with the place I am from? Would I feel seen, understood and accepted?".

If yes, go with it.
If not, ask yourself what do you know about that person. Not about their passport. Not about their accent. Not about the clichées that person has to deal with every single day.

More on this in the coming posts.
Stay tuned, and feel free to share in the comments the culturized compliments you paid or received in the past!

Tags: Compliments, Intercultural communication, Culturalization, Clichées about Italians, Beauty, Steampunk elegance

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