Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The dangers of the word 'please' – views from around the world

Our latest guest blogger, Diane Lemieux, writing on behalf of World of Expats, fills us in on dangers of the word ‘please’...

Image source: Flickr / Scott Smith

Being a native English speaker is a blessing: English is the world’s lingua franca so everywhere we go we are sure to find someone that we can communicate with.

But it can also be a curse. The problem is that when other people communicate with us in English they are using their second or third… language. So what? Well, even within the same culture, what a person says and what they mean are often not exactly the same thing. For example, if my husband says ‘fancy a cup of coffee?’ what he means is ‘I’d really love it if you made me a cup of coffee.’ Know what I mean?

Because culture determines a lot of what is meant, the scope for misunderstandings in cross-cultural communication is huge. While someone may be using English words, they are not using the Anglophone culture to express themselves.

I know that this point has been made a thousand times. But from my experience of living in 10 countries and speaking 4 languages, I’ve seen so many examples of how people assume they know what the other person means. They then leap to conclusions about that person without checking to see if their interpretation is correct.

Let’s just take the tiny, simple little word ‘please’.

In North America and the UK the polite way to ask for butter is to say, ‘Pass the butter, please’ or ‘Could you please pass the butter’. However you phrase it, you really should have the word ‘please’ in there or it sounds rude.

In the Netherlands, on the other hand, the polite form regarding butter is: ‘May I have the butter.’ The equivalent to the word ‘please’ is not really required. The impolite form is: ‘Pass the butter.’

So if a native English-speaker is listening to a Dutch person in English, they hear something that sounds rude to them. A common logical error is to jump to the conclusion that the person they are speaking to is rude – in other words that the Dutch person meant to be less than polite.

So when a Dutch kid comes to my house and politely asks for butter, I have to bite my tongue so that I don’t say ‘May I have the butter, PLEASE’ like I would if my kids said it. Although I’m fluent in Dutch, it is still takes effort on my part to listen to cultural meaning rather than the English words.

I now live in Nigeria. Yoruba is the most commonly spoken native language in the region, a highly complex tonal language that is recognised by linguists as a rich and sophisticated language. Politeness in Yoruba is expressed by using respectful titles.

‘Pass the butter, my respected Auntie’ is an approximate example. The problem for native Yoruba speakers using English is that they have to translate all their respectful titles into the simple English word ‘you’. They inevitably, like the Dutch, come across as being rude.

For unilingual speakers, it is probably unfathomable that such differences in expression exist. If you have learned at least one foreign language you may be more aware of differences in meaning and be prepared to listen for nuance. But even then, in order to understand meaning you must be aware of the culture of the people you are speaking with.

Here in Nigeria I watch foreigners walk up to a salesperson and say, ‘Excuse me. Do you have any butter?’ We are being polite according to our norms. But to the Nigerian, they find themselves faced with, according to their norms, yet another rude expat. They therefore point half-heartedly in the general direction of the dairy products. And the foreigner walks away thinking how rude the shopkeepers in this country are.

Had the foreigner used the Nigerian code for politeness, they would have been treated to a completely different level of service. The polite form would have been to acknowledge the existence of the shop attendant: You start off with ‘Good morning,’ and for extra service you add ‘how was your night?’ (Literal translation: did you sleep well? Real meaning: how are you?)

So the key to communicating with other people, even those from our own culture, is to check that we got the meaning right. The onus is on us ‘guests’ who have come to live in a foreign country to understand our hosts and also adjust our own communication patterns accordingly. What’s the point in roaming the world being irritated because everyone is rude but you?

It takes practice. It took me years to cotton on to my husband’s coded messages regarding coffee. One day I just didn’t feel like drinking coffee so I answered no. He got up and made us both a cup. Ah ha!
About the author

Diane Lemieux was born in Quebec, Canada and began travelling at the age of three. She has lived in ten countries on five continents and speaks English, French, Dutch and Portuguese. She has fifteen years experience as a freelance author and journalist. Diane is author of four books including The Mobile Life: a new approach to moving anywhere and Culture Smart! Nigeria. Take a look at Diane’s blog here.

Would you like to guest blog for us? Let us know in the comments section below or by tweeting @expatexplorer!

Friday, 20 June 2014

International or local school? The Pros and Cons

Choosing a school for your children when you move abroad involves making lots of difficult choices. Do you want your kids to learn in the local language or keep consistency with back home? Do you want them to integrate in the new culture or find common ground with fellow expats? It can be hard to get to grips with a new education system and work out what’s best for your children. But here are some things to consider when choosing a new school!

Creative Commons / Photocapy

The international school has many advantages: the main language is English, all the children there will be in the same situation as your own and your kids will become friends with people from all over the world. International schools also have the same system wherever you are, so it’s easy to enrol and overall they could provide the best solution, especially if you’re planning on moving again soon.

However, local schools can also be a great choice. When children attend a local school, it is much easier to integrate with the locals and start to appreciate a new language and culture. If you’re planning on staying for a long time in your new country, it is much more fun for your children to make friends who won’t be moving on, as is often the case in international schools. Local schools might be a bigger challenge at first but they can give your children more stability and a range of life experiences.

Did you choose to send your children to a local or international school? Let us know what you chose and why in the comments below or by tweeting @expatexplorer. And you can always find out which countries scored best for raising children abroad on the Expat Explorer Tool.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Top Five Expat Breakfasts

We asked our followers on Twitter how expat life had changed their choices for the first meal of the day and heard about a range of breakfasts around the world – from miso soup in Japan, to egg and ham in the Spanish sun! Here we look at five top breakfast choices in popular expat destinations.

1.       United Kingdom: Wherever you are in the UK, a filling breakfast is the order of the day. There’s the hearty Full English and the no-nonsense Ulster Fry. In Cornwall? Try hog’s pudding and potato cakes. An expat in Scotland? Sample some tattie scones. Locals will often fiercely defend their region’s variation.


2.       Italy: The pastries may be sweet but the real star of the show is the first coffee of the morning, whether a hastily quaffed espresso or a slowly savoured cappuccino in a local café. This breakfast ritual will soon become an important part of your dolce vita in Italia.

3.       Thailand: Thai food is a big hit among the expat community according to the Expat Explorer survey in 2013 but breakfast may seem a little strange at first to Western palettes. Expect spicy fish with meat, rich, sweet and sour pork – and by the time you’re done it will soon be lunchtime!

4.       Russia: Kasha porridge (made from slow-cooked wheat) is the perfect antidote to cold Russian winters. And any expats who’ve recently made the move to Russia will also be taking part in long-running tradition by starting their days with this filling dish.

5.       Canada: Busy day ahead? Why not start it with a lumberjack breakfast. That’s eggs and sausage, with pork chops, pancakes, syrup, biscuits – basically anything you could want for breakfast combined on one plate. Eat now – and thank us later.

What do you eat for breakfast now you’ve made the move abroad? Let us know in the comments section below or by tweeting @expatexplorer!

Friday, 13 June 2014

Guest Blogger Series: Introducing…Alexander Heyne

Our latest guest blogger, Alexander Heyne, writing from World of Expats, fills us in on four common expat misconceptions.

Image source: Paranormal Point of View
While many of us dream about being an expat, unrealistic expectations are a major reason why overseas assignments can fail altogether (or fail to live up the vision in your head).

By avoiding these 4 misconceptions, you’re much more likely to enjoy your assignment abroad.

#1 It’s going to be one long vacation or holiday.

When I moved to China, I had the rose-tinted glasses common to many other expats: I envisioned constant traveling, lots of excellent food, a life made up of great stories, non-stop fun – basically, the exact opposite of my daily repetitive routine back in the United States.

I often can see the same sense of excitement and anticipation when new expats arrive on their assignments.

But there’s one big problem:  living abroad brings with it the same mundane requirements that living at home does - you still have to pay your rent, feed yourself and your family, pay your bills, go to the gym and exercise, and take care of your day-to-day errands.

People sometimes assume that an expat assignment is like an extended vacation - but it’s not. Although there are many more unique experiences - new places to see, people to interact with, a different culture and language - there is still the daily routine that everyone has to have in order for life to go on.

#2 Being an expat abroad means you’re delaying or escaping your life.

While living in China (and Asia in general) it’s pretty common to encounter foreigners who come from the west in order to sidestep their problems, avoid (or postpone) the working world, and look for an easier lifestyle.

With the lower lifestyle costs, the ease of teaching English and making a decent salary, and the attention they get, China seems like a great place.

Certain other countries (like Thailand) have an entire economy based on the types of foreigners they attract - backpackers whose primary interest is in partying and heading to the beach.

At the same time, there are expats seeking out legitimate careers, mastering second languages, and improving their resume knowing that when they return to their home country they’ll be more competitive candidates at local jobs.

Like most things, what you get out of an expat assignment is largely up to you.

#3 Expat life will automatically broaden your horizons.

We often associate travel with having a “broad mind” but this isn’t always the case. Whereas travel usually makes a person seem more intelligent, this isn’t necessarily a guarantee from a cultural perspective.

Some expats might choose to cut themselves off from the local culture. When I was living in China, I saw that it was pretty typical for foreigners to avoid learning Chinese, whilst not making very much effort to connect with local culture.  

As a result, these people often lived in China for years or even decades and showed very little understanding of Chinese and Asian culture or ethics, and knew very little of the local language.

The individuals who got the most out of living abroad or being an expat made conscious efforts to mingle, grow, and learn more about the locals and local culture. The people who  hung out constantly in expat bars, and only associated with other foreigners, often had the worst connection to the host country, and sometimes the worst experience overall.

#4 Cultural differences will not be a problem for me

Face is an incredibly important Chinese (& Asian) concept. Essentially, looking good, credible and professional is important – and helping others avoid embarrassment or shame is incredibly important. As a result, people will sometimes agree to arrangements that they had no real intention of following through on. If you ask someone to meet-up, they will sometimes say yes but won’t show up. Westerners may view this as "flaky" but in reality it’s giving you face - 面子 mianzi (or helping people avoid losing face) – evading an awkward or embarrassing confrontation.
So that’s why new friends would often say "yes" but never show up. That’s why my romantic advances also were often met with a "yes" but no one arrived for the date.
And that is in part why western businessmen or women think their deals are going through… but they don’t. Think of "yes" as the default "okay, let me think" situation.
So what does this mean for you?
Before you go anywhere for an extended trip, but particularly for those of you doing business abroad, knowing the culture isn’t optional: it’s required.
Think of the thousands of business deals gone wrong not because of business issues – but cultural issues.
And think of the potential friendships, relationships, or life experiences gone sour just because of a simple cultural faux pas?
Know the culture, and you will have a significantly more enjoyable expat experience abroad.
So – research your destination, prepare well, open your mind to the experience and make the most of your time abroad.

About the Author

Alexander Heyne joined World of Expats in 2011 as an online marketing associate. Prior to this he worked as an online marketer and copywriter for a start-up helping to improve their conversion rate and site optimization. Alexander has travelled to over 60 countries, and his personal blog has been featured in INC Magazine, The Huffington Post, & other travel magazines. You can check out more World of Expats blogs Look here, @Worldofexpats on Twitter and connect with them on Facebook here.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Why expat life beats being a tourist

It’s a situation that’s familiar to many – you’re on holiday, it’s a warm summers evening; perhaps you’re relaxing with friends and a glass of wine, and someone makes a joke about how wonderful it would be to live abroad. Maybe that’s the reason that you’re an expat now?  

There’s no question that being a tourist can often sow the seed for becoming an expat. But we think there are lots of reasons why expat life has the edge – here’s why!

1.  You feel more settled
Visiting somewhere new for a holiday or mini break is fantastic – but often short-lived. You might feel that it’s too fleeting, over quickly and inadequate for breaking down cultural barriers. As an expat, it can be a completely different story. Although it can sometimes take some time for you to get to grips with a new way of life, you’ll soon find that places become more familiar and with this comes a sense of feeling settled and even (dare we say!) at home. Gathering a greater understanding of the local culture and etiquette is nearly always a plus –especially in more conservative or religious countries where customs can seem vastly different to what you’re used to.

2.  It’s an education
While it might be bandied around a lot, the saying ‘every day is a school day’ is never truer than when you’re living an expat life. As a tourist, it’s easy to fall into the trap of taking the easy route – perhaps you book an all-inclusive holiday, take a coach transfer that’s organised by your airline and stay within the confines of the resort. When you’re living abroad, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to fall back on the same safety net – but we think that’s a good thing! Not every experience will be easy, but there’s no question that it will be learning. As every expat will tell you, making a few mistakes is part and parcel of life abroad. And, no matter how embarrassing the situation at the time, you’ll eventually you’ll realise that there’s a funny side to every faux pas!

3.  You’re ‘one of them’
Sometimes when you’re visiting a new place you can feel on the edge of what’s going on. Although it’s not unusual to feel a similar way at the start of expat life, spending time learning about your new surroundings and how best to get the most from the experience will serve you well and help you to feel like a local. We think the true indicators are when you find yourself using the phrase ‘I know this great little place’. There also may be no better feeling than being asked for directions by another expat or visitor – although this may only be true if you’re actually able to help…! 

4. Be a tourist as an expat
Living in a different part of the world means that you’re open to a whole new set of travel possibilities – and destinations that you might have deemed too far to travel before may not be out of reach now. When it comes to making the most of things, planning is key: see what’s feasible to do in a weekend, three days or even explore taking a few weeks off to trek around and explore. The world  is your oyster…!

Friday, 6 June 2014

Which expat storyteller are you?

Whilst some expats are in it for the long haul, many embark on their travels abroad knowing they will eventually end.  It might be clichéd to say life is a journey but for expats it is literally true. Whether drawn home by old friends or tempted by the jobs, culture and adventures of a new country, expats understand more than most the importance of savouring the moment while it lasts. It is this adventurer’s mind-set which makes expats such a unique breed and, quite often, fantastic story tellers.

It is also why you find expats jotting down their thoughts in notebooks, recounting their adventures online and collecting bric-a-brac for old time’s sake. Human beings are famously social animals and taking a bit of your old life with you will help you to tell your stories and relive your adventures.  Not everyone wants to be jotting down notes in their diary each night and everyone’s different - so which type of expat storyteller are you?

The Chatterbox

Guilty as charged – this one fits Expat Explorer like a glove. Whether you write as yourself or under a pseudonym, chronicling your travels online with a blog is a great way to share your experiences with others. Not only can you keep your friends up to date with the latest news, you can help other expats learn from your experiences. There are some great sites out there to help expat bloggers connect with each other and keep family and friends up to date with your adventures abroad; joining online communities like these can also be a good way to find your feet when you don’t know anyone.  Many would-be bloggers fall at the first hurdle, setting impossibly high standards for themselves and never publishing a single post! The trick is to keep it short, keep it simple, and keep it regular. Just get your first few blogs out there, before you know it you’ll be climbing up those Google rankings.

Creative Commons / Dmgultekin

The Treasure Hunter
You know who you are. Do you still have those news clippings from the day you were born, a vial of sand from that first beach holiday or certificates for grade 1 breast stroke? If so, why not try a keepsake box. Photographs are all well and good, but nothing gets the imagination flowing like a physical piece of history. In years to come a trinket from Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar could become the jewel from Aladdin’s cave, inspiring the odd exaggerated tale. Sometimes it’s the silly little things that can have the most resonance. The menu from a meal shared with friends, the tickets for that local band or the jersey of your old sports team, the treasure hunter has a story for them all.

Creative Commons / Magic Madzik

The Diarist
Sometimes the old ways are the best ways. There is nothing quite like the considered reflection of writing a diary, but it is often said that diarists rarely read their old entries. You might just be the next Bridget Jones, but for most expats, sharing those first kisses, triumphs and tribulations is more than a little embarrassing. Nevertheless some diarists have become important historical icons in their own right. Scientists are attempting to look further back into the earth’s climate by consulting ancient diaries, whilst London’s Samuel Pepys’s diary is one of the most important English historical sources of the seventeenth century. Keep a watchful eye on the world around and, you never know, your memoirs might just become the defining local history book.

Monday, 2 June 2014

School boy errors: three things to remember for first-time expats

Few expats manage to make the move with complete grace but aside from all the admin, thousands of check lists and boxes of possessions, there are some things which you just can’t afford to forget. Here are our top three.

Creative Commons / Steve Ryan
The importance of knowing the culture
A little paranoia is natural on your first weeks away from home, but if the locals all seem to be giving you a wide berth, perhaps you’re unknowingly committing a faux pas. Finding yourself short of dinner invites in China? It might be because you’re in the habit of finishing the whole meal, rather than leaving a little food left over, which is a polite custom. Our guide to expat faux pas can give you a head start but there is no alternative to doing your research.

Tie up loose ends
Ever had the nagging feeling that you’ve forgotten something? Normally it’s not too hard to pin down but once you’ve relocated your entire life across continents, it’s much harder to be sure exactly what it might be. No one wants to be hit with an unexpected bill so the first step is to get your financials in order. There are more important things in life than bills. Maybe it’s a pen friend who will need your new address, an old love you want to say goodbye to or even the local newsagent you’ve spoken to every day for the past year. When you up sticks and move on, more people will miss you than you realise – so remember to say goodbye, and more importantly, stay in touch!

Remember Mum’s Birthday!
The easiest mistake of all. We’ve all done it, forgotten Mum’s or a friend’s birthday and compensated with some last minute petrol station flowers. Starting up in a new continent might be stressful, but that’s no excuse for forgetting about a big day that’s part of life at home. Keeping track of the things important to friends and family back home is much harder once you move abroad and the answer is organisation. It’s no good shooting off a card when that Facebook reminder comes through - international post can take weeks. Give yourself at least fortnight to prepare for special occasions and set reminders on your phone or calendar so that you stay in the know! Christmas, Diwali, Birthdays, Easter, Hanukkah all require much more time to prepare for but, as many expats will tell you, international and religious holidays like these are likely to become much more important once you head abroad.



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