We typically get the chance to practice and showcase our ignorance more often than others. Like daily — maybe hourly — more for some. The goofy little language gaffes and the awkward culture blunders make for great stories and Facebook fodder but they can also mount up to become the bane of an expat experience.
So does the fact that ignorance is an inescapable reality (especially for the foreigner) mean we should give up and wallow in it? Accept it? Surrender to the idea that we don’t know so we won’t know?
My opinion? Absolutely not . . . but probably so.
We may always be ignorant but we don’t have to be THIS ignorant. We can’t ever understand it all but we could certainly understand more. Daily — hourly — more for some.
For expats who are genuinely ready to become less ignorant (and likely to discover that they are more so than ever):
Here are ten quick thoughts about things we should stop doing.
One: We should stop confusing ignorant with stupid.
Ignorance gets a bad rap. I blame stupidity. The two are NOT the same thing but they are often seen holding hands.
Stupid is always ignorant but ignorant is not always stupid.
Ignorance can be refreshing when it is acknowledged. It can also be the springboard for genuine understanding. That is not stupid. In fact it is the polar opposite.
There is a world of difference between the ugly, arrogant, bigoted tourist and the humble, inquisitive, respectful visitor . . . but they are both ignorant.
It makes sense that ignorance and stupidity are easily confused since they so often travel together but they are not the same.
Withholding judgment is important.
Two: We should stop ignoring ignorance.
Ignoring ignorance takes a million microforms. Shaking your head, gritting your teeth, raising your eyebrow, biting your lip. Offering an opinion as a fact. Starting a sentence with “They always . . . ” or “that’s just like . . . ”
It all means exactly the same thing — “I get it and they don’t.” “I’m right and they are wrong.” “I understand and them? not so much.”
In reality it is more likely that our frustration is growing out of something that we don’t understand. It’s a great place to stop and learn.
To be fair — the likelihood that any of us are going to flip a switch and turn off our visceral reactions is about zero. So let your gut driven teeth gritting serve as an alarm bell (post grit). “Ahhh, this is really frustrating . . . so there must be something here I don’t understand.”
Humility is key.
Three: We should stop confusing knowing with understanding.
Information is vital but it doesn’t change you at your core.
When your mother told you that the pot on the stove was hot she was passing on some great information but the first time you grabbed the handle you came into a whole new level of understanding.
Expats are dangerously prone to mistaking something we have learned for something we understand. We read the books, go to the training, follow a blog (ouch) and we think we’ve got it. There is no intellectual equivalent though, for what our five senses are capable of.
Four: We should stop confusing understanding with agreeing.
Fundamental, core value disagreements are tough — and a fertile ground for ignorance to spread.
Politics. Faith. Education. Child rearing. Culture.
We start wars over this stuff.
We pick teams and huddle up. We teach each other (quite persuasively) about things we already agree on. We high five, amen, chest bump and rally around our rightness. The lefties learn about righties but only from other lefties — the Baptists teach each other about Buddhists. I would assume that vice versa applies across the board.
We’re terrified of a conversation with the actual people that we disagree with. People might think we’ve switched. Sold out. Fallen away.
But understanding a different perspective (from the person who holds it) does NOT equal agreement. In fact, if you’re grounded, it’s likely to strengthen your core. Civil conversations with people on the other side of an issue sharpen understanding.
Respect changes things.
Five: We should stop confusing AN answer with THE answer.
The problem with finding an answer is that we think we’re done.
Boom. Got it. No need to keep searching. I understand it now.
Repeat after me — there is ALWAYS more to it. No matter how good the answer is. No matter how brilliant the source. There is ALWAYS something else to be explored. Another angle. Another perspective. Another opinion that opens the gate to understanding more of what you thought you understood already.
Complexity is a reality.
Six: We should stop learning from the experts only.
Experts are smart (you can quote me on that). They know stuff and they’ve proven themselves worth listening to. You can learn a lot from the masters — but you can’t learn everything.
I can get a PhD in Chinese Studies from Oxford or Harvard and still learn something new by sitting down to eat with a Chinese farmer. I can learn about expat life from the 30 year veteran gurus who have thrived cross-culturally BUT there is still, heartfelt wisdom that comes from the starry-eyed newbie or the guy who fell flat on his face and went home early.
There are sages all around . . . sometimes in the least expected places.
Regular people might shock you.
Seven: We should stop complaining and start processing.
This one is tricky.
Processing and complaining both begin at exactly the same spot but they go to remarkably different places. The statements on the front end are often identical. “This is not good — I hate this.” That’s where the two part company.
- The processor wants a solution — The complainer wants sympathy.
- The processor seeks wisdom — The complainer seeks validation.
- The processor listens to hard truth — The complainer picks their favorite truth and hears nothing else.
- The processor makes changes — The complainer expects others to change.
- The processor learns — The complainer already knows everything.
- The processor gets less ignorant — The complainer gets more ignorant.
The trickiest part is that no one fancies themselves a complainer . . . especially complainers.
Here’s a quick litmus test: Are most of the people around you complainers? Then you might be one too. It’s likely you’re a safe place to gripe and complainers attract their own.
In the end, processors are great for community. They become the wisdom that other processors seek out. Complainers are toxic (but might be really fun to talk to).
Introspection couldn’t hurt.
Eight: We should stop forgetting what we want to understand.
This is so simple it hurts but most people still don’t do it (which hurts worse).
Every single day I come across something that is BOTH interesting AND confusing. Something that I would like to know more about, read about, look up on youtube, check out on wikipedia, ask a friend about. Sometimes I even make a mental note to self — “I should learn about that”
What I fail to recognize (in that moment) is that I have just chucked this important opportunity to erase ignorance onto a massive heap of other things that I would like to learn about . . . someday.
I know this about myself. If I don’t capture it . . . right in that moment . . . it is lost. It may pop up again but I’ll chuck it right back on the heap of good intentions.
There is a fancy tool that the experts use and I’m going to share it with you right here . . . for free.
It’s a piece of paper.
I know . . . mind blown right?
Writing your questions, and confusions and baffled uncertainties down in a notebook or an app or on the back of a business card does not guarantee that you will learn something about it. But NOT writing it down generally guarantees that you won’t.
Making a note is the first step towards intentionality. There are other steps (that’s probably a different post).
The Alphabet will change your life.
Nine: We should stop using periods so soon . . .
I don’t understand these people.
I don’t speak their language.
If you’re like me you (far too often) speak of the present tense as if it were the future. When it comes to cross-cultural issues, I speak matter-of-factly, as if there were no hope for something different.
Here’s a thought. Use a comma. Try a conjunction . . . maybe two. Even better? Do that little dot dot dot thing . . .
Forget the grammar, it’s a way of thinking. An alternate perspective that not only unlocks the door, it opens it and anticipates walking through.
I don’t understand them . . . BUT I really want to . . . so . . .
I don’t speak their language . . . YET . . . AND . . .
I’m ignorant . . . SO could you help me understand?
If you surrender to the idea that your current condition is bound to be your ongoing reality, you’ve settled for ignorance.
Puncuation redesigns what’s next.
Ten: We should stop fixing everyone else.
Neither of us has the capacity to erase the ignorance of the world. Try erasing some of your own though, and see if it’s not contagious.
“Me first” is a powerful phrase
I feel like we’re just scratching the surface here. What have you learned that might help us all face, embrace or erase our ignorance? Help us out — comment below.