Facing Expat Ignorance: part 1 of 3

Narrow minded manExpats struggle.  We strain.  We may even fail and do significant damage NOT because we don’t understand something but because we INSIST on proceeding as if we do.

 

This might sting a little.  “You are ignorant.”

 

I mean that in the nicest possible way (as if that helps).  There’s no real nice way to say it is there?

It’s not the same as other hard truths.

“Hey man, you know I love you with all of my heart, and you have so much to offer the world but I wouldn’t be able to call myself your true friend if I didn’t let you know . . . you’re mouth stinks.”

See?

That works. It still stings a bit because no one wants to hear they have bad breath but I can tell you the painful truth and still completely validate you as a person and a friend.  We’re in this together.  I will be right there by your side until your breath is minty fresh. I love you that much.

Not the same with “ignorant.”

“Hey man, you know I love you with all of my heart, and you have so much to offer the world but I wouldn’t be able to call myself your true friend if I didn’t let you know . . . you are ignorant.”

Ouch.

That’s hard to recover from in a positive, affirming, friendship salvaging way.

I am convinced, however, that the only gateway into cross-cultural success (and quite possibly any other type of success) has much less to do with what you know than it does knowing that you don’t know.

In other words, if you would like to thrive cross-culturally you should probably face it . . . you are ignorant.

Still sting?

In your defense . . . 

When it comes to crossing cultures (specifically the culture or cultures that you have crossed into) you are not nearly as ignorant as you used to be AND you are likely far less ignorant than most of the people where you come from.  

Even before you got on a plane you started fighting the ignorance dilemma by soaking up information like a sponge.  Wikipedia.  Lonely Planet.  Youtube.  Anything you could wrap your brain around that could give you some glimpse into your soon to be new home — you were on it.  And now that you’ve landed you’ve seen things — touched things — tasted things that have expanded your horizons, broadened your perspectives and shifted your paradigms.  

You so get it . . . on a whole new level.  Especially in comparison to the people back home and to the former version of yourself.  

You started like this.

 

Ignorance1

 

But now you’re like this.

 

Ignorance2

 

You’re practically an expert and if you’ve ever gotten the chance to play tour guide for a visitor from back home you may have even surprised yourself.  On the flip side, if you’ve ever returned home for a visit you may have been shocked by the levels of ignorance that you never knew were there before.  

It feels good . . . to get it.  To know.  To understand so much.

Until you consider how much you don’t.

 

Ignorance3

 

Yeah. You are ignorant.

Scratch that . . . WE are IGNORANT.

No matter how good we get at working or doing business or bargaining or speaking the language or engaging people or making friends or navigating challenges or blending in or standing out or just living life as a foreigner — no matter how long we do this or how much we understand — there will remain so, so, so much more that we don’t.

 

And not knowing is NOT the problem . . . UNLESS we insist on proceeding as if we do know.

 

That’s when it gets nasty.  That’s when we fall miserably short of the reasons we came in the first place, whatever those reasons are.  That’s when businesses fail, teams disintegrate, relationships break, families get stretched thin, marriages get damaged, cultures get mocked and the casualties stack up.  That’s when we fall apart and leave too early.  It’s also when we fall apart and stay too long.  

The good news is that facing the stinging reality that we are truly ignorant is the single greatest place to start moving forward from.  

Really.  It is.

So just face it.  You’re ignorant.

Let’s explore that. 

 

Click here to read Part 2 — Embracing Expat Ignorance

Coming Soon:  Erasing Expat Ignorance

 

 

5 Comments

  1. I love your writing style… It’s brilliant, inspirational and there’s so much to learn here.
    Thanks
    Jimmy
    (i couldn’t find any other way to contact you?)

    Reply
    • Kind words Jimmy. Thanks.

      Reply
  2. Love your infographics and writing. This reminds me of a question I was once asked when I was working as a Counselor for Refugees. Someone asked me how come I understand and connect so well with people from all these different cultures. I told them, I don’t understand and that is how I approach them. When starting with a new client, I would approach them with an attitude of: I’m just an ignorant Dutch girl, you tell me about your culture and customs. I once had a Chinese client and to connect with her we met up for tea and I asked her to describe her tea drinking habits, within that conversation she told me of course about tea but also about growing up in poverty, being an only female child in China and how she made her way to Europe. Connecting and understanding in a multi-cultural environment is as you said only possible when we realize how much we don’t know.

    Didn’t mean for this to me such a long comment but I enjoy reading your posts, you put into words so well things that I’ve also seen and experienced. Thanks Gaby

    Reply
    • Gaby — Great example of embracing ignorance and a great approach to knowing people. Thanks for this and thanks for reading.

      Reply
  3. You are soooo funny and hit the nail on the head! Thanks and please never stop writing! Wiebke

    Reply

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