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.”
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.”
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.
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.
But now you’re like this.
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.
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.
Coming Soon: Erasing Expat Ignorance