Expat Life: Let’s Talk About Culture Shock (Part 2)

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I so appreciated hearing from you on my first culture shock post.  Thank you for sharing your perspectives and encounters here, it has helped me think about my own experience more clearly.  Now, round two!

As I was talking with a new American acquaintance the other day, an alarm bell went off in my head, and I suddenly saw myself from the outside, talking earnestly about “them” and what “they always do.”  I felt a little ashamed– I had never meant to talk about British people in those terms.  I don’t want to be that outsider, making judgements on the culture I am living in.  But I couldn’t help it.  It all started with this fellow American I had met telling me how much she enjoyed getting around on her bicycle.  I agreed, and said that I loved walking everywhere, even if it was a hassle sometimes.  She nodded.  But then… I asked the question:  “How do other pedestrians treat you?”  And this is where it all started.  We went back and forth– they are so rude!  They won’t even look at me!  They see me coming and move to the other sidewalk.  What is wrong with themThey never smile.  They won’t say hello….   She told me that her neighbors run inside their houses whenever she or her husband come near.  We had neighbors like that, briefly, when we were waiting to move into our home.  I am so glad we moved.  But even though our neighbors on either side are nice enough, friendly even, I shared her experience.

Here are some scenarios that crystallize what I am struggling with here.

  • I cross paths with the same woman at least twice a day– she takes her child to the same school at the same time as me every day.  I have run into her in town as well, and so I smile at her and say hello.  She glares at me each time. Every day.  Sometimes twice a day.
  • Another lady I see often at school was wearing a cute dress the other day.  I hollered cheerily across the (narrow) street that I liked her dress.  She looked confused, so I repeated the compliment.  She responded by scowling and walking away faster.
  • The other day, I was walking Amelia to school, and another parent and his two children (one is Amelia’s classmate) arrived at a  crosswalk at the same time as us.  I was thinking I might introduce myself, since he was familiar and our kids are nearly friends.  But he turned his back to me the whole time, never even allowing the possibility of making eye contact.  The children didn’t return Amelia’s greetings, either.
  • I smile at people on the street as I’m walking.  The elderly often return the favor, but most people scowl at me, or, as I mentioned earlier, cross over to the other side of the street when they see this crazy cheerful lady coming.  The only exception is when I am completely drenched in the rain, lugging an over-full marketing trolley through puddles.  This inspires good humor, apparently.  Misery loves company.  But happiness?  Not so much.

So, in a few months we’re coming up on our one-year anniversary of living in England, and I am feeling much less comfortable here than I had expected.  I have yet to get a drink with a girlfriend, go to the movies, or be invited to a party.  No one at Amelia’s school has ever invited her over to their house to play, although we have had a couple children over at our house.  Thankfully, she has been to two birthday parties so far, and kids do like her.

It’s not just about feeling alienated, though.  I understand that I’m an outsider, and I’m getting used to it.  It’s the feelings of WHAT IS WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE that for me signal real culture shock.  The fact is, I am the one with the problem, not them.  This is how it is here– people are reserved, buttoned up, cautious when it comes to strangers.  I am the weirdo walking down the street trying to catch peoples’ eyes and somehow make a connection where apparently there is none.  And so, the question is, do I assimilate?  Do I avert my eyes?… Scowl?  I can’t.  To me, it feels sad.  But that’s just me, and I have to realize that when I think in terms of them and they, it is a cultural disconnect, and I am the one that needs to deal.

And this is the part where I’m going to be honest– and it won’t be very flattering, I’m afraid.  At this point, I do want to scowl.  I want to frown fiercely at every parent at my kid’s school that has acted like they couldn’t see the smiling (lonely!) foreigner.  I want to tell that lady that her dress wasn’t really that cute anyway– I was just trying to be friendly!  I want to confront the people who cross the street when they see me coming, force them to make eye contact with me for a moment.  I believe that being human is enough to find in common with just about anyone I meet– that I can have a meaningful connection with any person, if I look for it.  And these days, I want to just stay in my house because I’m often mad at the people around me, for not relating to me in a way that I understand.  This is culture shock, and I hate that I have no immunity to it.

Now that I have established that I am the one with the problem here, what helps?  Well, talking with people does.  I don’t want to talk about it too much with other expats, because after getting the benefit of knowing that I’m not alone and it’s not personal, I don’t want to dwell, or slip into a mode of complaining about or badmouthing the culture I’ve chosen to live in.  But do you know what really is helpful?  Talking to British people about it.  There’s something about just telling someone I trust, “I don’t understand this, and it’s hard for me.”  I have spoken with three Brits about this issue, and each time it has helped me.

  • I told my butcher and his wife about the lady who looked offended by the compliment about her dress.  I was shocked to hear him say, “She probably thought you were being sarcastic.”  Whaaat?  Why would a stranger say something mean like that?! It made me laugh, and I felt kind of sorry that anyone could think I’d go through the effort to insult a neighbor like that.  He also told me that people probably really think I’m weird for walking around and smiling at them.  OK, it’s not personal.  I am the one not following social norms here.  Will I stop smiling? No– it’s part of both my American and Filipino culture.  But I can have more understanding that I may be making people a little uneasy.  I can deal with that.
  • A woman I had recently met asked me plainly what the most difficult thing is about living in England.  I made sure she really wanted to  know before I told her about the scenarios I had mentioned above.  She acknowledged that it sounded normal, but she could see how hard that might be for a newcomer.  She said that, when she’s in the village where she lives, she says hello, smiles and greets people.  “But when I come to town here, I am going about my business, and never look to see who is around me, say hello or make eye contact.  It’s just not something I do in the city.”  This was eye-opening for me. (And I might need to move to a village.)  It was very healing to hear her add, “I suppose that doesn’t make you want to keep living here, though, does it?  That would be difficult.”  Indeed.
  • Last week, I was surprised that a mom at school approached me as I was heading home from drop off, to tell me something really nice about Amelia.  We continued to chat a bit, and walked toward our homes together (a first!)  She told me she had moved here seven years ago, and no one at school was friendly, and that she was afraid I was going to think she was weird for wanting to talk to me about my daughter.  I shared (a tiny bit) about my experiences in this regard, and she just shook her head. “No one has any idea what it’s like to be new to this town.  They’ve all grown up here, and just don’t know what to do with someone they don’t recognize.  It’s terrible.”   I wanted to hug her!  To hear that another person was having the same struggle in her own culture was somehow a huge relief.

These interactions really were informative, and having these “inside” insights helps.  But is it enough?  I have been thinking about this every day.  How long am I willing to try?  Do I want to live like this, really?  Jeff and I get to choose to some degree where we live.  It’s hard for me to imagine flourishing long-term in such a reserved social climate.  Even as a fairly shy introvert, it seems impossible– people and relationships, making connections is so important to me.  And, this is only one aspect of the culture that I’m struggling with at the moment. 

What do you think?  Have you had to make peace with living in a culture that seemed incompatible with who you are?  This, of course can happen in your own country, as well!  I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

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49 Responses to Expat Life: Let’s Talk About Culture Shock (Part 2)

  1. Marilyn May 24, 2012 at 10:48 am #

    Excellent post – This is so similar to what it is like for me living in the Northeast. I often wish there had been the medium of blogging when I moved to the United States as this is the type of thing I would have written. I love your self analysis and recognition even as you admit that it’s still hard. You’re broader analysis of culture shock and feeling you should be immune is how I feel about culture shock. I am going to post on the Communicating Across Boundaries Facebook page – I think it will be great for readers to see. Also I have a book that I think you would love called “Watching the English” It is an English woman anthropologist who takes a step back and studies “her people” It’s hilarious and eye opening.

    • Ariana May 25, 2012 at 7:04 pm #

      Thank you for the book recommendation, Marilyn! I will check it out. I have really loved one written by an American journalist who is married to a Brit, called The Anglo Files. I read it on the airplane coming over here, and almost everything she noted has proved true so far. I would recommend that book to anyone coming here!

  2. Jenny May 24, 2012 at 12:44 pm #

    This was really interesting to read. I have heard similar stories from a Canadian friend living in London (Greenwich). But in the neighborhood where we live everyone is quite friendly and welcoming! Even my very British next door neighbors came by to introduce themselves and I regularly stop people when we are out for a walk so my son can pat their dogs. Maybe it’s because we live in an area with a very high number of expats so we are a bit shielded from this part of British culture. But I can imagine that it is very discouraging to be treated like such an “outsider.”

    • Ariana May 25, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

      I think things are better where there are more foreigners. We will be switching school at the start of the next school year, and I think this will change things for us. There will be more foreigners and people who are new to the area, and that should make a really big difference. I have heard that people here often give each other the cold shoulder even, which both makes me feel better and a little hopeless about future friendships. We’ll see how it plays out!

    • Ariana May 25, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

      Also, Jenny, I’m really glad to hear you’ve had a better experience!!

  3. The Expat Wife May 24, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

    We live in a high expat area, mainly American’s so there is a lot of smiles and hellos but it’s still very clicky. I too have never been invited to anything and I sometimes suspect that out of the 1000 families that live here I might be the only one who has no real friends. Although i am very shy and introverted I am also the sort of person to tell someone I like a dress they are wearing and I loved that you did that. If someone said that to me it would make my day so I am sorry the reaction you received was not friendly. I wish there were more people like you where I live 🙂 I also admire anyone who still says hello to someone who just scowls in return. This was a really interesting, and lovely post.

    • Ariana May 25, 2012 at 7:08 pm #

      Hi Expat Wife– I do wish we could get together sometime! I don’t know how it would go with two shy introverts, but I’m pretty sure we’d get along well! I’m sure you’re not alone in feeling friendless. I am hoping that you will find just the right girlfriend in your area soon!

  4. Anonymous May 24, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

    What a well written post, Ariana! I can identify with you in many ways…I never feel like I fit in, but I’m always the friendly one! I think what your friend is right, everyone has lived in the same town all of their life and don’t know what to do with new people. That happens ALL OF THE TIME here. Whether its people in a town, school, church, whatever- it’s hard for people to extend themselves and make people feel welcome. (That is not a good excuse!)

    I really want to visit you! I’m really good at giving a straight face and not looking at people and smiling…I won’t bring shame! 🙂

    love you! Carol

    • Ariana May 25, 2012 at 7:11 pm #

      Carol, I felt this same dynamic when we moved to Portland. It wasn’t until I got plugged in with the holistic health community that I felt like I had a place or a voice there. And it took WAY too long! Please, please come visit! I know we would have a blast, and it would be good to have a partner in my friendly culture crimes here! 🙂

  5. Megan May 24, 2012 at 3:00 pm #

    Believe it or not, we really struggled with moving to New England from the friendly, more solicitious cultures of the Midwest, Texas and Southern Californina. People have lived in NE their whole lives, they have well-established friend groups already, the weather keeps people indoors much of the year (which makes for great philosophers and writers and thinkers!), and the very old footprint of this city makes small distances seem much greater — 4 miles can be a 10-15 min. drive because of winding one-way small streets that were originally based on cattle paths. I think weather and geography have a LOT to do with the cultural landscape.

    When we first moved here, after a brief initial contact with our neighbors, there was none. However, after the first big snowfall, one of our neighbors plowed our sidewalk for us before we were even awake. Then we didn’t see him again until spring.

    Five years into living here, though, we’ve got a great group of friends and I know and speak to everyone when I get coffee, pick up drycleaning, go to the bank or the grocery. In fact, the other day I was picking up shirts and the lady who owns the shop asked me what I was up to that morning. I told her I was running errands, and she said, “is that all I am to you? an errand?” and laughed. So I said, “what I meant to say was that I was going around to various shops to visit my friends and pick stuff up.” And I realized that it was actually true.

    This culture has grown on me. They wait you out to see if you’re somebody worth investing in. For a while I thought that would never happen, so we should just move. But then it DID happen, and I realized how deep and substantial all of these relationships are — especially compared to the cheerful bonhomie of the cultures I grew up in.

    We just got a new cat, and have been reminded how important it is to wait for the cat to seek us out when she’s ready, and to extend a lot of patience and grace to her in the meantime, and not make demands for her attention. It’s paid off quickly, and is so rewarding to have her come to us on her own, wanting affection on her terms. Our dog, however, was an immediate friend, enthusiastic and loving from the get-go. Sometimes his love is a bit much for me, though, and I’m glad for the independent compansionship of the cat. They’re just different creatures, so different from one another, so different from me. I don’t really prefer one over the other and am glad to have both in my life.

    So, if you decide you like it there for other reasons and have the patience to stick it out, then I suspect that you might be surprised to find yourself a part of a small, but substantial community in a few years. But if the wait is too long and lonely and the payoff too little of a guarentee, then maybe another, more immediately friendly culture would suit you better. For us, other factors — jobs we like, the space to make work, the overall higher quality of life — made the wait worthwhile. But I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have had the patience for it had those positives not outweighed the initial cultural frozen tundra.

    • Ariana May 25, 2012 at 7:16 pm #

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Meg. I think I must be a Bruno! I don’t know if I am willing to stick it out for another 4-5 years, since that is kind of our max time we were planning on staying at all! It would be so sad to make it “in” finally and then be moving on… But I hear what you are saying, that the friendships run deeper, and are worth waiting for. But Jeff’s job here is really good, and we love the country… I love how easy it is to travel to other places, too. I think that if we can break into the community, we could find a deep satisfaction here. If we can make a few solid friendships here and get long-term friends and family to visit, I think it will work… This is definitely the awkward stage.

      Thanks for your insight, dear friend!

  6. Kristen May 24, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

    I feel for you! I’m American, but I have a lot of British friends living in England. It’s interesting because I’ve noticed that my British friends who live in the north are far more outgoing and friendly than my friends in the South. Have you noticed that at all?

    • Ariana May 25, 2012 at 7:18 pm #

      I have only met one person who is from the North, and she WAS really sweet and more outgoing. She was Irish. Honestly, I think I just happen to live in the wrong neighborhood/ school district. I am hoping that changing schools will also change some of the social dynamics. But it IS really good to hear that I’m not crazy– that people here are very reserved, and it’s not just me!

  7. Kristen - Anywhere There's An Airport May 24, 2012 at 11:17 pm #

    I very, VERY much identify with this! Exactly how I felt in Madrid. I was never smiled at – always glared at – stared up and down – and even shoved into. There was is no sidewalk courtesy – where everyone moves for each other. I got so tired of moving for everyone else and STILL getting run into that I put on a stiff shoulder and just started shoving too. I hated that. I agree with your sentiment about how long you want to live feeling this way. So happy you can choose where you live, wherever you decide. Sending you a huge smile from here… and a warm compliment on whatever you are wearing!! :))

    • Ariana May 25, 2012 at 7:20 pm #

      Oh, no! One of the places we have our eye on for moving to eventually is Spain! There is a base in Jerez that we have always wanted to get a position at! Is it the big city, or Spanish culture, do you think? And thanks for the compliment– I’ll take it!!

    • Ariana May 25, 2012 at 7:21 pm #

      Also, I remember your post about people really wearing their emotions on their sleeves, so to speak. How did that effect social dynamics for you? Here, everyone is just so guarded.

  8. Rois May 25, 2012 at 12:41 am #

    I used to mentor Russian women who were survivors of domestic violence and the thing that was a hard adjustment for the women and myself was when a Russian says “How are you?” they want the WHOLE story not just the usual American “Fine thanks.” Russian’s also tend to ask what American’s think of as personal questions.It sounds like Russian’s and their openness is the opposite of the reserved English.

    It was interesting to find the balance point.I needed to understand their culture but part of what I was doing for them was helping them learn how function in America like an American.Lots of talking through things helped.

    When faced with a cultural difference I would remind myself “It’s a Russian thing” and not take it too personally. I guess I would suggest to you to ask questions in an honest way and learn to roll with some of it.

    Good Luck!

    P.S,This is my first time posting here.I saw your old kitchen on Apartment Therapy and it linked to here.I then realized that I had met you and your family at the children’s shoe store I was working at in Portland Oregon.Amelia had on the most darling coat and she was such a intelligent.well spoken doll she stuck in my head.She really did remind me of a 1940’s storybook girl.Then I saw her photo on your blog and was surprised.I hope this does not sound creepy,my finding and enjoying your blog is just a random thing in it’s own odd way.

    • Ariana May 25, 2012 at 7:26 pm #

      Hi Rois! First of all, not creepy at all that you happened to run into us in Portland. That is a crazy coincidence, and pretty cool! Are you on Hawthorne? I can only guess that was a green coat that we bought in Germany!

      I like what you said about asking more questions to understand better. Also, not taking things personally, if it’s an “English thing.” That’s partly what is so great about blogging- I have been able to connect with other foreigners and hear that my experience is not unique– therefore, it must not be personal. I am a really sensitive and intuitive person, and I often wonder if I am doing something wrong– so hearing that it’s cultural sets my mind at ease.

      I also wanted to mention that I was often surprised in Germany when I would greet someone ask how they’re doing. I got all sorts of answers, including “Heartbroken!” I loved the honesty, and sometimes felt a little sheepish that I had been asking as a courtesy– but still honored that people were honest with me about how they really were doing.
      Thanks for sharing your experience, I really valued hearing from you!

    • Rois May 25, 2012 at 10:49 pm #

      It was on Hawthorn! And yes it was her coat that struck me as being so perfect.Glad you didn’t think it was creepy and I will be posting comments again.

      My husband and I are looking at moving to Australia for better work opportunities so this post was interesting to read through.

  9. Melissa May 25, 2012 at 2:21 am #

    I’m somewhat dealing with the exact opposite of this right now. Brazilians are very friendly and see Americans as the distant ones. My husband’s Brazilian coworker had lived and worked in the US for two years, so he knew how difficult it was to be an expat who had just arrived. The night we arrived, he and his wife picked us up form the airport, helped us get settled into our apartment, and even ran to the grocery store to get some essentials so that we had something for breakfast the next morning. As they were leaving, he told my husband that we could call him anytime and for any reason, but that he knew how reserved Americans were so that he wanted to give up space.

    I’ve also had a few other encounters with Brazilian woman who have reached out to me, but I am not sure how to get past that initial first step of developing a friendship. I think that they all view Americans as reserved so they are waiting for me to make the next move. But since I have no idea what to do, I just don’t do anything. After reading your post, I’m afraid that I might be making just as bad of an impression on them as the British are making on you! I guess it’s time to make the next move. If I end up looking like an idiot, hopefully they will just attribute it to me being a foreigner.

    • Ariana May 25, 2012 at 7:33 pm #

      Melissa, I think people generally have a whole lot of grace for foreigners, especially if they have known them in the past. I openly asked my German friends to PLEASE tell me if I was rude– I was so aware of doing the wrong thing! I love hearing how warm and helpful your husbands’ co-workers were– I am sure they will be very gracious with you in the future, too!

  10. alison owen May 25, 2012 at 2:27 am #

    This brought back a lot of memories for me! I moved to England from Southern California when I was 20. Luckily, I moved to Oxford, so the population was a bit more international and I had a lot more people to choose from. But I remember feeling like people thought I was crazy to be so open and outgoing. I can’t tell you how many people thought I was hitting on them when I was just (in my mind) being friendly. Over time I got used to it, made friends (getting a job helped, then going to school), and adjusted my behavior a bit to match the culture, although I was still a smiley over-sharer by most Brits’ standards…
    I feel like NYC (and Brooklyn in particular) is the perfect climate for me, socially. Strangers are incredibly helpful and want to share information about the best street food, shops, parks, etc (civic pride, I guess- I totally do it, too), and yet it remains this outside thing that I can retreat from when I want to be alone. I have a few good friends that I hang out with sometimes, but mostly for activities like yoga or church or work. I don’t feel like I am someone who does well with a large and active social life but I do like people and want to know what they’re up to, so…this is my solution. I am very curious about the lives of others and I think you are, too. It’s one of the reasons I have enjoyed moving/traveling so much, but I am also glad that I managed to land somewhere, because searching for home can be exhausting. I hope you find some answers!
    And yes! to Megan’s comment about New England. Having lived a few years near her in New England, I can totally relate to the chilliness but also to the great community under the surface. And I miss being her neighbor…

    • Ariana May 25, 2012 at 7:42 pm #

      Hi Alison! I loved hearing about your time here in England. I do think that places like Oxford, Cambridge and London can be much easier, just because there are so many more foreigners (or people from the UK who are also newcomers.) I don’t see myself as super outgoing either, but to be perceived that way is funny, right? And the feeling like you are hitting on people… Totally accurate!

      One of the problems with traveling a lot it that you start thinking about all of the places that are out there, and about how they might be better than where you are right now… I know we experienced a deep sense of being welcome when we were in Italy (just for a few days) and I have always wanted to go back and see if we felt as good there long-term as we did when we were just visitors. And not being committed to staying any particular place makes it harder to settle for a difficult dynamic. We will give it another year, then re-evaluate.
      Alison, thanks for sharing your experience– I loved hearing about it.

  11. Dana May 26, 2012 at 7:18 am #

    I had this very same “city vs. country” experience in northern Italy. Fortunately, we have settled on being country mice and it is now all working out; however, even in the little village many people were still very reserved initially. After four years, most have loosened up a bit, but our best buddies are those who were open from the beginning!

    • Ariana May 26, 2012 at 7:47 pm #

      Hi Dana, thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience! I have to say, I’m surprised to hear that it took a while to feel welcome in your village. When we visited Italy last year after living in Germany,it felt like the whole country was giving us a big hug– everyone was so warm, we didn’t even realize we had been starved for that kind of affection. I guess daily relational warmth can be quite different from being welcomed into village life. I am glad to hear that you are feeling at home now! When I think of moving to a “relationally warmer” climate, I think of Italy. It’s good to hear from someone who lives there, as it is SO easy to romanticize a place you haven’t lived in before.

  12. Great Scott May 26, 2012 at 8:41 am #

    Oh Ariana. Knowing you, this makes me so sad (almost angry!) to read. Meeting friendly people or having a little dose of friendship each day – even just a simple hello on the street! – is so critical and I am sad that despite all your efforts this is so difficult to find. I was interested to read your second “Brit comment” – about being in a village versus a city. I have found living in a village to be so friendly and warm – almost to the point that it seems surreal to have so many lovely experiences. Jake and I have talked about it before – whether it is England or Iffley that we are really experiencing – and judging by your post, it seems that we are indeed experiencing England through the lens of a village. And…maybe you might like that best too?? I can imagine how hard it would be to keep trying in the face of all those scowls but I am happy that you do. And I’m happy that you’ve made a few good contacts (the butchers, the mom from Amelia’s school) and I hope those grow in time. Hugs my dear!

    • Ariana May 26, 2012 at 7:53 pm #

      Thanks, Sarah. Of course, I shared the hardest interactions to prove my point– but I wouldn’t want anyone to think that we don’t have any friendly faces in our lives. Our neighbor today gave us an old chicken tractor she doesn’t need anymore, and is always really cheerful and helpful. Gradually, some of the moms at Amelia’s schools will hint at a smile, or say hello to me. I still wish I had an actual friend here, but I am trying to just be patient and positive. And I think you are right, that your village life is special. Jeff has a co-worker that lived here and liked it, but found that everything was so much warmer and like they really fit in, when they moved to a village nearby. I can’t even fathom neighbors coming over to introduced themselves here, but she said that everyone did. I think that we also happen to be at the wrong school. There is another public school (I mean that in the American sense) that has more international families, and I have heard that the climate is very different. We are planning to send Amelia to a montessori for the next school year, and I think that will be really different as well. Sigh… I AM really thankful for the people here that have been kind and helpful– they have no idea what it has meant to me, I’m sure!

  13. monika May 27, 2012 at 8:58 pm #

    I’m so sorry about what you are experiencing!

    I always imagined the British to be friendly and chatty, but maybe that is only in certain touristic and sales situations, and like someone said, in villages. It’s great that you have locals to help you decipher what is going on though; that’s an ace up your sleeve. Did your friend the butcher have any suggestions on how to melt the ice?

    In France and Switzerland, it was comparatively easy, even with the language issue, because there are socially-proscribed forms of behaviour, and they are pretty easy to figure out. The locals all look you in the eye, and greet you formally (Bonjour Madame or Bonjour Monsieur, never just a casual Bonjour!). If you have a dog, you have it made! People in our former neck of the woods loved dogs (children on the other hand, were best if invisible), and so if you were walking with one, it was very easy to strike up a conversation with someone, especially another dog walker. Maybe the British are the same?

    My advice though, is to try to find a way to move to Geneva. There are of course no bases nearby, but many international schools in need of English students, and I would guess, with an even greater need for specialists to treat children with developmental issues in English.

    The very large expat community guarantees you a community of third culture kids (as adults and kids), and we found the local Swiss and French to be lovely. My husband loved going to have his hair cut at some inexpensive chain (like first Choice), and talking philosophy with the stylist. And I loved our butcher (funny about butchers, isn’t it? 😀 ), and our Italian greengrocers. Not to mention our goat cheese farmers…

    How strange about the lack of friendliness though… I wonder if it is like this all-over, or whether this is a local peculiarity?

    • Ariana May 28, 2012 at 8:59 pm #

      Yes, I think we should move to Geneva!! It sounds like a really cool demographic! My grandparents have traveled all over the world, and they always told me that Switzerland was their favorite place. I know it sounds a little narcissistic, but TCKs are seriously some of the coolest people. Just from having this blog, I have met some of the most interesting and thoughtful people online!

      I don’t know if the lack of friendliness is specific to where I am. I think it’s kind of English, based on feedback I’ve been getting. However, it sounds like villages and more international cities (like Oxford and Cambridge) are much easier to get along in as a foreigner. We could move to Cambridge, but after almost a year here, I feel like we could break in soon…. Amelia will start at a new school in the fall, and I think it will be much more conducive to building relationships. After talking to locals, it sounds like we are in a particularly difficult school social situation. We picked the wrong one…

      And, what is it about loving food that really brings out the best in people? The nicest people we have met are somehow into food– our butcher, a local restauranteur… And I feel most at home at our weekly market, amongst the vendors!

      As always, Monika, I love hearing your point of view!

    • monika May 29, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

      Just been chatting with the fellow repairing my washing machine (my washing machine has been broken for 3 weeks! It’s been a nightmare… no laundromat anywhere nearby!) — he’s British, and I shared some of your experiences — he immediately got the dress thing too, saying “why, she prob’ly assumed she was being sarcastic!”. That’s what it is — they use irony and sarcasm much more than we do in North America. I’ve noticed how the English love to play with words to a degree that we don’t even begin to touch.

      His advice is to hang out at the local pub — everyone goes for a pint after work, and that is where people hang out to be friendly. (he and his wife have found it challenging here in Canada to make friends, because they find people are not as friendly as back home! Finally, they moved to a village, and have found a community.)

      I suspect too that because the towns are much more dense than what we are used to — houses are much closer together — the British have developed these walls around themselves in order to preserve some privacy. The Swiss have high hedges and fences around their homes so that you can not even see in, whereas the Dutch have HUGE picture windows with NO curtains and the glass is always sparkling clean — so that you *can* look in! Funny, isn’t it?

    • Ariana May 30, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

      Oh, that is super interesting that the repairman came to the same conclusion as my butcher! I still can’t wrap my brain around people shouting sarcastic insults to strangers, though.
      I have actually heard about the pub thing. But I have to say– it is SO tricky to do with kids. I know people really, really loosen up here after a few drinks, but most pubs won’t actually allow children, even earlier in the day. Our favorites also started barring children from coming in. There is one we can take Amelia to here in Bury, and another we can go to a little further out. In the summer, families can hang out in the gardens… But it’s not nearly the same as having a drink alongside the locals. Jeff will occasionally go grab a pint at our nearby pub, and chat a bit. But as a married woman, it’s totally different– unless I were to be invited by a woman friend.

      That is a super interesting observation about windows! Here, they say “The higher the fence, the better the neighbor.” Luckily, we have really great neighbors who don’t mind saying hello through the fence. 🙂

  14. monika May 27, 2012 at 9:03 pm #

    oops… hard to write while talking to children! i meant to say that the international schools are always looking for English-speaking teachers (not students!) — if you are a specialist, as your husband is, it is much easier to get a residency permit because it is highly unlikely that a local resident will be available.

  15. Hausfrau May 29, 2012 at 11:24 am #

    Ariana,
    I find this all so fascinating, because I share so many of the same feelings. In Japan, it became pretty normal to us not to smile at people on the street and especially not our neighbors, because since people tend to live so close to each other, it is considered polite to avert one’s eyes at certain times to give the other people privacy.

    And you know (despite an experience that in many ways seems friendlier than ours has been) that in Germany, people often think you are mentally-challenged if you smile at them when you don’t know them! We have kind of adjusted to that, though we still smile at some people in our village–and definitely if we have met them at some point. Some of the not-smiling or not-talking we have attributed to language barriers, though, so your experience with the same thing in England leaves me a bit puzzled (though our American friends living in Yorkshire this year have experience something very similar).

    There’s much more I could say, but I’ll leave it for another time. Just know that I am commiserating!

    • Ariana May 30, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

      Diana, I had heard that people in Japan were super friendly! I haven’t spoken to anyone yet who had lived in Japan and not totally loved it. I get the impression that you did really love it, but I guess I am just surprised that people were more reserved. Interesting about averting the eyes to offer privacy. I guess it’s respectful, rather than cold…

      In Germany, I remember taking my camera to the open market, and people really smiled at me– I think they could tell I was happy and excited about what was going on, and they appreciated that. But you are right about people not smiling at each other if they were strangers. I remember being really weirded out about the way people would stare, and then not even crack a smile when you made eye contact. That was hard to get used to. Also, they wouldn’t drop their gaze!! So different… Yet, somehow, it felt easier than what feels to me like acting like I’m invisible. I remember I used to sit in the window of my apartment, and watch people walk by. A few times, people on the street looked up and waved at me! I loved it.

      It is really, really helpful to hear that other families are experiencing the same thing here. I don’t know why it helps, exactly, but it does. I guess it helps me feel like I’m not crazy!! 🙂
      Thanks for your input, Diane!

  16. Mary De Bastos May 29, 2012 at 9:36 pm #

    I’m an American living in Scotland (4 yrs now!) and married to a Portuguese man raised in Venezuela. Culture shock is our middle name!

    I too have noticed the mom’s at the library not being friendly with me. They look but don’t talk to me. They talk to everyone else. BUT, I have a great church group of friends and we get together often. I’ve taken a Spanish class and everyone was so friendly and interesting. The more I’m getting into smaller groups it is easier to make friends. I think it is hard for Brits to strike up a conversation at the school pick up or in line at the check out. Getting yourself into some fun activities or classes will really make a difference. People get to know you on a more personal level!

    It helps to remember WE are the odd ones out. We’re not the same. WE have chosen to live in a different culture. We must adapt. They don’t need to. We do.

    • Ariana May 30, 2012 at 9:07 pm #

      Hi Mary, thanks for stopping by, introducing yourself and weighing in! I completely agree with you about finding smaller groups to help build a sense of commonality and belonging. I happened to get a super reserved group in my pottery class, but slowly they are starting to talk to me a little. I would really love to take a French class and join French conversation classes, since talking to each other is part of the deal! Also, I am looking for some kind of fun physical activity. There is something about doing something tricky or out of your comfort zone on a physical plane that helps people laugh and not take themselves so seriously. That would be really ideal for me, since it also requires less direct conversation.

      And having the right perspective about who it is that needs to figure out a way to adapt is absolutely critical!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences here.

  17. Anonymous February 20, 2013 at 9:26 pm #

    I’ve loved reading about your experiences. I hope the situation has improved since you’ve written about it. I’ve only lived in the US but have been absolutely amazed by how hard ,sad and lonely I found NEW England. It was similar to your descriptions above and I was so shocked by how little interest the residents had in the entire sprawling, facinating world around them. My husband is from New England where families would often live in the same towns or even homes for countless generations.I felt as though I was suffocating and eventually, after 5 years, moved away. New England wasn’t going to change and 5 years of lonliness and freezing was enough for me. I do believe this behavior is/ was cultural and stems from their English heritage. So many other regions/ states in this country have been much, much more friendly: New Jersey, Virginia, Arizona, Texas have all provided us with joy. I do hope that you find joy soon as well. You’ll cherish it that much more after experiencing the culture shock mentioned above. Good Luck. I wish I could be there to help you show them how happiness can spread with a little kindness, open hearts and laughter. keep me updated and we’ll schedule a British outing someday just for the fun of it!
    On a different topic, I’ve added your chicken curry recipe to my recipe board on pintrest (hope you don’t mind). I can’t wait to try it and hope that my sharing it brings more readers to your very interesting blog. Thank you and friendly, American style hugs to you! Gwen B. Belafam at aol dot com.

  18. Susan Gaines May 20, 2013 at 11:54 pm #

    Well, this is such a fascinating and multi-layered issue. And from all this we get, “…birds of a feather stick together.” Perhaps I should just tear up my passport now. What an eye opener and heart deflator. That Amelia certainly is God’s gift & a social forerunner. My dear friend in Texas 3 years now still hasn’t made an intimate friendship. Isolated by address but also difficult to break into the cliques. Love you and your little family and empathize with how difficult this is.

  19. Pooshy August 2, 2013 at 11:15 pm #

    Blimey what a miserable bunch we Brits are!!! We are not all like that, but many, many are. Not me though, I am a bit of a loon and actually smile at people in the street, though I get the same results as you do. I have always wondered why people are so miserable!
    I have holidayed in America and it was great, please and thank you were said respectfully and lots of smiles and how are you doing! When you say ‘Have a nice day’ you mean it! When we say it, it is with sarcasm.
    We have no manners any more, just a little common courtesy would be nice but.
    I think my being an army brat taught me to respect others cultures and ways so I am more likely to smile at people and say ‘Hi’. It’s a sorry state of affairs I know.
    I have lived in towns, cities and very small villages and it is really difficult to fit in, and I am British, makes me ashamed sometimes.
    Wish you all the best 🙂
    A smile is such a little thing isn’t it?

  20. Sharon November 14, 2013 at 4:45 am #

    How was your husband able to work in the UK as an American? Is he working for the military?

  21. Anamaria April 17, 2014 at 6:39 pm #

    Hi Ariana, I lived in England when I was young, five years, and only made one friend, I know what you have experienced, I feel completely identified with you, until this day I can say that I learn I was not the only one. My self esteem suffered a lot because I thought it was for being a foreigner, because I was learning their language, etc. Thanks for sharing

  22. Sara June 3, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

    Hi Ariana!
    A native Brit here, who’s very sorry to hear about your issues with making connections and friendships.

    Firstly, a little about me: I’m a Undergrad with as-yet-unfilled dreams of being location independent, and an obsession with travelling. Until a year ago, I hadn’t made it outside of the UK apart from the occasional family holiday, or even rarer school trip. However, I’ve despite a serious lack of funds (student paying my own way through Uni) and being tied to my campus, I decided to commit to developing my ‘intercultural fluency’, and it’s paying off. As well as two trips to the Middle East (sponsored volunteering), I have also visited 12 different European countries since September on various short shoestring trips. Just as importantly, I have thrown myself into building friendships among the International Students on my campus. My housemates are Bangladeshi and Romanian (previously Lithuanian and Hungarian), and I am lucky enough to have friends from all over the world. I like to say that I consider myself an International Student even though I study in my home nation 🙂

    My NUMBER ONE top tip for meeting people, whoever you are, is VOLUNTEERING. I am a little obsessed with it, especially since starting Uni (I have volunteered at 150+ events). Without exception, it is the best way to have new experiences and really integrate with a community. Plus volunteers tend to be lovely people, even if I do say so myself! I personally run fairly ambitious projects these days but the best entry point is volunteering in a charity shop. There will DEFINITELY be one close to where you live, it’s a flexible set-up (you can probably take your daughter into help) and it’s a great opportunity to talk to people. Which leads me nicely onto…

    WORK. From looking around your blog (I’m new here), I’m guessing you don’t have a conventional job with a workplace? If that’s the case, I definitely would recommend picking up a part-time job. Ideally, working one evening a week at the local pub would be PERFECT as you’d get to meet lots of people who are already in a relaxed state-of-mind. In case you haven’t picked up on it yet (and I really don’t mean to patronise!) British people really exist in separate ‘work’ and ‘play’ modes. Unless they are at home, in the pub, or in similar purely social situations, the stiff-upper-lip stereotype often holds true to a greater or lesser extent depending on age, region, city/country etc. Some of the ‘most British’ (rugby, cricket, Pimms etc.) people I know actually have confessed to me that they worry about being too informal AROUND THEIR OWN PARENTS, and refuse to dress down around them, etc. Personally, I think this is sad, and may be connected to boarding schools etc., but it’s not something I have personal experience of. If you come to MY parents house, my mother will not let you leave until you’ve had at least 3 beverages, a hearty meat-based meal (Sunday means Dad’s Roast, cooked to allow for at least 50% more mouths than planned), and they will try and get you to stay overnight.

    In fact, a lovely way to describe the British social sensibility is a columnist’s argument I once read that without alcohol, the British race would die out within a generation. Which isn’t to say we’re all terrible alcoholics (though we’re mostly partial to a drink of somekind, and I’m yet to meet another European nation with the readily-available variety of drink-options), but we take a push to break out of our shells. As a fellow introvert, try and understand that we’re all socially conditioned to be a 50% more reserved/shy than Americans, and you’ll understand. I was explaining to a Kuwait-y, an Indian and a Dutchman (honestly!) the other day, that us Brits find the American approach to greetings rather intimidating! What you may intend as genuine cheery politeness, often reads as brash or insincere. We are raised not to talk about many subjects for fear of causing offence (never sex or money, only politics or religion if you already know the other parties views on the subject, etc.)

    For this reason – and back to the alcohol thing – British courting classically follows the pattern of: 1) Encounter someone you fancy at work/school/socially, 2) Spend at least a couple of months awkwardly trying to engage in conversation without saying the wrong thing or coming off as too full-on, 3) Eventually use complex social engineering (i.e. asking a friend to invite you to the same party) to end up in the same room as them in a more social environment, 4) Have one to many drinks, get more physical than intended 5) Feel too embarrassed to broach the subject until a second or third later party 6) Repeat until brave enough to broach the subject of a relationship – The world American idea of “You’re attractive, I’d like to arrange a 1-2-1 date situation to get to know you more, so will straight up ask you” is a little alien to us!

    So, perversely, if you wanna get invited to a party, you kinda have to go to one. Obviously, this will sound terrifying, but if your Hubby is up for backing you up on it, I’d suggest you arrange one and invite people over (neighbours, teachers from your daughter’s school, people in pub, whoever you can find really). They will be a lot more receptive to talking in that situation than in the street. With the summer well and truly underway, I suggest a BBQ. Go chat to friendly Butcher, and while buying the meat invite him and his wife. That’s food and two guests sorted straight away (6 adult guests + any kids would be more than enough here). If that is a step two far, find other things to get involved in. I’ve mentioned volunteering – have you heard of Rainbows/Brownies/Girl Guides (British equivalent of Girl Scouts). I think Amelia is Brownie age. Great way to get her to meet more kids, and parents who help out will be easy to talk to…

    In fact GOLDEN RULE – British people are easier to talk to indoors! Calling to people on the street isn’t particularly acceptable, nor are conversations at bus stops (unless you’re 65+ for some reason), but conversations in pubs/shops etc., especially with staff are. Dunno why, though.

    Finally, PLEASE DON’T BE SCARED OF THE PUB. There is absolutely NO RULE that says you can’t go there alone as a married woman. Maybe in Victorian times, but not now. Until Starbucks, sushi bars and night clubs, the local pub was all we had. And it’s a crying shame that many are closing down due to reduced trade because of other options. Many foreigners I know say a proper British pub is the one thing they’d take back to their country if they could.

    Here are some unwritten rules about what is A-OK in a pub:
    > You can arrive on your own. In fact, every pub has at least one guy that does it every day at exactly the same time. Don’t be him, but try it at least once.
    > The bartenders don’t bite. If you have no-one to go with, turn up alone, ask to try the house ale (proper British heritage/real food experience right there, as long as it’s a decent pub) and have a chat with the person behind the bar while you enjoy it. It’s a sipping drink, so there’s half-an-hours no-pressure social interaction right there!
    > You can basically stay as long as you want. Get a drink/snack, find a corner, and settle down as long as you want with a good book or newspaper, or watch the world go by (coffee-shop style, I guess, though those are a newer idea in the UK).
    > You can definitely strike up a conversation with strangers. Good topics are the weather, sport, current affairs, or local news. Pub goers like to ‘put the world to rights’, so be prepared to hear an armchair philosophers opinion on UKIP – in fact this is the only social area in which politics are usually deemed appropriate.

    How to spot a good pub:
    > They are NOT a chain. (Although Wetherspoons chain pubs are pretty unbeatable price-wise)
    > They serve proper ale and cider, including one local option, and a quality, small, seasonal menu of home-made food. A really good pub will be able to tell you where it’s meat and beer/cider is from, and if they know the supplier/brewer, you’re onto a winner.
    > They feel like someone’s house. Pub is short for ‘public house’, and a really good one featured comfy old armchairs, complimentary newspapers and a dog curled up in front of a real wood fire.
    > A wonderful landlord/landlady. They will be there nearly 24/7 (usually living upstairs), be able to tell you about everything from the history of the building, to the content of the sausages. They will know the local brewery intimately, and just about everyone else who is anyone (wanna know when the next church fete is? or the best local carpenter? ask them!) And most importantly, they will learn what you like to drink, and offer it to you next time you’re there with the words “The usual?”

    Pubs like this are a dying breed. Find one and never let it go.

    ***BONUS: Most pubs have FREE Wi-fi***
    So, even if you’re too shy to talk to anyone on your first visit, just take your laptop along, find a corner, and work on your blog! Much more sociable than working from home, and you’re guaranteed to make friends with some locals within a few visits. Plus hot/cold, soft/alcoholic beverages on tap. #winning.

    Hope that was little insight? x

  23. Claudia Thompson April 22, 2015 at 6:02 pm #

    I moved from America to England, and am now living in Wales with a British friend. I just decided today to type in google something like, “I am in America and moved to the UK and people are snobs” to see what I could find, and see if other people are having the same problem.

    I am baffled about the lady next door to me. The houses are all connected together for starters, so it makes it difficult to avoid seeing your neighbors outside frequently. When I go outside to hang out my laundry, the woman next door will be outside hanging out her laundry and is always facing towards my house. I walk right past her and always say hello and smile. But she acts as if I am invisible. It is so strange. I don’t know what to do.

    I have done absolutely nothing wrong to her, I don’t even know her. I find it difficult to figure out why she would act this way towards me. I wonder sometimes, does she know that I am an American? Is that why she won’t even acknowledge my existence? She talks to my friend I am staying with, who is a man, but she never says a word to me at all. He is British, so it makes me wonder if that is why she is friendly to him but not to me.

    One day my friend and I were walking past her house in the back, and she was outside. my friend said hello and she said hello back, something she never does do to me. Today, I went outside to hang out my laundry, and walked past her and said hello, and she literally turned her back to me, saying nothing… she pretended as if something else had gotten her attention and literally turned around till I walked by. This to me is just so bizzare! And so all I can think of to do is to just completely act as if she is invisible from now on I guess, but for me it will be really difficult. I am from Texas, and am used to having people be friendly. I mean, I am not trying to start up a friendship. It is just that to me, it is abnormal not to be civil and at least say hello.

    I was married to a man from England before I moved to Wales, but we got a divorce, and he used to say over and over how shocked he was when he went to America with me for a month, at how friendly people were there. He told me that when I got to England people there will not say hi when you walk down the street. Boy do I ever believe that NOW! Speaking of England, one time when I first moved there and I was in the grocery store, this one lady and I were standing there getting stuff down from the shelves and I make a simple remark of how cute I thought her purse was. I was simply making conversation. She walked off in a huff, mumbling something like, Yeah well you aren’t getting it from me!” And I thought, WOW! Did she actually think I was going to try to steal it or what?

    Then on the other side of me where we live in Wales, there is this lady who is continually standing outside in her backyard at the fence, just waiting for people to come by so she can talk to them. She always talks to my male friend, but never to me. Once she finally did say hello to me though. When I was with my ex-husband, any time I would talk to a man when we went somewhere, he would practically run up to us and ‘guard’ me. This made me wonder if everybody is afraid you are going to ‘steal’ their husband or wife from them? I asked him once why nobody had a barbeque grill in their back yard, and he said ‘because someone would ‘nick it’ or steal it. In Texas it wasn’t that way at all. Perhaps that is part of the problem. Everybody is scared someone will try to get something from them? I don’t know. But its miserable for me here. The only person who has been friendly to me here is an old woman across the way from me.

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