Comfort in the crosshairs

It’s fast approaching the end of the year, which means we have time for just one more Expat Dispatches for 2011. As always, your faithful expat dispatchers from the four corners of the globe are:

  • North: Linda in The Netherlands
  • South: Russell in Australia
  • East: Erica in Japan
  • West: Me, of course, in Canada.

The December edition of NorthSouthEastWest is something very dear to our hearts. It’s the thing or things that drive us crazy as expats. This month’s theme is therefore an open invitation to have a good ole fashioned rant and is called It’s driving me round the bend!

At In Search of a Life Less Ordinary, Erica shares her (absolute lack of) love for packaging in Japan.

At Adventures in Expat Land, Russell is wondering why it’s always so flamin’ hard to get any sleep round here.

At Expatria, Baby, I’m breathing a sigh of relief that I’m free of the Expat Hierarchy.

And right here, at I Was an Expat Wife, Linda finds discomfort in discomfort.

So sit back, enjoy these four no-holds-barred posts, and look forward to a wonderful festive season wherever in the world you and yours may be!

Comfort in the crosshairs

by Linda at Adventures in Expat Land

Comfort in the crosshairs

Image credit: Seabreeze portfolio, morguefile.com

I’ll be honest with you. Sharing what really bothers me about another country or culture makes me uncomfortable.

It isn’t that I’m a Miss Goody Two Shoes who only finds the very, very best in every situation. Although I do admit that I usually try to seek the upside. I’ve always been a ‘glass is half full, not half empty’ kind of gal.

Besides, part of the challenge, excitement and fun (yes, fun) in living in a different culture is learning, appreciating,  understanding and reaching some level of acceptance.

That’s why I really cringe when I hear or read people moaning and complaining ad nauseum about this facet or that regarding the country in which they reside.

I just don’t enjoy whiners. Or people who seem to think they are superior to others.

Give me light-hearted and amusing any day, not small-minded and ranting.

Complaining about other cultures flat out grates on my nerves.

I’m not talking amusing anecdotes that poke gentle fun and provide a peek into the national psyche. And  I know that sometimes people are having a tough time and just need to vent a little. But when they kick it up several notches and get that dismissive tone it drives me crazy.

No doubt part of my discomfort lies in having been on the receiving end of some grief about being an expat in general, and my home country, nationality and ‘Americanisms’ in particular. Over time I’ve developed a thicker skin, and learned to ignore it (well, most of the time) and just let it go.

I remind myself that it says so much about the person making negative comments than it does about the people of whom they are speaking.

Besides, let’s face it. In the days heading up to Christmas, I’m not particularly motivated to work up a head of steam about whatever peeves me about living in Nederland.

All those Christmas carols playing softly in the background, the decorated tree and mantles, my all-time favorite little white lights aglow against pine boughs… ’Tis not the season for anything less than peace on earth and good will toward man.

And yet.

Sometimes I need to dig deeper, think harder. Tell the truth. Surely there are things that irritate the heck out of me or ‘send me around the bend’.

I could start with something simple, like the Dutch habit when driving on the highway of pulling their car right up almost to your rear bumper before signalling, moving over into the passing lane to overtake you, and then cutting back in right in front of you with less than a car length between.

I’m sure they think they are doing it in a nice, orderly fashion, but has anyone explained that it’s actually downright dangerous? Does no one understand the concept of needing to leave one car length between your car and the car ahead of you for every 10 miles (16 kilometres) per hour of speed you’re traveling?

Now that I’m warmed up, I can move on to the oh-so-not-endearing trait of many (not all, but enough to warrant the attention of many chroniclers of Dutch culture) Dutchies to answer only the specific question asked.

I don’t expect anyone to become a mind reader, but if a person stops to ask where a certain place is or whether the X bus is still running, when you answer (with ‘turn left at the light’ or  ‘yes’, respectively) it would be nice if you ALSO mention that the street has been closed for weeks so that the person can’t turn left or that the particular bus route in question is closing down four hours earlier that day.

Then we can do a riff on this and discuss customer service. Let’s just say it isn’t as proactive as some cultures are accustomed to.

Last week I was in a department store check out line, with my hands full and a line of seven people behind me. I noticed the young woman at the second cash register, and politely asked (in Dutch) if I could pay at that register. What I got back was ‘No, I am with a customer’ in English, and a jerk of her head in the direction of a man two aisles away checking out the selection of winter gloves.

Or take the time at an international fair for expats when the representatives of an English-language university next to our table repeatedly stood by silently while visitors spent several minutes carefully selecting program brochures they were interested in only to be told curtly as they were walking away ‘You cannot take those. Fill out a form if you want more information.’ It went on like this All. Day. Long. The hordes of irritated people who simply set down the brochures and walked away wasn’t a clue?  Seriously? That’s how you try to gain clients?

Unfortunately, these are not one-offs. (Okay, it usually doesn’t happen at my beloved Albert Heijn grocery store, but that could explain why I enjoy it there so much.) I’ve seen it all: being studiously ignored, scolded, yelled at for the most trivial of things. A soft-spoken, extremely well-mannered friend has even been on the receiving end of finger pointing. Twice.

No, if I were to be completely honest, the one thing that drives me to distraction is the Dutch tendency to state very simply and starkly whatever is on their minds. Even when the choice of words leaves much to be desired.

On  most days I can appreciate their steadfast forthrightness and bracing candor. I remind myself that they probably mean no offense, despite it feeling as if that is exactly what they mean. I know that the reason it feels that way, that it can even feel downright rude, is because of cultural differences.

And sometimes it’s just because it is rude.

But you know what really gets me? When dealing with the unholy trinity of all three: rude customer service from a curt, snippy sales person with me having to play ‘Twenty Questions’.

THAT’S when you feel as though you’re standing at the Intersection of Irritation and Offense.

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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9 Responses to Comfort in the crosshairs

  1. Russell says:

    I feel for you, Linda. I have a friend here who is from a neighbouring country of Nederland and appears to all and sundry as if she is as cold as the coldest ice. But she’s not. It’s just that she comes from a European country in that general vicinity and that is the way they behave/do things. She is direct, she gets right to the point, is on the verge of always seeming to be rude, has zero tact, and tells it exactly as it says on the tin. And she gets everybody’s backs up because the locals, although also direct at times, do it in a different way, with a focus on friendliness and great customer service. So I really do feel for you as, having been a constant European traveller/worker in a former life, I know EXACTLY what you’re having to deal with. Just show them some mighty American spirit (or ‘spunk’, as they would say here in Aussieland, which is perhaps not my favourite term).

  2. Sarah Koblow says:

    Not wanting to be guilty of being superior but honey the Dutch are amazingly good at driving compared to the multi national madmen who pull across, in front of me in Doha every two minutes with NO safe space and if I brake the idiot behind me will ram me from behind while the driver on the inside cutting across my front end crashes into the madman on the outside lane cutting across my front end. God bless Dutch drivers everywhere and wish there were more of them in Doha. Merry Christmas. But hey they do smile and wave as they do so.

  3. Thanks. Most of the time all goes along well. Occasionally these things pop up and I smile and think ‘different cultures indeed’ and keep going. But every now and then, I can tell I’m having an ‘expat in transition’ moment because the disconnect is so jarring. Definitely survivable, though.

  4. Oh Linda how I smiled when I read about the rudeness masquerading as directness. I have the opposite problem in the UK – no-one tells you what they really mean and most of the time, you don’t even know which twenty questions to ask! Not sure which I prefer really. But poor customer service seems to be the leveller between us…grrr!

    • Maria says:

      I think the level of directness that makes me most comfortable is telling it like it is… with a little bit of sugar to soften the blow a bit. I love this blog post from the Economist. It’s meant to be a guide for Dutch people to understand what the British really mean. You can find variations of this all over the internet.

  5. Aledys Ver says:

    As an expat living in the NL now for 8 years, I am glad to see that I am not alone in feeling annoyed and sometimes downright offended by the so called “straightforwardness” of people around here. I do appreciate honesty of opinion, you always know what to expect and it leaves no room for misinterpretation. But hey, sometimes softening the blow a little by a kind word or a smile, makes all the difference.

  6. this is all very true. thanks for this accurate description of life here…BUT there have been moments of actual friendliness from strangers. There is a big difference between honesty and rudeness. Americans get made fun of for being too perky…perky sounds really good about now.

  7. Linda – I also felt really nervous about writing this month’s post. On the one hand, I’m really focusing on seeing the positive, remembering what wonders there are to be had in Japan. After all, this is the country in which my daughter was born. I owe it to her to see the good. Still. Like you, I have days when I struggle to see the positive. I get frustrated. Annoyed. Things are inconvenient. They grate on my nerves. Or, sometimes, they conflict with my morals and values. So, sometimes I want to complain. But as you put it, the key is to do so with a view towards venting, and letting off steam. With a side of humour. The moment one crosses into condescension is when things get dicy. After all, I am fully aware that when I’m back in Canada there is PLENTY that also drives me batty (don’t get me started on the lack of clean public bathrooms, the absence of elevators in the Toronto subway or Canadians’ loyalty to TERRIBLE coffee. I’m looking at you, Tim Horton.)

  8. gkm2011 says:

    I know why you felt nervous about writing what you’re not comfortable with. It’s akin to putting a sign on your back saying “I can’t fit in here.” I’d say in Shanghai one of the things that I find the most frustrating is Waiting in Line. It’s just one of those things that shouldn’t be a contact sport. But that’s only my opinion.

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