Three friends who have not seen each other since high school twenty years ago are chatting late at night. One has since moved to Canada, US and now France. One has lived in Geneva, New York and is now back in Romania. The third has lived in the UK, Germany and Greece.
They are comparing notes about their first impressions of their new cultures – and their first impressions whenever they go ‘home’ to their birth country. What did they find most ‘different’ at first sight?
1) Rules of hospitality. How to behave as a guest, how generous (or not) to be as a host, subtle rules and assumptions about present-giving and receiving – these are the most immediate eye-openers. Food running out at Western parties is often mentioned by Mediterraneans and East Europeans as an example of lack of hospitality.
2) Gallantry. How men behave towards women in public. All three of them said they missed the gallantry of having doors opened for them and seats offered to them, even the odd wolf-whistle, in the Anglo-American or Germanic cultures. The feeling was that these latter cultures were not necessarily less sexist, but just less interested in women. Particularly in those that were not available.
3) Levels of friendliness can be hard to interpret. You have to be prepared to deal with rejection and not take it personally. And not confess too much to the first person who wishes you a nice day.
4) Speaking the language of your host country is tricky, even if you previously thought you were fluent in it. Regional accents, colloquial expressions, new slang and cultural allusions that you are unfamiliar with (cricket or baseball metaphors, anyone?) can make you feel like a beginner all over again.
What about your own big ‘eye-opening’ moments when you moved to a new culture? What did you find interesting, exciting or perhaps frustrating? And did your first impressions change after spending more time in that country?