Cultural Survival Rules Help Keep Retired Expats From Packing Their Bags and Going Home

As a newly retired person, do you really expect EVERYTHING to go as planned? Consider the retiree who chooses to move to another country as an expat and then winds up going back home, giving up on the dream of living in a new culture because he or she can’t seem to make needed cultural adjustments.

Like so many others who try this retirement experiment, conflicts (known and unknown) with the new country’s folklore, language, rules, rituals, habits, lifestyles, attitudes, beliefs, and customs, too often end up in a nightmare – with the retired person wishing they had stayed home in the first place.

From folklore to customs, such “clues” typically link and give a common identity to a particular group of people at a specific point in time, and yet they may result in major points of misunderstanding.

Have you ever felt misunderstood when trying to communicate with someone NOT from your own culture? It is easy to happen…

But a new set of 19 Diversity Action steps to aid in enhancing multicultural communication skills — from expecting misunderstandings to occur, to not expecting others to believe in your own trustworthiness–provides good information for helping anyone who wants to reach others from cultures other than their own. These rules provide a solid guide, especially, to the retired person who wants to try a new and different life; away from the home they have known all of their life.

In other words, these diversity action steps could keep them from repacking their suitcase and asking for a ride to the airport. And they come from Tulin Diversiteam Associates, Wyncote, Penn., an intercultural team of 15 professionals who for the past eighteen years have specialized in “Excellence Through Diversity” Coaching, Consulting and Training for executives, managers, supervisors and employees.

Step number one, expecting multicultural misunderstandings are going to happen, at least some of the time, just makes sense. For example, I once took a bus trip in the mountains of Ecuador. The bus stopped along side of the road to allow ambulances through following a terrible motor cycle accident. It was obvious to me that the motorcyclist was dead, since he was lying on the highway and not moving — and he was not being given any medical attention.

I saw the unfortunate man as DEAD on the road from a motorcycle accident. Period. Story over.

But the next day, I was talking with my Spanish instructor about what I saw, and used a particular verb phrase that indicated the man was dead. It turned out this particular phrase (Spanish for “was dead”) was not accurate in her eyes, because his death was not totally confirmed and the accident took place just recently.

She told me that I should have used different words for my description of death in order for my story to be a completely accurate version of what I was telling her. Otherwise, I would not be perceived as a trustworthy source of information to others, at least in Ecuador. It was a valuable piece of feedback, and I made the change.

But let us move on.

Another step suggested by this communication team is to ask “What’s going on here?” when a communication problem arises. “Be willing to change gears or communication styles if necessary.”

Have you ever felt totally misunderstood when in a conversation with others who do not share your ethnicity? I know that I have, and here is another quick story about a time when I had to ask myself this question, in New York City, and then make a quick shift:

When my son was graduating from law school, I ran into a tough communication problem with a group of people who were sitting behind me. The convocation was in a small, crowded room and the group was talking during the program. I asked them to be quiet, so that I could hear, but I stupidly used a phrased that has some racist connotation — asking for “you people” to please quit talking.

I knew what I had done, as soon as I said it, and sure enough, one man got in my face quickly, asking me what I meant when I said “you people.”

Thankfully, I immediately figured out what he was thinking, seeing this phrase as an ethnic slur, a type of stereotyping; it was rather rude of me to use this figure of speech in the first place, but I simply meant to refer to the entire group, not just one person.

I quickly tried to explain my intentions — that I have a hearing problem and when a number of people were talking, I could not hear above the noise what was going on. I also stated that I did not mean this as an ethnic slur, but that I could not hear the graduation speech. I said this in a moderate tone of voice and looked him in the eyes when I said it.

He got my message, laughed and asked his relatives to tone it down.

Here are several other suggestions from the Tulin team — ideas we should all be able to relate to:

–Don’t generalize about individuals because of their particular culture; individual differences exist within any group.

–Investigate whether communication style or process, rather than content, is the cause of a conflict.

–Give honest and practical feedback; don’t “walk on eggshells” or speak for a person from another culture.

All good ideas to remember and use, especially when in an unfamiliar culture.

While the Tulin list focuses on verbal communication, there are also wide differences in nonverbal expression that make a difference when seeking to understand people from various cultures.

In fact, nonĀ­verbal communication or body language provides an important part of how people pass on information to each other and these differences also vary from culture to culture.

Consider, for instance, that hand and arm gestures, touch, and eye contact (or its lack) are a few of the aspects of nonĀ­verbal communication that may vary significantly depending upon cultural background.

There are a number of gestures commonly used in the United States that may have a different meaning and/or be offensive to those from other cultures. Just one example focuses on the use of a finger or hand to indicate “come here please”. Because this is the gesture is also used to beckon dogs in some cultures, it can be considered very offensive to many people around the world.

Pointing with one finger is also considered rude in some cultures; Asians typically use their entire hand to point to something, for instance.

Understanding the potential problems associated with nonverbal communication in health screenings, the Vermont Department of Health recently underwrote a guide for practitioners that could benefit their health-screening program. Several suggestions include issues such as touch:

“While patting a child’s head is considered to be a friendly or affectionate gesture in our culture, it is considered inappropriate by many Asians to touch someone on the head, which is believed to be a sacred part of the body. In the Middle East, the left hand is reserved for bodily hygiene and should not be used to touch another or transfer objects.In Muslim cultures, touch between opposite gendered individuals is generally inappropriate.”

Another nonverbal communication area noted by the Vermont Health Department includes eye contact. While in mainstream Western culture eye contact is considered as attentiveness and honesty–we are taught that we should “look people in the eye” when talking–in many other cultures including Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Native American, eye contact is thought to be disrespectful or rude.

Lack of eye contact does not mean that a person is not paying attention, even though it is seen this way in North American culture. In many non Western cultures, women may especially avoid eye contact with men because it can be taken as a sign of sexual interest.

The Vermont health group noted especially that when working with babies although it is common in Western culture for adults to admire babies and young children and comment upon how cute they are, this is avoided in Hmong and Vietnamese cultures “…for fear that these comments may be overheard by a spirit that will try to steal the baby or otherwise cause some harm to come to him or her.”

With these rules in mind, and from learning as much as possible about cultural communication differences before moving into a new culture, a retiree who wants to live as an expat outside of her or his familiar culture has a better shot at survival away from home.

Susan Klopfer, author and speaker, writes on civil rights and diversity. Her newest books, Who Killed Emmett Till?” “Where Rebels Roost: Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited” and “The Emmett Till Book” are now in print and are carried in most online bookstores including Amazon, Barnes & Noble and in eBook versions on iBooks and Smashwords. “Where Rebels Roost” focuses on the Mississippi Delta, with stories about Emmett Till, Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, Amzie Moore and many other civil rights foot soldiers. These books emphasize unsolved murders of Delta blacks from mid 1950s on. She is also the author of eBook, Cash In On Diversity. Klopfer is an award-winning journalist and former acquisitions and development editor for Prentice-Hall. Her computer book, “Abort, Retry, Fail!” was an alternate selection by the Book of-the-Month Club.