I’m still thinking about body language. For some reason when I was walking by myself (that RARELY happens) I started thinking about language learning, culture study, and body language. That’s where these posts on body language came from.
At the end of my pondering, I pictured a man that just moved to America. He has already learned English before he moved, and is very well educated.
So he’s better off then I was when we first moved here.
But, because he learned textbook English, he still has some adjustments to everyday American English to make. He also learned English outside of American culture, so he has to pick up on the WAY to use his language, and how to properly communicate in all ways, not just with words.
He’s curious, and adaptable, so he quickly learns to stop using a spoon and fork when he’s eating. Instead, he imitates the Americans around him, and starts to use a fork for eating most everything, with a knife at the ready for the occasional cutting job.
Our guy has picked up on when to arrive for events: on time, not ten minutes after. He’s learned to be casual in his dress, speech, and ways of addressing superiors. He’s learned not to smile at everyone on the subway, and too act busy when walking down a sidewalk. He’s learned to schedule everything, and call before dropping by a friends’ house. He’s learned to shake hands forcefully, and with direct eye contact. He’s learned to walk quickly through a store, and not to peer into other shoppers’ baskets. He’s learned to second guess doctor’s opinions, because American’s question everything, even specialists. He’s learned that to call someone fat is a huge social sins (that was a painful lesson, because where he comes from, its not a big deal). He’s learned that independence, and freedom are golden words…and so is doing your own thing.
When our quick and observant friend first arrived in America he saw several people waving their arms in the air when they were greeting someone. He didn’t realize the first lady was yelling at her kids to “stop doing that” (he couldn’t hear her words clearly, they were too fast). The other guy who waved his arms was trying to get the attention of his friend. And the last lady was genuinely excited to see a long lost friend, and was waving her arms all around.
So now, our friend has started waving his arms every times he greets someone, and he yells “hey”. It’s culturally uncomfortable for him, but he saw several other people do it, and he figures its the American way of doing things. Americans are big and loud, so their greetings must also have to be big and loud. Unfortunately, his acquaintences think that he is weird. “Why is he always waving his arms around” they think. People think that he’s clueless or stupid or just strange. When in fact they don’t realize all of the other subtle adjustments our friend has made…because to them it’s normal.
So why the story? Because I’m that guy, in reverse. I do weird things, I get social clues wrong. I haven’t even picked up on when to arrive at events. At birthday parties I’m usually either help set up the party, or we purposefully arrive late, and then only show up for the cake cutting. I never know exactly what to wear to events. Is this jeans casual? Is this slacks casual? Is this ironed jeans and a nice shirt formal? Is this skirt formal? Is this a long dress formal? I get mad when people look into my shopping basket. I make doctors mad when I ask questions. I can’t stand it when people call me fat. I act independently, and then realize I should have done group thought.
Still, people cut me so much slack. They are still nice to me even if I’m walking too fast (and thereby communicating that I don’t like them, and am unfriendly). They gently help me learn how to fit in.
So, if you see someone who has newly arrived in the US, cut them some slack. Tell them GENTLY if they do something a little out of step (like wave their arms when they greet you). Don’t get annoyed if their English isn’t quite right, or they wear different clothes, or do “strange” things. Because different isn’t wrong, it’s just different. And, normal for you isn’t normal for someone else.