When we are suddenly thrust into another country and culture, we suddenly ‘stick out.’ Previously, blending into the crowds around us, being one of the masses and having some anonymity now becomes a thing of the past. Our foreign looks or dressing style sets us apart instantly.
Even for those of us moving to similar cultures or countries where we may not stick out by our physical features, locals will know we are outsiders by how we carry ourselves, use our language (even if it is the same language), and how we behave non-verbally.
Where we came from; we knew how to interact with people without thinking much. In those habitual interactions, we were more confident about the impressions we set and therefore the other’s impressions of us. However, in a new culture, conducting ourselves as we always used to may not yield the same results, leaving those we interact with confused or unsure how to read us. Their impression of us will not be what we expected.
The more we stand out from the crowd, the more chance there is we may never feel that we blend in. We will always be new to someone. Naturally, overtime we may begin to question our own self-concept as our self-concept is based on both opinions of ourselves and others opinions of us. Charles Horton Cooley coined the phrase “The Looking Glass Self” to explain this phenomenon. Naturally, each person sees us differently; but those from our native background tend to see us as we want to be seen more than outsiders in most cases. Especially, when adjusting to a new culture and meeting new people all the time, we are continually confronted with others perceptions of us all the time. We do not know how they are judging or perceiving us. Are we making a good impression or a bad impression? Sometimes just being ourselves may not seem like enough when our normal cultural mannerisms, language skills, non-verbal cues and other communicative strategies do not work with those in our new community.
Everyone, regardless of an international move struggles with balancing their identity based on our self perceptions and others perceptions of us (the looking-glass self). However, as we evolve and mature, this process takes on a different meaning when we are abroad. Managing ourselves in a new cultural set-up to communicate the best impression to others can be just as difficult as reading locals and understanding what impression they are leaving us with. As we adjust to the culture, and interact more with the locals, we can become more familiar with local ways; formulating our behavior appropriately to be more sure of having others have a positive perception of us, which in turn leaves a good impression.
Have you faced these perception problems in adjusting to living, working or studying abroad? Feel free to share your experiences below. Thank you.
Jennifer Kumar, author, is a cross-cultural coach. If you are struggling with perception issues abroad and want to talk with someone in a safe, confidential environment, contact her today.
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Woman looking into mirror - Alec Couros @ flickr used under creative commons.
Looking Glass Self Image - adapted from Wikipedia used under creative commons.