Friday, 26 December 2014

Being a Foreigner: Location or State of Mind?

On our way to spend Christmas with my family this year, Understanding Frenchman and I stopped off to visit a very good friend of mine who lives near Manchester. Now, even in highly pro-independence company in Scotland, I have never heard England described as a foreign country by a Scottish person, but I was intrigued by just how foreign some of our experiences felt to me. My friend had moved house since I last visited her several years ago and nothing about the area, from the place names to the local accent, was particularly familiar. During the weekend, we were invited to a birthday party and spent Sunday afternoon at a folk event at a country pub, so we met a lot of new people, and on several occasions, I found myself feeling just as unsure of what was expected socially as I sometimes do in France (as well as encountering the wonderfully weird tradition of Morris dancing for the first time!).

One such experience was when we arrived at my friend's friend's house for the birthday party. Somebody else let us in the door and, as the hostess was busy in the kitchen, we weren't introduced straight away. When other people arrived, they would wave a general "hi"to everyone and sometimes we were eventually introduced, sometimes not. As the hostess moved directly from being busy cooking the meal to being busy serving the meal, and then looking after an elderly guest, we ended up sitting at her table, eating the food she had just cooked and not even having said hello properly.

Obviously, this would never, ever, ever happen in France. But one of the funny things about British people is that they are often more afraid of the awkward feeling that can arise when making formal introductions than of the awkward situations which can arise when formal introductions aren't made. I, however, found that not having been introduced made me feel very awkward, especially as finding an occasion to say thank-you afterwards also turned out to be difficult.

It's possible that I'm just more accustomed to French habits than I often realise. But given that many of my friends in France are British, or other expats/immigrants, I doubt that's the whole story. I think that sometimes, as foreigners, we blame all of our awkward feelings on our foreign-ness, when in fact encountering any new social group or area of the country, even if it's our own country, can cause us to experience many of those same feelings.

Anyway, whatever the reason, I suppose it was useful for me to learn that all those endless French rounds of faire la bise (and forget the names as soon as you're told them) perhaps serve a useful purpose after all. 


  1. Mmm... I'm trying to figure out how I would have felt in the same situation. Yes, I think I would have expected proper greetings, not so much because of etiquette, but because I would have felt slightly out of place without.

  2. One of the things that drove me crazy at the place I worked for two years in Tours was that they would always, always, go "This is Gwan" to people who wandered into the office, and never tell me who the person was. I'm terrible at remembering people anyway, but this just multiplied the "everyone knows my name and I don't know theirs" effect of joining a new workplace.

  3. I definitely had that problem when I started my job too. Most often, it was the people I needed to ask for help whose names I didn't know, too.

  4. I always feel a bit 'foreign' in situations like that - whenever I go to the dog park, my dog runs up to the other dogs who are normally where all of the other people were stood huddled, talking as though they know each other, so I end up standing by myself feeling a bit unsure! Maybe that foreign feeling doesn't just refer to being in a different location!