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Same language, worlds apart: How to stop feeling misunderstood in your new country

Is the honeymoon stage of your latest international move over and feeling like life is happening TO you? Maybe you’re wondering why this transition feels so much harder?

After all, you’re a smart, capable and ambitious go-getter. 

You even speak the language.

So shouldn’t you be able to plug in seamlessly and thrive in this new environment?

The invisible language barrier

Are you having conversations with people, believing you’re speaking the same language, yet not? Even if you speak a shared language with your new home, you may realise that you’re NOT communicating.

You can understand all the words, but be blind to the connotations and subtleties of those words. Sure, you know how to navigate most encounters in your new environment, but do you sense that people don’t really get you?

I can relate. And I’ve had many conversations with other expats, global citizens and trailing partners who faced and overcame similar challenges.

Let me tell you about Carla

Here’s her story:

“I’m a trailing spouse. I didn’t even realize it, since my partner and I weren’t married at the time. 

We were both living and working in New York when we started our relationship. 

Then he got an amazing job offer in London.

I personally didn’t feel the call to go to England, but my partner, who is British, did. 

So I went with him. 

I visited London once and loved it. I met his family, explored the city, which is really easy to navigate. 

The people are polite. There’s lots to see and do. I thought it would be a good fit for me as there was no language barrier.

But then, we moved here and EVERYTHING changed…

Carla’s move created not only geographical and social upheavals, but her whole identity was challenged. 

She was raised in the Midwest of the U.S. and studied, worked and traveled in Washington, DC, New York City, Argentina and Costa Rica.

But London was different.

“Our relationship was strained because of all the shifts and adjustments. 

In the States, I was an outgoing, confident and independent entrepreneur. 

In London, I was completely dependent upon my partner. 

Because I was still wading through all the bureaucracy, I couldn’t work. 

I didn’t know how to make my business work and had a difficult time making friends in this new environment, so I relied heavily on my partner for financial and social support

For two years, I felt so lost, isolated and out of control in a country that shares the same language, but felt worlds apart.

Why do we still feel misunderstood, even when our new country speaks our own language?

Because despite sharing a common language, there is still a cultural distance. Two countries even with a shared language, do not share the same values.

Surprisingly, according to David R Thomas, PhD at the University of Auckland, given the prominence of English as an international language of communication, the possibilities for misunderstandings actually increase when native speakers have different cultural backgrounds. 

These misunderstandings arise from differing expectations about appropriate interpersonal behaviours and interpretations of others behaviour. 

3 tips to bridge the cultural distance

1. Conduct a cultural assessment

Thankfully, there are resources at your fingertips to support you in thriving in this new chapter of your life. In my post Cracking the Culture Codes, I share useful tools and resources to understand and overcome the source of your cultural discord.

2. Embrace the unity and diversity

Accept and understand that there will always be differences between cultures, even with the same language. It’s  part of the beauty and challenge of global citizenship. Cultivate a learner’s mindset and explore the arts, literature and traditions. Be open to knowing more about the new culture you now find yourself in.

3. Find your tribe

Reinventing yourself in new environment isn’t for the faint of heart.  As social beings, we all crave connection and a sense of belonging. It’s vital to our emotional and mental well-being to be around like minded people with shared experiences. A positive community environment not only helps us to grow and flourish, but also lifts us when the twists and turns of global life show up unannounced.  

These 3 tips will support you in bridging the cultural distance and move gracefully in the subtle spaces between cultures. 

Two years later

Fast-forward to today, Carla upleveled into a new dimension of intercultural competence. 

Her business is growing and she’s gained a new level of self-confidence and independence.

And because she can now skillfully navigate the cultural nuances and subtleties behind the common language, she even has even more friends than her British husband.

No need to struggle

Instead of buying into the struggle and frustration of not “fitting” in ways others would traditionally define me, I cultivated the skill of fusing many cultures to live meaningfully and authentically in the spaces in between them all. 

And you can too.

Monère Renoir Wanner

Monère helps global citizens navigate the difficulties of establishing a new life abroad and create thriving international lifestyles.

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