In today’s world the problem of distance no longer exists, and migrants, expats, cosmopolitans, travellers and the simply lost became its permanent residents a long time ago. They’re best placed to know one of those concrete barriers between people of different nationalities, the notorious difference in mentalities. Are there ways to overcome it and do you need to?
It always amuses me to hear exactly the same question from my friends when they’ve heard me talking on the phone to my relatives back home; ‘You’ve fallen out, right?’ For some reason the intonations and speech patterns many Russians use on the phone sound to the typical Dutch ear like an argument. I grew up in Russia, but I’ve lived outside my country for the past 25 years, mainly in Amsterdam and Barcelona. Have I become a regular, thrifty Dutchman, who values tolerance and moderation in all things? I’m afraid I haven’t. Do I resemble a hot-blooded Spaniard who knows how to enjoy life without hurrying? I doubt it. Have I stopped being a lackadaisical Russian who believes in the supernatural and fantastical? No, I failed there, too.
Our organism does, it’s true, more often react to something alien by refusing and rejecting it
Every nation has its predominant characteristics that are especially noticable to people looking at them from outside. The unrestrained emotiveness of the Spanish, the artficial smile and boundless optimism of the American, the anxiously knitted brows of the Russian… Which is most like you? When our basic nature, the very foundation of our selves, collides with other people’s, this usually takes place not on the level of our convictions, but on the level of feelings. Indignation, outrage, fury, repulsion or their opposites, interest, attraction, charm, all help us find our place in the world. Our organism does, it’s true, more often react to something alien by refusing and rejecting it. In a way this is like trying to swallow something that would usually strike us as inedible. Let’s suppose all your life, day in, day out, you’ve had a diet of Russian borshch or German sausage, washing it down with kvas or beer, and then you go to Bangkok where there is a lively trade in deep-fried , crispy … grasshoppers and cockroaches. Try some! Me? No thanks, I’ve suddenly lost my appetite.
They define us and our belonging to one or another culture, shape our attitude to such concepts as friendship, love, patriotism, money, personal space…
It’s been noted that our mentality is especially visible in situations of stress or agitation. Being kissed by a Spaniard at their very first meeting might be off-putting to the restrained British, and the cool reserve of Russians might make them appear badly brought up or even rude to an American with his mile-wide smile. It’s in the zone of feelings that we understand how different we are in temperament , how strongly we differ in the norms and values we carry inside our personal consciousness and collective unconscious. They define us and our belonging to one or another culture, shape our attitude to such concepts as friendship, love, patriotism, money, personal space… And the problem is not that we sometimes look at all these things differently, but that prejudice, hiding behind a range of stereotypes, does not let us see the real, living person with all his merits and deficiencies.
Each of these entrenched stereotypes points to the impossibility of the object of your adoration being a decent man or woman, faithful, honest and worthy of your love
The most glaring example of this kind of situation is when you fall in love with a foreigner and want to start a family. In listening to your friends or even to the quiet whisper coming from the depths of your own subconscious, there is a great risk of hearing something like: ‘Be warned! You know they’re all drunks/ misers/ spendthrifts/ crooks/ womanisers’. Each of these entrenched stereotypes points to the impossibility of the object of your adoration being a decent man or woman, faithful, honest and worthy of your love. In brief, unable to live and behave as one should. Yet how, pray, should one?
How, let’s say, is ‘mañana’, that carefree Spanish ‘tomorrow’ better or worse than a Russian ‘perhaps’ or Anna Karenina-style melodrama?
Two extremes are possible here. The first is to re-educate the foreigner, wipe the uncomfortable differences from the face of the earth. The second is to take on new characteristics yourself, adapt and reject your own self. You can achieve a result in both cases, but there are no guarantees that at this point another truth will not be revealed to you – that living with your own image and likeness is boring. Furthermore, who said that you are without sin? How, let’s say, is ‘mañana’, that carefree Spanish ‘tomorrow’ (all too often meaning ‘never’) better or worse than a Russian ‘perhaps’ or Anna Karenina-style melodrama? Not to feel that you are yourself or to lose the person you are by obsessing about a difference in mentality is far sadder than colliding over the differences which make us interesting to each other, and, consequently, give us every chance of coming to a meeting of minds and genuine intimacy.