A thought has been gnawing at me. A question. Several, actually.
I was recently at a gathering of folks from the travel industry, and struck up a conversation with a woman who has been, for lack of a better term, a serial emigrant for most of her adult life. Over the course of her career, she has lived in five or six countries, returning to Ireland in between foreign work assignments.
As we talked, the subject of conversation turned to meeting people and getting to know the locals in a new country. When I stated that the all important, first, “getting to know you” question will be vastly different whether it’s being asked in America, or Ireland, she remarked that in one of her postings, the form and format of this first question is absolutely critical.
In the United States, when you meet someone new, the first question (or one of the first) will be, “What do you do?” It’s a clear reflection of the American work ethic that the most pressing question Americans have about a stranger is, “What do they do for a living”. From this, all manner of inferences about class, education, values, politics, and worldview may be inferred. Whether those assumptions are right, wrong, or somewhere in between, is irrelevant. To me, the interesting thing is the consistency of that question.
In Ireland, the first question tends to be “Where are you from?” Here again, conclusions are drawn. Though I will say that in a country as small as Ireland, location-based inferences about family, religion, class, and social status tend to be reasonably accurate. But, here again, I’m fascinated by the consistency of that question.
The woman I met at the party said that, living in Lebanon you don’t outright ask where a person is from. The answer to that question reveals way too much about a person’s religion. Nevertheless, the question is still out there. People want to know. So, instead of asking one blunt question, conversations have evolved to include a series of small, seemingly facile (weather, hobbies, job, sports interests, etc.) introductory questions that, over time, may eventually get to the same thing, but spare both parties the embarrassment of having “the question that must not be asked” lying there on the table like a stunned carp.
So, before we all head off to our various families for the holidays, or prepare for the onslaught of returning family, I’d love to know what others have experienced along these lines. Tell us:
- What’s the first question to be asked in your home country?
- What about where you live now?
- How quickly did it take you to pick up the social clues, and realize that there is a difference?
- Had it never occurred to you that there might be a difference?
- Are there any stigmas attached to those first questions (back at home, or abroad)?
- Have those questions had any effect on your perception or experience of the country?
Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:
- Of Life & Country – Migrant Expectations
- Colonialism & Post-Colonial Dependence – Bailouts and Global Welfare
- Corporate Taxes Abroad, and the Con Artistry of Luring Foreign Investment