WHEN IN ROME

ESL persons must stay just as aware of culture as language. Our job is to enhance communIcation. Perhaps this presentation, which I wrote while teaching in China in 1999, will give you some ideas.

There are two theoretically helpful aphorisms that are traditionally offered to persons who are about to depart their homelands and go to another country to visit or to live.

1. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

2. "Under the surface, all humans are really the same."
A majority of travelers and persons who are going to live in another culture see the logic in these ideas. There is a certain appealing aspect to the joy of fitting in. Don't both concepts make sense?

Unfortunately, after living in several countries, I believe that these two ideas may lead to most of the adjustment problems that expatriates have and could represent the ultimate traps. Let us look at each one and see how they may work in reality.

First, I wish to examine the ages old "when in Rome" concept and start out with a simple question. Do you remember what the ancient Romans DID? Various aspects of the old Roman culture come to mind. For one thing, they threw Christians to lions. As a rather humane Episcopalian, I really don't believe that I could do that with a clear conscience. Another aspect of the Roman culture that disturbs me was the famous traditional Roman banquet, in which persons literally stuffed themselves with food well past the limits of moderation, disposed of the results publicly and started eating again. I don't think I could handle that either. Do as the Romans did? I think not. Slavery? Crucifying one's enemies? I'm not too sure that I could do as the Romans did. Fortunately, that wasn't all that they did.

Certainly there were numerous aspects of the ancient Roman culture that I could participate in. Chariot races really sound like fun. Writing and reading great poetry would be a great experience. So what it adds up to is that some of ancient Roman activities would be absolutely pleasant to do and watch. Others would be contrary to my culture, and in some cases...offensive. To be serious, every country that I have lived in or visited has had several features in which I, as a modern U.S. American, do not wish to participate. The reality is that on this planet, persons in different places often operate quite differently from my culture and within totally different value systems. However, most activities are worth checking out. In addition, the experience of participation in new ways of doing things is one of life's great rewards. One must balance the realities of one's homeland and the new cultures and make realistic decisions on what may work and what may not.

The good news is that in most other places a visitor is not expected to be a replicator of the new culture. As a matter of fact, there may be some strong reasons in the other culture, to want you to be yourself. In addition, many people are interested in seeing how persons from other cultures (you!) operate. Do you want to ruin their fun by being like them?

As a result, I have been thinking of a wise and updated version of the ancient advice given over the centuries to travelers. How about, "When in Rome, adjust to the Romans through understanding and to the degree that you find feasible and comfortable. If that doesn't work, stay home!"

The next trap is the romantic belief that "under the surface, all people are really alike." This is a concept that can get a visitor in trouble rather quickly. When I think about it, the statement borders on the egotistical. If I think that the people in my host country are "just like me," then in essence I am saying that everybody in the world is really an American, who speaks another language. At that point, I am forcing my expectations upon them. When reality sets in during the process of discovering that there are numerous fundamental differences in priorities, beliefs, communication styles and whole ways of life, there can be a disappointment. That interferes with the absolute joy of discovery of new ways of dealing with people who don't think like me.

Only a surgeon can truly say that under the surface humans are all alike! Humans do have a few features in common. We all have opposable thumbs, the gift of speech, and the ability to walk upright. Most of the rest results from the acculturation process.

The rest of our identity results from the settings of a common history, values and systems within our cultures that govern most non-biological aspects of our behavior and thought processes. The bottom line is that DIFFERENT IS O.K. This remains the pragmatic motto of all thoughtful persons who put themselves into the complex systems of dealing and living in other cultures.

There is no question in my mind, after living in nine countries other than my own, and traveling into quite a few other places, that persons who realize and acknowledge that people are fundamentally different in different places, and take pleasure in that reality, make much quicker adjustments than those who remain in the romantic dream world of human sameness. Otherwise the visitor faces constant disappointments in the search for human uniformity.

To be specific, believing that other people are like us interferes with our ability to observe and respect the differences that may matter, in getting along in the new culture. The politically correct ask us to "tolerate diversity." I have gone beyond that and actually rejoice in diversity! I tolerate, which equals "put up with," the hot summers in Texas.

The realization process can sometimes be camouflaged by surface similarities, because of the spread of certain technological innovations, brand names, global corporations and even the widespread use of English. I was briefly fooled a few years ago while visiting my daughter, who was living in the Netherlands. After several years of living in the Middle East and Asia and spending time in other parts of Europe and Latin America, the Dutch people seemed much more like Americans than most other cultures that I had been around. About three weeks after my arrival, it struck me that there were fundamental differences in Dutch and American ways of thinking and operating and that the common features were slight at best. One minor example that I noticed was the Dutch tendency and custom of having a large window on the front of their homes, through which any passersby could observe what was going on in the living room. I thought that was a pleasant sight from an architectural viewpoint and then one day it struck me. I had never been around a people with an apparent lack of need for privacy on a personal level that I would, as an American, require. The more that I thought about it, the more I thought of the implications in my culture, the Dutch culture and those of most other places I have visited. Was this a small thing?

Maybe. But it was also very basic and perhaps INDICATIVE of some other fundamental differences. Some of the other differences slowly showed up. I was inspired after that to start making a checklist of features that make cultures different from each other.

I have published it. There are now more than forty pages and I'm still thinking of basic new areas to add. Some of them seem almost insignificant, but added up, they give a profile of wholly different operating systems between peoples. We are NOT the same and I find that fact exciting and absolutely acceptable. I would hate to live on a planet where we were all uniform. Where would we go on vacations? What would happen to my beloved language teaching profession? What could we argue about?

At the time that I wrote this expression of personal reality, I was in the People's Republic of China teaching English for a two-month period, in a city and province that I had never heard of prior to that time. The people are different. They think and operate differently from me. The food is different. The language is different. The architecture is different. The political structure is different. However, I have never felt more at home in a new country so quickly in my life. The point is that the Chinese residents and the American visitors are really having a great time exploring each other. Will we draw closer? Yes. Will we ever be the same?

No, and that's fine with me. That's not a requirement. Different IS O.K.

"When in Rome" was presented by proxy by Dr. Walburga von Raffler-Engel at the Seventh International Conference on Cross Cultural Communication Conference panel on Cross-cultural Communication in Everyday Life, Louisville, Kentucky July 1999.