Communication is more than linguistics

Even if you move to a country that shares the same language, and at face value you fit in, you may be surprised at how foreign you still feel at times. Communication is wrapped up in all kinds of symbols and cultural and societal practices. I read a Facebook post of a fellow South African immigrant friend recently, who lives in a different city (same province) as I do in Canada. So much of what Inge said resonates with me and other immigrant South Africans I know. I have heard that many other immigrants from various countries share similar thoughts and feelings as we do about our cultural and social differences with Canadians.  

Like me, Inge loves Canada and as strange as it sounds, we both would say that we feel like we belong here, more than we ever did in South Africa. I don’t know all her reasons for saying that, but for me, I don’t feel overly patriotic or that my identity is united to my homeland. It’s not just that I prefer the landscape, four seasons and wild animals of my new country, it’s about the culture of Canadians as well. There are people and things about South Africa that I miss and cannot replace, but the scales just tip more in Canada’s favour for where my family feels at home or where we can build a life that feels more and more like home.

I’m making generalisations of course, but I align with Canadians lifestyle choices and social habits. I prefer the healthier dietary choices of Canadians, their outdoorsy appreciation, lower alcohol consumption, entertainment preferences, and casual attire to name a few. Inge was saying how calm, friendly, and selfless Canadians are, which reminded me of all the local groups where families reach out for help, and without fail, several people will offer support and resources. It’s a culture that encourages volunteering and serving needs in the community and we both resonate with that. All of this to say, as much as we want to immerse ourselves into Canadian culture completely (even though it is not fixed or simplistic), we still have certain struggles beyond an accent.

Inge was vulnerable enough to share that she’d learnt that she comes across as stressed, frazzled, judgemental and harsh sometimes to Canadians. It has even translated to her being perceived as aggressive or moody in the way that she communicates and expresses herself, even though that is not how she feels or intends to portray herself. What she came to realise is that South Africans are very expressive people (generally speaking); we are animated when we talk and use a lot of hand gestures. I agree with her that most South Africans are very direct and straight to the point, while often using different tones and volumes when we speak. For Inge, she welcomes any help and open communication from her Canadian friends, colleagues etc. because she wants to learn and adjust as best as she can.

This is the wrestle for immigrants, do we just stay the way we are, or do we try to change, as not to cause potential offense? If we mean no harm by being direct or expressive in our instance, and if many Canadians aren’t phased by how we communicate or even enjoy it, should we not be our authentic selves? The world is full of different types of personalities and the onus should perhaps be on the individual to gain clarity if they are unhappy with the interaction. On the other hand, everyone is capable of change and if we do not fit the general social norms, perhaps we should adjust, rather than feeling misunderstood and causing unnecessary confusion or unrest.

If I had to land on an opinion, I’d say if your intentions are genuinely respectful, have some grace with yourself and those around you, because regardless of whether you’re in your homeland or not, not everyone gets one another. All of society could benefit from more honest dialogue and a desire to learn.

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