Cultural Complexities

BH and I received a ‘cross-cultural training’ from our relocation agency today. Apparently when we first arrive in Geneva, it will be our ‘honeymoon period’. The presenter elaborated that we would be full of expectations, ideas, happiness. He made a rough graph with nothing on either axes. He slated our honeymoon to start at the top of the y-axis. He plummeted down to somewhere above the x-axis and announced that at this point, we would begin questioning ourselves about whether we had done the right thing by moving to Geneva. We would feel nostalgic about our life in Dubai. Then he plummeted even further below the x-axis to the negative realm of numbers. This is where, it appears,we would silently begin bemoaning the lack of a support system comprising of friends and family, the lack of a home, presuming our container is still on its sweet way over from Dubai, and the ‘lack of frames of reference’ by which he said he meant the absence of any experience of life in Switzerland. He set the resolutions to all these feelings on a timer for three months. I expect there is reassurance to be derived from the discovery that human emotions have been reduced to a fine science.

Our children were defined as ‘third culture kids‘. They have no country to identify themselves with according to our presenter. I am going to disagree here – they do. They identify heavily with Pakistan. But I do not believe that they are capable of melting back into it. Which makes them third culture kids. I prefer the term ‘citizens of the world’ more. Rachel Weisz once described herself as one and made it sound quite desirable. The children are tremendously adaptable. The presenter brought up some valid points though – in the absence of a country to cling to, the family home becomes all-important for ‘third culture kids’. Its rituals become the point of continuity that children seek support from during times of transition. It felt nice to hear my own thesis confirmed. I recently said as much to a friend. When the first pot of aaloo saalan goes on the stove is when life is finally back on track.

The Swiss seem to be robots. Their core values are discipline and orderliness. They value these qualities above all else to reach a state of stability. They value clarity of communication and keep information discreet. The presenter, who is a child of Pakistani immigrants, brought up, rather astutely I thought, the kind of ‘friendly pressure’ that the Arab and Pakistani culture exerts on individuals. People do things for each other out of a sense of duty or ‘murawwat’ in Urdu. The Swiss simply do not operate this way. There is no place for an ’emotional bank account’ with anyone.

They Swiss Germans have no patience for sloppiness. They view the French-speaking Swiss with a degree of disdain for how dirty Geneva is and how mired it is in debts. Genevans for their part feel Zurich is too rigid.

A joke is considered unprofessional in the Swiss German business environment. Predictability is all-important. Surprises are not appreciated. Appointments made, even months in advance, do not require re-confirmation. Decisions are not changed once they have been reached. This hampers creativity. It leaves no room for Hollywood-style surprise endings. Logical, systematic work surpasses all.

Positive feedback is uncommon in Switzerland apparently. Too much positivity is interpreted as insincere. Apparently Walmart-style greeters failed miserably in Germany because German speakers view over-enthusiasm as suspicious.

The differences between French and German speakers in Switzerland appear most interesting. As we spoke of expectations in a business environment, the presenter explained that for Swiss Germans, communicating is more important than showing off your intellect. For the Swiss French, on the other hand, impressing your listener takes precedence over the communication of facts. A French speaker will look to see how sophisticated you are. He will judge your level of sophistication by how well-travelled and well-read you appear to be. He will scrutinise your grasp of abstract concepts. He will engage you in debates, lure you into arguments which may get heated at times but are never personal. A ‘No’ from a French boss means, ‘Convice me.’ A ‘Perhaps…’ means ‘OK, I’m fifty percent convinced. You may continue.’ The Italian and Spanish minds work similarly. The warmth of the Mediterranean I expect…

A German speaker, on the other hand, will avoid debates, presenting factual information, speaking clearly and concisely. You may agree or disagree with him but a heated argument will be interpreted as a personal attack. The German Swiss do not challenge things or debate their pros and cons the way the French are wont to. Where you have French and German management, the presenter said smugly, you have chaos!

And Arabs and Pakistanis…well, for them what is most important is who is speaking rather than what is being said!

Even more interesting (and I was smiling unabashedly by this time): for French speakers, if you have too much money, you are a crook. If you don’t, you’re not very clever! But fun takes precedence over everything. It is more important than work. The presenter’s booklet begins with a picture of the city of Paris with what seems to be a French motto underneath: ‘Hard work never killed anybody, but it is illegal in some places.’ Errr, yeah. So despite the fact that one must not expect the French to be too wide awake at eight in the morning and not still be working at five in the evening, apparently they are some of the most productive people in Europe. According to the presenter. So if Judd returns home from work at eight at night, I can safely accuse him of having an affair, throw the towel in and go do my own thing.

One of the most interesting topics we discussed today was the European concept of time as compared to the Arab or Pakistani concept of time. The presenter has never lived in Pakistan but being of Pakistani lineage, speaks and understand Urdu well. He related with a twinkle in his eye how Europeans are flabbergasted when he tells them that the word for ‘tomorrow’ and ‘yesterday’ is the same in the Urdu language. This is because our concept of time is circular he said. We base our concept of time on incarnation and re-incarnation. We blame our failures on Fate or the evil eye. Our success is usually the result of our mothers’ prayers. In doing this, we take no responsibility for our actions.

In direct contrast, for Europeans, time is linear. What happened yesterday affected today. Today will affect tomorrow. Results are directly dependent on actions.

This time round, I expect I will have time to think about all these things. My mind is jangling. I am exhausted but excited and yet another very early morning lies before me…

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