The Elephant in the Room
Have you had the experience that the expat lifestyle led to such a personal development that it is becoming more challenging to connect with people or rather their worldview back home? You may have heated discussions over various topics and you may start to wonder what is going on. Is it them? Is it you? What has happened?
Today is story time. You will soon see what a parable* about elephants and your expat life have in common and you gain a new perspective to understand yourself better and to deal with people back home who might think that you have lost your mind along the (expat) way.
We start in India, where six men who were born blind argue about elephants. They heard stories about this creature and got into a heated debate about what elephants are like. Since they can't see one, they finally all get a chance to touch an elephant, but each of them is only touching one part of the elephant. So they approach the majestic animal.
The first blind man touches the side of the elephant and screams. "It's smooth and solid like a wall! It must be very powerful!"
The second blind man who touches the elephants limber trunk shouts: "It's like a snake!"
The third one touching the tusks exclaims: "This animal is deadly as a spear!"
The next one gets a grip of a leg and concludes: "This animal is like a tree!"
The fifth blind man holds the ear and is sure: "This animal is like a fan!"
The sixth blind man who examines the tail responds: "It's like an old rope. Very dangerous indeed!"
They keep on arguing; wall - snake - spear - tree - fan - rope; each of them stubbornly claiming to be right.
Let me ask you this? Who is right? From what they have touched each and every one of the six blind men is correct in their description of what an elephant feels like. They only didn't figure out to put the parts together to get the whole picture, the actual picture of an elephant. The truth. Yet they all insisted to know the whole animal based on touching only one part of it.
What has this story to do with your expat life? Well..
Our world consists of six continents and if you didn't grow up in an expat environment you spent your life so far on one continent. You grew up in a specific culture. You have had experiences that formed and shaped you. And they were real and true to you. They also contributed to the way you look at the world.
But the moment you decided to embark on this expat adventure, you got to experience a glimpse into another part of the world. And like the ear and the tusk of an elephant look and feel completely different, your home and your host country probably also look and feel completely different which is the reason many expats undergo culture shock when they move to a new country.
Yet overtime you adjust and in most cases this will lead to you seeing the world in a new way. You not only read and heard stories about this other part of the world, you lived in it and depending how long you spend in this new place your worldview will shift or at least you will see your host country AND your home country in a new light.
This new awareness can become a blessing and a curse.
On one hand, you gain intercultural skills which is always an advantage if you work in an international environment, but maybe more importantly you can appreciate another culture for what it really is. You might even realize that you have had your own prejudices which are now shattered because you see your host country from a new perspective.
You have a new subjective truth.
But on the other hand, your family, friends and colleagues back home have not had your experiences and depending how open they are to another culture you will either enrich them with real stories about your host country or you clash big time. There are those friends and family members who may never have left their birth town, yet they are aware that the world consists of many diverse places. Those are usually the ones who ask you a lot of questions and love to listen to your stories. They are open.
However, there is also the other kind of person who is holding on so tightly to their own subjective truths and they can't let go, because the don't want to let go. You have had the experience that forced you to let go of biases, but they haven't. In other words, you had the opportunity of touching the ear and the tusk of the elephant, they hadn't.
Now where do we go from here? Unfortunately, there is no guideline for expats on how to deal with people back home who are not open to your experiences and who are holding on to prejudices about your host country that can literally hurt you.
But maybe the lesson we all need to learn is to realize that even we as expats also only have touched two or three parts of the elephant and to stay open and curious when other people tell us about their experiences. Imagine what we could learn from each other? If the six blind men would have trusted each other that what each of them was feeling was also true, they could have put the parts together and so could we.
And if you are having a hard time in dealing with friends and family members back home, talk to a professional coach and figure out how you can move forward in standing up for what you learned to be true but at the same time stay open to what they have experienced back home.
COACHING because we need to address the elephant in the room.
I HAVE NO SPECIAL TALENT. I AM ONLY PASSIONATELY CURIOUS.
- Albert Einstein -
* The Blind Men and the Elephant by James Baldwin