Learn the culture and maybe it'll work out.
Some Americans dream of traveling to Europe and engaging in a love affair with a good-looking European, or even marrying one. Their mind swirls around sumptuous meals, exciting exchanges, passionate interludes, museums and cafes, sightseeing, care packages containing gourmet vittles, and a time or even a life spent in fanciful stimulation, learning a different language and culture.
What these daydreams miss is the minutia, the fights, the difficulty understanding one another, or even not knowing where your partner is coming from.
Els and I met in Malawi, Africa while doing development work. As soon as I met her, I was smitten. But when we moved back to America, we found a few tough situations to navigate, and lots of fights occurred. Six years of marriage later, we now know that, with a lot of patience and long talks, we can figure out where our problems originate.
Els speaks perfect English, which sometimes makes me forget that she comes from a different culture. But European and American cultures differ vastly. My wife and I were cued into just how deep our differences were through a conversation with Kate Riley, Ph.D., a linguistic anthropologist at Rutgers University, who spent a year living in France. We met up with her at her Upper West Side apartment, and learned a lot more about each other's cultures, and how best to interact.
If you're going to love a European, you're going to have to get to know these differences, and figure out how best to navigate them. Here are seven ways to get to know and love a European.
1. Avoid crass generalizations.
One of the things that's hard to parse out is how much of what your partner does is personal habit, how much is family culture, and how much is overall culture. Hold back and observe, without labeling or judging too quickly, and be ready to change your opinion on the subject when new information comes to light.
"The fact is, there are pockets of belief and action that are different in different places, and that transforms over time," Riley said. "It's not just that all Europeans are this way and all Americans are that way."
You don't want to over-simplify your partner's culture. That's a slippery slope to untruths and stereotyping. Instead, sit back, tally the information, form an opinion, but keep it open-ended and let it slowly take shape over time.
2. Keep in mind what part of Europe they are from.
In our interview, we focused on Western Europe. Those from a romantic background or from Southern Europe are different culturally than those from a Germanic background or from Northern Europe. Belgium and France are somewhat in the middle.
"These are the cultural clumpings of over 2,000 years," said Dr. Riley. I come from an Italian-American background. Els is Flemish, hails from Belgium, and speaks a dialect of Dutch, which is more like Northern Europe. Southern Europeans are more passionate. While Northern Europeans are much more reserved. Consider your style and how it will be perceived.
3. Adapt to their conversation style.
Are you an over-lapper or a ping-pong style speaker? What about your partner?
"You will find the ping-pong style in Northern Europe or in certain parts of the United States," Dr. Riley said. "The idea is that I say something, then you say something. The cultures that overlap tend to be Mediterranean."
But in the case of overlapping, a person must butt in, instead of having a clear understanding of when the other is done speaking.
"So if you're a ping-pong style and you're with an over-lapper, it can be really irritating. You don't know where to get your words in edgewise." Els was a ping-pong style speaker. But in Italian-American New Jersey, she didn't exactly know how to enter conversations, at first.
How do you overcome mismatched conversation styles in your household? Take turns and see whose pattern fits you two best. "OK, today we'll do it my style. Tomorrow, we'll do it your style."
4. Step back when in the heat of an argument.
We come from cultural assumptions we aren't even aware of, until they spring up and slap us in the face. My wife and I have gotten mired in fights that ended up just being huge misunderstandings. Dr. Riley said to use a strategy called MAR (Mistake Awareness Resolution).
"You have to be able to realize that something has gone wrong between you. Stop. Cool off. Come to awareness of what might be going on, and then find some resolution. Essentially, it's a mistake; it's a mistaken understanding of each other. You're not being rude or offensive. It's just a miscomprehension."
Something else that has helped us is to assume the other person is coming from a place of love. If you do that, you can cool your jets and find out what's really going on.
5. Understand what politeness means in their culture, and yours.
I asked Dr. Riley how to act polite. She said, "Remember that you have to deconstruct politeness. Just the term politeness is a culturally loaded word. My rules to be polite aren't the same as yours. When American exchange students go to France, they'll start going into the kitchen and open the refrigerator to get food out."
My wife shook visibly and groaned. "That's a no-no," Els said. I asked why. "I will never go into anybody's fridge, ever. My mom would actually throw you out if you did that."
"I've gone into your aunt and uncle's fridge before," I said.
"Well, that's because we stayed there. That's different," she answered. "And that's because you're with me and we're family. Very different."
Dr. Riley cued us in, explaining, "What we're talking about here are all these structures encoded in the language in Europe, these tu, vous forms of polite and impolite, or informal forms. There's also a lot of clear formulae for how to express politeness. But it's not actually about politeness — it's more about privacy and separating private and public spheres. So in the private sphere, you can be very direct with people. But cross into the public domain and you have to abide by that formulae."
6. Understand how American culture is perceived.
One thing that shocked me was when Dr. Riley said, "There's a whole feeling that Europeans in general have about Americans, which is that we smile way too much."
Els said, "It's fake."
Dr. Riley agreed. "We break open the face and let too much of our insides out. And it feels not just fake, but sloppy. It's putting too much out there for other people to have to wipe up. They don't want to see that much of the inner person out there. It's not part of their culture."
You have to fight against stereotypes and establish who you really are.
She added, "Europeans are clearly elitist toward Americans. I mean, there's a chauvinism that Americans are stupid, way too open and gullible, and naive. With the culture, there isn't enough depth... There's a lot that they like, but they consider it low class culture."
7. Don't be afraid to talk about religion or politics.
The reason Els said Europeans don't consider Americans intellectual is because they shy away from conversations over these two weighty topics.
"Europeans think that you can talk about religion and politics. Whereas, we think that you shouldn't even talk about politics and religion at the dinner table. It's sort of an old American saying. The assumption is that Americans don't dare talk about that stuff because it will erupt into emotional fire fights."
Just don't get offended if they don't agree with your opinions. Europeans don't wrap their whole identity around their beliefs. Also, the whole political spectrum is different. America is considered a Center-Right country, while Europe is far more to the Left. Remember not to make generalizations, but keep the difference in mind, especially if you're in the mood for debate.
"Be clear about your beliefs, but if politics are important to you, you'll have to talk specifics. Things will come up that will be shocking to you. For instance, the far Left in Europe believes that women should not be allowed to wear head scarves. But we feel that it's an issue of liberty, of personal freedom. And so the Left here would completely divide from the Left in Europe about this issue."
When you start trying to navigate a long-term relationship, two people, even from the same culture, can seem worlds apart. Of course, when you come from two different cultures, even though there's an additional stumbling block, it can also be really rewarding.