Friday, January 14, 2011

Advice to ex-pats arriving in America on how to not be annoying

Yesterday I received my Green Card, that famous piece of plastic for which so many billions of the world's poor yearn. Since I've already been working on these fair shores for a while now, I'm anticipating the enjoyment of some smaller benefits, namely:
a) Getting the fast locals-only line at US customs
b) Not having to deal with visas again, and
c) The prospect that after 18 months and 10 odd hours wasted at the DMV, the State of California may finally consent to grant me a driver's license.

But it did cause me to reflect on something else about being an ex-pat, which is this: few things are more boorish and unappreciated than people who move to a new country and proceed to bitch to everyone around them about things they don't like in the new place. On the whole, Americans are too polite to say what would be my obvious response - if you don't like it, then @#$% off. Since the tendency too complain about what is missing is strong, it's worth restricting this impulse to things that really bug you (in my case, political correctness and the low quality of the tea available), and let the other things slide.

A second, albiet milder, form of irritating behavior is to make generalisations about the locals, especially in the presence of such locals. Sentences of the form 'Americans are always X' tend to come off as presumptuous and condescending for most values of X, even when not intended as such. If you have to make them, save them for your foreigner friends, and even then use them sparingly.

A third way to irritate people, and perhaps the most subtle, is simply excessive comparisons about what is different in your home country. These are the least offensive of all, but they typically aren't nearly as interesting to the audience as they are to the speaker. It's a trap that I think nearly every newcomer falls into. When you first arrive you find yourself noting all sorts of things - the cheese is orange instead of yellow, the light switches move in the opposite direction to turn on, the sign for pedestrians to walk is white instead of green, etc. And you end up commenting on them because they're striking. But to someone who is used to orange cheese and up being the 'on' position for lights, it's not actually a fascinating point to bring up.

These things are all difficult to do. If you read this post again, you'll see that I've breached at least two of my own pieces of advice, and arguably all three. I never said the advice was easy to follow.

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