Flexibility & Creative Thinking: a 10-Step Plan to Intercultural Survival

Flexibility and its buddy-concept “thinking on your feet”: the keys to living in Chile.

Plans keep going awry? (always wanted to use that word!) Can’t figure out the rules? Wondering why it’s just so damned hard to get anything done around here? Ah! Culture shock strikes again!

Best laid plans of mice and expats…

(Sorry, couldn’t resist!) Many people–expats, exchange students, and visitors alike–trying to adapt to life in another culture often find themselves frustrated by plans that always seem to come undone, and learning the skills of flexibility and creative thinking can go a long way to making life much more comfortable.

It’s all well and good to make a plan, but you just can’t get bent out of shape every time your finely honed scheme runs smack up against some unexpected firewall. You’re playing by someone else’s rules—most of which are pretty seat-of-the-pants, not-so-carved-in-stone anyway, so get used to it. Keep your eyes and ears open, observe how locals handle the challenge, and just plain get over yourself.

And in case you’re wondering… no, I am not one of those goody-goody, smiley-smiley, inherit lemons-make-lemonade kind of people—although come to think of it, I could totally see myself putting the squeeze on those lemons for a mega-batch of pisco sours! I spend plenty of time spluttering and groaning about the inconveniences of plans set off-kilter or that have full-fledged belly-smacked into the trash, but attempts to salvage whatever mental health I have left finally led me to this approach: Why keep banging your head against the wall when you can step back and see that there’s a door just 2 steps to the left?

It used to drive me crazy to be invited to do something only to discover that the plans had changed midstream and we’d ended up someplace completely different. I thought it was my lack of language (I could have SWORN he said we were going to Ivan’s house… why are we at this bar?). But no; just a last-minute change of plans. Or—for you English teachers out there—how about all the time you spend preparing a lesson plan only to hear your private student say (upon arrival) “oh, sorry, I can’t meet with you today, please have a class with my secretary.” Um… teaching what, might I ask? Or, you have a business meeting scheduled with someone at 11:00 AM, they keep you waiting til 1:00, and then you discover they’ve gone to lunch? OK, that one was just plain rude any way you look at it, but you get the picture.

So what to do… You could pitch one whopper of a fit—and sometimes it is completely warranted and just plain feels good to get it all out there… alright, go ahead, you’ll feel better for a little while, but it’s going to happen again and all that blustering fit-babble loses its power after a while, so how do you get ready for NEXT time? (Ah, caught that, did you? Yes, there will be a next time–it’s something hard-wired into the respective cultural motherboards).

10 Steps to Intercultural Survival

1-     Be flexible.

2-     Believe in Murphy’s Law. If there’s a monkey wrench in the vicinity, it will, more often than not, find a way into your plans.

3-     Develop the ability to think on your feet. Having a Plan B isn’t enough, be prepared to invent Plan G at a moment’s notice.

4-     Quit complaining. Nobody likes a whiner, especially an arrogant one.

5-     Be patient. Don’t expect too much—of yourself or of anyone else. It’s good to set the bar high, but you are not going to be fluent in language or culture overnight.

6-     Having a sense of humor goes a long way. You will make cultural mistakes, do and say dumb things, and on occasion, just be an unwitting idiot. You can either get into a huff, get angry, sulk, or laugh it off. Laughing–and learning from the experience–definitely works best.

7-     Remember that you are on someone else’s turf—it’s YOUR job to adapt, not the other way around. If “they” seem to be doing something strange, turn it around to see what it is that YOU are doing that rubs against the grain. It’s the old “when in Rome” advice. Doesn’t mean you have to force your feet into pointy high heels or bare your cleavage to your navel, but don’t be surprised when you don’t fit in when dressed as a gringa gone camping.

8-     Be self reliant. Be able to entertain yourself. You will probably spend a lot of time alone, at least at first until you get to know people to hang out with.

9-     Relax. Figure out when it’s ok to run late, when it’s expected, when it’s not, and when it is absolutely not ok to fiddle with the schedule. I’d say, for work, be on time—not that the other party will be, but at least you’re showing that you’re serious and respecting their time. For dinner invites—not so much. Getting there on time will most definitely mean you spend time alone with the dog while hosts finish showering, cooking, and last-minute fussing. Give them about 10–15 minutes fudge room. And if you’re trying to catch an inter-city bus, by all means, be there ahead of time. When it says it leaves at 10:15, it means it’s already half way down the block.

10- Remember the Golden Rule. Treat others the way you would like to be treated yourself. With respect, patience, and a bit of flexibility! It may not change their behavior, but at least you’ll have that little tingle of pleasure that comes with knowing that you’re the one on the more comfortable side of that forthcoming apology!

10 responses to “Flexibility & Creative Thinking: a 10-Step Plan to Intercultural Survival

  1. I’ll admit that I do occasionally bang my head up against a wall over and over and over again. Fortunately I have such a hard head that I can usually make the wall go crashing down — even if it would’ve been much easier to take the door two steps to the left 😛

  2. Hi Kyle- ha-ha… I think we all do that a bit… Sometimes I try to convince myself it’s “perseverance”… but it usually just turns out to be stubbornness!

  3. A wise woman you are…

  4. Hey there JJ- been a long time! Glad to see you’re still around!

  5. Wow, this list can really, really be applied to Tokyo (minus being late). I have had to tell myself to relax and be flexible so many times, it’s almost like a personal mantra…

    Great post! 😀

  6. Hi Annuayim.
    Thanks– I think a bit of flexibility goes a long way just about anywhere!

  7. Wow!
    Girls, really sad to read this…
    How much flexibility can you take?
    I am from Chile and I feel that is totally rude, I will walk away ( with dignity and respect) specially if they just left me there and “gone for lunch” to me means they have no interest on a meeting with me. “I wont go back”, no way.
    Some times things can happen and there will be a good explanation .
    Flexibility is good but you have to draw a line of respect.
    Big hug girls
    Really sorry for those experiences

  8. Hi Sol- yep, there’s a limit, but expats generally reach it way too soon. Yes, there are things that are just plain rude any way you look at them, but there are others that are going to happen over and over again and you might as well get used to it right up front… Once you face the fact that you’re not in Kansas anymore, you can lighten up and let things start to get more interesting!

  9. I feel like the slowness of Chile is the “Best” and the “Worst” at the same time. Chilean life will force a gringo or gringa to slow down and learn patience. As you said, “get used to it right up front…” but even though I know it is futile, that same slowness that I have grown to love in many ways still drives me crazy.

  10. Hi Laura- Yes, I know what you mean… but as long as we can move beyond the “why don’t they just do it my way” stage, life becomes a bit saner for everyone! Still exasperating at times, but at least you can be prepared!
    What’s that old expression? Forewarned is forearmed?

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